Salt Lake City: My food favorites

I arrived in SLC five 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. (I’ve only regretted that particular decision for, say, forty percent of the rest of my life.) But it was intense – the culinary shock of going from the ethnic food wonderland of Los Angeles, to this godforsaken land-bound smog-infested, culinary wasteland…

Except, as it turns out, Salt Lake isn’t so bad. Salt Lake is kind of actually really great for its size. 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:

 

Indian and Pakistani

Maybe my favorite restaurant in this whole town is Zaika Grill ‘N Kebab. Warning: it’s slow as hell, especially if you order anything besides the standard combo. But you should definitely order things that are not the standard combo. That’s because the whole show is run by a husband and wife team who actually cook things carefully and lovingly and painstakingly. This includes fresh naan, fresh roti, gorgeously weird Pakistani dishes that I’ve never had before (curried horseradish?). The seekh kebab is perfectly crumbly and dense and shot through with little crispy bits of green onion. It burns with life. Nihari is one of my very favorite dishes — kind of a densified intensified liquified meat essence that hangs right on the edge of soup and stew, full of the deep low tang of bone-extracted broth. If you’re feeling super adventurous, order the haleem, which is insanely great and almost impossible to find in these parts.  It’s a weird mysterious concoction of beef and pounded wheat or barley or something, and maybe some lentils. It’s hard to tell. It’s deeply and profoundly sticky, like Pakistani meat mochi. Definitely freaks out some people, though. Also, the kitchen can be vegan friendly if you need. A lot of the best stuff isn’t on the little printed menu. Sometimes it’s on the chalkboard. Sometimes it’s not, and you just have to have a long and rambling conversation with the owners about what you like and what ingredients they happen to have today, and then it occurs to them to offer you this or that special thing. These days I just go, wave my hand, and say, “I trust you,” and the kitchen brings forth wonders, eventually.

Imagine my total mind-melted surprise when I found out that the greater SLC area actually has a genuinely great chaat shop. It’s Pastries ‘n Chaat. Chaat, if you don’t know, is Indian street food – gorgeous little lovelinesses like pani puri, which are little shells of fried bread that you fill with chickpeas and potatoes and cold spicy mint water and throw in your mouth and let it explode. There are great many variations on a theme of little crispy things covered with yogurt and tamarind and bits of other, differently crispy things. All the chaat here is absurdly good – fresh and vivid, like little spikes of clean brilliant freshnesses shooting through your skull. Also: great biryani.

 

Chinese

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.

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.

 

Peruvian

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.

 

Ethopian

There were once two utterly fantastic Ethiopian places in SLC. They both closed. Sad face. I have some new possibilities though. Watch this space.

 

Coffee

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.

 

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.

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.)

Best tea selection in town: Tea Zaanti. Nice places to spend medium to large amounts of money on conventionally nice food in a setting with real “service”: Manoli’s, Provision, Veneto’s.

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.)

 

Korean

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.

 

Mexican

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).

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.

 

Vietnamese

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

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.

 

Salvadorean

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.

 

Middle Eastern

Mazza. Groceries at Black Cherry. O Falafel is great at a lot of things, but, perversely, sucks 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.

 

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.

 

 

Food assembly and the idea of a dish

The Korean dish of bibimbap comes as a bunch of distinct little piles of veggies and meat, on a bowl of rice. You pour out a little splat of hot sauce, and mix all it up yourself.

Yukkwe Bi Bim Bap - Buga

My friend Kathy Shin told me that mixing it up yourself was part of the very meaning of bibimbap. When I asked her what would happen if they brought it to you pre-mixed, she jumped out of her seat and actually smacked me. “It wouldn’t be bibimbap! You’d be eating something, but it sure wouldn’t be bibimbap.” When I pointed out that the (non-Korean) patrons at the next table over were eating their bibimbap without mixing it up at all, she recoiled it almost moral outrage. “I don’t know what they’re eating, but it’s definitely not bibimbap either.”

