Writing about food for Utah’s independent newsweekly, I naturally gravitate toward one-off, independent eateries; that’s where the best and most interesting food is found. However, I’d be fibbing if I said I didn’t stray now and then into a franchise or chain restaurant. Yes, most of them suck, but there are a few that don’t, including this trio. And let us not forget that even franchise and chain restaurants are usually owned and operated by locals, and employ locals.
I remember before In-N-Out Burger came to the Wasatch Front, some pretty highfalutin foodie friends of mine—including prominent chefs—would go out of their way to get their In-N-Out fixes in places like St. George and Las Vegas. Well, I developed a similar addiction to Popeyes.
Popeyes started in 1972 as an independent chicken shack in New Orleans. It was named for detective Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, played by Gene Hackman in The French Connection. Popeyes specialized then and now in spicy, New Orleans-style fried chicken. Today, Popeyes can be found in places as far-flung as Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. And yet, until this month, Utahns had to get special security clearance to eat the stuff. That’s because the only Utah Popeyes locations were at Hill Air Force Base and at the SLC International Airport, past the security screening. However, this month, a “public” location finally opened at Thanksgiving Point (3699 Thanksgiving Way, Lehi, 801-768-2164, Popeyes.com).
Today, in addition to fried chicken, Popeyes offers wraps, seafood and such. But we don’t care about that. It’s the chicken and signature side dishes that make people like myself go to great lengths to procure Popeyes. The chicken comes either spicy or mild (no true Popeyes junkie ever orders the mild). It’s hand-battered and fried, and the coating is perfectly crisp but never greasy. Many a serious cook, including myself, has tried to duplicate Popeyes’ well-guarded spicy-chicken recipe at home, with little success.
Alongside that crisp, crunchy, spicy chicken, you’ll want an order of red beans & rice or Cajun rice (formerly called “dirty” rice). The flaky buttermilk biscuits that accompany most meals are great, too, as are the mashed spuds with Cajun gravy and the home-style green beans seasoned with turkey bacon. Popeyes also offers a line of low-sodium, reduced-fat foods called Louisiana Leaux, but who cares?
It was “Bad” Brad Wheeler (KRCL, Legendary Porch Pounders, Pink Lightnin’)—whose parents hail from Iowa—who first turned me on to the Iowa-based Maid-Rite Diner. About a year ago, Maid-Rite opened a Utah location, in Layton (701 N. Main, 801-719-6443, Maid-Rite.com). According to Maid-Rite lore, an Iowa butcher named Fred Angell created a ground-beef sandwich in 1926 that a deliveryman tasted. Upon finishing the sandwich, he reportedly said, “This sandwich is made right!” I’m not sure how to account for “made” morphing into “maid” or “right” into “rite,” but today, Maid-Rite’s specialty is the “loose meat sandwich.” It consists of nothing more than seasoned ground beef served on a warm, steamed bun. My dentist, a Maid-Rite fan, called it “a sloppy joe without the sloppy.” And that’s accurate: It’s pretty much a sauceless sloppy joe, served with pickle slices and chopped onions on top, a perfect case of less is more.
Other Maid-Rite items include an open-faced hot beef sandwich, an Iowa cheesesteak and a real crowd-pleaser: the Tender-Loin. The pork tenderloin sammich is very popular in Iowa and Indiana. At Maid-Rite, it’s a piece of boneless pork tenderloin that’s pounded out into an enormous thin cutlet, then lightly breaded, seasoned, deep-fried and served on a bun that’s about a quarter the size of the cooked cutlet. It’s essentially wienerschnitzel on a puny bun, and it’s delicious. Maid-Rite also offers some salads, wraps and such. But again, who cares?
You should care, however, about the salads and other healthy eating options at The Habit Burger Grill. For a place that specializes in charbroiled burgers, its salads are pretty sensational. But first, some back story: The Habit Burger Grill was born in Santa Barbara, Calif., as a tiny place that sold burgers for 24 cents apiece, along with malts, milkshakes and the like. In 1969, when he was 16, Brent Reichard went to work for The Habit, as it was then called. Four years later, he and his brother Bruce borrowed some dough from Mom and Dad and bought The Habit. Today, there are some 75 Habit Burger locations, mostly in California, with two new recently opened Utah shops: in Sugar House (2121 S. McClelland, 801-484-6132, HabitBurger.com) and at Station Park in Farmington (260 N. Central Ave., 801-447-8404).
As mentioned, the charburger is Habit’s specialty. It’s a reasonably priced ($2.95) all-beef hamburger patty—fresh, never frozen—cooked over an open flame to give it a nice, crisp char. The burgers are served on good-quality toasted buns with caramelized onions, tomato, crisp shredded lettuce, pickles and mayo. There’s also a condiment station with important free add-ons like sliced jalapeños, pepperoncinis, hot yellow peppers, lemons and limes, and sauces such as A1, Tabasco and Cholula. The Utah Habit Burger locations are also the only ones in the country that serve fry sauce.
The burgers are great; the service is friendly, fast and excellent. And even the piped-in music is above average. But for me, what really sets Habit Burger apart is freshness. Tom Hartman, local resident and owner/partner of Utah’s Habit Burgers, gave me a tour of the kitchen and storage facilities. Almost nothing (except the fries) is frozen. Fresh albacore tuna for salads and sandwiches is hand-cut daily, as is the oh-so-tender beef tri-tip. Salads like the Santa Barbara Cobb and the grilled-chicken Caesar are crisp, delicious, and taste garden fresh. So who says fast food can’t be fab?