Its name just doesn’t do Calhoun Street Soups, Salads and Spirits justice.
Yes, it is on Calhoun Street and it does have all three, but this is not some shiny strip mall place with white floors and Formica tables, which is what I can’t help but envision thanks to the many quick-serve healthy salad places that have popped up over the years.
Calhoun Street Soups, Salads and Spirits – or CS3 as it is more commonly called – is in a cool old building with wooden floors, a gorgeous rustic bar salvaged from one of the old clubs on Pearl Street, old wooden booths and tables, and about as much natural character as a place can have.
It is also a prime example of how diners are grasping what was once the norm but was lost as those Formica and white-wall places became more popular in the ’80s and ’90s – true locally owned neighborhood spots where you can enjoy food, a few drinks and live entertainment.
But getting back to that name, if there was one area that Calhoun Street did excel at, it was spirits.
The place is family-friendly, and the family area is separated from the bar well. But it is a great bar with a beer list that doesn’t take a back seat to anyone. There are 16 beers and ciders on tap and more than 20 other craft brews available by the bottle. It also offers 12 standard varieties of American beers in bottles.
Nothing went better with those beers than the burger I had, which was so good you could call the place Soups, Burger and Spirits.
I chose the build-your-own option on a pretzel roll with bacon, cheddar, barbecue sauce, tomato, lettuce and pickle. The medium-thickness patty was seasoned perfectly, was juicy and was just a darn good burger. The bun was buttered on top – a nice touch – the toppings were spot-on, and it is burger I will go back for again.
I could say the same about the egg salad BLT. The salad had pickles and a touch of dill and was savory as those pickles were not sweet. It could have used a little more sweetness to offset the salty, plentiful bacon, but I am picking nits here because when you sandwiched it all between two lightly toasted pieces of fresh tasty sourdough bread, it was marvelous.
I had the CS3 Club on a pretzel bun, too. It was filled with grilled ham and turkey, bacon, Swiss cheese, lettuce, tomato and honey mustard. The flavor combination was great with the mustard and cheese being just right with the salty ham and bacon.
The daily special was a pulled chicken sandwich, but it was not quite up to snuff. The chicken was shredded nicely and was tender, and I loved the combination of briny pickles and sharp cheddar cheese with the barbecue sauce, but there was just way too much of that sauce. I was so oversauced it was more like a sloppy Joe.
The sides I had with my sandwiches were up to snuff. The potato salad also had a touch of dill along with crunchy celery and bits of boiled egg – another nice touch.
The mac and cheese was topped with bread crumbs that nicely toasted in the oven, and it had plenty of gooey cheddar to go with the pasta. It was pretty much a perfect pairing with the barbecue sauce-laden sandwiches.
Two of the three soups I tried received thumbs up.
The chili was much like that macaroni and cheese in that it was a straightforward version with just a hint of spice, and it was impossible not to enjoy. The clam chowder was a step above. It was loaded with clams and diced potatoes and had a loose creamy broth that made it much more enjoyable than some of the thick, pasty versions I often come across. The flavor of those clams was present in every drop of that broth, too.
The only soup I didn’t like was the cheddar cheese, which was salty with a strong processed cheese flavor as if someone took imitation nacho cheese and just added cream to it.
The chicken wings at Calhoun Street were of good size, fried until crisp and coated with just the right amount of sauce. I really liked the spicy barbecue sauce, which was dark brown and rich with a nice kick of heat.
My order of fried green beans could have used some of that heat. They looked fine, but the first one I grabbed was ice cold as in still frozen. I grabbed another and it, too, was frozen solid. All of them were.
Apparently they went in a basket before the fryer but never made it in the fryer and were served. Once fried and hot, they were fine, but that service error was one for the books. My server did properly own up to the mistake and did not charge me for them.
Aside from those frozen beans, the most disappointing offerings at Calhoun Street Soups, Salads and Spirits were the salads.
The Southwest Chicken Salad sounded promising with black beans, corn, cheddar, chicken and tortilla strips with salsa and sour cream, but it was anything but. The chicken was cold chunks of breast meat that could have been pulled out of any grocery store cold meat section and the beans and corn were straight from the can and bland.
I would say it was something I could have easily made at home, but if I made this at home, it would have been much better. This salad actually paled in comparison to similar offerings at fast-food places.
The salad bar was OK and all of the items looked fresh and inviting, but I couldn’t help but be turned off when I saw an employee squeezing every last drop from a bottle of generic, grocery store ranch dressing into a container. If you have salad in your restaurant name, you should probably take the effort to make your own dressings. And if that is too tall a task, at least try and hide the fact that you are using the cheapest stuff available.
For dessert, I opted for Calhoun Street’s fresh cupcake of the week over the other pre-made restaurant service offerings. The Orange Dreamsicle was topped with an orange-shaped piece of gum drop candy, and it did fill the bill with orange-flavored cake and creamy icing. The confetti cupcake was less interesting but OK with its sprinkle-dotted whipped white frosting. Both were moist and tasty.
There were several lulls in service during both visits to CS3, and one trip was marred by a practice that really frustrates me. About a minute after my appetizers were served, here came the soups and main courses. So I had to either eat the soup while it was hot and let the wings and burger get cold, or eat the burger and wings and let the soup suffer.
That kind of inconsistency is what makes Calhoun Street Soups, Salads and Spirits suffer. Although it is one of the coolest places in town in terms of looks and potential, and despite several high points that make me want to go back soon, there were just too many flaws.
And those flaws were big ones.
Restaurant: Calhoun Street Soups, Salads and Spirits
Address: 1915 Calhoun St.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday and Tuesday; 11 a.m., to 11 p.m. Wednesday; 11 a.m. to midnight Thursday; 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. Friday; noon to 3 a.m. Saturday
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar
Credit cards: Yes
Menu: Wings ($4.49 for 6; $7.99 for 12), soup ($2.99 cup; $4.79 bowl), Build-your-own Burger ($6.99), CS3 Club ($6.49), egg salad BLT ($5.99), Southwest Chicken Salad (6.99), salad bar ($5.99), cupcake ($2.99)
Rating breakdown: Food: * 1/2 (3-star maximum); atmosphere: * (1 maximum), service: 0 (1 maximum)
Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).