There are numerous reasons people buy property on, or retire to, B.C.’s west coast. It rarely snows, a big consideration for winter-enslaved Canadians who have ruined their backs shoveling sidewalks six months a year. An oceanside view is generally no more than a saunter away. And for food lovers, fruits and vegetables not only ripen much sooner than on the windswept prairies (think mid-July) but are generally so superior you’d gladly forsake the local farmers’ market back home.
A sure sign you’re culinary funky is the ubiquitous presence of the bleached-hair god, Guy Fieri, ruler of the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Well, when some 10 Salt Lake City eateries have appeared on the show (plus endless reruns), you know you’ve arrived on the road-trip food map.
An appearance on Triple D can easily double the turnout of diners, leading to long lines, the bane of road trippers. But with a bit of careful planning, I’m mostly able to slide right into three Salt Lake City restaurants that have graced DDD.
Does it count that I ate at *Lone Star Taqueria a good decade ago, before it became discovered by the outside world? Didn’t think so. Back then, it was an insider hotspot, recommended to us by a local backcountry skier we met while making powder turns in the nearby Cottonwood Canyon mountains. It was certainly funky, a brightly painted old drive-in with a decorated junker out front and cold beer served in cowboy-boot shaped glasses. And the fish tacos…. oh, my. There certainly wasn’t anything like that back in Canada.
So I’m curious to see what it’s like now. I’m delighted to report it’s still dishing out great tacos and monster burritos ($7.69), with only one guy at the counter in front of me at 11 am. It’s still also laid-back quirky: cowboy boots on the fence posts, little metal tables and lots of natural lighting.
My pescada tacos ($3.49 per) are loaded with grilled fish, shredded cabbage and jalapeño mayo, the double corn tortillas needed to keep everything intact. On a side table are four bottles of house-made salsa to add more flavour and heat, if desired. On my way out the door, I pick up a little bag of their addictive, crispy tortilla chips to munch on during the long drive north to Canada.
Lone Star Taqueria
2265 East Fort Union Blvd, Salt Lake City
Monday to Thursday 11 am-9 pm, Friday-Saturday 11 am-10 pm. Closed Sunday
Oh Mai Vietnamese Sandwich Kitchen was recently featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, so cue the lineups. But when I walk in at the strategic opening hour of 10 am, I’m the first customer, and they’re still getting set up for the lunch-hour rush.
Having already watched the dish being made on TV, I immediately know what kind of banh mi (Vietnamese sub-style sandwich) I want: garlic butter ribeye steak on a toasted eight-inch baguette. It’s an unusual combination, the tender meat enhanced by the crunch of house-made pickled carrots and a flavourful black pepper onion vinaigrette. I must say it’s one of the best Vietnamese subs I’ve had and a hefty bargain at $5.68.
Oh Mai Vietnamese Sancwich Kitchen
3425 South State Street, Salt Lake City
Monday to Saturday 10 am-9 pm. Closed Sunday
After a very short wait on an outside stool at *Red Iguana, I’m beckoned by host Mitch: “Grandfather always said: Time to eat!” But what to eat? I’m here for the signature Mexican moles (all $16), but there’s no fewer than seven styles to choose from. No problem.
My server, Jesus, simply brings me a little plate with samples of all the rich, complex sauces to try. After careful deliberation, I go for the mole negro—featuring chile mulato, negro pasilla, raisins, walnuts, bananas and, of course, Mexican chocolate. During the scant minutes before the main event arrives, I scoop up the sampler vestiges with the complimentary tortilla chips. Who needs salsa?
The mole negro is a heaping plate of brown deliciousness over turkey, packing enough heat to start my lips a tingling and my brow perspiring. I scoop up the remaining sauce with warm corn tortillas, scarcely touching the accompanying rice and beans. Believe me, you won’t go hungry here.
The consistently fine food is one thing. The atmosphere is another: vibrant walls of orange and green in the rabbit’s warren of rooms, the outgoing, casually efficient staff, the families with wailing infants, just discernible above the happy din of people having a good time.
There’s a reason this place is usually humming. The Cardenas family has been doing it right for three decades, long before there was a Food Network.
