Cooking in a strange kitchen can be tough enough. Cooking in a strange kitchen for nearly 20 people with Turkey Day on the line can be maddening. The kitchen itself was huge. There was enough counter space for the entire Kitchen Aid line of small appliances — and maybe even a couple Cuisinarts. Yet, the stovetop couldn’t fit two 10″ skillets next to each other and the oven was a low-profile model from the ’80s that couldn’t swallow a sheet pan. Not only was the stovetop small, but the burners took the temperature settings as a suggestion, sometimes fully red at only 5 or 6. The knives were Ginsus and looked like the owners took the can-cutting demonstrations seriously. The pans were Wal-Mart specials, the pots warped on the bottom, and the cutting boards wobbly and about the size of a postcard.
Luckily I had brought my knives. Wherever I know I’ll be cooking, I take my knives. My Wustoff santoku is light, sharp, and small enough to be quite versatile. However, combined with a wobbly cutting board, it proved to be quite dangerous as well. Cutting the ends off clusters of garlic cloves for roasting, the uneven board wobbled, the knife slipped, and my middle finger caught it, the blade quickly embedding.
It was a nice bleeder and took a half hour to stop. I’ve had stitches many times in my life and this was a good candidate, but I didn’t have time to go to the ER. I was cooking for a dozen and a half hungry people. So after 8 hours in that ruthless kitchen, producing a 16 lb turkey, an 8 lb bone-in turkey breast, 20 lbs of mashed potatoes, 10 lbs of roasted yams with caramelized onions, 2 9×13 pans of stuffing, a gallon or two of blue cheese and pear Waldorf salad, etc, etc, I had earned a little payback. A reward. I told my wife so, and she knew exactly what would make me feel better, relieve my stress, relax and satisfy me.
No, not that! I’ve been married nine years. I’m talking about food. I had two restaurants I wanted to visit while in Salt Lake making merry with my wife’s family: Crown Burgers and The Red Iguana.
Crown Burgers was my reward after driving for 12 hours on the eve of Thanksgiving. In college, there was a burger and sandwich shop run by a Pakistani family called Royal Burger. Their fries were perfect. Their grilled cheese was perfect. Their club sandwich was perfect. Their reuben was perfect. Great stuff. Living a quarter of a mile away for a year helped me top 300 lbs in college. The jewel of their sandwich crown was the Royal Burger Special, a quarter-pound flame broiled burger with cheese and a pile of pastrami.
It’s like peanut butter and chocolate. Two great things on their own, even better when combined. When some guy brags, “I just ate a heart-attack in a bun,” I can look at him and sigh, “Son, let me tell you about the Royal Burger Special.”
Alas, all good things come to an end and the Pakistanis closed up shop after I left college (maybe from the loss of revenue) and I nearly wept the last time I was in town and drove by the store. My hopes of having another pastrami burger had shrivelled like fries left under the heat lamps too long. But then, my college eating buddy, Scott, told me of a city on a hill where all burgers come with pastrami. Where was this Zion? Salt Lake City, of course.
Royal Burger, apparently, was a knock-off of a Salt Lake chain, Crown Burgers. So, they were my first stop for a bite in SLC. Instead of Pakistanis, it was run by Mexicans. Some of the menu items had different names, but most of the things I remembered at Royal Burger were there — even the gyros. I ordered a Crown Burger and my wife ordered a Junior Crown Burger. We split some fries. It’s been too long to truly make a comparison, but the monstrosity was definitely in the ballpark. The meat was nicely grilled with a hearty char flavor and covered in melted cheese. The pastrami was piled thick and spilling out of the sesame seed bun. It’s a big, lovely mess that tasted fantastic. The fries were cooked perfectly: crispy, no burnt ends, adequately salted, and no lingering off aftertaste.
(btw, Carl’s Jr. has recently announced a pastrami burger and referenced Crown Burgers in their press release as a source of inspiration.) See here.)
My reward for slaving over a hot stove on Turkey Day was The Red Iguana. Mexican food, especially regional and traditional Mexican food, is one of my passions. (Again, I’ve been married for nine years.) The Red Iguana is consistently recommended as “best Mexican” on sites like Chowhound, Roadfood, and eGullet. The menu has many Tex-Mex standards like nachos and fajitas, Southwest style burritos and chimichangas, plus the favorite of the mountain states, chile verde. But it goes far beyond those regional favorites and the ubiquitous combo platters.
