GUIDE TO THE BEST FOOD AND BREWS IN UTAH
Black Sheep (Provo)
When most people think of the cuisine of the American Southwest, they immediately jump to Mexican. For some reason, the only food north of the border is south-of-the-border. Most people forget that Utah was and is inhabited by Navajo, Ute, Shoshone, and other native peoples, who shaped the culinary landscape of the area for thousands of years before the Europeans arrived with their Tex-Mex.
Luckily, Mark Daniel Mason isn’t most people. His Black Sheep Café in Provo is keeping those native cuisines alive by putting them at the forefront of the menu, integrating the corns, beans, and squash (the “three sisters”) that defined the diets of so many original Americans into the palates of diners trying the flavor combinations for the very first time.
Of course, America is still a nation of immigrants, whether they arrived by boat or ancient land bridge. It would be foolish to pretend those Spaniards (and their Tex-Mex) hadn’t earned a place in our collective gullets as well. Mason makes sure to include them in a natural fashion, whether by fusing the styles and techniques or offering a choice between the two. In that way, Black Sheep Café may just be the best place to go for a comprehensive take on Utah cuisine — past, present, and future.
Squatters Pub Brewery (Salt Lake City)
The cream rises to the top. It’s a good expression, and one equally applied to the best heads on craft beer. Dan Burick would know. The guy is a brewing whiz, having studied at the best brewery school in Munich. Now he’s the brewmaster at Squatters, guiding the tastes and trends of one of the largest and most critically lauded craft breweries in the state.
Head to the main Squatters brewpub in Salt Lake City to see exactly what Burick is up to. You can sample all the tried and true — and all the new — beers they put out, paired with some great upscale Southwest pub fare. Go classic with a plate of Squatters Legendary Buffalo Wings or Roadhouse Nachos, get creative with a Thai Yellow Curry or Jambalaya entree, or scratch all that and take a deep dive into the House Taco options.
Squatters is a good brewery to support; with a motto of “People, planet, profit,” they put social responsibility first, and since being founded in 1989, they’ve spent a huge portion on sustainability. It’s paid off; this year they’re celebrating their 25th anniversary.
Alamexo (Salt Lake City)
A few years ago, there was a humble restaurant known as Zy. By all accounts, it was…decent. You’d go there. You’d eat some good food. But the chef, Matthew Lake, wasn’t necessarily invested in the trends of the cuisine Zy served — instead, he’d won the Best New Chef award in Washington, DC for his work in Mexican, while also cooking at Rosa Mexicana, New York City’s first real upscale Mexican eatery.
Earlier this year, Lake shuttered the doors to Zy, and in an impossible four days, reopened the restaurant as Alamexo, returning to his south-of-the-border roots. And if Zy never quite hit the mark, Alamexo is a sharpshooter. The dining room has been turned into an open space that takes advantage of the communal tradition of Mexican cooking — guacamole made tableside and served in a stone mortar, a focus on side dishes made for sharing. It’s a return to what made Lake passionate about cooking in the first place, and people are taking notice. Alamexo was named Best New Restaurant by Salt Lake Magazine this year, which surely looks like a fitting partner for the Best New Chef award already sitting on Lake’s mantle.
Hearth on 25th (Ogden)
Everything old is new again. Hearth on 25th has been around for over a decade under the name Jasoh, but in 2013 underwent a metamorphosis into the fire-tinged kitchen of its current incarnation. Like Alamexo — which was really following in Hearth’s footsteps, not the other way around — Hearth on 25th was originally a restaurant that got good reviews and had a following. And like Matthew Lake, executive chef Kyle Lore wasn’t happy simply getting good reviews.
In its current form, the restaurant focuses on seasonal cooking and live-fire dishes, having opened the dining room and shifted the focus to the giant central oven. Pizza is a popular item on the menu, but Lore, who has since moved on to other projects, wouldn’t have made the changes if he were happy doing the same dishes being served around the block. He prides himself on serving elk and Himalayan yak to people who find cows a bit outdated.
