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Hearty, satisfying fare is the Soup Lady’s stock-in-trade

NORTH TONAWANDA – The Soup Lady of North Tonawanda is genuine Western New York royalty, I tell you. Lady Soup Lady, I presume?

The Soup Lady concocts her brand of magic in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it storefront on Oliver Street. Whether you’re of the opinion that it is a repurposed railroad car, or a recycled, 1930s-vintage portable dining trailer (it is on wheels, but has been in its present spot for some time now), the 412 Diner is an ode to simpler times, in appearance, furnishings and even the food served within.

Long and narrow, it boasts 10 stools along a lengthy counter, and one solitary table (for three) in the very farthest corner. Intimate? You don’t even know ...

The rounded, basketball court-style wood strip ceiling lends a very homey feel to the place. Heavily decorated, it is sweetened with strings of twinkling Christmas lights. The moment you walk through the door – actually, before you ever even enter – you are hit by the unmistakable aroma of steak sizzling atop a cast-iron skillet. The place is a little smoky, but you don’t even mind because it just smells so-o-o great.

Right away you notice the no-frills theme: Plastic foam cups and bowls and the like. But again, you don’t even mind. It’s kind of like camping on the roadside, roughing it without the rough, the wilderness without the wild. Reminded me a little of our old camping days, where it didn’t matter what you were eating on, just that you were eating – and darned good eating, at that.

That is what it is like at the 412 Diner, presided over by Barbara Gauchet, Lady Soup Lady.

She doesn’t cook up tons of food – maybe a featured item each day, along with a couple of sandwiches, a salad or two and some homemade dessert. And, of course, the soup.

Make that soups: She makes 64 different varieties. Not all at once, mind you. To some degree, you have to take what you can get, But it really doesn’t matter, because every one I’ve tried to date has been as good as the last – and some even better.

The Soup Lady has soup frozen in her freezer, and reconstitutes it at your request. Or, you can take it home and bring it to life yourself. She also holds court on Saturdays at the North Tonawanda Farmer’s Market, selling her wet wares to an appreciative public, so if you can’t make it to the diner, try to see her on the weekend. You won’t regret it.

During our visit, we sampled the tuna casserole, the stuffed banana pepper soup, the cauliflower-leek soup, the Italian sausage sandwich and the ribeye steak sandwich. Notice I didn’t specify prices, because price really isn’t a concern here. You’re not likely to find anything over $8, and most are more in the $5 to $6 range. A 16-ounce serving of soup runs $4.50, with an eight-ounce cup setting you back $2.50. A nice slice of pie runs $3. Take my word, price is not going to be any sort of factor in your decision-making here.

To sum up our experience quickly and easily: awesome. Everything was tasty, and it was cooked to order and individual specifications. When she was done cooking, Gauchet stopped by to chat us up, it being our first visit. It was like dining at a good friend’s house.

The steak sandwich was hearty, served on one of the softest rolls we have ever tasted. Teresa’s only complaint – if you want to call it that – is that it was a little dry, but that was kind of her own fault. She turned down any sort of dressings or condiments. The meat was tender and tasty, the cheese (50 cents extra) topped it nicely, and that roll – magnifique!

The Italian sausage was every bit as tasty, tender and soft. Topped with mayo, a slice of tomato, peppers and onions, it was filling, too. Along with a cup of soup, it made for a very fulfilling meal.

The girls both had the cauliflower-leek soup, which apparently was the soup of the day. It was creamy and had bits of cauliflower floating throughout. Very tasty. My stuffed banana pepper soup was even better, though, very thick and creamy with bits of sausage and pepperoni providing the bite. The Soup Lady says it is a “house favorite,” and I can see why.

From the very first bite, the banana pepper was quite evident. An extremely well made soup. I topped my meal off with the tuna casserole, which was a simply made plate offering fresh egg noodles topped with creamed, chipped tuna and bread crumbs. It was homestyle through and through.

We’ve also had occasion to sample the chicken pot pie, the goulash, the golumpki and the rivvel, among other soups. All were great. The cream soups are uniformly creamy and thick, with the chicken pot pie boasting chunks of white meat and veggies. The goulash soup offered ground meat and elbow macaroni in a tomatoey broth, while the golumpki was fashioned from good ol’ stuffed cabbage rolls.

The rivvel was rather unique, an Amish concoction, apparently. It featured tons of doughy dumplings, on the order of spaetzle, and had lots of, I believe, spinach in the broth. It was really good. Like I said, I have yet to have a Soup Lady soup that I did not like.

We topped our meal with a thick slice of hearty cherry pie ($3). The filling was not loose, as many cherry pies tend to be, but rather kind of fluffy. I don’t know what she did to it, but it was really good.

Some days you’ll find meat loaf, breaded pork chops or corned beef adorning the menu – it all depends on what the Soup Lady found at the market, or at the butcher.

Gauchet told us that she will be retiring from her day job toward the end of this year, in order to dedicate more time to her real calling. As such, she intends to open the diner full time, serving lunch and dinner (as it stands, it is dinner-only during the week, and breakfast and lunch on Saturdays).

So we have that to look forward to. I’ll be there with bells on. Lady Soup Lady, your hungry public awaits!