This is my food recommendations for Salt Lake City list, updated for 2019!
I arrived in SLC seven years ago in a tumble of culinary sorrow. I’d been writing food for the LA Times during graduate school, and I had to give up that half of my life in order to stay on the academic track.
Except, as it turns out, Salt Lake is actually kind of great. There’s more weird little ethnic neighborhoods and hidden communities entangled into the Utah Suburban Monolith than you might think. And every year I live here, the streets get a teeny bit more diverse, and the food scene gets a little bit better.
So, here’s my best of, as of right now:
Alas, Hot Dynasty, I loved you well. You had godlike Sichuan. I was perceptually shocked that you managed to exist in Utah. Turns out, you were too good for this world. Now you’re dead, and we’ll have to content ourselves with merely quite good Sichuan: Sweet Ginger. It’s legit, though, numb-tingly flavors and all. Order your heart out – it’s all good, and way better than you’d think Utah capable of in the Sichuan department. All the fish boiled in hot chili oil and the masses of chicken in pickled pepper and dried chiles and fresh chiles and more piles of chiles. Definitely hit the cold tray for all the weirdo Sichuan cold snacks, like husband-and-wife slices and seaweed. (WARNING: Comment from Stuart, below, indicates that the good chef might have left. I will check soon. Please hold.)
There’s a lot of good Taiwanese in this town. Best choice: Mom’s Kitchen. It’s even better since they made, like, a real picture menu for all us non-Chinese speakers. It’s stuffed with all the Taiwanese comfort food favorites. The beef roll is, like, jellied sweet beef rolled in an onion scallion pancake with plenty of raw cilantro and crispy green onion. Dumplings are fantastic, boiled or fried. Freshly made noodles in all the soups – I particularly like the subtle, rich sourness of the sour mustard and ground pork soup. The leek pancake turnover thing is a wonder – the soft leeks and the wiggly vermicelli and that lovely near-crumbly texture of finely chopped filling inside a crispy, crispy, chewy, crispy shell. Eat this and think of what a pathetic thing the Hot Pocket is, that tried to be this leek turnover and failed.
Also: super-special Taiwanese bonus: Sasa Kitchen! A tiny menu, but they’re specialists! Most important thing: the “shaved noodles”, which are fresh made, sliced thick and full of chaw, and have just that right mouth-filling heft. Noodles this good would be like $30 if you were in an Italian place, but since it’s Chinese, it’s like $8. My personal favorite: the clean, subtle, fragrant, warming lamb and shaved noodle soup. Also, get the hot and sour dumpling soup if they have it.
SLC now has a spectacularly good fresh-made Chinese noodle house in One More Noodle. The best noodles, as noodles, are probably those thick, dense ones that come with the braised beef soup, all full of chaw and noodle-y vigor. But the best gestalt dish is the dan dan mien. Peanut-y sauce, Sichuan tingle, thin little wiggly noodles, and pure raw goodness. Best in its beef incarnation, but the veggie version is also deliriously good.
Also: best dim sum is probably Red Maple House. Definitely go when it’s busy for freshness – Saturday and Sunday brunch time. They nail those gossamer-bouncy textures.
For my first two or three years, I just mostly ate at the taco trucks – the two clustered around the Ocean City Market at State and 9th are probably still my favorites. I eventually found Victor’s Restaurant, the well-known tamale specialist inside Victor’s Tires. They’re awesome for many standards – their menudo and their chilaquiles are particular favorites).
Incredibly good tacos at Mi Carmelito. If this place were in East LA, I would probably still hit it up on the regular. It’s a little weird if you’re not used to this style of place – there are different lines for different kinds of meat. Al pastor is great, tripatas is perfect for those of you that dig that dig that kind of thing. But their true excellence is in their soft beef dishes. Cabeza, definitely. But if they happen to have cachete – beef cheek – when you’re there, then you are truly blessed.
