Salt Lake City is undeniably a city that faces east. The main neighborhoods and restaurants of downtown, the University of Utah, the Avenues, Sugar House and 9th and 9th are all situated east of State Street, nestled at the bottom of foothills that continue to rise and fold to the beautiful and recreation-filled Wasatch Mountains. Yet, there is another area of Salt Lake many residents never explore. It’s what one might call “the west side.” Besides Antelope Island, the Salt Flats, the Maverik Center and the Oquirrh Mountains, we generally think there’s not a lot to the west; after all, it is an area demarcated from Salt Lake by freeways and railroad tracks. In terms of restaurant coverage, the west side gets all too little press. That needs to change.
For many, the one west side eatery people know is Red Iguana. And, of course, Red Iguana is great—an SLC classic for sure, but there’s a lot more to explore around the area. The oft-overlooked neighborhoods of Rose Park, Fairpark, Poplar Grove, Downtown West, Central Ninth, Marmalade and Glendale (stretching all the way to West Valley and South Jordan), offer wonderful hidden gems of affordable ethnic and American cuisine. And, yes, it’s true, with the bourgeoning food scene in Salt Lake continuing to expand each year, there is less of a need to search for great food when it’s all around you. But should you find yourself on this side of town or feeling a need for carnitas, vegan bahn mi, craft beer or even African food, you’ll find it here.
Tucked off 1000 North and 900 West a half-block back from the road, El Cabrito—whose name refers to spit-roasted goat from the Monterrey and Nuevo Leon area of Mexico—is a wonderful little Mexican restaurant offering both dine-in and take-out. Inside, it’s cozy and friendly with a large mural of a blue bay painted on the east wall. The real killer deal here is the $6-per-pound take-out pork carnitas, if you want to enjoy El Cabrito Mexican fare at home. The tender roasted goat meat is also available for take-out, as well as in several dishes made in-house like stewed birria and goat consommé, and prepared in ways from roasted al pastor and oven-baked al horno to en salsa (in sauce). El mejor restaurant en este barrio del Salt Lake! 956 W. 1000 North, 801-363-2645
Julia’s Mexican Restaurant
Julia’s Mexican Restaurant is home to some of the best housemade comida de Mexicana in Utah. While they do serve burritos and enchiladas, much of the fare here is more authentic than the typical “Mexican” restaurants in America that lean more toward Mexican-American hybrid dishes. It might not look much to the average passer-by from the outside, but inside Julia’s is all about the food. The dining room is simple and relaxed with palm trees painted on the walls and Tapatío hot sauce at each table. While ordering is easier to negotiate if you speak Spanish, Maria Julia and company are some of the friendliest, most amicable people, so don’t feel intimidated if language is a barrier.
“¿Cuantos años tienes aquí?” (how many years have you been here?) I asked while I ordered and was met with the answer “Quince,” or 15. That’s a long time, and for good reason: The food at Julia’s is made to order—prepared in a small, homey kitchen in the back. And you can tell the difference. The spices perfectly complement each dish.
One of Julia’s best plates is chile rellenos, though the enchiladas are also excellent, along with the pozole, menudo and various goat dishes. Paired with some housemade rice and beans on the side topped with a healthy dose of cotija cheese and you’re in for one of the best lunches of your life. Julia’s also serves breakfast (desayunos) and early dinner (though be advised that they close at 6 p.m. and payment is strictly cash-only). 51 S. 1000 West, 801-521-4228
There used to an El Salvadoran pupusas restaurant where the vegan Vietnamese restaurant All Chay is now. But it didn’t take long for the new eatery to help transform and uplift the entire neighborhood. The proprietors built a small greenhouse, and, along with some minor rockscaping and gardening in the summer, gave a nice face-lift to the block. Food-wise, All Chay soon became one of the best additions to the west side of town.
