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In Search Of a Flavor Of The Past - Hot and Sour Soup In Birmingham

There was a small Chinese restaurant up in Five Points back in the mid to late 90's that had what I thought was the best hot and sour soup. A co-worker of mine and I would go there a couple times a week just for the soup.

The place closed and supposedly moved to Florida I believe. It turned into one of those Eggroll Express (or other generic name) and the quality of soup and food went downhill.

My roommate's husband is home from the Navy on leave, and as we were discussing Chinese food in Birmingham, we both recalled the wonderful flavor of the soup, and how we have not found it's equal since. We've decided to go in search of the hot and sour soups in Birmingham to see if we can find someone who makes soup as close to what we remember from that little hole in the wall place all those years ago.

I also want to introduce him to both Mr. Chen's and Red Pearl - though I know already that Mr. Chen's soup is not what we're looking for. However a post from Big Daddy has me wanting to try Red Pearl's soup during out quest.

I've looked at recommendations on the Internet for hot and sour soup places in and around Hoover and surrounding areas. And I have suggestions of places to try from friends who remember the soup from 5 Points as well. Granted some of the places I'd not normally go to (like the big buffet places) but since we're wanting to give the places a fair try, we'll pop in for soup.

If any of our Birmingham Chowhounds have recommendations, let me know. We're looking for a true hot and sour soup where the balance of spice and sour is enough to know it's a little of both.

As we review the soups we'll let you know how they rank in terms of quality as well as coming close to what we're looking for.

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  1. Jannae, I was in high school in the mid-late 90s and the only place I can recall is New China Town in 5 Points. It was originally located on the corner where Mellow Mushroom now sits, but eventually moved down to its current location on 20th St near where the 5 Pts Music Hall used to be.

    I haven't been there in years, but through high school and college I loved the place since it was cheap and I was on a student budget. I do remember them having rather good hot & sour soup, too.

    I LOVED the hot & sour soup over at Golden City in the Riverhills shopping center off of 280, but they ended closing sometime in the last year. Over in the Eastwood area, Shangri-La is still making wonderful hot & sour soup; when in that area, I try to pop in and get some to go.

    I too live in Hoover, and have tried the hot & sour soups from several locations. Mandarin House over by Ellis Piano is often touted for having the best soup. I was disappointed when I went; the soup was thin and they were very stingy with the goods (the little that was there was chopped too finely). I LOVE Mr Chens, but the soup is "meh". It's probably more authentic than the syrupy Americanized version that I love. Oddly enough, my go-to place for hot & sour soup (which only seems to be when I'm sick) is Yoe Express, the dumpy little take-out/delivery place on Lorna in the shopping center nestled between Pizza Hut & Express Oil Change.

    Hope this helps - I'm a big fan of GOOD hot & sour soup as well.

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    New China Town
    1020 20th St S, Birmingham, AL 35205

    12 Replies
    1. re: johnnystiletto

      JS thank you for your information. I love Mr. Chen's for everything but the Hot and Sour soup just isn't that flavor we're looking for. My former co-worker swears by the hot and sour soup at that Chinese buffet over in the Palisades in Homewood.

      I've also been told Formosa was good, as is Ming's over on 280.

      And the places here in Alabaster are all the same, which leads me to believe it's something they can get prepackaged from one of the supply warehouses.

      1. re: Jannae

        You're welcome! I tried Mr Chen's H&S soup about a week ago for the first time since I was home sick with a cold (and Mr Chen's is less than 5 minutes from my home). At first I thought that the flavor was bland due to being sick, but I got the soup again after getting well and still thought it lacked SOMETHING. I have a coworker who swears by Ming's, but I've never tried it.

        Somehow, like Dax implies, the cheaper places always seem to have the best soup. Who'd have thought?

        I do have a good recipe for homemade hot & sour soup, but, for the price, it's just easier to pick it up somewhere.

        1. re: johnnystiletto

          Happy to report that of all the places we tried today: Mr. Chen's (mainly went for the soup dumplings, but they were out!), U China Buffet (hot yes, flavorful, no), and Yoe Express, Yoe came in first with Mr. Chen's second, and U China a distant last. The guys at Yoe asked us for specific ingredients or flavors to enhance the soup, and said they'd be willing to work with us to find "the" flavor we're looking for. That says a lot for the small delivery place. They have a sister store down in Calera which is about the same distance from where we live now as the Hoover store is. so that may be an option to try as well.

          Didn't get over to Ming's but we'll take an evening and go hit up some places that we didn't get to today.

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          U China Buffet
          328 Palisades Blvd, Birmingham, AL 35209

          Yoe Express
          3659 Lorna Rd, Birmingham, AL 35216

          1. re: Jannae

            Glad to hear you enjoyed the soup at Yoe Express! This post has me wanting soup now!

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            Yoe Express
            3659 Lorna Rd, Birmingham, AL 35216

          2. re: johnnystiletto

            Kim San in scottsboro al has amazing hot n sour soup.

        2. re: johnnystiletto

          I love hot and sour soup, even the strip-mall versions although Thai Tom Yum is even better (different ingredients, but hot and sour at the same time, in a different way). Some places do a seafood H&S which can be quite good, ie the Shangri-La version is pretty good.

