by Clifton Tolboe
There has been an explosion of Latin influence in Utah, which has in-turn, led to an ever growing number of Hispanic restaurants, bars and ingredients in our local cuisine. While overall, I believe, this is a very good thing and has led to many notable dining and shopping establishments, there are so many of these restaurants, super-Mercado’s, bodegas and like—especially on the Salt Lake valley’s west side, that how it's hard to know which are the ones worth a visit. Well, worry not. After many nights, afternoons and mornings (buenas dias!) spent patrolling the west side of Salt Lake with the help of an intrepid team of fearless (la lengue anyone?) diners, the ThoughtLab team and myself have been able to narrow down the huge list of hidden Mexican, Salvadorian, Nicaraguan, Honduran and other Latin owned restaurants to a list that I shall partially reveal to you. After reading this, and dining amongst these fine Latin food destinations you will thank me and my hombres papusas.
First, let’s get one thing straight—I love the Salt Lake Mexican classics as much as the next guy; Red Iguana is a good restaurant, same goes for La Frontera, La Puente and a few others. They are all fine places in Salt Lake to get a reasonable Mexican lunch or Dinner. For me and many of my friends though, spending time in countries throughout Latin America has introduced my palate to so many exciting new flavors that it has given me a taste for something slightly more exotic than the standard taco and smothered burrito fare. Anyone who has tasted huitlacoche, ceviche de corvina or mojo de ajo understands the kind of flavors that are possible when an inspired Latin chef comes into his or her own- the results can be spectacular, and who doesn’t like spectacular?
Now one of the things that I miss the most from the brief time I spent in Mexico City, and something that is maddeningly available just about everywhere in Southern California, is a good Al Pastor—that's shepherd style for those in the know. For many years, Salt Lake was entirely bereft of any good Al pastor. The Latin version of Al Pastor typically consists of pork that is seasoned with chili and spices and then stacked vertically with alternating layers of pineapple that assist in keeping the meat moist as it chars in, and this is key, a vertical rotisserie. The vertical rotisserie is what makes good Al Pastor shine—it allows for the pork fat to drip down and away from the meat and baste in the further porkification goodness! In addition, the vertical rotisserie chars the bits of pineapple to have a smoky sweet flavor that co-mingles perfectly with the richness of the pork. Excellently done Al Pastor is one of those food moments that everyone should have in life. Salt Lake now has a very good (albeit not excellent) version of tacos, burritos and even nachos al pastor, and can be found at Chunga’s Mexican Restaurant on the West side of Salt Lake. At Chungas, 180 South 900 West, the typical Mexican menu items abound—with a delightful catch—you can order everything al pastor! Chunga’s also has a little bit if a secret that not many are familiar with, next to the large menu you will find a small card board menu that features ‘Antojitos’ or little fancies, these are ever changing delightful light bites of Latin goodness—I recommend the nopales (cactus that is served with Oaxan cheese and meat of your choice) or the Huraraches which are kind of like a Latin version of the Navajo taco topped with meat (go for the al pastor version and schedule some ‘siesta ‘ time), sour cream and cotija cheese –amazing! At this price point you really cannot go wrong—for roughly $7 you can eat amazingly well at Chunga's which considering most restaurant prices these days is nothing short of a steal, especially for homemade goodness.
Now on the higher end of the Latin restaurant scale here in Salt Lake for many years there was really only one choice—Red Iguana, a Salt Lake institution for more than 30 years. Now I believe that Red Iguana is a fine restaurant—one that was deservedly won many awards however, after eating at the restaurant for so many years there have been times that I have found myself looking for something new. Not to mention the fact that just about everybody and their mothers know of Red Iguana which can make for some extremely long waits—even at the newly opened 2nd location that is a mere block away! So when about 2 years ago I heard of a new higher-end Latin restaurant that had opened in the newly developing warehouse district of the city my ears perked up and I scheduled a visit. Several more visits promptly ensued and I found myself eating on the regular at Frida bistro. Now Frida is considered fine dining (for Salt Lake) and it is not inexpensive it is however, in my estimation, worth the money. The menu will be a pleasant surprise to those that are tired of the predictable nature of Mexican and Latin restaurants throughout the valley. While there are a few familiar menu items at Frida—such as their amazing crackly, crunchy carnitas (I’m addicted), many of the dishes on the Frida Bistro menu can be a new discovery in Mexican food if not a revelation.
