Matzo ball soup is a comfort food with a relatively simple taxonomy. Camps are mostly divided along the lines of sinkers vs. floaters, clean broth vs. noodles/crackers/carrots/etc. Opinions range and styles vary, and a perusal of the literature by authorities such as Claudia Roden and Gil Marks suggests that what we currently see in delis around Los Angeles is a very limited expression of the matzo ball. But it's hard to shake the fact that the typical matzo ball lover's most idealized version was probably cooked in the home of a relative or friend, rather than served in a restaurant. When your family's point of reference is, say, tender matzo balls with a firm pumpernickel center that took a couple days to make, no deli kitchen churning out monochromatic dumplings can ever compete.
Some of the most interesting and best matzo balls currently served in Los Angeles are presented in a manner that is obviously not kosher — and we're not using that term metaphorically. (For a primer on the history of mazto balls, known as matza knaidel in Yiddish, read Marks' historical insight published in the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food.) The local matzo ball situation improves vastly during Passover, when some L.A. chefs revisit and often put their own spin on this classic. In the meantime, here is our list of the Top 5 Matzo Ball Soups in Los Angeles.
5. Brent's Deli:
Brent's matzo ball is best considered if you can separate it from the rest of its components. This serving of firm, well-textured matzo ball is the opposite of Barney Greengrass (see #2), since the meager amount of broth compared to the dumpling, noodle and bright chunky carrots functions more like a sauce than a enveloping liquid host. There's only so much packed into a bowl that the eye and appetite can handle. 19565 Parthenia St., Northridge; (818) 886-5679.
Rare is the Langer's regular who heads to Alvarado with a hankering for matzo ball soup. But it should not be dismissed, even if Langer's is the reigning champ of that other signature deli item. The chicken broth is among the cleanest and lightest we've ever tasted, and ball a more modest size, even if it can be on the gummy side. And here's a classy touch: soup is packaged to-go not in potentially dangerous plastic or eco-bad Styrofoam containers, but instead in glass Ball jars. So bringing home an order for a soup-demanding crowd is a very heavy proposition, literally. 704 S. Alvarado St., Westlake,(213) 483-8050.
If memory serves, Greenblatt's used to serve its soup in small earthenware bowls with a trio of small “feet” at the bottom, which felt very comforting and 1970s. Now it comes in the generic standard white soup bowl, but has stayed consistent over the years. This was the go-to deli for matzo ball Soup with Stuff: chicken, carrots, celery, maybe some bits of onion. You know, that style. This is a funky, earthier soup, best appreciated on a cold day, especially if you're feeling lousy. Yet sometimes the matzo balls reveal the mark of being left in the warming dish for a bit, and what's up with the restaurant's cracker parsimony? One pack, really? Does it come with a grandparent's lecture about scarcity during the Great Depression, too? 8017 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood; (323) 656-0606.
2. Barney Greengrass at Barneys New York, Beverly Hills:
Give us a second here, Barneys haters. Not only does Barney Greengrass at Barneys in Beverly Hills make a solid bowl of clear broth with a very respectable dill-laced matzo ball and a careful “dash of vegetables,” you can get that fifty-cent egg cream, one of the most bizarre secretive deals in the 90210-90212 ZIP code range. And the $7.50 price tag of the soup, which does have a few glistening tiny dots of proper chicken fat bobbing along the top and a fragrant zing, is priced roughly on par with other L.A. delis. Especially when you figure in the ample flatbread crackers and breadsticks that come with the serving. A platter of smoked fish will blow a bigger wad, not to mention this season's wispy Lanvin frock and Valextra hobo. Barney Greengrass' broth-to-diced veggies-to-matzo ball-to-noodles ratio stands out in this age of overstuffed soup bowls. Here is a matzo ball that's given some breathing room and isn't over-accessorized. 9570 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills; (310) 777-5877.
1. Nate 'n Al:
Nate 'n Al has been for many Angelenos the gold standard for matzo ball soup in Los Angeles, and has been previously praised on this site. These matzo balls ($4.75 cup/$5.75 bowl) sit majestically in a pale yellow broth that doesn't have the metallic aftertaste plaguing other chicken soups. And yet Nate 'n Al has fallen prey to a couple of vexing deli patterns we've seen over the years. First, diminutive golf ball-sized knaidlach have become supplanted by larger ones. If you wanted a bowl of soup that looked like a softball landed in it and a saucer full of overflowing broth, you'd go to Canter's. Now the matzo balls and broth compete for space in this bowl, too. Nate 'n Al used to be more subtle than that. Eh, chalk it up to our super-sized American culture. Second, we're not entirely OK with the presence of noodles as a standard addition; it's certainly nice to not pay extra, but some of us don't want the double-carb hit of matzo ball and noodle combo. It should be a choice, much like the “matzo”/”matza”/”matzoh” spelling variation. Plates of Nate 'n Al's vibrant green half-sour dill pickles, however, more than make up for this flaw. Presumably the newer Thousand Oaks kitchen protects the original location's rep. 414 N. Beverly Dr., Beverly Hills; (310) 274-0101.