By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 1997 Gourmet Magazine
Fun seekers swarm the Beehive State this time of year to schuss mountain slopes—Utah’s license plates tout “the Greatest Snow on Earth.” But for those of us whose favorite leisure-time implements are knives and forks rather than skis and poles, Utah also happens to be a rewarding destination for a culinary road trip. The bill of fare: frontier tradition with a twist of resort-town chic.
The most exemplary blend of Old West and new American dining is at Zoom, in Park City. Despite a prep kitchen situated in a train car (still on rails!), Zoom’s setting in the old mining town’s defunct train station couldn’t be more stylish. The floor of the main room is itself a handsome sight—broad wooden planks well worn by decades of hard use. A vintage baggage scale serves as low-tech sculpture near the fireplace. High-back booths provide a quiet place for conversation, while counter stools face the clickety-clack of the exhibition kitchen. Pale glazed walls are hung with stardust in the form of black-and-white pictures from Park City’s Sundance Film Festival.
Calling itself a “Roadhouse Grill,” Zoom has a wide-ranging menu that chef Barbara Hill describes as “a trip across the country.” It is divided into small plates and main plates, so you can have a quick snack of “Buffalo rings” (fried onions served with blue cheese dressing and crudités) or crunchy-topped baked macaroni and cheese; or you can have a grand meal of Belle Isle ribs with mopping sauce. (Belle Isle, in Detroit, is where Motor City picnickers traditionally have cookouts.) Sandwiches include a thick black Angus burger on a sundried tomato bun and a grilled Portobello mushroom on focaccia; the house salad comes with feta cheese from nearby Kamas Valley.
We reveled in a supper that began with herbaceous potato flapjacks strewn with chunks of house-smoked trout, then featured slices of grilled tri-tip steak—a cut of beef favored in the cattle country of old California. Tri-tip is not especially tender, but it is incomparably flavorful; a long marinade and a potent bourbon pan gravy transform it into one delectable platter of meat. Eaten on Zoom’s patio under the stars, with an accompanying mess o’ greens—vivid, tart, garlicky—this is the kind of protein-rich nourishment that health food experts once prescribed for anemic urbanites in need of red meat and fresh air.
The dining room is quite amazing any evening after eight, when happy moans of delectation begin to rise above conversations and bluesy background music. Dessert is starting to arrive at tables and counter: peach crisp with cinnamon ice cream, cookies ‘n’ cream cheesecake with faintly grainy hot fudge sauce, and the house special, a peanut-butter brownie. Our waitress licks her lips and rolls her eyes like a “Kit-Cat Klock” when we order the last; but if your sweet tooth likes simpler pleasures, there is also a wonderful angel food cake with fresh berries.
At the end of a meal, we ask to send our compliments to the chef. The waitress agrees to take the message to the kitchen, though she seems hesitant and a little frustrated by our request. “We just want her to know how much we love this place,” we explain.
“I know, I know,” she says. “But shouldn’t you tell him?”
“Whom?” we wonder.
“Robert Redford!” she blurts out with unleashed joy. “He’s the one who owns it!”
We do tip our hats to Mr. Redford for backing such an excellent restaurant—no surprise, considering what a pleasure it is to eat in the Tree Room or the Grill Room at his Sundance Resort—however, it is chef Barbara Hill’s clever, well-grounded menu and her fine hands in the kitchen that have made Zoom into the new must-eat destination for any traveler in search of Utah’s best.
IDLE ISLE in Brigham City, north of Salt Lake, opened in 1921, long before the Wasatch Range became America’s favorite winter playground. It is the sort of cordial town café once found on Main Streets everywhere but now a rarity treasured by all who yearn for honest food served in a setting of utmost civility. Merely walking through the door is enough to lower your blood pressure. Carpeting keeps sound at a pleasant hush, and fans spin slowly from the high ceiling; only the occasional whir of the milkshake machine or the hum of the electric lemon squeezer (for lemonade) rises above the chatter of the good citizens who eat here.
You can have a lovely burger and a malt at the marble and onyx soda fountain, and there is a slightly more boisterous back room with oilcloth-covered tables where regulars congregate at noon. But the choice seats, at least for us travelers, are the polished wood booths up front, each outfitted with a little ramekin of Idle Isle apricot marmalade for spooning onto the fleecy, oven-warm rolls that come alongside dinner. Before taking your order, a waitress sets down a little card that says “Your Server Is…” with her name written on it, and then she guides you through a menu of expertly prepared blue-plate fundamentals, including divinely tender pot roast with lumpy mashed potatoes shaped like a volcano crater to hold gravy, as well as such daily specials as Wednesday braised beef joints, Friday trout, and Saturday prime rib.
