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Slow and Steady

How Salt Lake's Tradition wins the comfort food race.

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Dishes like fried chicken, pigs in a blanket and meatloaf have become darlings of today's restaurateur, despite the fact that they were conceived under the most humble of circumstances. Tradition (501 E. 900 South, 385-202-7167, traditionslc.com) is one such local establishment that boasts spectacular fried chicken, along with elevated takes on other comfort food classics like cheesy grits and funeral potatoes. It's a lovely space that combines a hip aesthetic with welcoming service, but is it serving up comfort food that's worth the extra coinage?

That's the question I always ask myself when I visit places like Tradition. It's a solid menu, but it also happens to list several dishes that are so ubiquitous within American cuisine that it's not too difficult to find low-profile joints cooking the same stuff for less dough. What those low-profile joints don't have—and what is ultimately Tradition's secret weapon—is a partnership with nearby Beltex Meats (beltexmeats.com). I've visited with Beltex owner Philip Grubisa a few times and witnessed his artisan meat-cutting operation and let me tell you, it's the real deal. Just ask Slow Food Utah, which recently presented Grubisa with a Snail Award for his efforts. Nothing quite shows that a comfort food spot means business more than opening up right next to an acclaimed butcher shop.

Tradition's particular game plan sources local ingredients and uses practices that hearken back to an agricultural system predating fast food and factory farms. Ironically, farming practices that were cheap and commonplace a few hundred years ago are more expensive to sustain today. All of this means that places like Tradition find themselves treading a fine line—the food they want to cook is "simple", but simple costs a little extra nowadays.

To Tradition's credit, the place offers a lot of bang for your buck. The gnocchi ($18) is a hands-down menu all-star, and a perfect snapshot of the food offered here. Housemade gnocchi is a feat in and of itself, and the bite-sized dumpling pasta is primo. The chewy texture is right where it needs to be, and you can taste the love that went into its creation. The dish could stop right there and be memorable, but the addition of sautéed mushrooms, roasted cauliflower, acorn squash puree and fried fennel is an autumnal wonderland. The gnocchi canvas makes all those harvest veggies sing, and I don't want to eat anything but this for the rest of the season.

The fried chicken ($22) is one of Tradition's claims to fame, but I think it overreaches just a tad. Don't get me wrong, it's a fine plate of fried chicken, and its entourage of grits and collard greens provide a nice balance of creamy richness and sharp acidity. The chicken itself is moist, and the crispy exterior is a lovely mix of brown sugar sweetness and cayenne kick, but there was a certain overabundance of flavors that made me think some editing was needed when concocting the batter.

There's a lot of variety on Tradition's small plates menu, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with making it the focal point of your visit. I started with funeral potatoes ($8) because when someone offers you that particular dish in Utah, you accept. All the usual suspects are here—shredded potatoes slathered in melted cheddar cheese and crenulated with corn flakes—but Tradition tops it all with a dollop of bacon jam for good measure. I also tried the pigs in a blanket ($7) made from Beltex sausage and housemade pastry, which I preferred to the potatoes. That sausage pops with smoky flavor, and the dipping mustard was the perfect complement.

Wherever your dinner order takes you, make damn sure you save room for some of Tradition's housemade pie. On my most recent visit, I tried slices of their peach and spiced cherry pies ($7 each) and ... just ... whoa. The peach pie, baked with cinnamon and ginger that emphasizes the natural flavors of the peaches within, is a delightful way to end a meal, but that spiced cherry is something else entirely. Where most cherry pies I have known veer into saccharine sweetness, the spiced cherry pie here cranks up the tartness with lemon zest and a few dashes of cayenne and black pepper. It's tough to make a memorable cherry pie, which is exactly what Tradition has achieved.

Tradition's mission has always been to recreate the kind of food that anyone with a working set of taste buds can relate to, and in that they have succeeded. Their dedication to bygone methods of food preparation and their collaboration with other local vendors makes them well worth a visit.

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