736 West North Temple (two other Salt Lake City locations)
Opens 11 am weekdays, 10 am weekends
Finally, here’s a Salt Lake City place you won’t likely find on TV, or on the Internet for that matter. But local cognoscenti can steer you to this one-of-a-kind Mexican joint.
Tired of the typical taco stand or truck? Just drive on down to Victor’s for something truly unique: a tire shop (“no credit check”) that doubles as a Mexican restaurant.
I can’t say I’ve ever ordered tamales in a room rimmed (another bad pun) with gleaming hubcaps. If you’re waiting for wheel work, you can sit in the small, attached restaurant and enjoy some fine, inexpensive pork skin tacos, Milanesa tortas (a breaded steak sandwich), genuine horchata drinks or green salsa pork tamales, the latter at $1.50 a pop. But seeing as how this business is dedicated to tires, I think I’ll take my meal to go.
After eating a tofu scramble in Salt Lake City the day before, I’m ready for some real eggs and bacon, better yet piled between two pancakes. At *Penny Ann’s Cafe, they’re called “Heavenly Hotcakes”, with good reason. Yes, they’re platter big but fluffy and flavourful, thanks to the use of sour cream in the scratch-made batter. So good that even after I’m full and the remains have cooled, I can’t help nibbling. Though I must draw the line when I’m offered a slice of one of the many pies baked in the kitchen each day.
Penny Ann’s is a cozy, friendly place, with more than half a dozen family members, over three generations, running the place; it’s named after the middle sister. “We weren’t popular in school, but we sure are now,” says another smiling sister, Cindy, noting they’re planning to open a second location to accommodate the demand.
Penny Ann’s Cafe
1810 South Main Street, Salt Lake City
Weekdays 7 am-3 pm, weekends 7 am-2 pm
It’s only a block south to my next meal, at *Grove Market, where the fresh Ambassador rolls are mercifully a little late arriving, giving me a few extra minutes of digestion. I’m here for their famous sandwiches, or should I say small loaves of bread stuffed, and I mean stuffed, with meats. Consider the Big John, a combo of ham, turkey, roast beef, pastrami, corned beef, salami and bologna (am I possibly missing any deli meats?), along with Swiss and American cheese and a long list of fixings.
“How much does it weigh?” I warily ask my assembler. “Oh, about a pound,” he says, straight faced. Right. I order half a Big John ($7), sans bologna, and sit back to watch the laying on of meats. After a flurry of activity, he hands me the wrapped sandwich, which I immediately place on a professional scale. It’s just shy of 1-3/4 pounds. One-and-three-quarter freaking pounds for half a sandwich. That’s almost the weight of a litre bottle of water.
Needless to say, it’s delicious, though I can’t spot a famished family to share it with. “Call your cardiologist,” someone wrote in an online review. I believe he’s on standby.
It might be time to correct some misconceptions about Salt Lake City. Yes, it’s still a Mormon stronghold, though that grip is weakening, given only half the residents are practitioners of the faith. The weekend I visit coincides with a massive pride festival, in part celebrating a landmark court ruling that allows same-sex marriage in Utah; the decision is being appealed. There’s also great coffee and beer being brewed here, and poured down non-Mormon throats, plus more good taco shops than you can throw a sombrero at. One sure sign Salt Lake City has come of culinary age is the presence, in the city’s south, of a funky vegetarian cafe. Vertical Diner is in a casual, slightly grungy space, with stucco walls, old cement floors and a pulsing, industrial soundtrack.
My plant-based breakfast is La Mesa, a bountiful, colourful plate of hash browns, black beans and rice, melted cheese, guacamole and, a first for me, a tofu scramble. The fact the food is on my table by the time I return from a bathroom freshening indicates the tofu isn’t quite “scrambled” to order, but it’s nonetheless a nicely spiced and textured dish. Good enough that I might forsake eggs and bacon, well at least for a couple of days.
