Tortilla Triumph

If you want real tortilla soup, then Romi's should be at the top of your list

It had been a rough week, and I needed tortilla soup.

I could go into all the details about the week's inherent crappiness--it all started with a sandwich from a national fast-food chain and went downhill, steeply, from there--but I won't. Just understand that I am not kidding when I say I needed tortilla soup; I needed what has come to be my favorite comfort food since arriving in this dusty little burg. So I was off to Romi's Mexican Food.

Hugh Dougherty joined me on this weekday lunch-run to the popular southside restaurant, located just north of Valencia Road on Sixth Avenue. You may know the place as La Parrillita, its name until it was sold earlier this year. Other than the name, little changed in the sale. Romi's is still a small, square restaurant, with minimal service. You order at the counter and then find a seat; the pleasant woman running the counter will bring you some chips and two salsas (a pico de gallo and a creamier version) in a bit. Then, when your food's ready, they'll call your name so you can go up and get it. It's a weekday-lunch-only kind of place; they're open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, and that's it.

Having been here before, Hugh and I knew the procedure. I put in my large order of tortilla soup ($5.50; small $2.75), and Hugh ordered a chicken burro ($3.75) with a side of rice ($1.25). Other burros, tacos, tortas ("Sonora Sandwich," the menu clarifies), salads, quesadillas, tostadas and combination plates make up the menu, with asada, chicken and birria providing accompaniment options. There are also two other soups available--caldo de pollo and caldo de queso ($2.75 small; $5.50 large).

The restaurant's inside tables were all packed--a common occurrence during the noon hour--so we sat on the patio and chatted for a bit as the birds chirped. When we saw some people leave, we hustled inside and claimed the as-yet-uncleared table as our own, to get out of the cooler-than-normal weather. This gave me a chance to examine the décor a bit closer. The look is simple--the walls are yellow and the floor is red, and a metal Christ and cross adorns the area above the kitchen counter. Delicate white curtains partially cover the windows on the inside; security bars partially cover them on the outside.

After only a couple of minutes inside, I heard my name called. Soup's up!

Ah, the soup. Now, a lot of places offer tortilla soup, but most of these soups are tortilla soup in name only. Yes, they have tortilla chips in them, and they're often quite good, but they're usually more of a chicken soup than anything else. At Romi's, they have true tortilla soup. Yes, there's a chicken-broth base, but that's it for the chicken--the liquid is full of tortilla strips. Some onion, a bit of cheese, lots of pepper and some cubed avocado on top join in the bowl, and the result is--forgive me for gushing--pretty damn amazing.

This soup has a spicy kick--and the lower you get in the bowl, the spicier it gets. The avocado adds a nice coolness, but the way I eat, the avocado's usually gone before I am half-done. And the tortillas, which are cooked so they remain slightly crunchy in the soup, are delicious. It's a nice blend of mellow (tortilla, avocado) and powerful (spicy chicken broth) in perfect proportion.

After eating this soup, I was full, and life was a little bit better. The week was looking better already.

Hugh, meanwhile, loved his burro. It was full of shredded chicken, seasoned with peppers, onion and some spices, and Hugh ate it up--literally. His rice was also quite tasty.

I've sampled some of the other dishes at Romi's before, including the guacamole and the tacos, and I've never been disappointed in anything I've eaten. But when I think of Romi's, I think of the soup. And the thought makes me smile.

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