But the real magical winner for Mexican in SLC is Mi Lindo Nayarit. It is a Nayarit specialist, and once again, HOW THE HELL DOES THIS EXIST IN UTAH? Nayarit is a region in the Central Pacific coast of Mexico. Nayarit food (and the food of neighbor Sinaloa) is completely distinctive, especially if you’re used to the kind of northern Mexican food that suffuses the American imagination. Nayarit food is seafood, in a thousand subtle variation, balanced right on the edge between crispness and hyper-complexity. Even in Los Angeles, Nayarit and Sinaloan places were rare finds. I have no idea why there’s one way out here in Utah. Things to try: the empanadas, which are stuffed with ground shrimp, deep-fried, and topped with an avocado. The dozen variations of shrimp, all delightful. The fish ceviche, which is unlike any other ceviche I know. It’s a mixture of citrus-soaked fish and finely shredded carrots and lots of other raw bits of veg, and it’s like a raw fish carrot slaw, and it’s totally awesome. (Beware: as with other raw fish, much depends on your relationship to market-day. I wouldn’t get this on a Sunday.) And the fish chicharron, which is small pieces of fish fried so deeply and intensely that they take on the heft, crunch, and chaw of fried pork rinds. Special bonus: they make the best michelada in town, which is kind of like a beer bloody mary served in an enormous stein rimmed with chile powder.
Best Oaxacan in town: the tiny, delightful La Oaxaquena. Great mole, but their true speciality is the tlayuda – which is basically a super crispy thin Oaxacan pizza. You have not lived till you’ve hit a tlayuda with real hunger in your heart. La Oaxaquena also shares a kitchen with my favorite Salvadorean place, discussed below, so you can actually order from both menus from either restaurant. Also, really good mole at the chicken specialist Don Pollo.
The whole Wasatch area has freakishly great Peruvian all over the place. I’m not going to list them all – just go and try any you can find. They’re everywhere, and they’re mostly all great. The fanciest and finest is Del Mar al Lago, which is another “WTF is this doing in UTAH?” kind of place. High end, pretty, immaculate Peruvian. Beautiful and zippy ceviche, excellent piles of fried seafood, and all that stuff. Definitely the more future-facing, more inventive, and more respectable place. It’s fantastic.
But if I had to be honest, in my heart of hearts, my absolute favorite Peruvian out here is the Bountiful branch of El Rocoto. It’s just more heart-felt. I never know exactly what that means, and why certain food feels merely clinically perfect, but other food feels full of love and life. But El Rocoto has that mysterious perfect hunk o’ soul. The stuff all feels just the right amount of chunky, hearty, and chewy; all the flavors are full-throated. Things to try: the platter of fried seafood. The ceviche. Lomo saltado, that glorious Peruvian stir-fry of french fries and beef in red wine, soy sauce, garlic, and tomato. Pretty much anything.
2019 update: El Rocoto has a challenger, which is even homier and even more heart-felt: Rubi’s Peruvian! I would go here just for the hot crispy fried hominy bits they bring out for you, which are the true version of what Corporate America would destroy and then call Corn Nuts. But the ceviche is great here, as are the saltados and the huge pile of fried seafood. Completely soul-satisfying.
Afghan Kitchen is spectacular. It is unnervingly good. Salt Lake City has no right to have an Afghani place this good. Actually the best Afghani mantu I’ve ever had – dumplings, with these astonishingly fresh, delightful wrappers, topped with yogurt and sauce, stuffed with your choice of beef or pumpkin. Everything I’ve had here has been pretty much perfect, but I remember most the Kubali Palow – a chicken pilaf dish studded with little bits of carrots and raisins and pure goodness.
Karim Bakery: WTF is this?! Salt Lake City now has an incredibly good Arabic bakery, which turns out absolutely delightful fresh lavash and pita? And they make baklava and other bakery treats that are completely perfect and full of bakerly love? And you can get an absolutely excellent lemahjun – a flatbread topped with a thin mix of ground meat and spices – for two bucks? Or an even better zataar flatbread for a buck-fifty? Rolling fresh out of the oven every day starting around 11 AM?
Mazza is well known and good, especially if you need things to look fancy. 15th and 15th branch is a little better and cozier. Excellent Middle Eastern groceries at Black Cherry. O Falafel is great at a lot of things, but, perversely, least at falafels. Look to the cooked entrees, like moussakka, chicken banana squash, mughrabiya, and my very favorite, makshi – gorgeously soft eggplant in a yogurt tomato beef gravy sauce thing.
Probably the most important Hipster Culinary Experience in SLC is Cafe D’Bolla, which is one of the very few genuinely world-class culinary experiences in Utah. It’s a coffee bar. I mean, let me say this again, it is a Motherfucking Coffee Bar where you are going to go and pay a lot of money for a Coffee Motherfucking Experience. It has extremely good espresso at a decent price. But the thing you’re really here for is to have the hands of the master make you an earth-shatteringly superb cup of vacuum press siphon coffee, for which you will pay a modestly princely sum. I mean, like, $8-$12 or something. (Though it perpetually irritates me that people will slap down that much for a glass of wine without even thinking about it, but then proceed to loose their collective gourds over the idea of paying that much for a cup of coffee.)
