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​French onion soup favorites at Fargo restaurants

All About Food | February 15th, 2024

By Rick Gion

rickgion@gmail.com

In this land of hotdish and ham, the knoephla soup of German-Russian heritage seems to reign supreme. In my opinion though, the French have the superior soup. With a cheesy top layer, toasted baguette middle, and savory steaming interior, French onion soup is a sophisticated and satisfying mix of flavors and textures. And to seek out the best local version of this soup, I recently went on a Tour de Fargo.

To be exact, I recently tried French onion soup at 10 restaurants in this area. The long list of restaurants includes Applebee’s on 19th Avenue North, Beer & Fish Company, the Cork ‘n Cleaver, Granite City, Longhorn Steakhouse, Lucky’s 13 Pub, MacKenzie River Pizza, Grill & Pub, Nichole’s Fine Pastry & Cafe, Rosewild at the Jasper Hotel, and The Tavern Grill. My best soup phone photos from all these restaurants have been posted on the Fargo-Moorhead Eats Facebook group page as proof of this latest escapade.

I’m guessing that at least five other restaurants in town serve this soup, but I had a newspaper deadline to make. I’m also still trying to lose some weight from taste testing knoephla soup at 16 restaurants a few months ago. That was a soup sampling marathon.

Which local version of French onion soup made me say “ooh la la,” you ask? Well, the top five offerings are described in detail in the following paragraphs.

Beer & Fish Company, located in downtown Fargo, ranks No. 1 for the most souped-up French onion soup. And just so you know, it’s a new menu item there at just $6 for a crock. I was told by my server that the recipe was improved between taste tests. That definitely proved to be true. Because of all that, I tried it twice.

The chefs at Beer & Fish do the soup toppings the right way by using toasted baguette slices. These bread slices are actually toasted in onion butter, augmenting the onion emphasis. The cheese blend is fitting and the pull is superb. The actual soup portion of this dish has a great traditional flavor and onions are plentiful with the triple threat use of leeks, shallots, and sweet Vidalia onions. Beef stock is used here with white wine, sherry, and some thyme.

This high-ranking soup comes as no surprise. Beer & Fish Company owners Bert and Klaus Meyers are Fargo food legends. They never disappoint. The French onion soup at Beer & Fish Company promises to be as popular as the clam chowder and lobster bisque also offered on the menu.

Nichole’s Fine Pastry & Cafe on 8th Street South takes No. 2 overall in this competition. Because it’s a French inspired cafe, the soup at Nichole’s is definitely more of a traditional version. If presentation was primary in this competition, Nichole’s would rank No.1.

The crock the soup is served in looks like it belongs in a French bistro. Topping this soup is a gruyere cheese crisp, or frico. Below that are toasted baguette slices. The bread stays sturdy in this soup. The melty gruyere is underneath the bread. There’s a decent amount of it, too. The cheese pull is lengthy.

The actual soup portion of this dish is also made with care. The broth has a great traditional flavor. There is plenty of thyme and wine flavor and a smell of sherry coming from the kitchen. The onion supply at the bottom of the bowl is also abundant.

And, get this – Nichole’s version is actually vegetarian. There’s no beef or chicken stock used. Mind blown. Although this soup is a little expensive at $10 for a crock, it’s worth it.

The French onion soup at Longhorn Steakhouse ranks No. 3 in this competition. It’s definitely a pub or steakhouse style version, which is fitting for the location. The portion size is quite large and the price is just $5.99. You get a large loaf of warm bread with your order. In my opinion, it’s the best bang for the buck in town for French onion soup.

And if cheese pull is your thing, this is the soup for you. It doesn’t lack in the dairy department. The mysterious broiled crispy bits on top of the cheese add a great texture. The broth has great depth of flavor and there’s plenty of onions in it. If you’re looking for a pub or steakhouse style onion soup in town, this is the ticket.

Lucky’s 13 Pub ranked No. 4 for best French onion soup in Fargo. This bowl is another pub or steakhouse style version. As with Longhorn, the portion size at Lucky’s is also good. The bread used is sturdy and the cheese pull is choice. The broth is tasty and has deep flavor.

My one complaint is that this soup is a little on the salty side. In my experience, this seems to be a theme with chain or franchise restaurant soups. The price of a bowl of this soup is $7.99.

