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Posted on Wed. Jan. 02, 2013 - 12:02 am EDT

Odes to Greek favorite

Local restaurants serve variations on lemon chicken soup

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If you go

Craving the avgolemono? The following are some local restaurants that carry lemon chicken rice soup.

•Nikos Friends, 1824 Dupont Road

•Nikos Friends, Too, 3720 W. Jefferson Blvd.

•Liberty Diner, 2929 Goshen Road

•King Gyros, 814 Goshen Ave.

•Cosmos House of Pancakes Restaurant, 3232 St. Joe Center Road

The soup is thick, creamy and packed with rice. The chicken shreds are so tender, they seem to melt.

The flavor is lemony, in the best way possible. It tastes bright, somehow, as if the flavor is mirroring that sunshine yellow hue that shouldn’t be possible in a food.

You might call it lemon chicken rice soup but to Greeks, it’s avgolemono. Those in the know seem to pronounce it one of two ways: av-guh-luh-MO-no or av-guh-LEMON-oh.

George Smyrniotis, owner of Liberty Diner, 2929 Goshen Road, says he will work with customers on the pronunciation. Some can get it; others stick with, “I’ll have chicken rice soup.”

“It is a very old recipe in Greece,” he says. “The recipe I have here, I carry my grandmother’s recipe. It’s very popular. It’s our signature.”

Don’t even bother asking for the family recipe: It’s a secret. Smyrniotis will say it’s the egg that gives avgolemono its creamy texture. To get it just right, the heat has to be the correct temperature so the egg doesn’t fry and the dish doesn’t turn into sunny-side-up soup.

Lemon chicken rice soup was one of Leia Sakellariou’s favorites growing up, she says. When she opened her family restaurant, King Gyros, she decided that would have to be a menu staple.

“That’s what I like to eat,” she says, “and if I like to eat it, my customers like to eat it.”

The soup is traditionally made with rice, but Sakellariou likes to make hers with Greek orzo, a rice-shaped pasta. It is a bit longer than traditional orzo, and since it is a pasta instead of a rice, it gets thicker.

King Gyros, 814 Goshen Ave., switches up its soup daily; Monday is lemon chicken orzo soup day. People will stop by on Mondays specifically for the dish, though sometimes, it doesn’t last past lunch, which means people stopping in for dinner need to wait a full week for their avgolemono fix.

Megan Beeching of New Haven tried the soup once at a work carry-in and loved it. She eats soup all winter and says this one is different from so many other soups – plus, she loves anything lemony.

She hasn’t had it since that work event, though she’s tried making about four different recipes.

“It’s not as good, or I can’t get it right,” she says. “Anything requiring eggs in a hot liquid usually ends up with a call to Pizza Hut.”

Sakellariou says her recipe takes about 45 minutes to make. She makes most of her meals by memory, adding a bit of this and a dash of that – so this might be the first time King Gyros’ version of avgolemono has been written down. Or, as it’s called on the menu …

Greek Lemon Chicken Orzo

1 gallon water, plus 1/4 cup cold water, divided

5 chicken bullion cubes

8 ounces bone-in chicken breast

1 cup Greek orzo, uncooked

4 egg yolks

1/4 cup lemon juice (about 2 lemons)

Mix 1 gallon water, bullion cubes and chicken in a large pot. Bring to boil and cook until chicken is tender, about 20 minutes.

Remove chicken. Debone and cut up however you like (cubed, shredded, etc.). Add back to broth. Add orzo to broth and cook about 15 minutes until the orzo is tender. Remove pot from heat.

In a bowl, whip together yolks, 1/4 cup cold water and lemon juice. Stir mixture into chicken broth. Serve.

Tip: Sakellariou suggests using any chicken that is on sale. The important thing isn’t the cut of meat, but that it has the bone.

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