I met the Soup Nazi.
Unless you were living under a rock for all of the 1990s, you probably know about the “Soup Nazi” episode of Seinfeld, which depicts a very eccentric Manhattan soup vendor with absolutely no tolerance for customer annoyances at all, but the customers are all willing to tolerate his abuse because he makes such excellent soup.
You may not know that the Soup Nazi was actually based on Al Yeganeh and his soup stand, Al’s Soup Kitchen International. Mr. Yeganeh supposedly did not give his permission to Seinfeld to make the episode, and was very displeased with it. But it is real, and while the television show portrayed an exaggeration of the “real” Soup Nazi, it is certainly based on truth. Take a look around the official website and you’ll see for yourself.
I was in Manhattan on St. Patrick’s Day with my girlfriend, Tiff, and our friend, Greg, so I decided to find this place and give it a try. It’s at 259 West 55th Street, just a few blocks south of Central Park. When we got there, I was quite surprised. It’s literally a hole in the wall - there is no “inside.” It’s just a counter window in the side of a building with a large awning. To avoid being annoying tourists, we didn’t want to go right up to him and take his picture, so we snuck this one in from further away. As you can see, it was snowing that day.
There was one other couple there taking pictures, but everyone else seemed to be legitimate, regular, non-tourist customers. The line goes from the street up to the far right side of the counter. It was somewhat long, with about 20 people when we arrived, but it moved very quickly. We were at the front of the line in less than 5 minutes. Mr. Yeganeh is very strict about keeping the line moving as quickly as possible, and now I understand why. If he was more lenient, the line would be far too long for most people to wait.
You can see Mr. Yeganeh serving the soup in the white shirt, and you can see one of the soup pots. There were five soups to choose from, and they’re rotated daily. That day, he was offering Chicken Broccoli, Tomato Mussel, the infamous Lobster Bisque, Mexican Turkey Chili, and Black Bean (vegetarian).
We were initially put off by the prices. Soups were available in Small, Large, and Extra Large. The respective prices for Chicken Broccoli were $7, $9, and $17, with most varieties falling within $2 of these prices. Some, like the Lobster Bisque, were more expensive. I selected a Large Chicken Broccoli, Tiff selected a Small Chicken Broccoli, and Greg selected a Small Tomato Mussel.
Thinking of the Seinfeld episode, we didn’t want to risk any tension, so we traded coins and bills until we all had exact change. We didn’t even see that he had a cash register hidden in the lower-right corner of the counter because he operated it so quickly. If people needed change, he’d have the whole transaction completed in less than 5 seconds. It was impressive. I had watched the Seinfeld episode and read the rules on the website, so I knew to move to the far left immediately after ordering.
But I couldn’t. There were two women standing there already, so I stood as far over as I could without shoving them. It wasn’t enough. He yelled at us. “Move to the left!” I scooted over a little more, edging into the women. “Move to the left!” A little more. “Move to the left!” He wasn’t doing anything else until we moved further to the left. One of the women finally got the hint and moved out of the way, allowing me to complete my move and satisfy Mr. Yeganeh. I then noticed that the sidewalk in front of the counter had a yellow-spray-painted diagram of an arrow pointing left to two feet, where he wanted people to move.
Mr. Yeganeh serves all of the soups himself. He had some assistants walking around in the back, but it seemed like they were just supplying him with anything he needed. I was very impressed with his serving technique: he was very careful to get the maximum amount of “stuff” into the cup with only a bit of broth. Mr. Yeganeh passed the soups to his assistants, who packaged them in paper bags with an assortment of other things and handed them to us. We brought them back to Greg’s apartment to eat them. They stayed perfectly hot for the 20-minute subway commute. Here’s what I got in my bag:
The soup was double-cupped to avoid leaks and keep the heat in, and each of the two plastic tubs were sealed with plastic wrap. I was very surprised with everything that came with the soup, and it made the price seem more reasonable. We weren’t paying for just the soup, we were paying for a complete meal. I was a bit disappointed though - my “Large” was the same size as Tiffany’s “Small.” I’ll assume that Mr. Yeganeh made a simple mistake, which is very reasonable considering the high volume he serves, so I’ll just order a Small next time. For the rest of this review, I’ll base my judgments on this costing $7, the price of a Small. Anyway, here’s everything unwrapped:
You can see how dense the soup is. It came with rye bread perfect for dipping, some grapes, a strawberry, a banana, a miniature apple, and a chocolate truffle for dessert. Tiff’s and Greg’s had an orange substituted for the grapes and strawberry. The spoon and napkins were provided, as well as some salt and pepper that none of us felt was needed.
Now, the moment we were all waiting for: it was time to eat the soup. And I can honestly say that it was really good. It wasn’t Earth-shattering, and I wouldn’t pay a lot more for it, but it was very good. It’s a great-tasting and extremely healthy meal, and we were all extremely full from it. After eating it, the price really seemed perfectly reasonable: a huge, good, hot, nutritious meal for $7 in Manhattan is a great deal.
I will definitely return next time I’m in the city.