Serving sizes are temperate, so you will have room for Idle Berry pie—a resonating purple blend of blueberries, blackberries, and boysenberries—or baked custard pudding, which is simply the tenderest dessert imaginable. “I’m sorry,” says our waitress, Cariann, when she places a jiggly bowl of it before us. “The pudding might still be a little warm. It just came out of the oven.” An apology is hardly necessary: Balmy, smooth, golden-sweet, this is food fit for the god of comfort. (Adjacent to the restaurant is a confectionery where Idle Isle homemade hand-dipped chocolates are sold by the pound and box.)
At the crossroads in the pint-size town of Salina, MOM’S CAFE is where locals and travelers have gathered since 1929. A homey short-order restaurant with a team of high-speed waitresses in blue uniforms trimmed in pink (matching the aqua-upholstered booths and pink-fronted counter), it fills up with breakfasters for whom the close quarters are an opportunity to socialize. Our dining companions one morning include ranch hands with rodeo-trophy belt buckles, Paiute Indians wearing spectacular porcupine-quill hat bands, and a pair of German-speaking tourists with backpacks on their way to Bryce Canyon. The waitress uses hand gestures to explain to the foreigners the difference between “over easy” and “sunny side up”; the cowboys show the newcomers how to dip their biscuits in the thick, white gravy; and a Native American coffee-hound demonstrates that a squeeze bottle of honey-butter on the table was put there so they could frost their scone. (The scone, a fried sweet bread that is Utah’s version of the New Mexican sopaipilla, is a Mom’s specialty, served crusty hot.) The German couple take all the good advice looking a little confused. But finally they beam with joy when their chicken-fried steaks arrive—the ranch-kitchen cook’s version of Wiener schnitzel. This is food they recognize! It’s made perfectly at Mom’s, the pounded-tender slab of meat encased in a luscious melt away crust. At eight in the morning, the two travelers finally top things off with large slices of blueberry sour cream pie, then happily head out the door for a day of hiking.
Good, good, good ribs!” announces a well-fed customer unable to contain his enthusiasm as he twirls a toothpick in his mouth on the way out the door of COWBOY’S SMOKEHOUSE in Panguitch. Pork ribs along with beef brisket, chicken, and turkey are all slow-smoked to succulent tenderness in this colorful eatery where the wallpaper is business cards of friends and fans, and the decor is mounted heads of moose, elk, and deer.
Each table is equipped with a bottle of peppery-sweet, cinnabar-red barbecue sauce, but tasty as it is we recommend savoring the meat pure and unsauced—especially the brisket, which spends a leisurely half day imbibing warm smoke. Served in thick slices, the meat has a chewy, blackened rim, and within that crusty exterior is beef that is as soft as brisket can get without disintegrating. Ranch beans are available on the side—simple, peppery, al dente—and there is delicious fruit cobbler for dessert, but it’s the barbecued meats and the open-fire–grilled dinner steaks that have emblazoned this eatery on Utah’s good-eats map since it opened in 1991.
In the early days, the Smokehouse was a bare-bones kind of barbecue. Customers ordered meat by the pound at the back counter, where it was sliced and dished out on single pieces of butcher paper. Now there are all sorts of relatively deluxe amenities: service by an obliging staff, plates to hold the food and utensils with which to eat it, and a roll of paper towels on each table to use as napkins while devouring the messy food. And there is a little bandstand in back where proprietor Chris Gilbert can be found some evenings singing and picking campfire favorites like “Cool Water” or “Maria” on his guitar.
Mr. Gilbert, a lanky Coloradian, told us he learned to smoke meat the cowboy way from his original business partner, a Texan who after a few years quit Utah when he grew homesick. As Mr. Gilbert describes it, proper smoking is a fine science, requiring a dozen hours in the pit—no more no less. “I want my brisket cooked to where it is just starting to fall apart, still pink and juicy inside,” he explains. “Fifteen minutes too long and it’s like roast beef. Roast beef you can get anywhere.”
Capitol Cafe (permanently closed)
54 West 200 South
Salt Lake City, Utah
Lamb’s Restaurant (permanently closed)
169 South Main Street
Salt Lake City, Utah
Maddox Ranch House
Zoom Roadhouse Grill (permanently closed)
660 Main Street
Park City, Utah