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The first time I tasted caldo de pollo, or Mexican chicken soup, I was — fittingly perhaps — under the weather. My husband was ordering his weekly carne asada burrito from nearby El Taconazo El Tío and asked if I wanted anything, to which I insolently replied that I didn’t feel good.
“They have chicken soup,” he said.
The soup arrived 45 minutes later, still volcanically hot in its quart-sized styrofoam container. I gasped as I beheld the whimsically oversized ingredients bobbing in the golden broth slicked with fat. Then I pulled them out one by one: almost half an ear of corn, a whole chicken thigh and drumstick, thick logs of zucchini and carrot and half a potato.
The delights continued as I unwrapped a bevy of accouterments: foil packets of warm corn tortillas; chopped onion, cilantro and chilies; and lime wedges; plus a little container of Mexican rice that held its cylindrical shape after I plopped it into the soup.
The caldo tasted prescriptively comforting and chickeny in that handmade way — enlivened by my bespoke additions. I pinched succulent thigh meat from the bone with bits of tortilla and drank every last drop of broth, its restorative magic warming me through.
In the realm of Mexican soups, hominy-based pozole (made with pork or chicken) and menudo (made with tripe) get a lot of well-deserved attention. Meanwhile, caldo de pollo quietly dwells on menus at taquerías throughout the city, often alongside caldo de res — made with a similar base and oversized, bone-in contents — carrying on a tradition that’s lived in Latin American home kitchens since time immemorial as a flu remedy.
If I’m not making chicken soup myself (which I do almost monthly), I seek it out year-round, surely for its emotionally curative properties as much as the physical ones. With flu and COVID already making the rounds this season – COVID, seemingly, with renewed gusto – it felt like a good time to size up the best offerings I could find. I started with my favorite caldo de pollo — with luscious, fall-apart leg meat and big, soft pieces of chayote squash in well-seasoned, reddish broth – at Los Asadores Mexican Grill, a colorful little slip of a restaurant on Foster Avenue in North Park.
“[Caldo de res and caldo de pollo] are very traditional, both one and the other,” said Tobias Marin in Spanish. He is the chef and owner of Los Asadores. “The thing is, in Mexico there isn’t a lot of money for beef; it’s more expensive, so we use chicken more. Plus, you can raise chickens at home — hens and little chicks running around — so you have them on hand for cooking.”
After ordering my soup, I asked Marin how he makes it.
“Enjoy your lunch, then we can talk,” he said.
A soup recipe learned from mom
Marin walked back to the counter to fill probably 100 tiny carryout containers with fiery, orangey-red salsa while I commenced with my beloved caldo ritual: fishing out the corn to give it time to cool before attacking it, overturning the rice, wringing each lime wedge dry over the broth, then sprinkling the soup with small-diced aromatics and a splash or two of Los Asadores’s green salsa.
I stirred and slurped a single spoonful of tangy, rich broth. “Mmm, perfect,” I breathed.
“I’m from Michoacán, Mexico, and the traditional way there is to do it this way, with big pieces of whole chicken and vegetable,” Marin said.
He learned his chicken soup recipe from his mom — and it’s one he follows mostly to the letter. He washes and breaks down whole chickens and simmers the parts in water flavored with güero chiles, tomato, cilantro, garlic, onion and chicken base. After about 35 minutes, he adds big pieces of carrot, potato and chayote squash, and cooks until the vegetables are tender and the meat is still moist and falling off the bone. Customers get a choice of breast and wing or thigh and drumstick. (For me, there is no choice but the latter.)
Marin came to the U.S. at age 15 from Ciudad Hidalgo in the mountainous northeast of Michoacán. When he told me this, a pair of customers at the corner table impulsively cried out, “We’re from Ciudad Hidalgo, too!” Marin’s uncle owns Lindo Michoacán, a grocery store at Lawrence and Kedzie, where Marin worked for more than 20 years before he opened his first restaurant, Los Asadores, in 2019. He recently debuted a second restaurant, Eggcellent Breakfast, in Portage Park.
Los Asadores is known for its excellent quesabirrias and charred steak burritos. On weekends the restaurant slings specials like menudo and pozole rojo (both very traditional in Michoacán as well, Marin told me) and whole roasted chickens marinated in vinegar, citrus and store-bought mojo criollo and smeared with achiote paste. Los Asadores sells caldo de pollo year-round, though orders unsurprisingly tick up during colder months, he said.
I wondered aloud if, as in home kitchens, the soup serves some economical double purpose; perhaps some of the simmered poultry is used for chicken tacos, too. No, Marin replied. Its sole function is to carry on this curative tradition that began in his childhood kitchen in Michoacan.
“For me, caldo de pollo is very homey,” he said. “When we got sick in Mexico, when we were mal con la gripa, the moms always made lots of caldo de pollo. It makes me happy.”
Maggie Hennessy is a Chicago-based food and drink writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Bon Appetit and Food & Wine. Follow her on Instagram.