Shoulder Season in Park City

Some people call it shoulder season. Others call it mud season. Park City locals call it “we finally have our town back” season. And Wasatch Front locals call it “get great hotel and restaurant deals, and avoid the crowds” season.

Way back when I was a kid, I remember my family heading up to Park City in the fall. We’d check out the Autumn Aloft, and then head over to Main Street to walk around and absorb the sights and smells of fall in the mountains. Leaves changing colors and crisp air combined to make it a magical time.

Now, even though I’m a little bit older, fall in Park City holds the same special feeling. And best of all, the summer crowds have gone back to work and school, and the winter ski crowds haven’t yet arrived. It’s a chance for local restauranteurs to catch their breath, take some time off, and enjoy the city without having the accelerator pedal jammed all of the way to the floor.

For locals on the Wasatch Front, the shoulder seasons are a great opportunity to find hotels at a great discount (some priced 25-50% lower than their winter rates). Many restaurants also offer locals deals during this time in order to keep their tables full. Tupelo, for example, offers a five course tasting menu for a bargain price of $49. Optional wine pairing is an additional $25. You don’t see that kind of deal during the ski season.

On a recent weekend, we stayed a couple days at the Stein Eriksen Lodge in Deer Valley. This hotel is ideally located at the base of the Silver Lake and Sterling Express lifts, providing easy access for those adventure seekers who aren’t too interested in riding bikes or hiking uphill. Not interested in taking a lift? No problem. There is easy access to dozens of public hiking/biking trails that will take you all over the mountains if you wish. One of my personal favorites is the Mid Mountain trail, which will take you all the way over to the Canyons resort if you are looking for a big adventure. Being on the trails in the fall with the leaves changing colors is really something special, and one of the reasons I love Utah so much.

Of course, one of the reasons it’s called the “mud season” is that you have to be prepared for all types of weather. It is Utah in the mountains, after all. Our hiking and biking plans were quickly derailed when the mountain received about eight inches of snow during our weekend stay. No problem–we fired up the in-room fireplace, headed off to the hot tub, took a dip in the pool, and relaxed in the room.

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Then off to Sunday brunch at the Glitretind we went, which was absolutely phenomenal. Fellow diners and our servers were so good to our little baby, and the buffet offers something for everyone. Seafood, salads, chicken, prime rib, crèpes, waffles, eggs benedict–you name it, and it was probably there. And their dessert table is ridiculous, and featured an aspen tree centerpiece made out of chocolate.

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For dinner, we hopped down off the mountain and headed into a small strip mall next to The Market at Park City. I was thrilled to discover that one of my favorite Mexican restaurants, Tarahumara, has opened a second location in Park City. The original Tarahumara in Midway is always packed, but I think that the Park City Tarahumara may still be a hidden gem, because it was not very busy. The carne asada, carnitas, and enchiladas were all excellent. And of course they have their famous salsa bar with what must be 30+ different delicious salsas.

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So if you’re crunched on time, budget, or just want a quick getaway, I’d suggest taking a look at a Park City/Deer Valley vacation. You can enjoy Main Street without the crowds, fill your belly with delicious food at a reasonable price, and perhaps upgrade your hotel accommodations from what you normally budget for. It’s a delicious and affordable getaway.

I was an invited guest of Stein Eriksen Lodge and the Glitretind restaurant. Opinions are my own.

Alamexo Cantina

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During his travels throughout Mexico, Matt Lake, chef/owner of Alamexo Kitchen downtown, was always struck by a certain type of restaurant. The cantinas he encountered are vibrant, lively, and most importantly, promote a sense of community and togetherness. Families, friends, strangers gather around tables sharing various dishes and libations, telling stories and laughing together.

These memories drove Matt’s vision as he put together his newest project: Alamexo Cantina, which opened this week in the 9th and 9th neighborhood. The style of service is different than at Alamexo downtown. The cantina cuisine is reminiscent of a street market in Mexico, but in a sit-down situation.

“Everything will come family style, everyone orders and you have it all at once, mixing and matching. I don’t want to take ourselves too seriously. But I do want it to be fun. It needs to be super easy and fun,” says Lake. “The best way to get at this concept is that I wish I could pick what people eat but I can’t. I felt this was the closest way to get to that experience of just letting the chef guide your dining experience. Whatever time [of the day] you come it’s the same [price]. One menu, all day long, with a wide array of shared dishes.”

The space itself is striking, with bright, vibrant colors contrasting with the dark tables and ceiling. A large glossy Adam Finkle photograph adorns the back wall, showcasing the multitude of ingredients involved in making a molé. The centerpiece of the bar area is a large mural by local artist Harry Baldwin, and depicts the iconic Espolón Blanco label. There is a gorgeous candle wall that is interesting during the bright daytime hours, but turns into something living, breathing, and very special at night. My favorite part is that most of the front wall separating the dining room from the patio breaks down, opening up completely and blurring the line between inside and out. This will be the spot to be on a warm evening. The kitchen itself is small, and is limited to a long comal (flat top griddle) and two fryers for chips. That’s it.