Frida Bistro is located at 545 Wast and 700 South and is owned by Jorge Fierro, some may know him by his other business—Rico Foods. The restaurant is beautiful and with bright vivid colors and an industrial chic style—aptly named after the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Frida Kahlo was best known for painting her own life diary and it is not hard to imagine that there is a little bit of owner Jorges own food diary at play in Frida's design and menu. At Frida there are many hits and a few misses but overall there are mostly hits—with a few home runs intermixed to really keep things interesting. Dishes such as the Carnitas de Puerco (pan fried leg of pork, sweet citrus glaze, chipotle mashed potatoes, salsas and handmade corn tortillas, $21) are surefire hits; unusual but with enough familiarity to keep even Latin food novices hooked. Another winner, Quesadilla de Huitlacoche, $11, is corn truffle, similar to earthy mushroom, with chihuahua cheese, roasted corn, roasted jalapeno and fresh tomato will literally introduce many to an entirely new flavor profile-a text book example of what the Japanese call umami, otherwise known as earthy or tannic. Both these dishes alone were and are enough to keep me returning to Frida for years to come but the best part is that there are many more (read: costillas de buffalo horneadas , $25, which is slow roasted buffalo short ribs served with guajillo chile sauce and sautéed summer vegetables with camote mashed potatoes) and the menu changes every season! The menu at Frida is seasonal in nature with many specials that are frequently changing; the restaurant is also an especially good place to entertain out of town guests as there is a large patio with ample space for larger groups that has excellent views of the valley and surrounding mountains. If you haven’t had a chance to visit Frida we highly recommend that you do and would give the restaurant a coveted 3 star rating.
Now for those of you that are looking to inspire some home-made Latin goodness on your own, and by this I mean deep end of the pool moles, antojiitos and empanadas do not worry I have not forgotten about you. Located in locations throughout the Salt Lake valley is the wonderful Latin market—Rancho market. The Rancho market is one of the many Mexican supermercado chains that have roots in Southern California and have begun to spring up all over the country. Catering to—you guessed it—Mexican Americans, these specialty markets often focus on regional Latin cuisines, ingredients and preparations and Rancho is particularly good for buying up Mexican marinated carne aside, pork and chicken. The market also has a huge variety of pre-made tamales in chicken, beef, pork and vegetarian that are perfect to pick-up for a quick week night dinner. At Ranch you can find the unusual and unfamiliar Latin ingredients that are most likely behind the best Mexican food you have ever had. Recently for a beef chili, I was able to find dried cascabelle peppers, the smoky flavorful peppers are one of my favorites and a requirement for great chili- they are also something that I would not have found at any other local store. If you have a need for some chili's, huitlacoche, achiote, chia, pimeton or any other unusual Latin ingredients this is the place for you. It also serves (all our palettes) to mention that the lunch and dinner counter located within the Rancho Market is worth a visit, they use the ingredients from the store to whip up some Mexican comfort food that is among the best in the valley- order the mighty molcajete—served in a blazing hot mortar, heated over an open fire and then filled to the brim with bubbling queso fresco, chillies, chicken, shrimp and an amazing sauce—you will thank me—just make sure that you are not alone as this dish alone can easily feed 4 people.
In all, our little Salt Lake valley here has really started to spring up some national level Mexican and Latin eateries, which is something that we should all be proud of. The cultural melting pot in Utah has grown drastically over the last decade, which is always a good thing for restaurant diversity, and the Latin population has a large part to do with that. Now here is to hoping that Utah's cultural diversity can keep up with our ever changing pallet, and continue to add even more ethnic restaurants (banh mi anyone?).