Food & Drink

It's Cold Outside: Time for Matzo Ball Soup

February 14, 2024, 12:38 PM by  Allan Lengel

This story originally appeared in April 2019.

I grew up with the inviting smell of Jewish cooking filling our home. My mother Miriam, a native of Czechoslovakia, made everything -- including potato kugel, kishka, gefilte fish, cholent, stuffed cabbage and matzo ball soup.

Often on Friday nights or during Passover, she whipped up a big pot of plump matzo balls bobbing in rich chicken broth. The broth was made by boiling kosher chicken parts, a big onion and chopped carrots and celery. She also added chicken bouillon cubes to embellish the broth taste. The matzo balls were made with seltzer (club soda) rather than water to make them fluffier, plus finely grounded matzo (matzo meal), eggs, oil and a touch of salt and pepper.

As an adult, starting in my 20s, I started making matzo ball soup, pretty much the way my mother had. 

While I lived in D.C., I was tasked every year with bringing the soup for the Passover seder at the home of Lyndsey Layton and Dan Mendelson. One year, I got fancy and made three types of matzo balls: regular, whole wheat and cilantro/jalapeno.

In rural Portland, I once made a giant pot of matzo ball soup for the snack bar at an elementary school where they were having an Akita dog show (friends were members). People at the show walked around talking about the “big dumplings” in the soup.

The top-rated reward at Star Deli on 12 Mile Road in Southfield.

In Metro Detroit and in Ann Arbor, in recent months I began sampling the matzo ball soup at Jewish delis, on a mission to find the best ones, judging them on the quality of the broth and the taste and texture of the matzo balls. 

What makes a good matzo ball soup? The broth can’t be fatty and has to have a full chicken flavor (It helps to add chicken boullion). The matzo balls have to be firm, but not too firm, and have a matzo and egg-like taste with just the right amount of salt. Interestingly, during my whirlwhind matzo ball tour, the most flavorful chicken broth I had (it didn’t come with matzo balls) was at the Kresge Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Go figure. 

In the end, the two top places for matzo ball soup were the Stage Deli in West Bloomfield and Star Deli in Southfield, the latter being carryout only.

Here's what I found at the eight Jewish delis I visited:

Zingerman's Delicatessen (422 Detroit Street, Ann Arbor): I love going here. I love the ambience and variety of everything, including baked goods.  It’s such a grand place and they do a lot of things really well, but matzo ball soup isn’t one of them. The matzo ball had good texture, but little taste. And the broth was pretty lame -- dark and without much taste. To  make matters worse, they served it in a plastic container. The best thing was a big chunk of rustic bread that came with it. Zingerman's can do much better.  Rating 2.5

► Siegel’s Deli  (3426 E. West Maple Rd., Commerce Township): The hearty bowl of soup comes with a big matzo ball sitting in a broth with noodles, carrots and celery.  The taste was just OK. The broth was a little salty. The matzo ball was OK, but not among the best in town. The texture was a little off.  Rating: 3.5

► Steve’s Deli (6646 Telegraph Rd., Bloomfield Township): When you talk about the two top delis in town, Steve’s and Stage often come to mind. But when it comes to matzo ball soup, Stage Deli out-matzo balls Steve’s. The matzo balls at Steve’s had a good consistency, not too hard, not too soft. But they didn’t have a very hearty flavor. Ditto for the broth that was complimented with generous portions of noodles and chicken. It could have been more flavorful.  Rating: 3.5

A "decent" contender at Gateway Deli on West Fort Street in Detroit.

► Pickles & Rye Deli (6724 Orchard Lake Rd., West Bloomfield): The soup was pretty good. The matzo balls had good texture. Not perfect, but pretty good. Rating: 3.75

► Bread Basket Deli (26052 Greenfield Rd., Oak Park): This place, which is tucked inside a strip mall called Lincoln Center, used to be one of the premier delis in Metro Detroit. It’s fallen from that list, but it’s still not bad. The matzo ball soup was very good. The yellow broth was decent. The matzo balls were legit. Rating: 4.0

► Stage Deli (6873 Orchard Lake Rd., West Bloomfield): The Stage Deli, which first started out on 9 Mile Road in Oak Park in 1962, was always one of the best. In 1982, the owners, the Goldbergs, opened up the shop on Orchard Lake. It's one of the more expensive delis, but overall, it's the best. And it's matzo ball soup is among the best. First off, the presentation reminds me of the way they served matzo ball soup at the famed -- and now former -- Carnegie Deli on Seventh Avenue in New York. They served the matzo ball and a little broth in a big white bowl. Then the waitress poured the remaining broth into the bowl with a little tin cup. The matzo ball was just right. Tasty. Good texture. The soup had a beautfiul yellow look. Still, the broth wasn't perfect. It could have used a little more bouillon for a richer taste. Rating: 4.5

► Star Deli (24555 West 12 Mile Rd, Southfield): This is a classic. Situated in a little strip mall, just west of Telegraph, this carry-out only joint with plenty classic deli workers behind the counter has been around more than 40 years, and still gets rave reviews for its corned beef. It can also take a bow for its matzo ball soup. The broth was very good and it comes with noodles, chicken, carrots and celery. The matzo ball was very good as well, but was a bit spongy. Still, the matzo ball soup was among the tops in Metro Detroit. Rating: 4.5

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