Rosewild at the Jasper Hotel ranks No. 5 in this competition. It’s more of a traditional version as far as presentation and flavor. However, the chefs add button and oyster mushrooms to it. I like this addition, but there is a visceral hatred out there for mushrooms. It’s something I’ve never understood, but please keep in mind that it’s a thing.

I like the traditional French onion soup flavor here, which comes from the addition of thyme and white wine. The toasted baguette coverage is quite good and so is the cheese pull. The price of a bowl of this soup is $7.99.

I’ll give the Cork ‘n Cleaver a shout out here. This restaurant is classic south Fargo and serves a pub or steakhouse style soup. The broth of this soup has a deep beef flavor and tastes like they add prime rib drippings to it. Delicious.

The Cork just needs to improve on the bread usage in this soup. The addition of toasted baguette slices would make it top-tier and would be far superior to soggy bread pieces.

I’m going to give another shout out to the French onion soup at MacKenzie River Pizza, Grill & Pub. I think it could have made this top-five list if this restaurant used the right cheese for this dish. The cheese tasted like a blend used for the pizzas this restaurant features. To be frank, cheddar, mozzarella, and muenster do not belong in French onion soup.

Specifically, French onion soup needs to have melted gruyere or another nutty and tangy cheese such as Emmental or Swiss as the topping. I love the twang of these cheeses. It’s addictive and boosts the umami level. There’s a reason why gruyere cheese is traditionally used in French cooking for this soup. Be sure to check out Luna Market in Brewhalla if you need some.

And speaking of the ingredients, let’s now discuss what also makes a good French onion soup. Just so you know, I do like to make it at home from time to time. It’s a process, but well worth the results.

Let’s start with the layer tucked underneath the cheese, the toasted baguette slices. Yes, the bread needs to be sliced and toasted so it doesn’t immediately turn soggy. Also, do not just use salad croutons or untoasted bread chunks. That’s the easy way out. Get yourself a nice French baguette and slice and toast the bread. You’ll get better bread coverage that way, and it won’t turn into a sloppy sponge while sitting under the broiler.

Underneath the toasted bread is the brothy portion. The base for this soup begins with slicing and cooking the onions in butter and maybe a little olive oil. I like to use sweet yellow onions here. The onions should be thinly sliced lengthwise across one half of the onion. Make sure to use a lot of onions, because they do cook down. Shallots can make for a nice addition due to their sweetness.

Cook the onions the right way. This process may take an hour or so if you do it right. You’ll want to cook the onions down over medium-low heat to be light brown and very soft. Just at the end, turn the heat up to create a caramelization that can be deglazed with white wine. This step is extremely important in making a flavorful soup.

Pro tip: Be sure to open windows and close the door to your bedroom during that whole process. Your bed sheets will smell like onions for days. I learned this the hard way.

Now let’s discuss the liquid part of this soup. Homemade or high quality store bought stocks should be used here. There are recipes that call for all beef stock. There are also recipes that call for chicken stock. Some of them utilize a mix. And some actually use a vegetable-based stock, as is the case at Nichole’s. In any case, please use a high quality stock for this soup. To really give an authentic French flavor, be sure to add a small bundle of fresh thyme to simmer in the pot for a bit.

Some of the pub or steakhouse versions of this soup boast an addition of tawny port wine. It does give the soup a darker color, but also adds a sweetness that’s not traditional. Instead, I prefer a little white wine and a few dashes of dry sherry. I’m kind of a purist when it comes to this soup. However, I will say that different variations can be pleasantly surprising.

But please don’t add too many superfluous items to this soup. I’ve tasted versions with fish sauce, soy sauce, or Worcestershire sauce added. Please keep these additions to a minimum and don’t get carried away. Too many extras in this soup will ruin it. The onion, stock, and wine flavors should shine, not the flavor of super concentrated store bought sauces.

Now you know what makes for an excellent French onion soup. I hope you enjoyed these rankings and rants. Be sure to try a few of these Fargo favorite soups for yourself. Happy escapades and bon appetit!

Rick Gion administers a Facebook food group called “Fargo-Moorhead Eats” that’s dedicated to the area’s great cooks and cuisine. The page now has over 33,000 followers. Check it out, join, and feel free to post items about your local culinary adventures and home cooking. And, while you’re at it, also join the Instagram and TikTok pages!

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