Image: Karen Brooks
The Soup Annex's miso mushroom soup

With its drooping blue tarp, help-yourself thrift store mugs, and major stockpile of world-class Oregon mushrooms, the Soup Annex looks like a homeless shelter for foodies. Quietly, over the past few months, this makeshift kitchen at the Saturday Portland Farmers Market has emerged as the biggest surprise in our food-crazed city. Behind the propane stove, Kathryn LaSusa Yeomans waves soup ladles over cauldrons like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Each labor-intensive brew is different, three formulas a week, conjured from nuanced stocks and an extreme local perspective.

Inspiration comes from Springwater Farm, where wild mushrooms stand in mountainous heaps just steps away. Springwater’s sweetly shy forager Roger Konka, who appears to take fashion cues from The Lord of the Rings, is a farmers market icon. Together, these unfailingly upbeat friends cast the spell of the year: outrageously good soups.

Springwater Farm's Roger Konka with one of his pigs

Yeomans’s chowder sports a cache of chanterelles, wild mushroom broth, and a sweet corn crunch. The matsutake-powered cream of pumpkin soup swooshes elegantly in a pumpkin shell. A pork and green potage stars pork from what Konka calls “my tractor pigs.” On his 40-acre St. Helens plot, Konka’s Tamworth heritage breed pigs “plow their own fields,” which Konka plants with squash; the pigs later return to feast on the gourds. Talk about hog heaven. For one recent soup, Yeoman made hay with the parts, fashioning ham, bacon and pulled pork from Konka’s free-range clan to pair with vigorous greens and a rich meat broth. It’s as honest as food gets, backed by handmade cornbread.

The Soup Annex is many things: an evolving farm-to-takeout concept, an essential resource for mushroom tips and recipes, and a collaboration between a forager/farmer and a talented chef-turned-farmers-market-dreamer. The partnership has evolved into a pop-up concept and now, shows up for a starring role in GQ magazine’s November opus on Portland’s food scene. After chomping through Ox, Pok Pok, and other Stumptown hot spots last spring, big-name food critic Alan Richman proclaimed the duo’s pop-up lunch his “most delightful meal” in Portland (the setting was Southeast Portland’s Tastebud restaurant, owned by farmers market wood-oven guru Mark Doxtader).

Writes Richman of an assemblage of morel mushrooms, poached eggs, and roasted asparagus: “That was the finest and, for that matter, the most iconic vegetable dish I ate. It wasn’t just Portland food. It was idealized food, the kind I thought I would find in every restaurant but did not. This was a glorification of farm, field, woods, and wild.”

Yeomans is little-known in Portland’s food scene. But the portfolio of this farmers market “soup lady” reads like a snapshot of the city’s restaurant history: Café Azul (the ahead-of-the-curve artisan Mexican eatery), Couvron (the ahead-of-its-time chef’s tasting menu), the Heathman, and Nostrana, not to mention stove time with New York’s Italian food diva Lidia Bastianich.

On Monday night, Yeomans and Konka celebrated GQ’s accolades with a “Tacos and Pozole” pop-up, drawing waits at Tastebud. Yeomans’s Mexican food love was best appreciated in a green pozole full of soft avocados, locally grown Amish Butter hominy, and winking heat, as well as bulging shredded pork tacos sided by terrific black beans knee-deep in inky juices and soft cheese. The tortillas were more rugged (and a little greasier) than I hoped, but the evening’s tortilla maker was a no-show, as was the dishwasher, leaving Yeomans and Konka to pull off a feat worthy of Restaurant: Impossible. Portions were lovingly generous. The main drawback was Tastebud’s cramped communal tables and a space Richman aptly describes as “a lunch-room in a twentieth-century senior citizen’s center.”

But I’d follow Yeomans anywhere for her signature closer: an out-of-this-world devil’s food cake, at once delicate and decadent. It may be the best thing $5 can buy.

So what’s next? Buoyed by Monday night’s turnout, the duo is now considering weekly pop-ups, with different themes at different locations. Konka is positively giddy. He even loved Richman’s observation that “the service was just awful, thanks to Konka, a charming and easily distracted waiter right out of Fawlty Towers.”

As he folds over into childlike giggles, Konka adds how much he liked the notoriously cranky critic: “I had no idea who he was. I never heard of Richman. We hit it off very well.”

Yeomans is toying with ideas. “We’ll still do formal dinners, one or two a season. Next week, we’re doing a Day of the Dead feast—five courses for only $45. We’re kind of crazy that way. A soup at our whole pig roast had $300 worth of porcini, for 40 people! Restaurants can’t do this. Partnering with a forager and farmer who is willing harvest wild greens gives you an advantage.”

Up next:

Dia de los Muertos Feast, a five-course Day of the Dead dinner ($45)
Three Square Grill
6320 SW Capitol Highway
Reserve seats at wildeats@msn.com

Blog posts, recipes, and market info: The Farmer's Feast

Sign up for the mailing list at the Soup Annex at the PSU or Hillsdale farmers markets.