Mention Back Street Bistro to a friend, and you’ll often hear “Oh, I haven’t been there for ages, but I love the mushroom soup.” Since 1996, the lunch-only restaurant has been located in a nondescript prefab building on Camino de los Marquez, off Don Diego Avenue. You know you’re close when you see the bumper-to-bumper cars parked along the road. It’s popular.
Maybe that’s the reason some people say they haven’t been in a while. There’s often a wait — usually short — for a table. The ambience is that of a middle-school lunchroom (except there’s no throwing of food). But, oh, the soup.
It’s delicious, especially the Hungarian mushroom, which is always on the menu. One online commenter called it “to dieeeeeeeeee for!” Another said it’s an “instant hangover cure, wonderful flu remedy, and can probably revive your dead grandma.” Praise indeed. In fact, the mushroom soup is so popular that if you ask what the ingredients are, a waiter will bring you a photocopy of the recipe. In case you’re wondering, it includes fresh mushrooms, onion, butter, flour, milk, dill weed, Hungarian paprika, tamari, salt, pepper, stock, lemon juice, parsley, and sour cream.
One of the two guests sitting nearby on a recent visit ordered squash soup, found it a little too bland, sent it back, and ordered the mushroom. His dining partner said he comes once a week for the stuff, and left with the recipe. My companion, looking for something light, opted for the Santa Fe onion, which had a bit of a kick. Don’t think French onion soup here. This version features chile, a flavorful broth, and not so many onions. Another winner is the green chile corn chowder, which has just the right amount of milky heat. The New England clam chowder is classic, with sweet, juicy clams and small cubes of potatoes — comfort food at its best.
Owner David Jacoby, sometimes called the Duke of Soup, said he has hundreds of soups in his repertoire and presents eight of them daily. Other recent options included matzo ball, red lentil, white bean and ham, smoked turkey, turkey barley, and mulligatawny. There’s also almost always a vegan choice.
As a thoughtful touch, different colors are used on the soup board (and online) to identify those with cream or meat and those that are chilled, vegetarian, vegan, or gluten-free. The cup is a generous serving — and, for a couple of dollars more, you can have a bowl. The baguette slices that come with each soup order arrive at the restaurant parbaked and frozen, and then they’re finished off in Back Street’s own ovens.
The bistro is also known for its New York-style sandwiches. It serves the finest corned beef and pastrami. The former comes from Grobbel’s, a Detroit company that has been in operation since 1883. Jacoby trims and cooks the meat on-site, slices it thinly, and stacks it on soft rye bread from Rotella’s, an Italian bakery in Omaha. A little Gulden’s mustard is smeared on the bread.
Sandwiches can be made with gluten-free bread as well. They are served with a choice of potato or macaroni salad, coleslaw, chips, or fresh fruit, and a dill pickle — even with a half sandwich. The menu also includes standard sandwiches and salads. But what Back Street Bistro is all about is the soup. OK, and maybe some desserts. Regulars love the carrot cake and Key lime pie.
Jacoby is almost always in the kitchen, along with three cooks — perhaps an extra one this time of year, when the place is at its busiest. Despite the rush, the bistro’s servers and staff are unfailingly friendly and polite. The tables, filled mostly with locals, turn over fast. “It feels like I have to get back to class,” said my lunch companion.
Jacoby doesn’t take credit cards, a policy that irks some out-of-towners, although most Santa Feans know to bring cash or checks. He sometimes even takes IOUs for the money (“Most of the time, I get it,” he said). The reason? “It costs too much, and it’s a headache.”
Nor does Jacoby think about opening for dinner. “I feel I would have to have a different menu, and I can’t do that kind of cooking,” he said. Also, he would have to turn on the oven hood at night, which would make the space cold and drafty. And that doesn’t work with soup — or with anything, really.