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Soulful Bowlful 

by SUSAN HAMILTON & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & E & lt;/span & ven though we wish it were warmer, our spring days are still brisk. So when looking for a lunch spot downtown recently, Soulful Soups came to mind. After all, there's nothing that wards off the chill of early spring days like a comforting bowl of warm soup.

The interior of the cozy restaurant is comfortable and contemporary. An original brick wall and tin ceiling hark back to the building's days as a saloon and hat maker's shop. Warm yellow walls, contemporary tables and chairs, and eclectic wall d & eacute;cor (from fabric hangings to framed quotes about soup) add a modern touch. Savory aromas from the back of the eatery draw diners to where the action is -- the soup and sandwich counter.

As my friend and I approached the counter, we heard the server announce that there were only two soups left. And it was only 1 pm! This isn't an unusual occurrence, though. On two other occasions when I've stopped by the popular spot, there were either only three soups left or none at all. (This is a problem many restaurants wish they had.) For diners who want to choose from the up to six soups served daily, it's a good idea to head to Soulful Soups before noon.

Though the popular tomato bisque and Thai shrimp soup were gone, we happily settled on potato chowder and Mac's chili. And what's a bowl of soup without bread? Beer bread and whole-wheat rolls were the day's featured accompaniments for the soups. Rather than opting for a sandwich, my friend and I wanted to try Soulful Soup's new salad bar. With soup and bread, the cost was $10 each.

The salad bar, though small, is inventive. Unusual items, like chopped artichoke hearts and diced pea pods, are included. My friend appreciated that fresh spring mix was the featured green rather than iceberg lettuce. There was plenty to choose from for a tasty salad -- from peas and sunflower seeds to three-bean salad and purple onions. Dressings range from ranch and blue cheese to flavorful vinaigrettes.

My potato chowder was not at all what I expected. Rather than a monochromatic bowl of bland potato enlivened with bacon, this was a riot of tastes befitting an Indian restaurant. Bright orange sweet potato chunks punctuated the soup's light sienna color. And that flavor! Was it cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves or a combination of all three? The waitress assured me it was a combination -- and a savory one at that. The accompanying whole-wheat roll was good, but I wished I'd ordered the house-made beer bread after I sampled my friend's choice. Her chili was tasty and not too heavy (as chili can sometimes be), but she said it could have used a bit more flavor.

Owner Makayla Hamilton (no relation) says that all the potage at Soulful Soups is made from scratch from recipes that are family and customer preferences as well as from cookbooks specializing in soups. Chicken noodle, split pea, clam chowder and cheesy broccoli are comforting favorites. Taco, pizza, Italian sausage tortellini, cioppino, mulligatawny and Brazilian black bean offer international flavor. Shrimp bisque, smoked salmon chowder, meatball goulash and cheesy potato asparagus are different takes on more familiar soups. Prices range from $5.25 for regular soup and bread to $6.25 for large soup and bread and $7.50 for regular soup, salad and bread. Pasta and green salads as well as sandwiches on croissants and sourdough bread bowls (edible soup containers) are also available.

Hamilton has small, personal notes at each table with recent Soulful Soups news. We were surprised to find out that Bon Appetit magazine had requested the restaurant's recipe for butternut squash soup with ravioli to print in an upcoming issue. Hamilton also posts Weight Watchers' points for some of her soups.

Soulful Soups offers quick service, with ordering, serving and payment taken care of at the counter, cafeteria-style. Wait staff clear tables efficiently and regularly.

As we left the cozy eatery, my friend (who was new to Soulful Soups) said, "I'm bringing my mom back here. She'd really appreciate this place."

And that's what makes this 7-year-old soup spot so successful -- coming back for another soulful bowl.

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