It’s worth it. He knows what the fuck he is doing. He will do you a full process and ritual with explanation. Perhaps too much explanation. He roasts all his own coffee to spec (and he thinks that it’s crucial, if you’re brewing at SLC elevations, to roast with that in mind.) He gets weird coffee rarities. He brews them superbly. He will also, unless you ask firmly, loom over you and shout at you all the tasting notes that you’re supposed to be tasting. He also won’t let you sip the hot cup of coffee because he’s going to tell you that it’s much better after 5 minutes of cooling – and it turns out he’s COMPLETELY RIGHT. He also serves his coffee in these very specific antique Japanese tea cups that he decided give the best aromatic experience and, once again, he is COMPLETELY RIGHT.
So: it’s weird. Also only for the kind of fanatics who like light roast, high acid, very sculpted coffee profile. But if you are, this is totally a pilgrimage worth making. Taste at the feet of a true master.
Salt Lake City is strangely blessed with what, as far as I know, is the best Jewish deli west of the Rockies: Feldman’s Deli. Highlight: maybe the absurdly good, perfectly textured knishes? There’s manner of deli delights, from traditional stuff to more gonzo inventions (potato latkes smoked salmon benedict?). They make a tiny batch of perfectly fluffy bagels each morning, though they run out fast. These are also, without a doubt, the best bagels I’ve had outside of the Northeast. Deli meats are flown in from NY, and they truly understand the essence of the pastrami sandwich.
Other White People Stuff
I’m not going to go into a lot of detail here because my favorites are well-known and well-covered elsewhere. Tulie has impeccable croissants and other Euro pastries. If there’s a criticism of them though, it’s that they’re a little cold in their version of impeccable, professionally crafted, and perfectly French-correct bakery arts. My deepest affections have lately shifted to the new Amour Cafe, from those people that brought you that shockingly good jam you bought in the farmer’s market. Homey, deeply felt, subtle and soul-punchingly good baked goods. Among the best scones I’ve had in the States. Also, sometimes, they have the most magical thing: a beet walnut cake, which is basically like a red velvet cake, but profound. And the single best baked good in SLC is Eva’s Bakery’s kougin amann, which is a godhead baked good. It’s often available at a few other places around town, like our branch of Campo’s Coffee.
Most expensive and also best place for super-boutique groceries is Liberty Heights Fresh. Most importantly, they are home of the best cheese counter in town. (Caputo’s is also very good, but they’ve lately gotten really into their ultra-funkifying cheese cave thing. I suspect they’re beginning to proceed down the More Funky Than Thou path which reminds me, worryingly, of the Late Stage Craft Beer Quadruple IPA Bitter Fuck You Manly Arms Race of Doom.)
Salt Lake is also, importantly, home to like the second best butcher and charcuterie in all of America, as far as I know: Beltex Meats. Ungodly good classic cuts and oddball cuts and all kinds of glorious in-house pates and charcuteries and headcheeses and blood sausages, all with that deep profound modulated wild funk that I crave. This place is a treasure, and when I have friends coming back to visit me from the culinary hotspots of the world, what they demand, perpetually, is to gorge themselves on Beltex shit. (My very favorite charcuterie maker in America is Fatted Calf in SF, and it turns out some of the Beltex gang trained there.)
There are two excellent cocktail bars in SLC: Water Witch and The Rest. Water Witch is the kind of place where they’ll chat you up and make you a cocktail to your weirdo requests, and they’ll nail it. The Rest is a speakeasy hidden oh-so-adorably underneath The Bodega, where you have to, like, call ahead and speak the secret words and be lead to a secret passageway in the back. The Rest is fancy and very I-dream-of-New-York and has quite good food. The Water Witch has a much more half-drunk bartenders ranting about their lives and shout at the audience vibe. The Rest offends some people with it’s excessively twee preciousness (it does feel a little bit like somebody ordered an interior decorator to “Make me feel like I’m drinking in a Wes Anderson film!”). Water Witch offends some people for its hipster-bro man-ergy. I go to both, because I’m a terrible person, and I just like drinking. (For the true cocktail fiend, though, I give a definite edge in pure cocktail craftsmanship to Water Witch.)