“We’re limited in the kitchen. But with that limitation comes clarity,” says Lake.

For those of you who haven’t been to Alamexo downtown, or his previous project, ZY, I highly suggest you try Chef Lake’s creations out. He is, in my opinion, one of the most talented chefs in the city. He won Food & Wine’s Best New Chef award in 1996 and worked at New Heights in Washington D.C. and Rosa Mexicano in New York City, one of the city’s first and foremost upscale Mexican restaurants. He graduated at the top of the class while attending the prestigious Culinary Institute of America. He, along with his team, make everything from scratch, from roasting whole chickens to making the various molé sauces.

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Chef Lake
So be sure to stop by, grab some guacamole and a drink at the bar, or dive right in to some dishes to share with some friends.

Alamexo Cantina
1059 East 900 S
Salt Lake City
(801) 658-5859

Reservations not accepted

http://www.alamexo.com/cantina

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Preview: Alamexo Cantina

During his travels throughout Mexico, Chef Matt Lake, owner of Alamexo, most enjoyed eating at the vibrant local cantinas. These open-air restaurants, some more boisterous than others, emphasize community and togetherness as friends and families gather around tables to share in various freshly-prepared dishes.

These memories have informed Matt’s latest culinary project: Alamexo Cantina, opening in May in the 9th and 9th neighborhood. The cantina will be the lower-key little brother to Alamexo, keeping the same attention to ingredients and the cooking process, but trading white tablecloths for bottles of cerveza and a six-foot comal.

I stopped by to taste some of Matt’s planned dishes for the cantina. I would expect nothing less than exceptional from Matt, and judging by these test plates, he’s well on his way towards that goal.

Alamexo Cantina, opening mid-May

1059 East, 900 South, Salt Lake City.

Sous Vide Carnitas

As you may have seen from my Instagram stories, I continue to learn how to cook with the Anova Sous Vide cooker. I was excited to receive the cooker as a Christmas gift, because I’ve been wanting one for a while. Through precise maintenance of the exact cooking temperature, sous vide enables a cook to cook meats (and veggies) at a precisely exact temperature. So, instead of cooking a ribeye on a blazing hot 500 degree flat top or grill and overcooking the outside of the steak in order to get the center up to 135 degrees, with sous vide you just set the water temp at 135, submerge the meat, and the entire steak cooks to a perfect 135. After a few hours, take it out, quickly finish it in a hot skillet to brown the outside, and you’re all set. Perfectly cooked meat, every time.

Learning, like any cooking technique, takes a bit of trial and error. But with help from one of my favorite websites, Serious Eats, I’m finally getting the hang of it.

This weekend’s experiment: sous vide carnitas. There are few foods I enjoy more in life than a taco filled with deliciously crisp, yet tender pork carnitas. The crispy bits add a contrasting texture to the unctuous meat that inches these guys towards near perfection.

For the pork recipe, I used the Serious Eats Sous Vide carnitas recipe. For those that don’t have a sous vide, they also have an oven-roasted recipe as well. If you want any leftovers, you will want to get the full four pounds the recipe calls for. I thought that was too much, and only bought two pounds from local butcher Beltex Meats, and we ended up with hardly any leftovers for two of us. There’s a lot of fat that renders out, and the pork cooks down.

Some other tweaks I made to our version: I did a quick-pickle of some carrots, which added some nice bright contrast to the rich pork. We also topped ours with avocado and some peppadew peppers from Beltex (you can also find them at Harmon’s). Next time I’ll grab some cotija and maybe some crema to throw on top as well.

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El Chubasco

I won’t lie, my taste buds may have been influenced a bit by my ravenous post mountain bike situation, however, I am here to declare the following important factual information: the carne asada burrito at El Chubasco is hands down the best rendition in all of our fair state. And I don’t say that lightly, with strong competition such as Hector’s giving chase in a close 2nd.

But up here the meat still looks like meat, is crispy in all of the right places, and has a healthy dosage of melty cheese, black beans, and pico to make this food baby the top food baby around.

If you haven’t been to El Chubasco, get there. I think they have other stuff on the menu, but I haven’t really ever checked.

1890 Bonanza Drive, Park City

Alamexo has recently opened in the space previously occupied by one of my favorites, ZY. In fact, Alamexo has the same owners, staff, and even the same chef: Matt Lake.

Matt moved to Utah a few years ago from New York, where he worked as chef for one of New York’s premier Mexican restaurants. After a few years operating the contemporary American restaurant, ZY, Chef Lake decided to go back to his culinary roots and switch to Mexican.