If a vegan breakfast seems a step too far, you can always order pancakes, which start at a bargain $1.75 each (a buck more if fruit is included). Of course, they can also come gluten free. Vertical Diner 2280 South West Temple, Salt Lake City Weekdays 10 am-10 pm, weekends 9 am-10 pm Continuing the vegan theme, the Barbacoa Burrito at Buds is highly recommended. Unfortunately, the little sandwich place is closed for renovations during my visit. Next time. Buds 509 East 300 South, Salt Lake City Monday to Saturday 11 am-5 pm. Closed Sunday
Here are seven words I wasn’t expecting to hear in a Canadian restaurant: “How would you like your burger cooked?”
You see, burgers up north are generally cooked till the critter is well and truly dead, devoid of the flowing juices one expects of another cattle product, namely a steak. It’s something to do with health regulations and fears of nasty e coli outbreaks.
Truly, I understand being on the safe side. But that hasn’t stopped many U.S. restaurants from offering flavourful medium-rare pucks, without accompanying trips to emergency.
Apparently, a way around these Canadian regulations is to freshly grind the meat in house and scrupulously clean the equipment used to do so. This allows National, a restaurant/pub with three locations in Calgary, to grind its chuck steak into burger meat and ask customers how they want it cooked.
I’d heard The National could be hit-and-miss about producing medium-rare burgers. But mine is perfectly tinged pink in the middle and all the more succulent for it. I add some American cheese and a runny egg, but really, this is a burger on a brioche bun that doesn’t need dolling up.
You can get your burger with a side of what I’m sure are perfectly good fries. But just go for a sizable bowl of excellent salad, whether it’s arugula, pear and walnut or quinoa and bacon. If a burger’s not your thing, the open-faced short rib and oxtail ragu sandwich is also first rate.
National has an impressive 60 beers on tap, though at a rather pricy $8.50 a 20-ounce pint ($5 during weekday happy hour, 3-5 pm). But hey, this is Calgary, so the $15 tab for an unadorned burger is not surprising. And maybe worth it for one of the best in town.
The latest National outlet is in a bright, former Blockbuster video store in the West Hills shopping mall, with lots of windows, an expansive patio and shared, picnic-style tables.
180 Stewart Green SW, (and two other Calgary locations)
Weekdays 11 am-late, weekend 10 am to late
What are your favourite Calgary burger joints? Just hit the reply button at the top left of the page.
In many resort towns, the help tends to be young, transient and somewhat unreliable. But at Running Bear Pancake House, in West Yellowstone at the western entrance to Yellowstone National Park, the waitresses are certainly experienced, efficiently handling two spacious rooms full of tourists while maintaining a relaxed banter with the customers.
“Looks like you got a bit of sunburn on your neck,” says one to a blistered eater. “Boy that looks good, hon. Would you like some more steaming coffee, and should I pour out what’s left in your cup?”
This is not to say they don’t work hard. My server says they wore pedometers one summer and discovered they walked nine miles a day waiting tables.
Given it’s a pancake house, I follow the theme, albeit with a twist. My pancake sandwich ($8.75) features two voluminous, somewhat gummy cakes swallowing three strips of bacon and topped with an over-easy egg in lieu of syrup. Nothing fancy, just a basic breakfast in a comfy setting. With all those carbs roiling around my stomach, I need to look for a nine-mile hike.
Running Bear Pancake House
538 Madison Avenue, West Yellowstone, Montana
Daily 6:30 am-2 pm and 5 pm-9 pm
In an old-fashioned tourist town like West Yellowstone, it’s nice to see a fairly new trend. I’m talking about the taco truck. Sure, it’s a take on the ages-old Mexican taco stand. But it offers something the road tripper in me loves: cheap, casual, good food, usually family run.
Taqueria Las Palmitas certainly meets all these criteria. The four-year-old seasonal business serves up paper plates full of tasty burritos, enchiladas, quesadillas and the like to customers who retreat to a handful of picnic tables. My three double-shelled tacos (asada/steak, carnitas/fried pork and pastor/spicy pork), doused with a pungent salsa, hit the spot, for less than $5.
But it’s the family aspect that blows me away. Yes, owner Carlos has family helping run the place. But when I mention a very similar-looking taco bus in Dillon, Montana, he says, “That’s my brother’s.”
“So, who’s the better cook?”
“I am. But he’d probably say he is.”
I’d say you can’t go wrong either way.