There’s not a huge amount of Korean in this town, but what there is, is surprisingly great. Far and away my favorite is Jang Soo Jang. Superb homey-style Korean food that would hang with some of my favorites in LA’s Koreatown. Favorites: spicy squid, sundae gook (blood sausage soup with bits of offal, shockingly clean and deep), spicy goat soup, spicy rice cakes, Korean dumplings, kim chee pancake. Super spread of lovely homemade Korean pickles, brimming with fresh ferment-y life. But: if you go here and only order Korean BBQ because you think that’s the beginning and end of Korean food, I will personally hunt you down and shoot you in the head with a pickle.
Other good choices: Myung Ga is pretty good and more conventionally “nice” location, with a bigger menu with pretty good versions of all the standards. For some reason, the name It’s Tofu! subtly creeps me out on like five levels that I don’t fully understand, but they have a pretty nice dol soat bi bim bop – that’s bi bim bop in a hot stone bowl that you mix up and let crisp.
There’s a huge Vietnamese population in SLC, and tons of great Vietnamese. A few favorites: Pho Thin for pho, with that radiant, subtly sour clean-quiet tang of a really well-executed beef broth. Pho Tay Ho, set in just the kind of chilled out remodeled house that reminds me of Vietnamese joints from my San Jose childhood, for heart-warming pho with really nice noodles. Little Saigon for excellent Vietnamese sandwiches, vermicelli noodles, and bun bo hue, the heartier, beefier, spicier soup of central Vietnam.
And, from left-field, there’s an excellent Viet-Cajun crawfish boil place! It’s called Bucket o’ Crawfish. You can get all manner of seafood – including crawfish, clams, and crab legs – boiled in anything from the Vietnamese take on Cajun spice mix to Chinese black bean sauce. Don’t go and tell me it’s not genuinely Cajun. Because it isn’t, and it never claimed to be. It’s goddamn Viet-Cajun, and you’ll enjoy it for being the heartfelt representative of this new gorgeous melting pot world, you motherfuckers!
Japanese in this town is currently suffering, ever since Naked Fish died. The best we have is probably a pair of tonkatsu ramen joints: Tosh’s and Jinya. If you haven’t had tonkatsu before, it’s nothing like the standard thin Tokyo-style ramen. It’s this mega-long cooked, ultra-rich bone-and-meat-fat, like, velvet or something. Both places are quite good, but I’m going to give a slight edge to Jinya, for getting just the right profound velvety-ness in that rich, rich, bone-mineral broth. I particularly like the ones that mix their pork broth with their chicken broth.
One sneaky surprise, though: Kobe. It is in the middle of a completely white mall complex, so you might not be willing to believe in it. And it’s one of those places that clearly is serving both a clientele interested in Americanized Japanese food, and a more savvy clientele. Here’s the big secret: they have two sushi chefs who are amazing, and they get a special box of sushi delights flown in from the Tokyo sushi markets every Wednesday or Saturday. Get a seat at the sushi bar, make it known that you’re interested in the Real Stuff, ask about that specials box. Also, very very important – do not assume that a white person cannot be a godlike sushi sushi chef. You’ll know who I’m talking about really, really quickly.
I used to live in the Salvadorean part of East Hollywood, where I acquired an undying hunger for pupasas that can never be adequately quenched. I think I have tried every Salvadoran place in Salt Lake City. For me, there is only one choice: Fernando’s Cafe Guanaco. Everything else there has been great too, especially the beef soup.
Imagine my total mind-melted surprise when I found out that the greater SLC area actually has a genuinely great place for chaat. It’s Turmeric Indian Cuisine. Chaat, if you don’t know, is Indian street food. All the chaat here is absurdly good – fresh and vivid, like little spikes of clean brilliant freshnesses shooting through your skull. In its previous incarnation, as “Pastries ‘n Chaat”, this place was all chaat, all the time. Now it’s transformed itself into a fancier sit-down place, cut its chaat menu in half, and added an array of really stunningly good curries. Try any of the goat curries – especially the ones you’ve never heard of. Fantastic biryani, too. (The Avenues branch of Saffron Valley also has extremely good chaat and dosas.)
There were once two utterly fantastic Ethiopian places in SLC. They both closed. Sad face. I have some new possibilities though. Watch this space.
Best rotating stand to watch out for
Spice Kitchen Incubator is this great non-profit thing that helps immigrants start up restaurants. They have a stand at the farmer’s market that rotates through new start-up food gigs. Often, they’re fantastic. Best West African food I had was from one of their gigs. I’ve also had super nice Indonesian, and good Filipino. Always try whatever’s on offer.