I've always felt that comfort food is overused as a trope. I have never once connected with an actual dish as a source of comfort. Maybe this is a function of my suburban upbringing. Maybe it's because I'm officially in my mid-30s, which means there's now a layer of carpet around my heart.
But I do believe in the idea of institutional comfort, that a diner or bar or restaurant can provide succor in times of emotional stress, and that you can take that comfort with you out into the real world, wear it like a suit of armor, even. I've found this comfort at a Tacoma soup counter.
Infinite Soups is a tiny space with no seating, flanked on both sides by vast empty storefronts at the edge of Tacoma's downtown and north end (445 Tacoma Ave S). These were once billiard halls and comedy clubs with a blue-collar clientele. More than a decade after leaving Tacoma to live in bigger, more expensively gloomy cities, I became an unexpected regular at the shop through the fall and winter of 2017. My return was spurred by cancer—my father's.
Infinite Soups is just 10 minutes from St. Joseph Medical Center by car, which sounds like nothing, but when your dad is dying and your mom is coming apart at the seams and the doctors are spinning a whirligig of conflicting gee-haw bullshit, those 10 minutes become like a realignment for the soul.
I love Infinite Soups not just for the soups, although they're great. Every day, there are more than a dozen varieties, with multiple vegetarian and vegan options alongside meatier brethren, each one distinctly flavorful and unique, and there's always some unknowable combination of ever-changing offerings: Hungarian Mushroom, Hunter's Meatball, Potato Gorgonzola, Moroccan Mushroom, Caribbean Red Bean (my favorite), Spicy Curried Chicken, Cuban Black Bean, Fiery Coconut Pork, Roasted Garlic Tortellini, Santa Fe Queso, and so on.
Sampling before you purchase is encouraged, and the shop's owner-operators have the proper posture down to a subtle art. They stand before you, available but appropriately disinterested, eyes never meeting yours as you sip and consider. It is a remarkably dignified interaction, cool and distant and efficient, the sort of service that seemed normal when I was growing up but strikes me now as being wonderfully Pacific Northwestern.
One can walk into Infinite Soups covered in tears and hospital germs and be treated exactly the same as anyone else. It is a small, wonderful mercy.
Infinite Soups functions as a sort of time portal. You pay cash. There is no ATM or credit-card reader. You take your soup to go—you can eat it across the street in the park or in your car. The music is supplied by the shop's exceptional vinyl record collection.
None of these retro aesthetic choices were designed by a conceptual firm or are the result of mood-board consulting. The family that owns the place—Wendy Clapp and Todd DeShazo—just runs it like this, holdouts from the grunge-era Tacoma of my youth. Coffee shops with their dingy couches, diners with minors in the smoking section—most of these places are gone now.
It's a cliché to say "places like this are disappearing," but in Tacoma, I think it's also inaccurate. The city's deeply ingrained grime and maudlin municipal character have always repelled rapid advancement. People have been saying "Tacoma is the next big thing" for what feels like my entire life. The Stranger predicted it in 2006, and again in 2019, but I remain unconvinced; like a Mariners World Series appearance or a proper remake of The Running Man, it's all stuff my dad would have loved to see in his lifetime. But alas.
On one particularly shitty afternoon in 2017, somewhere in that soggy cusp between fall and winter, I left St. Joseph to pick up lunch. Down the elevator, out the lobby doors, back into my car to make the 10-minute drive across town. I walked into Infinite Soups. I tried some samples, I grabbed a roll, I paid cash. Instead of going straight back to the hospital, I detoured.
Tacoma was once the wealthiest city in the state, and the eastern edge of Wright Park is bordered by grand turn-of-the-century apartment buildings. In the midst of that cash rush, the city council approved the building of a greenhouse, the W.W. Seymour Botanical Conservatory, modeled on the garden houses of Victorian England.
I parked my car, stashed the bag of soup on the passenger seat, and walked into the gardens. I listened to the koi pond waterfall and breathed in the greenhouse air. Then I drove back to the hospital, went back up to the cancer ward with a bowl of Caribbean Red Bean for me and Chicken and Rice for my mom, who asked for "whatever's not spicy." I remember it so vividly, that soft, round whiff of herbs and poached meat, distracting for just a moment from what we were about to face.