And like the other Utah farm-fresh establishments on this list, Hearth is devoted to supporting both Utahn farmers and the environment. All the produce in the restaurant is organic and grown hydroponically in-state. Cross Quarter Circle Ranch, where they source most of their meat, is 100% female owned and operated, making it a fairly new idea in terms of what people expect from a ranch. Such new ideas are deftly integrated into each dish, which only serves to reinvigorate every other aspect of the restaurant.
Wasatch Brewpub (Park City)
Remember Dan Burick? He’s the brewmaster of Squatters, and his brewpub in Salt Lake is one of the best places in the state to grab a cold one. But that’s not his only gig. Wasatch is another brewery he leads, in a partnership with Squatters dubbed the Utah Brewers Cooperative. But while he’s the brain behind the beer, there’s another name that needs mentioning — another guy who doesn’t abide by the rules, unless he makes them himself.
Greg Schirf owns the Wasatch Brewpub in Park City, and he’s the reason it’s been able to flourish. Hell, he’s the reason it exists in the first place, and has been going strong for 28 years. Schirf is a rebel in a land of rules, making waves from the moment he arrived and changing the landscape of foamy beverages in Utah. He lobbied for the legalization of brewpubs and Utahn brewing through such irreverent methods as reenacting the Boston Tea Party with beer (complete with 18th-century outfits), and it worked.
Though he’s already won the battle, that irreverence lives on. Try his Evolution Ale (“The fossil record proves one thing: that beer alone is responsible for the evolutionary leap from ape to man”) or Polygamy Porter (“Why have just one?”).
Logan’s Heroes (Logan)
A restaurant doesn’t need a pedigree to be great. It doesn’t need a well-known name manning the grill, it doesn’t need a hundred-year history, and it doesn’t need awards. All a restaurant needs to be great is great food and a little hometown support.
Logan’s Heroes certainly doesn’t have a pedigree. The sandwich shack takes up about the same space as the cars that park next to it. There’s rarely more than one person working at any given time, and they definitely weren’t trained at Le Cordon Bleu. But despite all of that, Logan’s Heroes has become one of the most beloved places in the state — topping Best Restaurant lists that include places that cost ten times as much and have a real dining room.
The sandwiches are great, of course. But the real magic of Logan’s Heroes is the connection it shares with its customers. The staff who know people by name. Those who sing Logan’s accolades are old college graduates craving that college cheapness, parents trying to satisfy their kids, businessmen on their lunch break. A $6 sandwich might be the only food everybody on the planet will enjoy. Or at least, everybody in Logan. The shop has its name for a reason.
Pago (Salt Lake City)
Scott Evans, the owner of Pago, used to be the general manager of the primary Squatters Brewpub. He’s firmly entrenched in the state’s foodie scene, taking experience and connections with him as he moved to opening a more traditional restaurant. But Evans still completely buys into Squatters’ social consciousness, so it makes sense that his solo endeavor would base itself around a farm-to-table ethos, supporting Utahns first and foremost.
The other half of the equation is Phelix Gardner, the executive chef. He wasn’t there from the beginning, and though Pago opened to strong accolades, it was Gardner’s introduction that brought it the real accolades. There isn’t much you can go wrong with on the menu, from the artisan cheese plate and BBQ beet starters to the “surf and turf” pho and absolutely epic burger. They also do a robust weekend brunch (10am-2:30pm, Saturday and Sunday). This is a classy joint, and you’ll eat well no matter when you go.
Uinta Brewing Co (Salt Lake City)
Everything about Uinta Brewing Company is a celebration of the Beehive State. Their Cutthroat Pale Ale, Bristlecone Brown, King’s Peak Porter, and Golden Spike Hefeweizen are named after the state fish, state tree, the highest mountain in the state, and the commemorative completion of the transcontinental railroad (respectively). It would almost be tacky if the beer wasn’t so good. Brewmaster Kevin Ely has won more awards than he can count from critics and, perhaps more importantly, the citizens of Beer Advocate (the largest community beer-rating site on the web) have dubbed them “world class.”
