If you’re poor enough, and hungry enough, to eat your mother’s prize-winning three-foot-long zucchini, don’t do it. You’re better off spending your last 10 bucks on a fabulous meal. Just because you go out doesn’t mean you have to spend bank for a quality meal. Here are some of Salt Lake’s finest locally owned and operated eateries whose chefs wax gourmet. You never would have guessed.
Habla español? Es muy necesario en El Viroleño Restaurante—especializando en comida Salvadoreña. (Gringo translation: specializing in Salvadorian food.) Owned and operated by Salvadorans Reynaldo and Juanita Pineda, El Viroleño is straight out of a Robert Rodriguez flick—donde está el mariachi? Pineda serves authentic dishes like plátanos fritos, crema y frijoles (fried bananas with cream and beans), huevos al gusto (fried eggs with rice and beans) and carne asada (broiled steak)—all for around $6. Order the most expensive thing on the menu at $7 and you’ll get mariscos (seafood soup) or mojarra frita (fried fish). One caution: If you order the mojarra, try not to gringo-freak when they bring out the whole damned fish, head and all, swimming towards the afterlife amidst red Salvadorian beans and rice. El Viroleño Restaurant, 471 W. 800 South, 801-595-7021.
Nothing makes you feel rich like a shopping trip to Trolley Square. And you don’t have to buy an overpriced fanny pack—just visit The Desert Edge Brewery. Everything on the Desert Edge menu is less than 10 bucks, plus, they brew their own beer. And beer is good food. The pub sandwiches ($7.50) will rock your vegetable world with portabello mushrooms, black-bean vegetarian burgers and fresh mozzarella with tomatoes and field greens on focaccia. If you’re into meat treats, try the grilled salmon and pickled ginger ($8.25), or the grilled balsamic chicken ($7.75). Or just blow your 10 on beer and bruschetta, over an intimate conversation with the bartender. They’re cool like that. The Desert Edge Pub, Trolley Square, 801-521-8917.
Ahhh—Indian Food. Take your copy of the Kama Sutra to the park, and have your significant other pick up the take-out. (This tactic works well if you offer to bring the book and buy the beer.) The Star of India cooks up lamb, chicken and vegetarian curries, served with rice or nan (tortilla-style bread). If you dig vegetarian, try the saag paneer (cubes of homemade cheese cooked with spinach and spices) or the bhindi masala (cut okra cooked dry in sautéed onions and herbs). Both are priced at $7.50. For meat dishes, try the chicken tikka masala (chicken tikka cooked in fresh tomato sauce, then simmered in masala sauce) or the chicken saagwala (boneless chicken cooked with spinach and cream). And don’t forget the lassi: yogurt drinks made sweet, plain or salted. The Star of India, 177 E. 200 South, 801-363-7555.
Warning: Navajo tacos are highly addictive, eat them once, and nothing else will satisfy. That must be the secret of Navajo Hogan, where Marcie Espinoza (of Jemez Pueblo and Spanish descent) and family run a taco operation that will eventually take over the world. A Navajo taco, or Indian taco, is made with fry bread (a.k.a. scones in Utah) topped with chili, vegetables and sour cream. Espinoza perfected the fry-bread method by using her grandmother’s ingredients like blue bird flour, blue cornmeal and wheat. Pick your toppings from black beans, shredded roast, grilled chicken, fresh vegetables and green or red chilies. You won’t pay more than $7 for anything, because once you try a taco, Espinoza knows … you’ll be back. Navajo Hogan, 447 E. 3300 South, 801-466-2860, www.navajohogan.com.
Café Shambala is so Golden-Child-cute, you can’t resist. Owner Tsewang Rinzin waits the tables as he sings along to Tibetan music. A life-size portrait of the Dalai Lama peers down from over the register at couples eating veggie mo mos while watching the happenings (OK, construction) on Fourth Avenue. The veggie and beef mo mos are popular dumpling-style entrées—and a Shambala special. Try the Tibetan-style chicken or beef chili ($6.50). Shambala also serves fruit smoothies, tsampa porridge and kheer (rice pudding) for brunches or desert. Rinzin brews up the best homemade chai this side of Mt. Everest. Café Shambala, 382 (E St.) 4th Avenue, 801-364-8558.