- Enrique Limón
It's ironic that when most people go out to eat, physical nourishment is rarely their top priority. Eating in a restaurant is one of the few experiences that engages every one of our senses, and it has made atmosphere junkies out of all of us. This socio-cultural phenomenon urges us to scour online menus and Instagram feeds for promising destinations and is gleefully embraced by Lake Effect (155 W. 200 South, 801-532-2068), the hybridization of an über-hip watering hole and an upscale Latin-fusion eatery.
From a historical and aesthetic standpoint, Lake Effect is the restaurant version of a vampire straight out of an Anne Rice novel—a reborn, revitalized and dangerously sexy version of its past self. Local history buffs will note that Lake Effect occupies the one-time Hotel Victor saloon built in 1910. Bar veteran Nick Chachas of Gracie's fame has breathed new, dark life into the space, cultivating a level of style that transcends the abilities of mere mortals. Every square inch of Lake Effect is positively dripping with frontier-goth style—exposed brick, black velvet wallpaper, chandeliers made from motorcycle chains and an aristocratic abundance of high-backed chairs. To complete its air of effortless chic, the space comes equipped with a stage where diners can enjoy live blues on Monday nights. It's a design arsenal that would cause most places to buckle and implode, but Lake Effect wields it with all the confidence of a jet-setting countess.
In the mood to wet your whistle? The kilometer-long cocktail list will do the trick. On it, is everything from in-house creations to classics such as a crème de violette-infused Arsenic & Old Lace ($11) and killer caipirinhas ($10), to non-ironic takes on the gin-tastic Bee's Knees ($8) and the Don Q rum, Jager and pineapple-infused Huntsman ($12).
Since much of the focus here is on swanky drinks and live music, the food menu is not without a few hiccups. Chile verde ($18) is the yardstick by which most Latin-American fusion can be measured, so that's where I started. It arrives beautifully plated with two bedsheet-sized housemade tortillas and a cheerful pop of red from some mindfully placed cherry tomatoes, but the portion size was surprisingly small considering the tortillas' sheer surface area. The pork was cooked to perfection, but the dish's flavor profile was a bit underdeveloped—maybe it was the sizable dollop of crema fresca that drowned everything else out.
I was intrigued to try the nopales and Jack skillet ($10) because I had yet to try cooked cactus pads, which are near-mythical in Latin American cuisine. As a whole, this appetizer is a nice evolution of the ubiquitous chips and queso—the inclusion of a thick layer of Oaxaca cheese on top of the gooey pile of Jack and chopped nopales offered up some textural complexity that you don't often get in a starter dish.
If you're craving tacos, you shouldn't overlook the lunch specials, which offer half-off any taco on the menu. Considering you get two tacos and a side for $12, it's a hell of a deal. I kicked off my lunchtime visit with a combination of a puerco and a squash taco, both of which arrived overflowing with yummy goodness. The pork belly was a bit charred, making it flounder. But it made its veggie companion shine with winter squash and black beans playing epicurean hopscotch, highlighting each other's natural sweetness. While the tomatillo-lime salsa brought me to my knees, I missed the acidity of the pickled melon, which seemed to be MIA despite the menu's description.
The bottom line: Despite a few minor inconsistencies, Lake Effect is the type of establishment that considerably elevates downtown Salt Lake's hip quotient. Come for the drinks, the fantastic service and the luscious atmosphere. Be warned, however—it's a place that can easily seduce you to the dark side.