A newcomer’s love of SLC dining
Whenever I travel or move, I map my new surroundings through taste. I look for the brewery to pour my post-bike-ride beers; the hole-in-the-wall restaurant serving craveable comfort food that renders me a regular; and the coffee shop doubling as my home office, with strong beans and giant cookies. Eventually, the culinary scene reveals its city’s character, and becomes a character of its own.
Since moving to Salt Lake City this past summer, I have seen evidence of a sterling marriage of culinary humility and talent—and none of the Jell-O salads or mocktails I’d heard rumors about. The local food and drink industry seems determined to debunk stereotypes (particularly the spirits-related ones often assigned to Utah) through ingenuity and energy. I’ve also found an unexpected mosaic of ethnic restaurants and a thriving sweets situation. Yes, SLC: This just might be love.
Now, let me count the ways …
1. Down-home diners
Sometimes the best time to eat is in the past—specifically, the 1950s. Luckily, SLC has no shortage of diners, the foremost of which is Ruth’s Diner in Emigration Canyon. One of Utah’s oldest restaurants, Ruth’s serves comfort food with sides of nostalgia all day, from the down-home meat loaf burger with barbecue sauce, to chocolate malt pudding made from scratch—not Jell-O! And over at Left Fork Grill, the pie counter is kind of like a box of chocolates: You never know what you’re gonna get, but you do know it will be delicious. You’ll find time-tested standbys and more unusual varieties like apple pie with cheddar crust or raspberry cream. Left Fork is so pie-minded that each booth even has its own Instagrammable pie shelf so you can store and ogle your selection if you start with something savory.
2. Campout-worthy coffee shops
I was a little concerned about coffee in SLC since the LDS Church is off the espresso wagon. I was so, so wrong—and for that I am so, so thankful. For cozy vibes or meet-ups with friends, I love Sugar House Coffee almost as much as I’m into their luxurious turmeric-ginger golden milk and fudgy brownies. For more in the caffeine-plus-sugar department, you’ll find chocolate chip cookies and decadent chai options at The Rose Establishment, and gigantic Rice Krispy treats and lattes at the snug Coffee Garden locations.
3.Breweries to brag about
Utah has something to prove, and it shows in the pint glass. As a former Denverite, I’m already a big fan of Epic Brewing Co., which started peddling their addictive pours in the Mile High City a few years ago. I have a soft spot for Uinta Brewing Co. since it shares a name with my dog, and makes the zesty and award-winning Hop Nosh IPA. And one of my new favorites in the state is Park City Brewery, which serves up all their wares in minimalist cans and brews a brawny Imperial Pilsner that I could drink all day.
4. Odds-defying cocktails
Liquid finesse in this state extends beyond the coffee mug and the bierstein to the coupe glass, too. Bartenders seem to view the legislative restrictions set upon their concoctions as creative challenges, to which they have more than risen. I love sneaking downstairs to Bourbon House to sip one of their many Manhattans in a speakeasy setting. In the summer, I’m all about their Cablegram—a whiskey-ginger spruced up with Scottish Crabbies Ginger Beer and lemon. Under Current also pours some of the meanest cocktails in the city, with more than 59 originals, like The Siren with absinthe, gin and lemon topped with egg-white froth and sage.
5. Legit bagels
En route to the airport one day, I pulled a quick U-turn when I saw a sign for The Bagel Project. Replicating a genuine NYC bagel is indeed a project, and one this ambitious little shop has more than pulled it off. The Poblano Picasso sandwich is a smoky poblano pesto, Manchego and veggies on a crispy-crusted, chewy, “everything” bagel. When I learned there were in fact two places to procure real bagels here (hello, Feldman’s Deli!), I immediately called my Jewish parents on the East Coast to inform them of the good news.
6. A sugar junkie’s Valhalla
Sugar courses through Utah’s veins, and as someone with an unabashed sucrose addiction, this has come as great news. For the classics, I lean on kouign amann and macarons at Les Madeleines, where a lifetime local has also confirmed that everything owner Romina Rasmussen makes is “bananas” (in a good way!). Next on my list to try: Ro-eos (chocolate wafers filled with dulce de leche). I’m also obsessed with the larger-than-life biscotti at Tulie Bakery. At least double the size of your average biscotti, these cartoonish cookies provide dipping fodder for at least two cups of coffee. Finally, if I’m craving sugar before sunrise, I seek out the yeasty goodness of Banbury Cross’ classic doughnuts.
7. Grocery nirvana
An integral part of any food scene? Grocery stores. Thankfully, the retail offerings in SLC are on-point. Local chain Harmons honors its humble fruit-stand roots with tons of organic and diverse produce, while also out-baking most other grocers (exhibit A: Beehive Rolls). Pre-dinner party, Tony Caputo’s Market & Deli is the place to stock up. With a dedicated cheese cave, one of the best charcuterie selections in the state and 400-plus chocolate bar types, you won’t leave wanting. One of SLC’s strongest culinary suits is its ethnic diversity, and this shows in the network of incredible corner stores, from Pacific Mart seafood to Japan-Sage Market noodles.
8. Same, but different Thai tastes
I once lived with a Thai woman in Florence, and our apartment perpetually smelled of fish sauce. It was a blessing and a curse, but I’ve loved Thai flavors ever since. Luckily, I’ve found a lot of them here in SLC, starting at J. Wong’s, which celebrates a family’s bi-culturalism with authentic Chinese and Thai cuisine. Then there’s the new Laan Na, where you’ll find novel dishes daily in the buffet and a spicy papaya salad that simultaneously heats up and refreshes your palate. My heat tolerance has also been more than tested at Tea Rose Diner. You can’t go wrong with a curry, but a bowl of the tom yum soup—herbaceous and piquant with lemongrass, ginger and lime—zaps cold from the inside-out in winter. Start at heat level two or three and work your way up.
9. A Small World of eats
I could write an entire article about the plentiful and sundry ethnic eats in this city. Spice Kitchen Incubator—a program of the International Rescue Committee—is one of the driving forces behind our multicultural menus. Offering food business incubation for many immigrants and refugees in the area, Spice Kitchen has helped bring everything from Afghan fried chicken to Sudanese sambusa to SLC. One of my favorite ethnic restaurants to date has been the Ethiopian Mahider, where you’ll find tangy injera and wisdom dispensed by the Rastafarian staff (e.g. “A new broom sweeps clean, but an old broom knows every corner”). Another great way to track down ethnic eats? Stalk food trucks, from the Peruvian Amkha Misky to Korean Cupbop.
10. Wild West swagger
This here’s a western state, and it shows on the plate—often in Park City. Though it may be a tad tawdry, No Name Saloon keeps me coming back with its taxidermied ambience and buffalo burgers. Log Haven in Millcreek Canyon is also a worthy destination for its next-level steak house fare (think smoked goose pappardelle) and frontier ambience cut from 40 acres of Wasatch National Forest cloth. And while the wait for a spot at High West Distillery might be long as a Utah summer’s day, it’s worth it for the beautiful bite in a tumbler of Rendezvous Rye whiskey served neat.