The menu lists seven moles, proclaiming them a “gastronomical monument”: mole amarillo, an habanero and guajillo mole — one of their most picante; mole coloradito, a red mole with guajillos and pasillas; mole poblano, the original chocolate mole with three kinds of nuts; mole verde, an herbacious mole thickened with green pumpkin seeds; mole negro, a dark and earthy mole with chiles mulatos and fennel seeds; red pipian, a chile and pumpkin seed sauce; and the mole de almendras, an almond mole with poblano and guajillo chiles served over a loin of pork stuffed with dried fruit. Most of these come served with chicken or turkey, but you can also order enchiladas in several of the moles. Other specialty items include cochinita pibil, chilaquiles, machaca, and papadzules. Papadzules are corn tortillas dipped in mole verde and filled with pipian, hard boiled egg, and onion, and then topped with a tomato salsa — a rare dish in the states originating in the Yucatan.
My wife organized a gang of seven and we all ordered different dishes. I ordered the mole amarillo. Others ordered the mole verde, enchiladas poblanas, enmoladas, enchiladas potosinas, carne asada ala tampiquena, and vegetarian killer nachos. We were served free chips and salsa and the chips were crisp with a nice flavor, even if they were the yellow corn variety that I don’t prefer. The salsa had a nice intensity with a lingering bite and strong tomato and garlic flavor. Very Tex-Mex/Cal-Mex, but good.
The mole amarillo was fruity and fiery and came with a choice of flour or corn tortillas (not made in-house), beans, and rice. The mole was garnished with a caramelized plaintain that my wife quickly claimed. The mole verde had a noticeable pumpkin seed flavor but without the bitter taste of poorly executed pipian dishes. It was also fragrant and vegetal and came with the same sides as the mole amarillo.
The mole poblano reminded me more of a mole rojo. It was lighter and less complex and not noticeably chocolatey. It was still tasty, however. The enmoladas, folded triangles of corn tortillas drenched in mole negro and topped with pickled onions, were much closer to the mole poblano that I think of, but even a bit darker and earthier. The menu description for the mole negro doesn’t mention chocolate, but it had that character.
Potosinas are a dish I’ve never had before. The menu describes them as masa filled with queso ranchero and pan-fried, then topped with cheese. But each potosina is quite red, suggesting that perhaps the masa is mixed with a chile sauce or dipped in a chile sauce before frying. My wife, who ordered them, found the texture too stiff. They didn’t seem like the street-style enchiladas which are dipped then fried. They seemed more like dense tamales. The guacamole that came with it had a surprising kick that snuck up on you after a few bites.
The carne asada and nachos were the most typical dishes of the night, but not of typical quality. The steak for the carne asada was cooked until crusty and caramelly outside, but juicy and tender inside. It was served with guacamole, beans, and an enchilada. I had a bite of the steak and it was quite good for an $11 steak. The nachos were piled high, covered in cheese, beans, olives, jalapenos, pico de gallo, and sour cream without being soggy.
All dishes were good to very good. The moles may be a little sweet and somewhat less complex on average than they could be, but certainly a far cry from being mediocre. I think they would hold their own with most moles I’ve had in the United States. The chicken in the dishes was very tender and still moist. I would love to try every mole on the menu and all the specialty items, especially the lomo de puerco en mole almendras and papadzules. The menu really is the star here, but the execution lives up to the menu.
Prices and decor are in line with most Mexican-American restaurants. Specialties, except their parillada with lobster, tuna, and other expensive seafood, do not exceed $12. Combo platters and standards like fajitas and chile verde are $10 or under. Enchiladas are less than $7.
The decor is simple. Walls are brightly colored. The chairs and tables are cafe quality. The velvet painting with backlit stained glass windows, however, gave us something to play with while we waited for our food.
The restaurant can get quite busy, as people online warned. It was only six-thirty when we arrived and the line was out the door. Despite that, our large party only waited about 15 minutes. And it was Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, a day when a lot of people are out shopping and eating.
As should be obvious, I really enjoyed this restaurant. There’s also a Blue Iguana with nearly an identical menu that I would like to try. It was formerly a joint venture with Red Iguana. The one dish the Blue Iguana has that the Red Iguana doesn’t that I’d like to try is the tinga, one of my favorites.
On our way out of town on Saturday, we decided to give Hires Big H a try. Hires is a throwback to the ’50s, a drive-in where car hops still serve you in the parking lot, a giant menu standing atop the building. Just leave your lights on for service. Crown Burgers and Hires Big H are the two burger joints consistently recommended in SLC, so it seemed like a good choice for comparison.
We dined inside. They provide limited table service, closer to a Denny’s than a McDonald’s. The menu has a variety of specialty burgers and everything can be ordered as a double. They have fresh-cut fries, which you can get ordered as cheese or cheese and chili fries. There’s also an extensive collection of diner sandwiches, like reubens, grilled cheese, BLTs, and clubs. They even have soups and salads. Of course, it’s Hires, so they have root beer and floats served in frosty mugs.