The pho, banh mi, crispy “nuggets,” teriyaki “chikun” and vegan shrimp are all fantastic. Never in my life have I enjoyed such excellent tasting faux meat as I have at All Chay. Alternative soy meats have been improving for some time, but these really fooled me. All Chay serves a wide selection of noodle and rice dishes, along with spring rolls and a couple variations of pho and banh mi, all good with just veggies or those appealing alternative meats. Order a coconut water or Vietnamese coffee and enjoy healthy west-side dining. 1264 W. 500 North, 801-521-4789
Chunga’s is officially no longer a secret. The home of the “Famous Taco Al-Pastor” and Cancun-influenced Mexican fare, run by brothers Roberto and Horatio Contreras, seems to get busier and busier every year. And the fame is legit. The term al pastor refers to a combination of pineapple and shawarma-style spit-roasted pork, a cooking technique brought to Mexico in the early 1900s by Lebanese immigrants. The al pastor tacos are great but so are the al pastor burritos, quesadillas and nachos. The chicken enchiladas are also killer, and Chunga’s serves a plethora of fountain sodas and tropical ice beverages that whet any thirst. The setting inside is familiar and simple, but in summer, the patio outside is sublime. 180 S. 900 West, 801-953-1840, chungasmexican.com
Taqueria El Rey De Oros
Just across the street from Chunga’s is the well-established, locals’ favorite Taqueria El Rey de Oros. It’s a sit-down eatery with taco-cart-like cuisine that’s super cheap and offers classic street tacos with the usual toppings of pickled carrots, onions, cilantro, lime and salsa. Taco options like carnitas, lengua, carne asada, cabeza, chicken and al pastor keep loyal customers coming back day in and day out. In addition to tacos, this funky spot also dishes up terrific al pastor burritos, tortas and seafood cocktails, plus cold beer. 175 S. 900 West, 801-322-3176
If you’re in the mood for mole or enchiladas but don’t want to endure a lengthy wait for a table at Red Iguana, try Chile-Tepin, a great new addition to downtown’s west side where a Café Trang used to be. Prices are affordable and the food is excellent. Chile-Tepin has a great vibe with a casual, wide-open dining area, exposed brick interior, big canvasses of art and large windows offering a glimpse of downtown. Enjoy a well-made margarita and the marvelous molcajete while you peruse the other extensive menu offerings. 307 W. 200 South, 801-883-9255, facebook.com/chiletepin
I’m convinced Finca is one of the most distinctive restaurants in Salt Lake City. I can’t think of another restaurant that serves similar Spanish tapas-style fare in such an elegant setting. An excellent date spot, inside, it’s dark and cozy, with subdued lighting, white tablecloths, green-shaded banker’s lamps and snazzy floral wallpaper. The menu is made up of small plates, or tapas, and is divided between pinxtos (small bites), appertivos (appetizers), mariscos (seafood), carne (meat) and vegetales (vegetables). Dishes range from the papas y aioli (fried potatoes) to octopus, honey-glazed carrots, pork belly, shrimp and a large platter of paella Catalana—a dish of rice, chorizo, seafood, lemon and saffron served in a paella pan. In addition, Finca has a large selection of Spanish wines alongside an excellent cocktail menu created by bartender Natalie Hamilton, as well as a very affordable, delicious and wait-less brunch on the weekends. 327 W. 200 South, 801-487-0699, fincaslc.com
Where once there was just the lone coffee shop Blue Copper, now there is neighborhood bar Water Witch, along with recently relocated tapas and wine restaurant Meditrina, upscale mini mart Jade Market and Middle Eastern/Lebanese café Laziz Kitchen. This new western development on 900 South is quickly becoming one of the most delectably dense areas in the city for food and drink. The creation of a trio of Utah’s best bartenders, Water Witch is a funky, fun spot for cocktails, beer and wine, but also offers a terrific menu of bar bites. Tempting noshes include Basque pickled chile peppers called piparras; pork rillette with crostini, cornichons and mustard; sardines; Beltex Meats’ nduja, and cockles in brine. This ain’t your grandpapppy’s tavern. 163 W. 900 South, 801-462-0967, waterwitchbar.com
African Mini Mart and Take Out-Restaurant
There are several African markets on Redwood Road alongside the many tienditas and taco carts that proliferate the west side. The Juba (2350 S. Redwood Road) and The K&K African Market (996 S. Redwood Road) are two worth a visit, but the African Mini Mart and Take Out Restaurant is my go-to African eatery. It’s located in a somewhat odd location, situated between a Standard plumbing warehouse and furniture outlet store, but inside, it’s warm and inviting. African art decorates the walls and a constant stream of Ethiopian music videos resound from a TV. The restaurant is somewhat slow during the day but picks up steadily over the course of the evening, and this eatery has a broader range of food and drink than at Ethiopian-only restaurants. The bread is traditional budenna, rather than Ethiopian injera, though it’s very similar. Simply order the family-style platter and you can’t go wrong. It feeds three or four people easily, and is a combination of spicy beef stew, lentils, beets, beans, onions, hardboiled eggs and colorful sauces and spices spread artfully over the thin, spongey, pancake-like budenna. African Restaurant also has an array of vegetarian options and take-out service. 1878 S. Redwood Road, 801-978-9673, africanrestaurant.org
Uinta Brewhouse Pub
Because of their vast wholesale program throughout Utah and the U.S., a lot of people don’t realize that as Utah’s largest brewery (and No. 39 on the list of largest craft breweries in the U.S.) Uinta Brewing Co. operates its own brewpub in Salt Lake. “We went through a lengthy remodel about a year and a half ago,” says Tanya Sapula, a guest experience manager who’s been with Uinta for more than four years. The pub has a spacious, well-lit, sleek interior, situated right next to one of their 12 outdoor fermentation tanks, which holds hundreds of gallons of craft brew. The Brewhouse features classic pub fare like nachos, chips, wings, burgers, sandwiches and fish and chips, along with a dog-friendly patio and a large indoor seating area with a view of their original 40-gallon-Santa Rosa brewing system. The pub offers a plethora of both seasonal and classic Uinta beers directly from the source. I try the “Brett” beers as Sapula shows me around the place. “They’re made with brettanomyces yeast,” she explains. Uinta currently offers several Brett beers—floral, funky, woody, horsey, (similar to farmhouse ales) with a perfect sour note.
Located in a no-man’s land industrial park between Salt Lake and West Valley off 1700 South, (but conveniently right off Interstate 215), the Brewhouse Pub isn’t exactly a place with lots of foot traffic, but, hey, that’s why we have GPS on our phones. 1722 S. Fremont Drive, 801-467-0909, uintabrewing.com