Fans of NBC's "Seinfeld" may think the recent episode that featured a sinister soup chef was purely a writer's concoction.
But the "Soup Nazi," as he was dubbed on Jerry Seinfeld's show, is alive and well and scooping up broth by the gallons in his tiny take-out Soup Kitchen International near Times Square, at the corner of 55th Street and Eighth Avenue in New York City.
And ever since the "Seinfeld" parody, the storefront has become yet another must-see tourist attraction.
The evil nickname refers to owner Al Yeganeh's alleged practice of refusing soup to anyone who doesn't follow his rules. According to the TV show, any breach of protocol will result in a loud "No soup for you!" But the soup was supposedly so good that people were willing to forgo the usual dining formalities just to get a taste.
Sure enough, the real-life establishment sports a list of rules taped to a mirror near the cash register: "For most efficient and fastest service the line must keep moving. Please have your money ready. Pick the soup of your choice. Move to your extreme left after ordering."
And the Seinfeld casting director did an amazing job of finding someone to play the role. The TV version and the real-life version both look like Saddam Hussein's kid brother.
I showed up at the Soup Nazi's place about 12:15 p.m. on a Friday. The line already was wrapped around the block, and he hadn't even started serving yet.
At 12:30, the line started creeping forward. As I waited anxiously, I had plenty of time to talk to folks in line.
Barbara Shine and her friend Robin Mone had come on their lunch break from the Fred Frankel company, a manufacturer of buttons, rhinestones, trimming and notions.
"We came all the way from 38th Street," said Ms. Shine, 29. "We watched 'Seinfeld' last Thursday."
Bill Baker and his 14-year-old daughter, Jillian Baker, had come from Matawan, N.J., just to try the soup.
"It cost us more in tolls than it would have to get a bowl of soup back home," he said. "But my daughter can go back to school and tell her friends about it. Only in New York."
As the line inched along, curious pedestrians stopped to ask why we were in line in the first place. "All this for soup?" one elderly woman said incredulously. "Must be some soup!"
Jeff Marshall, 35, said that there have been lines outside the restaurant "for years." But he had never eaten there until "Seinfeld" persuaded him to try it.
He said that he had felt the soup chef's wrath two days earlier.
"My beeper went off, and I got heaved," said Mr. Marshall, who said he works as head of communications for the Bear Stearns brokerage firm.
"I was about fifth in line. He said, 'Leave! No noise!' So I'm on vibrate today."
Getting the boot
Mr. Marshall was the only person I found in line who had personally been kicked out. Everyone else knew somebody who knew somebody who had gotten the boot.
"A girl I know went with a friend," said Michael Rose, 24. "The friend asked if any of the soup was vegetarian. He got mad and ripped the soup right out of her hand. He gave her her money back, and she stood there. He said, 'What do you want, interest on your money? Get out of here!' "
Finally, after about 45 minutes, we rounded the corner. The awning was now in sight. Unlike the character featured on "Seinfeld," the real cook doesn't have enough room for people to walk into his place of business. The doors open up to reveal counters sitting smack on the edge of the sidewalk.
Now, people were getting nervous. Two young women approached us with soup in tow.
"That was really scary!" one said.
A woman in line wondered aloud, "Do you have to have exact change?"
The line was moving so slowly because people had been buying enough soup to feed an apartment building. One couple walked away with five shopping bags filled with pint-size cups of soup.
Just say 'Hi'
Jillian Baker announced that she was going to greet the Soup Nazi, rules or no rules.
"I'm saying 'Hi,' " she told her dad. "I'm just a nice person. I can't help saying 'Hi.' "
Somebody else in line announced that the reason the soup is so good is that the Soup Nazi uses 90 percent potatoes and 10 percent corn starch.
Nobody questioned her. We were all too busy going over the rules.
By now, we could see the list of soups: lobster bisque, lentil, beef barley, buffalo, split pea, chicken vegetable, broccoli/garlic, gazpacho and cucumber.
Finally, after 90 minutes of standing and worrying, my time had come. I had decided on a large buffalo and a large lobster bisque.
"May I help you?" the Soup Nazi asked quietly. Without meeting my eyes, he took my $20 bill. I stammered out my order, hoping he wouldn't notice the quaver in my voice.
I froze for a second but then remembered that I was supposed to step immediately to the left. In about 30 seconds, an assistant handed me a large bag filled with two cups of soup, two pieces of bread, a ton of fruit, two small chocolate mints and some plastic utensils. The price for my feast: $17.
"Seinfeld" fans might remember that George didn't get any bread with his soup. Hmph.
As for the soup, well, it was soup. And it was good, but it didn't buckle my knees or anything.
The bisque had large chunks of lobster but wasn't as creamy as I would have liked. The buffalo soup had large chunks of chewy buffalo meat and a strong, spicy flavor that I had never tasted before. The fruit was fresh, the bread was tough, and the chocolate mints were tasty.
Nobody got kicked out while I was there, but we all had a good time anticipating the worst.
Maybe next time I'll take my checkbook, order a steak, step to the right and see what happens.