Restaurant Review: Soup Kitchen

This Fishtown spot is a labor of love

It’s hard to beat getting engaged to an heir to the British throne, but Kate Middleton may not have been 2010’s luckiest fiancée. Ben Bigler’s bride-to-be could well have nabbed that prize—right about when Bigler quit his job as a tax attorney.

“It gave me a ton of time,” Bigler recalls of abandoning his white-shoe firm. “So for my fiancée, I’d just make four- and five-hour meals every night.”

He burned through Julia Child (minus the aspics), turned to Thomas Keller’s Bouchon book when he felt ambitious, and cooked his way through Keller’s Ad Hoc at Home. Three times. And then, in January, Bigler took the leap and hung out the most unassuming of shingles on a quiet street in Fishtown: a wooden sign bearing the name Soup Kitchen.

It could hardly be a simpler place: acoustic ceiling tiles, white linoleum floor, an iPad for a cash register. It serves soup, sandwiches and breakfast until 4 p.m., nothing more. But it’s the best thing to happen to the Philadelphia lunch scene all year.

Soup Kitchen’s sandwiches are two- and three-day productions. The pulled pork is bright with apple and cabbage slaw and jalapeño aioli. A walnut pesto bumps the goat cheese, avocado and arugula into contention for best vegetarian sandwich in town. Tomato-thyme mayo? Who ever thought a meatloaf-and-bacon sandwich could be improved on? And floating atop the soups are touches like roasted tomato oil (on the best cucumber soup of the summer) and nutmeg mousse (on a carrot-orange soup that, sadly, I missed).

As fall approached, Bigler was already rolling out brunch, and thinking about expanding the kitchen, with an eye to the dinner hour. “What I try to do is to make food I want to eat personally,” he said, a little unwilling to be pigeonholed in the soup-and-sandwich category.­ But I hope he won’t leave it behind completely, because while Philly isn’t a hard place in which to find a great sandwich, the ones at Soup Kitchen get their flavor from a careful finesse that’s rare in the land of cheesesteaks and monster Italian hoagies. You can actually finish one of Bigler’s creations and totally justify a made-to-order waffle-griddle brownie for dessert­—which is worth ordering for the aromatic explosion alone

. Ultimately, the only loser in the deal is Bigler’s fiancée. In the beginning, she pitched in at Soup Kitchen

, but she liked cafe work about as much as her sweetheart liked tax law. “So I fired her,” Bigler said.

Whether she responded to the dismissal by cooking him a five-hour dinner out of Bouchon, he didn’t say.