- Derek Carlisle
Throughout my tenure as a local food writer, the temptation to focus solely on what's new and hip in our restaurant scene is hard to resist. As much as I love seeing what the local talent is up to—and believe me, they're doing some amazing things that I'm dying to check out—I can't help but be drawn to those wayward local places that were part of our food culture before we even really had a food culture. These are places like Salazar's Café (3325 S. 900 East, 801-485-0172), tucked away in strip malls and nestled among aging office parks, and they've survived on a combination of determined grit, stalwart recipes and the regulars who are just as much a part of the establishment as the menu itself.
Salazar's opened in 1982 as the brainchild of Ida and Albert Salazar, two California natives looking for a change. With an arsenal of traditional Mexican recipes bold enough to keep people coming back for the next 30-plus years, it wasn't long before the Salazars became a fixture in their small Millcreek neighborhood. Ida and Albert continue to run the show to this day, and are always quick to chat with new visitors and the regulars who have been visiting their establishment since the get-go.
Those used to frequenting our current generation of restaurants will notice some stark differences when visiting Salazar's. For starters, the place feels less like a restaurant and more like the dining room of a wizened aunt and uncle. It's a space that definitely has some mileage under its belt, but that only adds to its charm. This is a restaurant that makes no judgments and welcomes everyone with a hot plate of food.
During a recent visit, I shared the space with a customer who had been dining with the Salazars since the restaurant opened. Ida and Albert welcomed him by name and the three caught up on all the small but devastating tragedies of life and comforted each other with genuine conversation—and burritos smothered in housemade chile verde. I had ordered the Railroad Bill ($10.99), previously known as the Salazar Special. According to Albert, they renamed the dish after a longtime customer died a few years ago. This is Salazar's—small honors and trinkets dedicated to regulars largely forgotten by the world are everywhere.
The Railroad Bill is a house specialty that consists of a cheese enchilada and a chile verde burrito with a side of rice and beans, and it's the best way to experience the kind of food Salazar's is throwing down. The more time I spend in small, family-owned Mexican restaurants, the more I realize that the flavor of their sauces is what truly tells their story. The Railroad Bill introduces diners to the Salazar family's vibrant crimson enchilada sauce and their smoky pork chile verde, both of which are excellent. When I'm halfway through, Albert tells me they haven't changed a thing about this recipe through the decades. It's a bold secret to share, but his smile reveals a deep pride in the menu that he and his wife have created.
The Railroad Bill is a dish one can get at most any Mexican restaurant. The basic components of the burrito and enchilada are universal—gooey cheese oozes lazily onto the plate after slicing through the corn tortilla with a fork and it's accompanied by a comforting mix of rice and soupy refried beans topped with grated cheddar. The sauces, however, pack a bit more nuance. If you've had chile verde before, you recognize a few of the major notes very quickly. The more you eat, the more you start to taste the Salazar family's legacy—this verde thrums with the slow burn of smoked chiles. While the Railroad Bill is a great foundation for a visit to Salazar's, the à la carte menu is hard to resist. If I'm extremely hungry, I like to add a smothered pork tamal ($3.50) or a chile relleno ($4.50) to the mix. The chorizo burrito ($9.99) isn't a bad way to branch out. It's stuffed with the Salazar's unique chorizo recipe, which is just right for dinner when it's cold and gray outside.
Although restaurants like Salazar's come and go all the time, a few visits to this neighborhood favorite are enough to see why the place continues to thrive. On the surface, Salazar's is a cozy, family-run establishment where you can get a soulful plate of solid Mexican comfort food, but that's not all that keeps the place running. Its steady stream of neighborhood locals and the Salazars' knack for embracing members of the community who are especially marginalized or overlooked are what truly keep the lights on and the oven fires lit.