I ordered the Pastrami H, their basic pastrami burger. My wife ordered a Veggie H, their basic veggie burger with cheese. You can also get them topped with onion rings, grilled onions, or grilled mushrooms. We also got a mug of rootbeer and a side of fries.
The pastrami burger was a dainty thing compared with the meat-fest at Crown. While being about the same price as a Crown Burger, I’d need two to fill up. However, the pastrami was leaner and the hamburger high quality. They grind their meat daily and it shows. While not char-broiled (the way I prefer my burgers), it was crusty while still being juicy.
My wife’s veggie-burger was pleasant enough for what it was. She enjoyed it. It’s no real substitute for a piece of meat, but if you like the ingredients (carrots, broccoli, onions, green peppers, celery, mushrooms, and a googleplex of grains), you’ll probably like the PETA-friendly patty.
Both burgers come on buns baked daily. They have the slightly irregular shape and soft texture of fresh bread, unlike the frozen, mass-produced burger wraps you find in most fast food joints. I do prefer sesame seed buns that are well-toasted, but Hires has nice buns, nonetheless. The fries were okay. They were a nice size and looked well-browned. But they weren’t as crispy as either me or my wife would choose.
Hires clearly makes a quality product. But given the choice, being an American male raised on buffets and the belief that bigger is always better, I would tend towards Crown. The messy monstrosity of the Crown Burger, char-broiled, with perfect fries trump the ultra-fresh product that Hires sells. But I think it rests on personal preference.
On our way to Salt Lake, we stopped in Boise for lunch. We had heard that the Basque Block was a fun little part of town where we could get a tasty bite. The term “block” is accurate. That’s all there is, one street, a block long, Basque-oriented places on each side. There’s a museum, a couple pubs, and a market in some seemingly historic buildings.
We went to Gernika, the place that most looked like a restaurant. Boy, was that a mistake. It had basics like croquetas, chorizo, and solomo with pimientos, plus standard pub grub. On Saturdays they serve beef tongue. I ordered a half sandwich of the chorizo and a half of the solomo. My wife got the chicken and chorizo paella. Ugh. I would have rather spent my money at most chains — Olive Garden, Chilis, Red Robin, you name it. Prices weren’t bad, but the quality was. The rolls for the sandwiches were worse than most rolls you get at a Safeway. You’d be much better off with a supermarket’s “artisan” baguette. The paella was barely a step up from Rice-a-Roni. The chorizo in it was terrible. (Though, the chorizo in my sandwich wasn’t bad.) Even the water tasted funky. And the place is a bit of a dive.
There is a place called Epi’s that I’ve read about, but never saw. It sounds much nicer. But for about the same price as Gernika, we could have gone across the street to The Basque Market where they cook up quality Basque dishes. Sure, many are the same sandwiches and croquetas that Gernika is serving, except they’re using aged imported cheeses and chorizos and salt cod. The market also caters and sells gourmet chocolates, snacks, and groceries, including the same meats and cheeses they use in their food. They had three Manchegos of different ages and several chorizos, among other Spanish deli choices. We purchased a wedge of a 1 year Manchego and a quarter pound of sliced hard chorizo to replace the Gernika aftertaste. That snack was much better than the lunch at Gernika.
Coming back from Salt Lake, we ate dinner in La Grande, Oregon. My uncle used to live there, but I don’t know the town well and have no familiarity with its restaurant options. My wife was in her holiday pajamas, so we passed by Foley Station, even though it looked like a quality option. Instead, we drove through Nells-N-Out for a “steakburger”. My wife ordered the fish and chips and I got a hamburger. The fish was greasy with an occasional off flavor. The fries were okay at first, but as they cooled, which happened quickly, their nasty oil aftertaste became overwhelming. My hamburger was just blah. The meat was dry and the flavor dominated by pickles.
I didn’t want to leave with that flavor in my mouth, so we went to a nearby Mexican restaurant, Cinco de Mayo, that looked like it might have take-out. I thought I could get some tacos or other snacky items to go. It was more of a restaurant than a taqueria, but they did have take-out. The menu was typical Mexican-American fare. I decided on beef nachos and got my wife an apple “chimichanga”. The nachos were a gooey mess, the chips soggy. But the shredded beef was well-seasoned, moist, and tender. It reminded me of the pot roast meat my dad would season the next day for enchiladas and tacos. The “chimichanga” seemed baked rather than fried, not having that nice, crispy, puffy exterior. The apple filling was adequate, but it really wasn’t worth eating and my wife didn’t finish it.
In the future, maybe I’ll try Foley Station or just pass on through La Grande. You would think that a town with a university, even a small one, would have at least a couple interesting food options. The most promising cheap eats look to be Mexican, but I didn’t see any true taquerias. Oh well, Pendelton and Baker City are aching to be explored and I know Pendelton at least has a good taco truck.