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Homemade heaven at cozy Soup's On

Special to The Baltimore Sun

Soup's On opened back in February above a natural foods store in Mount Vernon, a few blocks from the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. This is a hidden space that you meet up a short flight of stairs from a single door at street level. Over the decades, a bunch of cafes and carry-outs have tried to make a go of it up there.

The most notable success was Soo's Kimchee House. A few of the other attempts seemed doomed from the start.

It's a quirky little space, but it has a sweet and cozy dining area, with a fireplace, wood tables and polished wooden floors, and cushioned seating at a big bay window. It reminds me of the cover of Carole King's Tapestry album.

Soup's On is a great fit for the space. It's so sincere. Keith and Kevin Mullaney, the twin brothers who own and run it, are Baltimore natives but they developed the concept in Palo Alto, Calif., and Los Angeles.

There's an earnestness and a laid-back California charm to the enterprise. The Mullaneys take great pride in using homemade stocks made from natural ingredients. This standard extends from their soups to the salads, sandwiches and frittatas that have been added to their daily menus. (This Soup's On is not related to a similar business in Hampden. The Mullaneys did run a Soup's On in Perry Hall, but it has closed.)

Soup is not the only thing, but it's the main thing. There are about 200 soups in the repertoire, and on any given day some eight of them will be featured. Of these, at least two will be vegan and two vegetarian.

A recent lineup: garden vegetable, Szechuan carrot, cardamom sweet-green pea, sweet potato with maple syrup, curry cream of broccoli, French onion with Gruyere, chicken green bean with red potato and rosemary, and Maryland crab. Many customers carry their soups away in microwavable containers for dinner or for healthy office lunches. The prices here - $4 for a cup, $5 for a bowl, and $6 for a pint - considering that the soups are made from scratch, are very reasonable.

Homemade crostini, topped with sea salt and cracked pepper, is a bonus. The $8 combo pairs a bowl of soup with a small sandwich, a salad or a slice of frittata.

You're welcome to eat in the dining room, too. It's quiet in there, with soft music playing.

You're allowed to bring bottled drinks from the health food store. Beer and wine are OK, too. It's a very casual place - you'll be eating out of paper cups - but I'd definitely consider Soups's On for light and affordable pre-theater or pre-symphony eating.

I haven't met a soup I didn't like here, but I tend to favor the meat-based soups, which have good, strong flavors. It's a pleasure to see hunks of dark meat floating in a chicken-based soup or to know that the Mullaneys aren't shy about using claw meat in their crab soup. It just shows they know about flavor.

On the other hand, they are shy about using salt, something that customers are repeatedly informed of. I think only once did I miss it, with an asparagus soup that tasted a little naked. The Mullaneys are always quick to remind a customer that they can add in their own salt (and little packets of sea salt are provided). I'm not convinced that salt is a bad thing for everybody, but Soup's On is making a good case for reducing it.

The sandwiches we've tried are good, too. They, too, are a thoughtful mix of the meaty (tarragon chicken salad) and the vegetarian (portobello with pepperjack, tomato with mozzarella), and they're served on very good bread. The frittatas are wonderful, eggy and light. A recent version with asparagus, leeks, arugula and fontina was a prize. So was the rich and chunky chocolate mousse we had for dessert.

This is good food.

On the menu • Bowl of French onion soup with Gruyere - $5

• Cup of Szechuan carrot soup - $4

• Bowl of Maryland crab - $5

• Half roasted eggplant, red pepper and goat cheese sandwich - $4

• Frittata with asparagus, leeks, arugula and fontina - $4

• Tarragon chicken salad with mixed greens - $4

• Chocolate mousse - $3

The address of the restaurant was misstated when this article was published in the print edition. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

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