- MIA Empanadas Factory
"Exotic" is not a term normally used to describe Bountiful, Utah. That's especially true when it comes to its dining scene, which, from the freeway, might seem little more than an endless abyss of fast food and franchise eateries.
However, I'm here to testify that it is possible to break the chain of soul-crushing franchise meals. Here's a handful of exotic, interesting and ethnic restaurants worth checking out.
One of my faves isn't exactly a restaurant, per se. It's more of a truck and a tented area for seating—no jacket or tie required. Located at 724 W. 500 South in Bountiful, Tacos El Morro (801-347-3485) dishes up authentic Mexican street-style tacos at prices so low you can probably fund a meal from the change you've dug up from between your couch cushions (and since it's a food truck, be sure to have that cash on hand). They're usually only open from 10:30 a.m. until about 3 p.m. Tacos are four for $5, and include both regular and spicy versions of chicken, beef and pork tacos; the tacos al pastor are the best of the bunch. In addition, Tacos El Morro offers spicy and regular burritos and quesadillas ($4.50 each), plus watermelon and pineapple horchata.
For slightly more upscale Mexican fare, try El Matador (606 S. Main, 801-292-8998). While this pretty, Spanish villa-style restaurant might not win any awards for Mexican authenticity, it is a good spot for rib-sticking Americanized south-of-the-border fare. The various cheese-topped combo plates featuring enchiladas, burritos, tacos, tostadas, rice, beans, etc. ($8.59-$10.99) are filling and popular, if predictable. For something a little more interesting, try the tender, slightly sweet carnitas made of slow-roasted pork loin and served with mango-peach "tango" sauce.
For South American cuisine, it's hard to beat Jose Chu-Jon's MIA Empanadas Factory (571 W. 2600 South, 801-397-5222, EmpanadasFactory.com). Formerly called Lucuma, MIA Empanadas features empanadas and tamales ($4) with housemade Peruvian-style aji dipping sauces such as para los labios aridientes ("for burnin' lips sauce") aji primavera, amor sernano and huancaina. The real draw here, however, is the sweets such as tres leches and pionono cakes, fangipane, tarts (premade or made-to-order), scones, dulce de leche and fabulous flan ($3) in three flavors: original, de queso (cheese) or chocolate. Before heading out the door, treat yourself to a chicha morada, a purple corn drink infused with pineapple and cinnamon.
I wish I was as enthusiastic about Rocoto Peruvian Restaurant (512 W. 750 South, 801-296-5970, ElRocoto.wix.com), a place I'd had high hopes for. It's a drab, not especially inviting place. The menu is extensive—too extensive, in my opinion. Of the 15 appetizers to choose from, I'd probably not venture past the Peruvian-style red tamales made with a choice of shredded chicken or pork and garnished with lime and sweet onions ($4.49).
Instead of wasting time with starters, share the tiradito tricolor ($14.85), which is a sampler plate of three house ceviches: de mixto, de pescado, and de aji. It's a good way to sample ceviche-style fish, shrimp, squid and scallops with a variety of sauces such as limo (lime), rocoto chiles, or amarillo (made with yellow chiles). This was probably the best of many Rocoto dishes we tried, including a sad dish called picante de mariscos ($13.85). It was a large plate—most of the plates and portions at Rocoto are large, huge or ginormous—of stewed potatoes with shrimp, fish, calamari rings and mussels in a bland reddish-yellow broth with a mound of plain white rice. The addition of a large shell-, tail- and head-on prawn made for an attractive presentation, but when I went to peel the shrimp, it disintegrated into mush. Frankly, none of the shellfish tasted very fresh, and while the chicken and beef dishes we tried were massive for what we paid for them, they failed to impress.
Authentic Shanghai cuisine is defined by slow-cooking methods—often gently-braised foods—as opposed to the hot wok flash-frying we're used to in Chinese restaurants. Well, imagine my surprise at finding bona fide Shanghai fare at Boba World (512 W. 750 South, 801-298-3626). Sure, you can get your fill of cream-cheese wontons ($4.25), ham-fried rice ($8.25) and kung pao chicken ($7.95)—not that there's anything wrong with that. But, what you really want is to tuck in to flavorful dishes like the scrumptious steamed-pork-stuffed dumplings ($7.50 for eight), fragrant leek soup with tofu ($5.95), tender flaky fish fillets with black bean sauce ($11) and, of course, the "Chewing Drinks" (so says the menu) that the restaurant is named for. Boba World offers a vast array of boba drinks—aka bubble tea or pearl milk tea—ranging from common flavors such as strawberry, chocolate and mocha, to those a bit more uncommon: taro, passion fruit, green tea, coconut and almond ($3.50/small, $4.50/large).
For some of the best Indian food in Utah, you'll need to make a trip to Royal India in Bountiful (55 N. Main, 801-292-1835, RoyalIndiaUtah.com) or its Sandy sister location. Indian restaurants may come and go, but this mainstay has been among my favorites for years. The Shanthakumar family, who owns and operate Royal India, provides warm and inviting ambiance and service along with outstanding dishes such as aromatic lamb biryani, spinach-and-cream-based shrimp saag, great curry, masalas, kormas and vindaloos, along with the best naan I've ever eaten: peshwari naan, tandoor-baked and stuffed with cashews, raisins and coconut.
I'll mention a few other hall-of-fame Bountiful eateries (not all especially exotic) here—only briefly, because I've written plenty about them in the past: Mandarin, Vito's, Plates & Palates, Mo' Bettah Steaks, Joy Luck and Ho Ho Gourmet. So, get thee to Davis County.