          1. re: Dax

            Speaking of Thai soup - I LOVE the mushroom coconut soup offered at Surin, but I absolutely LOATHE going to eat at Surin for a myriad of reasons; primarily the abysmal service and the atmosphere (I don't need to hear loud thumping club music a la Abercrombie & Fitch to enjoy a meal). Luckily, I figured out how to make it myself :D

            1. re: johnnystiletto

              JS: which Surin -- the one in 5 Points? "My" Surin is the one in Crestline and while the music isn't loud (can't even remember music there) the wait often seems over the top. Or maybe that's because I'm there with my two small children...

              Have you ever had the Tom Kha at Taste of Thailand on Lorna? I can never get enough of it. They should sell it in gallon to-go containers.

              1. re: deepfriedkudzu

                DFK, I've been to ALL of the Surins here in town; the 5 Pts one is by far the worst. Crestline isn't bad, but it's WAY on the other end of town for me. Never had any issues there with the wait staff, but have only been twice. The 280 location is AWFUL and always packed. I've even been to the one in Huntsville, and they had service exactly like 5 Pts.

                For Thai, I really like Thai Emerald in Greystone. I don't get out there as often anymore since our office moved from Greystone to Pelham. I actually live fairly close to Taste of Thailand, but haven't been there in a few years. I got a bit scared off after hearing several friends tell me that it had gone downhill. Plus, whenever I go to that shopping center, the allure of Silver Coin is just too much.

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                Thai Emerald
                5408 Highway 280, Birmingham, AL 35242

                1. re: johnnystiletto

                  I like Silver Coin too.

                  Taste of Thailand -- I used to have lunch there once a week when my office was in Hoover. At a certain point, their portion-size went down to the point that my lunch-mates sometimes left unsatisfied. I've never been there for supper so I have no idea if they are more generous in the evening. The Tom Kna, though, aaaaahhhhhh.....

                  1. re: deepfriedkudzu

                    Have you tried Sitar downtown (intersection of 20th & University)? It's become my new go-to for Indian food, even though the UAB area is a considerable drive for me (whereas Silver Coin is <5 minutes away).

            2. re: Dax

              I second Dax's Shangri-La recommendation. Very, very flavorful with a nice kick.

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              Shangri-La Restaurant
              4702 Johnston St, Lafayette, LA 70503

          2. Golden City used to have good hot and sour soup. Alas, they're gone.

            1. @Jannae,
              Apparently someone on Urbanspoon felt your pain. They also found the Hot and Sour Soup at Chen's lacking.

              9 Replies
              1. re: curej

                I saw that too but think it's a little unfair. Hot and sour soup is about as Taiwanese as Sweet and Sour chicken. Well, I guess technically it does have Sichuan origins (I am not positive on this and S&S Chicken is a western "Chinese" construct, but still ...

                1. re: Dax

                  I find it funny that folks on other web sites talk about going to Mr. Chen's and being disappointed by their selection, wanting authentic Chinese. Course, if they'd get off the "Americanized" items like Sweet & Sour Chicken and look at the other goodies, they'd find that Mr. Chen's does the real Chinese food very well.

                  Was greatly disappointed that at lunch yesterday they were out of soup dumplings! Oh well, just gives me an excuse to go back before my roommate's hubby ships back out.

                  1. re: Jannae

                    Hey we went to Chen's for SUPPER yesterday. We have to plan better. They were still out of soup dumplings. We still found plenty to eat.

                    1. re: curej

                      And the manager had assured me the soup dumplings would "come in tomorrow." It may be a case of wishful thinking, but I was hoping they made them there in house. But from what he said, it sounded as if they were waiting on a delivery.

                      1. re: Jannae

                        FYI, places like Red Pearl have the frozen XLBs that are ok in a pinch and super easy to make. Are they as good as the ones at Chen's? No, but I don't think Chen's are the best in the world either.

                    1. re: curej

                      Funny thing is, the folks at Red Pearl/Oriental Supermarket SWEAR that the Chen's XLB comes from their freezer and the Chen's folks sometimes stop by to buy some when they run out. I've tried both and have my doubts.
                      For my taste, the best hot and sour soups I've tried here were (1) Red Pearl and (2) New China Town. Once upon a time that was one of my standard measures of a Chinese restaurants. After so many mediocre versions here, I no longer used that yardstick.
                      After reading this thread I'm glad to see I'm not the only one who seeks out hot and sour soup when I have a cold or similar symptoms. I joke that I must have had a Chinese/Jewish grandmother.

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                      New China Town
                      1020 20th St S, Birmingham, AL 35205

                      1. re: Big Daddy

                        I wanted to try Red Pearl's soup, but of course they're closed on Mondays. Maybe this weekend we can swing by both Red Pearl and New China Town. Thanks for your suggestions and chiming in!

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                        New China Town
                        1020 20th St S, Birmingham, AL 35205

                        1. re: Jannae

                          Oddly enough, I have yet to eat at the Red Pearl, though I do a good bit of shopping at the attached market (they're one of the only places where I can find pork fat for rendering lard, chicken feet for stock and beef bones for beef stock).

                2. Jannae, I never had the h&s soup at the place in 5 Points that you remember, but Chen Express (it's in the same shopping center as the Crestline Pig & Zoe's) delivers to my home and I really-really-really like theirs. If you're ever in that neighborhood, you might want to consider it.

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                  Chen Express
                  221 Country Club Park, Birmingham, AL 35213

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: deepfriedkudzu

                    Another one to add to the list of places to try. Thanks for the recommendation!