Back Street Bistro is indeed on a back street: off Camino de los Marquez in the far South Capitol district, tucked into an unprepossessing industrial space behind the local strip mall.
Never mind – it’s popular, judging by the lunchtime crowd, and it offers excellent soups, along with a gamut of sandwiches, salads and other midday noshes.
After a brief wait for a table halfway into the noon hour, we were seated and ordered our soup – the specialty of the house. Hungarian mushroom is perhaps the most famous of the menu staples and we now know why. It’s both creamy and substantial, relying on lots of mushrooms for the robust texture. Onions, cream and sour cream, a little dill and a lot of mild, sweet paprika – we savored every drop.
My companion chose the mulligatawny, another menu staple. It was laden with diced white-meat chicken and vegetables, in a broth redolent of curry that was flavorful but not spicy-hot.
Soup prices vary, as does the daily selection, but any of them are don’t-miss choices. Cream of cauliflower is a regular selection now, but that will change with the advent of the growing season. Smoked turkey and wild rice is another perennial favorite.
The soup menu is color-coded for vegetarian and vegan selections, another plus. We’d note that the mushroom soup, while vegetarian, seems every bit as substantial as a meat-based variety, although with all the dairy products it doesn’t qualify as vegan. And the half-portions of soup offered on the menu are plenty, especially combined with a sandwich or salad.
We chose one of each of these options. My half Reuben ($5.25) was adequately stuffed with corned beef (pastrami and turkey are options), but short on sauerkraut and missing the customary Thousand Island dressing that I thought I had specified. There was plenty of sharp mustard, though – a little too much, in my opinion.
The accompanying coleslaw was very finely shredded, a plus, but the creamy dressing was ho-hum. Still, there was plenty of it. Potato or macaroni salad, chips and fresh fruit also are side options.
My guest opted for a salad with cheese-stuffed tortellini and a pesto dressing, garnished with pine nuts and grated parmesan ($7.75 for the full-size serving). She was happy – there were enough tortellini to hold her through the rest of the working day, a good mix of greens and plenty of cherry tomatoes. The handful of piñon nuts scattered over the top was a plus, as was the pesto vinaigrette dressing – not too tart, plenty of sweet basil flavor.
Pie was our no-brainer choice for dessert. Banana cream and black cherry were both on the specials menu, so we chose a helping of each. The banana cream was the best, we thought, made with dead ripe bananas and very tasty.
The black cherry was a little too sweet for our taste – we’d have preferred the standard sour-cherry version. Both, however, were marred by too-thick crusts. Since banana cream has but a single bottom crust, that was another point in its favor.
Service was excellent in the middle of the lunch-hour crush, but became more lackadaisical once that was over. Intent on a long and leisurely meal, we still found ourselves looking for the waiter in the 15 minutes it took between our dessert request and the moment it actually arrived.
Back Street Bistro won’t win any awards for graciousness or elegance. But it serves good, straightforward food. If you are in the mood for soup, it’s several notches above average and reason enough to go there.