Food opens doors. There is something about breaking bread with people that also breaks down barriers. Sharing food with one another gets at the very heart of what makes us human: kindness, creativity, generosity, and the ability to communicate, even when we can’t speak the language.
Over the years, I’ve had the good fortune to be able to dine with families all over the world, even though I often could only dabble in the languages of my hosts. In Brazil, I was treated to steaming hot feijoada at a New Year’s feast in Salvador. In Japan, the mother of the boy who delivered newspapers to my family cooked a pot of udon that I long for even today. I’ve gathered with families around wood-stoked fires in Spain for paella and in Mexico for barbecued goat. In Labrador, I fished for smelt with the patriarch of an Indian family and learned the art of grilling and the value of a simple but necessary dusting of cornmeal.
It’s quite possible to become a culinary globe-trotter right here at home. Have you ever eaten cam tam chao tom? What about sfiha? Ever washed down a delicious taco de lengua with a cold Negra Modelo or aloo paneer with a mango lassi? You could do all of those things this very night, in this very city. From Pakistani and Middle Eastern restaurants to Vietnamese and authentic Mexican eateries, diverse dining is easy to find, even in Utah. Here are a few suggestions to get you started.
Culturally speaking, the least exotic descent into diversity here at home is probably via Mexican food. But there is a wide range of it out there, from the sizzling fajita platters aimed at gringos to taquerias where not a word of English is spoken. If you desire a true taste of Mexico, look no further than the street vendors selling authentic tacos for pocket change from their carts on and around lower State Street. This is the way Mexicans eat tacos: standing up. Looking for a slightly more gentile environment? Try Taqueria Piedras Negras, Taqueria El Rey De Oros, or Tacos Daniel, where the birria goat meat tacos are extra special alongside a steaming bowl of menudo on a Saturday morning. For great Mexican food that’s really off the beaten path, try the bistec ranchero at Las Jaibas Restaurant in Pleasant Grove.
For those with even the most Americanized taste buds, Middle Eastern food is very approachable. And I’ve never found anything that comes close to the hospitality and generosity offered in a typical Middle Eastern home. That same brand of hospitality and friendliness can be found at restaurants like Mazza, Baba Afghan and Kabul West. Just ask Mazza’s congenial owner, Ali Sabbah, what’s freshest on his menu and he’ll be happy to steer you toward yummy Middle Eastern dishes like his pine nut-topped mini-pizzas called sfiha, or perhaps the delicious kafta kabobs or falafel. Out in Sandy, the lamb at Kabul West is killer, but save room for the wonderful Afghani pastry called gosh feel (elephant ears), with just a touch of cardamom and dusted with confectioner’s sugar. Even the kids will go gaga over those elephant ears. Downtown at Baba Afghan, I love to indulge in aushak, which are small, plump “raviolis” filled with sautéed leeks, ground beef and mint, and topped with a garlicky yogurt sauce. As with Kabul West and Mazza, the service at Baba Afghan is kind and caring.
For Vietnamese cuisine, Café Trang’s restaurants and East-West Connection are popular with City Weekly readers and good choices for Vietnamese fare in upscale settings where the servers speak English. But the truly adventurous might want to head out to the “Little Saigon” area of Redwood Road and about 3500 South, where there are a plethora of truly authentic Vietnamese restaurants and nightclubs. The best prices are to be found at Pho 99, where dishes like shrimp with lemongrass sell for a mere $4.50. There’s very little on Pho 99’s menu priced over five bucks, which means you can afford to experiment with unfamiliar dishes with little economic risk.
Even so, I tend to favor East Sea Restaurant just north of Pho 99 on Redwood Road, which specializes in Vietnamese and Chinese dishes. It’s a gargantuan place, looking more like a brightly colored Elks Club than a restaurant, with a bandstand in the back that’s larger than some restaurants. I especially like the vermicelli rice noodle dishes called bun. But the shrimp with bean curd and pho tai bo vien (rare beef and meatball soup) are also terrific. Since East Sea serves both Chinese and Vietnamese dishes, it’s a good “starter” restaurant for those not quite certain they want to make the culinary leap from China to Vietnam. For anyone ready for that leap, you won’t find better Vietnamese cooking in Utah than at Com Tam Bolsa Vietnamese Restaurant on 3500 South. Be certain to try one of their many savory homemade soups, with lemongrass-scented broth and topped with fresh coriander and bean sprouts. Then top off the evening with karaoke, coffee and pool over at Café Bon Phuong.
There are lots more places to discover dining diversity in and around Salt Lake City—from Little World, Shogun and Royal India to Shambala, Pho Anh Dao and Mekong Thai Café. There’s a world of fresh flavors and culinary surprises awaiting the adventurous, and many of them can be found right here in our own backyard. So get out there and dish up some diversity!