The dedication to the hometown doesn’t end with eponyms. Uinta, named for the northeastern Utah mountain chain, is committed to preserving the landscape it draws from — the company’s breweries and brewpubs are powered 100% by wind and solar. Utah’s got that to spare, so they’ll be pumping out great beer for a long time coming.
J&G Grill (Park City)
When Jean-Georges Vongerichten, world-famous chef and winner of the 2009 James Beard Award (the Oscars of the cooking world), set up shop in Park City, the ski town went predictably mad to try the amazing food. And by all accounts, the project has lived up to the hype — this is a fabulous dining spot.
What you might not know is that, while Jean-Georges founded J&G Grill and put his name on the sign, the person manning the knives in back is usually Shane Baird, the unsung hero of Park City. He and Jean-Georges collaborate often enough, but Baird puts his own signature on the menus he creates, following principles of slow-cooking and farm-to-table freshness with an Asian flair.
If you’re after a truly high-class experience, see if you can score the Chef’s Table, a 10-seater overlooking the Deer Valley ski runs. But every table in the restaurant captures the warmth of the grill, and every patron orders off a menu with such heavy hitters as poulet rouge and beef tenderloin, along with more delicate dishes such as tuna tartare, chilled watermelon gazapacho, Maine mussels, and slow-cooked Shetland salmon.
Sunset Grill (Moab)
Sunset Grill sits atop a cliff overlooking the red rock canyonlands of eastern Utah. Such a prime location didn’t come cheap — the building is the old home of Charlie Steen, the man who put Moab on the map. A down-on-his-luck geologist, Steen discovered uranium in the local bedrock at the height of the Atomic Age, and he relished in the proceeds by purchasing an entire mountain on which to build his dream home — the dream home that would become Sunset Grill.
The Claytons turned the home into a restaurant back in 1993, though the vestiges of Steen’s vision remain. The history of the building is an all-American success story, and the menu reflects that with dishes almost entirely in the American Western style — Texas ribs, Idaho potatoes, chicken and grilled vegetables. But the real highlight will always be the stunning view. The dining room sits in the best part of the building, and with all of Moab before you, you won’t be looking at your plate while you eat.
Epic Brewing Company Tap-less Tap Room (Salt Lake City)
2008 saw the convergence of a multi-talented team in central SLC. Entrepreneurs David Cole and Peter Erickson partnered with head brewer Kevin Crompton to form Epic Brewing Company. And ever since, they’ve been living up to the name by creating exclusively high-alcohol beers, always striving for higher ABVs and taste profiles.
Epic distributes nationally, but the best places to sample these unique brews is from the source: the Epic Tap-less Tap Room, located right at the brewery. Order a simple sandwich or salad, or grab a meat + cheese board for the table, and wash it down with one of Epic’s numerous bottle offerings, which run the gamut from lagers, IPAs, and other classic styles, to more adventurous smoked, imperial, and fruit-infused labels.
The Red Iguana (Salt Lake City)
The Red Iguana isn’t particularly impressive looking. The sign is old and fading, the tablecloths look more like 1950s drapes, and on a quick drive-by it could easily be mistaken for some run-of-the-mill burrito slinger. But the hallmarks of years past exist because the restaurant is old, relatively unchanged since Ramon and Maria Cardenas first opened the doors back in 1985. It’s a Utah institution.
The founders immigrated to America from Chihuahua, Mexico in the ‘60s, setting up in Salt Lake to chase the American dream. That endeavor has grown to include over 150 employees (many of them immigrants themselves), while still keeping the family feel. That’s deliberate. Heritage is important to the Cardenas family — both past and future. Since Maria’s death and Ramon’s retirement, their daughter, Lucy, and her husband have taken over, and under that old and fading sign outside, they still cook the same family recipes passed down from Chihuahua.
People form long-lasting relationships with neighborhood favorite taco shops. At this point, the Red Iguana is as much a part of the Utah landscape as any sandstone arch. So while the Cardenas may try to keep the restaurant family-oriented, their family has grown to include a few million people by now. Their heritage, their legacy, is Utah.