After an incredibly quick menu and restaurant decor switch (Lake didn’t want to close down for three months and have to lay off staff) which took only a few days, ZY has now transformed to Alamexo. And while I’m sad to see ZY go (Lake was adamant that we will see ZY once again in Salt Lake), Alamexo is a very welcome addition to SLC.

You won’t find any other Mexican food in Salt Lake in such a contemporary, modern environment. But don’t equate “contemporary” and “modern” to “expensive.” Entrées range from $13-$25 with sides and appetizers filling in the $3-$12 range.

Go with the guacamole, made tableside by your server in a molcajete. For $10, it’s a little on the pricey side for one avocado’s worth of guacamole, but worth the show.

My favorite side dish was the Mexican corn. Sweet, fresh corn accompanied by hints of chile, lime, and cotija. My mole poblano enchiladas were rich, complex, and the pork was cooked perfectly. Lake has always said the he doesn’t choose his signature dishes; his customers do. And I have a feeling that these will be on the menu for a while.

A dining companion’s steak dish was equally tasty and cooked spot-on.

As we went during their soft opening week, desserts were not on the menu, however, the kitchen brought out the best churros I’ve had. Don’t leave Alamexo without ordering some.

I’ve always viewed Matt Lake and ZY as a bit of a sleeper in the SLC dining community. I attribute part of this to Lake’s low-key demeanor. He is a guy that cooks because he loves to cook. He’s not in it for the fame. But if he keeps doing what he’s doing, he won’t remain a sleeper for long. Salt Lake’s lucky to have him.

Mountain West Burrito: A Lesson in Blandness

I’ve wanted to check out Mountain West Burrito ever since they were acquired by the Heirloom Restaurant Group, who also own Communal and Pizzeria 712. Heirloom is doing such great things in the Utah dining scene, I was excited to have a little piece of Heirloom closer to home.

I was thrilled to hear that they opened a new Mountain West location near Thanksgiving Point in Lehi, which is a short 10 minute drive from my home. Draper isn’t exactly what you call a food mecca, and choices for quality Mexican-American is limited.

So is Mountain West my new go-to for a tasty burrito? In short, no. In fact, my trip to Mountain West this week was a lesson in blandness. Everything throughout my experience was the epitome of bland.

The location is tucked in next to a Firehouse Subs. The interior space is completely unremarkable. The space is filled with long, communal tables as well as a windowside bar with stools, little to no decor, and no personality. I’m no fan of Cafe Rio’s ridiculous over-the-top decor, either, but putting a little effort into creating a more welcoming environment wouldn’t be a bad idea. 

If you’ve ever been to a Chipotle, Barbacoa, Cafe Rio, or the like you’ll be familiar with Mountain West’s menu. The restaurant offers a variety of burritos, tacos, nachos, and salads. The $14 price for a burrito shocked me, until I realized how large the “giant” size is. Stick with the $7 “regular” size and you’ll have plenty to eat. So, while it offers a solid selection, the menu is rather, well, bland.

Service was vanilla as well. While I appreciated not being constantly yelled at military-style, which is my typical experience at places like Cafe Rio, the person working the counter didn’t seem particularly happy to see us or engage us about the food. We had numerous employees walk past us as we ate, and a little check in (“How is your food?” “Can I get you anything else?”) would have gone the extra mile and would have been appreciated.

Although I certainly appreciate Mountain West’s focus on local, organic, fresh (did I miss any buzzwords?) ingredients, those things are all good as long as the food tastes good. We started with an order of chips and guacamole. The chips were fresh, crunchy, made in-house, and perfectly salted. I ate more than my fair share of these. The guacamole was a disappointment. I would have appreciated some more zip and personality. Maybe some lime juice to add some acidity and offset the creamy avocado. Or perhaps some chopped onions to add some brightness. Cilantro, cumin, cayenne…anything to add some more dimensions other than just avocado.

I tried the half and half burrito. Half steak and half carnitas. The burrito come wrapped in foil and is a bit smaller (although still plenty big) than competitors’ similarly-priced burritos. They steam their tortillas, which adds a certain gumminess to the texture. The meat was tender and perfectly cooked. I had a few crunchy bits of undercooked rice, and the unremarkable guacamole made another appearance. And that’s about it for burrito fillings. In fact, I scanned the dining room looking for a fixings bar, desperate for some onions, cilantro, lime, or even some hot sauce. Nothing was in sight. I asked a dining buddy what flavors he was picking up on with his burrito. “Salt,” was his reply. I couldn’t agree more.

So, all in all not a very good experience at Mountain West. I plan on visiting again and will update this post when I do. But at this point I don’t think I would recommend Mountain West.

What do you think? Have you been to Mountain West? Did I just catch them on a bad day? Let me know!