Cheap Eats - Souped up

Liquid soul at Great American Soup Co.

When it's rainy or cold, many of us turn to the comfort of soup. The Great American Soup Co.'s niche is to please people, rain or shine, with more than 250 varieties of bisques, chowders, gumbos and chilis (though only eight are available on any given day).

The restaurant has an older brother, Soup's On, which opened in 1999 is located downtown.

Atmosphere: The Great American Soup Co. is perched in a multi-level strip mall off the beaten path. Despite the down-home niceness of the service, there is a corporate feel to the place. A sneeze-guarded counter and hastily packaged side items are somewhat at odds with the comfort food vibe. The enclosed porch and indoor tables provide ample seating in a generic box of a space.

Wait time: The biggest time delay is sampling and choosing between the eight soups available. Otherwise, it's a wham-bam, order-at-the counter, take-your-meal-to-the-table kind of place.

What we ate: Soups ($5 for a 16-ounce serving) are cycled through, so there's something different daily. We chose between broccoli with ham and corn; Cuban black bean; shellfish and potato Florentine; white chili; crowder pea and vegetable; Italian tomato olive pasta; lima bean and andouille; roasted red pepper, lentil and artichoke.

Although intrigued by the fishy flavor of the Florentine (large pieces of shellfish floating in a tomato-based sauce with spinach and pasta), I went with the white chili. Great northern beans, green chiles, onions, bits of chicken and chicken broth made for a hearty meal. Diced onions, sour cream and cheddar cheese were offered to top it off.

The lima bean and andouille soup was another satisfying choice. Large pieces of andouille sausage, but not as many lima beans as we'd have liked. A piece of spicy jalapeno or sweet corn bread is also part of the deal. Despite its unappealing presentation (it comes wrapped in tin foil), the bread was light and fluffy, moist and satisfying.

If you need more than soup to tide you over, there are salads ($3) and sandwiches ($5). The salads are simple affairs of mixed field greens, cucumbers and cheese. The sandwiches are the usual deli meat selections as well as chicken and tuna salad. Neither is worth the price, nor do they compare with the quality of the soups.

Most bang for your buck: It starts getting pricey for an $8 combo of soup, sandwich and drink ($7 for the combo with a salad). The best way to go is to stick to soup alone. For $5, you get a portion large enough to fill most bellies.

Biggest disappointment: No bread bowls. Sure, they're hokey, but we love 'em. And there are none to be found here.

Better than mom's: If there's a particular soup that tickles your fancy, then drop by and give the chef a recipe. He'll mix it into the rotation and offer it as one of the selections in the following weeks. With the amount of effort put into producing these high-quality creations, it may be better than you expect. Don't tell Mom.??