- Adam Finkle
Since its opening in 2014, Matthew Lake's Alamexo Mexican Kitchen has been a standout Salt Lake City restaurant serving authentic, refined regional Mexican fare. Although it's far from formal, Lake has desired for some time to open a more casual, no-reservations-required eatery offering the same top-notch cuisine, but in a cantina-type atmosphere. Hence, the recent opening of the Alamexo Cantina.
Food here is served family-style—with all dishes arriving simultaneously—rather than in the more classical style of appetizer, salad, entrée, etc. Lake wants to give customers the experience of dining the way they would "in a Mexican market café," he says. Service is first-come, first-served.
Whether you pop in for a margarita and botanas (appetizers) or a full meal, you'll really love what Lake and his team have done with the place. A feature wall on the east side of the cantina is beautiful in its simplicity: recessed sections for candles, which Lake jokingly says look like cat-sized mausoleums; food photography by local artist Adam Finkle; an airy, colorful interior that completely opens out onto the neon-lit terrace in warm weather via retractable glass walls that completely disappear when opened. The eatery offers views of the 9th & 9th neighborhood as well as the Oquirrh Mountains. Artist Harry Baldwin painted a mural behind the bar depicting the iconic Espolón Blanco tequila label.
If $11.95 seems steep for guacamole, know that you're paying in part for performance. It's created fresh at your tableside from ripe Haas avocados, tomato, onion, cilantro and jalapeño. In fairness, prices for the luscious fruit have recently soared; I paid $3 for a single avocado two weeks ago. By contrast, a trio of enchiladas seems like a steal at $15.95 (more on those later). And, hearty corn chips—specially made for Alamexo by La Flor with quinoa and flax seed for added flavor and texture—are served gratis with an outstanding table salsa of roasted tomatoes, chiles and jalapeños. Lake's attention to detail led him to try hundreds of tortilla chip brands before finally deciding to have them custom-made to his specifications.
I'm not a huge flauta fan, since the stuffed-and-fried flute-shaped entrée can be greasy and heavy. That's not the case with the delectable flautas con papas y chorizo here ($7.25)—a serving of two corn tortilla flautas stuffed with high-quality, lean homemade chorizo and potato, topped with a rich guajillo salsa, lettuce, crema and jalapeño slices. A second excellent choice is the tlacoyo with green chile sauce, crumbled Oaxaca cheese, lettuce, cilantro, cascabel chile salsa, fresh cilantro and thin radish slices ($7.25).
Now, forget what you know about enchiladas if you're thinking of the standard soggy corn tortillas stuffed with cheese, topped with red or green canned sauce and melted cheddar. That's not what's happening here. While some of these enchiladas look like classic examples, others are served in more of an open-face style, and all are outstanding. It's hard to choose between pork carnitas ones stuffed with wild mushrooms and Oaxaca cheese, or the barbecued short rib enchiladas with Poblano rajas. But if forced, I'd opt for the pollo con pipian verde. This is a gorgeous trio of enchiladas served in a cast-iron skillet, stuffed with shredded chicken and smothered in an avocado-colored green chile and pumpkin seed salsa. It's a delightful dish.
Where the downtown Alamexo is known for sending customers on their way with hot, free after-meal cinnamon-sugar churros, at the cantina you'll be given buñuelos—fried dough fritters drizzled with local honey—which will cement your already desperate longing to return ASAP.