Like the cooking of Italy, China, Brazil or the United States for that matter, there's no single "Mexican" cuisine. As with most culinary traditions bounded by geography and culture, Mexican food varies from region to region, ranging from Mesoamerican cooking and Spanish influences to the flavors of the Yucatán Peninsula. So, I'm often at a loss to answer the question: "What's your favorite Mexican restaurant?"
I have about a half-dozen "favorites," but they vary widely in terms of the foods they offer. For more refined Mexican dishes, I'm especially fond of Alamexo and Frida Bistro. For funkier fare, taco carts are my first choice. But then, I also love the homestyle cooking of Julia's, everything about Luna Taquería, Red Iguana, Tamales Tita, El Paisa Grill and others.
Well, here is an additional trio of can't-miss Mexican eateries—ones that might not be on your radar but that are all distinct in their take on Mexican cuisine.
You'll feel like you've entered a seaside Mexican restaurant when you walk into Salt Lake City's Mi Lindo Nayarit (145 E. 1300 South, Salt Lake City, 801-908-5727) (not to be confused with Mariscos Mi Lindo Nayarit in West Valley's Latino Mall). From the straw-covered shack in the back that serves as the bar and cashier area to the blast of tropical colors that energize the eatery's décor—orange, lime, turquoise, pink, ocean blue and more—this is a place with a festive feel, and food that's as vivid as the ambiance.
Nayarit is a state on the Pacific Ocean in western Mexico, with 180 miles of coastline, so its cuisine consists, naturally, largely of seafood. Bass, oysters, snapper and other fish and shellfish are in abundance, much of which gets exported to urban areas like Guadalajara and Mexico City. So, seafood is in abundance, too, at Mi Lindo Nayarit.
I've heard complaints about high prices here, but the portions are generous, and the quality and freshness of ingredients at Mi Lindo Nayarit are top-notch. For example, we ordered a "medium" size shrimp ceviche ($8.99), and it was too large for the two of us to finish. The shrimp, "cooked" in lime juice, came with huge tostada-style deep-fried tortillas, which were perfect for scooping up the tender, tangy shrimp. A whole fried tilapia ($11.99)—seasoned gently with not much more than salt and garlic—is delicious when doused with something from Mi Lindo Nayarit's huge hot-sauce selection. But you won't need hot sauce for the camarones ala Diabla; the "Devil's shrimp" is incendiary enough already. Devil's style octopus (pulpo) is another fiery option. Fish tacos, crawfish, raw oysters, scallops, a variety of different fish and abalone are all options here. But for something really unique, try the pineapple stuffed with mixed seafood and cheese. There's something you won't find at Del Taco.
For stick-to-the-ribs, inexpensive Mexican fare, I go to Lorena's Mexican Restaurant (2477 S. 800 West, Woods Cross, 801-295-2441, LorenasRestaurant.com). Opened in 1989 by Tob and Lena Paul, Lorena's specializes in hearty dishes like smothered burritos, enchiladas, chile verde, tamales and their popular combo plates, which include a choice of three mix-and-match burritos, tacos, tostadas, enchiladas, etc., plus rice and beans, at prices averaging $7 to $9. That's a great bang for the buck.
Now, it must be said that there is nothing subtle about Lorena's. It's the Mexican version of a rapid-fire American diner, where the service is friendly, but folks are moved in and out quickly, because the place is almost always packed. Attention to décor is minimal, but once you've dug into one of the homemade tamales ($2.90), the chile verde-smothered burrito ($3.65) or the creamy refried beans ($1.50), you won't give a hoot about ambiance or Michelin-starred service. Lorena's is all about heaping plates of great food and friendly service at prices that don't seem to have increased much since '89.
Since opening in 1997, Park City's El Chubasco restaurant (1890 Bonanza Drive, Park City, 435-645-9114, ElChubascoMexicanGrill.com) has been one of the busiest spots in town, thanks to authentic Mexican flavors at not-so-Park-City prices. The head chef is originally from Michoacán and specializes in killer chile rellenos ($8.50 including rice, beans and corn or flour tortillas)—large poblano chiles stuffed with cheese and fried to perfection in an egg batter. The tacos at El Chubasco (two for $5.95, including chips and salsa) are bigger than standard street ones and overstuffed. My favorites are the tender, delicious carnitas tacos: warm corn tortillas bursting at the seams with slow-roasted pork pieces and garnished simply with minced white onion and cilantro. Other taco options include shredded beef, carne asada, chicken, al pastor, veggie, shrimp, beef-battered fish and also American-style crunchy tacos. Diners are invited to customize their meals with items from the terrific salsa bar. They include a wide range of salsas, from árbol and salsa bebe, to escabeche, jalapeños rojos, plus a dozen or so other condiments like shredded cabbage, onion, cilantro and much more.
My favorite El Chubasco meal is a steaming bowl of red posole. It's roasted pork served in a fairly mild red chile broth with hominy and shredded cabbage on top—a perfect winter treat. Another can't-miss dish—and fairly hard to find in Utah's Mexican restaurants—is machaca ($9.25), a "scramble" of juicy shredded beef with onion, tomato and egg; it's one of my favorite breakfasts when I'm visiting south of the border.
Due to its popularity, it's sometimes tough to find seating at El Chubasco, in which case you'll be glad to know that they're soon to open Chubasco To Go just a few doors down.