Orem • The name Tortilla.bar should be a hint that this new restaurant is not a run-of-the-mill Mexican eatery.
Head chef and owner Sam Oteo brought his atypical take on South of the border dining to Orem in late 2012.
The restaurant operates out of modest digs, a small stand alone, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it building. About a third of the petite interior is swallowed up by the open kitchen area. Seating for, at most, 20 patrons is dotted around the buzzing chef area, with a couple extra tables outside too. At times, the surroundings can feel especially cosy, but when seating is maxed out and the PA setup is blasting an eclectic mix of music, it feels cramped.
The decor changes almost as much as the soundtrack. On one visit, a fun mosaic of vehicle license plates dominating one wall. By the next visit it had disappeared, and a showcase of a local artist’s work had replaced it. It’s an edgy, contemporary operation, right down to the end of your meal, when card transactions are handled by the restaurants iPad point of sale device.
Just like the walls, the menu is an evolving tapestry. The menu is the essence of Mexican cuisine, built around a core of tacos, salads and miscellaneous small plates. There’s a keen focus on local and organic products and on each visit I found the menu in flux and flow. Specials flash briefly in and out of existence, like the pork cheek special I barely missed one evening. Even seemingly static items are subject to tweaking. An open face empanada with Mary’s chicken and citrusy cabbage ($8) that was available one evening was tequila battered, fried — and thoroughly moist — on a repeat visit ($8.50).
Online, the restaurant makes nods to street food with rebel-chic, but under the hood there’s an upscale refined hand at work, both technically and creatively. The popping color of the Fruta Fresca ($5.75), a salad of julienned apples, jicama, grapes, lime, chile and agave nectar, was vibrant and displayed expert knife skills. On another visit, I sampled a kale salad studded with bright pineapple and zesty lime ($5.75). I’d happily consign every dull green salad in the world to the annals of history for these cool, cleaner cousins.
The restaurant offers a single soup — a seemingly benign butternut squash and black bean ($6.75). It defied my expectations, as the beans were blended smooth, laced with chunks of squash and finished with a swirl of sour cream.
Much of the concise menu is centered around tacos, coming two to an order. The restaurant makes its own tortillas and you’re likely to spy the small kitchen team cranking them out during service. Again, given the fluidity of the menu, its hard to guarantee what taco filling will be available at any given time, but the pork pibil ($8.50) and steak tacos ($8.75) seem ever present, and a good choice to boot. The pork tacos use juicy grass-fed Niman Ranch pork, and on the night I sampled them, pickled habanero, achiote and red onion. The hanger steak version cooked slightly past medium-rare came topped with crisp, matchstick thin sliced apples. Both were as delicious as they were gloriously messy. And those house made tortillas turned in a star performance supporting the heft of the ingredients.
As you might expect, desserts ebb and flow, too. One night’s special was a fun “bananas and cream” dish amped up by crispy popcorn and agave nectar ($6.25). But for a sweet end to the meal, I preferred the Platano Macho ($6.50). The pan seared plantain, queso fresco and almond butter was a delightful little mix of flavors, that might not be classified as dessert.
Tortilla.bar doesn’t have a liquor license yet — the application is pending — but it does have an intriguing range of booze-free beverages to match the cuisine. Unique sodas like the ginger-spiked hand crafted Fentimans cola or a deep-red hibiscus drink (both $3) will, like the restaurant, create divided opinions.
Many will fall in love with the concept and execution at Tortilla.bar. Others might be put off by the tight quarters or the plates that skew smaller in portion size, with prices going in the opposite direction.
But if you’re in the market for creative, chef-driven cuisine using great ingredients, Tortilla.bar hits plenty of high notes. If you’re looking for a smothered burrito at bargain prices, you’ll need to look elsewhere.
Food • HHH
Mood • H
Service • HH
Noise • bbb
While this restaurant serves familiar items such as tacos and empanadas, it’s not your typical Mexican eatery. The focus is on creativity and interpretation. Not for everyone — but adventurous diners will like it.
Location • 1454 South State Street, Orem; 385-259-2014
Online • facebook.com/oremtortilla
Hours • Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Children’s menu • No
Prices • $$
Liquor • No
Reservations • No
Takeout • No
Wheelchair access • Yes
Outdoor dining • Yes
On-site parking • Yes
Credit cards • all-major