Her horror and semi-comic outrage might map onto how an American might react, say, if they saw somebody carefully disassemble a sandwich and eat the bits daintily and separately, with chopsticks: they’re eating something, but it sure ain’t a sandwich.

All of this makes me wonder how culturally complicated the idea of a particular dish is. Is our idea of “sandwich” or “bibimbap” or “egg roll” made of, not just the ingredients, but how we how we assemble them for ourselves? Does the idea of a particular dish include a very specific idea of the eater’s role in assembly or disassembly?

Hsian Ju Lin, in Chinese Gastronomy, comments that, though Westerners often view the chopsticks of the East as comically uncivilized (“look at ’em, eatin’ with a bunch of sticks”), to the Chinese watcher, Western eating traditions are unbearably barbaric. European eating culture involves bringing tiny little tridents and tiny little knives to the table, for God’s sake. It’s one step away from Vikings in the long hall, eating with their hunting knives and throwing the rest to their dogs. Whereas in high Chinese cuisine, everything comes to the table perfectly bite-sized and ready, all the violence confined, out of sight, to the kitchen.

In fact, it becomes curiously evident that a lot of Asian culinary traditions involve building the final dish-entity at the table. In a Vietnamese restaurant, when you order egg rolls, you’re brought the egg rolls with a plate of fresh green herbs, and you’re supposed to wrap the egg rolls in a bit of lettuce with a few bits of fresh herbs, and eat the whole thing, glorying in the contrast between the hot crispy roll and the cool crispy lettuce. There’s the various forms of beijing duck (a.k.a. Peking duck) where you assemble just the right amount of crispy skin and soft wrapper and sweet sauce, just to your precise desire.

And there’s my beloved pani puri, the mint hand-grenades of Indian street-food culture, where you take a little tiny crispy fried hollow bread puff the size of a golf-ball, and carefully tap-tap-tap a hole in the top, and fill it with bits of chickpea, bits of potato, a little drizzle of sauce, and the fill it to the brim with cold spicy mint water and – quickly now! – throw it your mouth and bite down and feel the whole thing explode cold mint water and crispy shards of bread all over the inside of your mouth.

DSC_2597

And then think of the Western traditions: carving the chicken at the table. Carving the ham at the table. Carving the roast at the table.

And here, I was so goddamn excited about the clarity of this contrast, that I was pounding on the steering wheel and shouting to Melissa: “Don’t you see? The Asian traditions are all about creation at the table, and the Western traditions are all about destruction at the table, and of course it must seem so goddamn uncivilized! You’ve got to kill the thing outside, and then symbolically kill it again at the table!”

But, of course, she brought me down to earth. Western culinary tradition is full of assembly-dishes, too. Most preciously: the Thanksgiving dinner. Think of the horror if you were to come to a Thanksgiving dinner, and were presented with a pre-assembled plate. No no! The right thing, the only thing, is to make your plate yourself, to assemble just the right balance of turkey and ham and stuffing and potato and gravy, placed with just the right amount of overlap – mashed potatoes just barely spilling over the turkey, maybe – arranged on the plate to by yourself to please nothing but your very own gut. The notion of self-assembly is so deep in our soul-concept of Thanksgiving dinner, that you probably don’t even see it, until somebody breaks it.

So inane cultural reductionism doesn’t work here. Maybe there’s a practical explanation for some of this stuff – for the lettuce-wrapped egg-rolls, for the pani-puri, you have to assemble it at the last moment. Otherwise, you couldn’t get the temperature contrast, the crisp-wet contrast. But that doesn’t explain all the cases. It doesn’t explain bibimbap; it doesn’t explain Thanksgiving.

I need more examples.

Wanderings: the underdog juicy dumpling

Mmm…. tenderness layers…

Layers of love

That outside layer: it’s fish paste. It’s one of these weird gossamer-textured things that dissolves before you can fully come to terms with the texture.

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