Kung pao chicken. Walnut shrimp. Lo mein. Plates of these Chinese cuisine all-stars are common sights at Mi La Cai (or La Cai Noodle House). In fact, that's what I mostly see arriving on tables, delivered by the service team that is, for the most part, efficient, fast and friendly.
Servers have to be all that. After all, this is mealtime at one of the most popular, yet little-known, restaurants in the valley. The consistent drone of conversation from regulars, clanging silverware and cell-phone chatter build a frenetic atmosphere.
But the layout and décor lend a degree of calm. Lacquered panels of bucolic Chinese and Vietnamese landscapes add some gravitas to cream-colored walls that hug the dining room's tables and flank the booths, some of which face the window onto State Street; others tuck so intimately into walls, they feel like private rooms.
It's a comfortable atmosphere for a midday break or a very affordable dinner. And the dishes -- ranging from meat-loving to Buddha-friendly -- are, for the most part, good. Chinese dishes have a cleaner, less saucy guise than at most other equivalently priced restaurants. And the Vietnamese dishes are some of the most accessible and freshly flavored in the city.
The very familiar stir-fries come out crispy (when dressed in batter) and sizzling (naked or dressed) with a judicious amount of sauce. Nothing kills fluffy grains of white rice like oozing pools of goo passing for stir-fry sauce. But the sauces in the kung pao chicken ($9.90) and walnut shrimp ($15.55) hug the crevasses of batter with their viscous grip. For those taking out, that crunchiness will most likely be lost.
The salt-baked shrimp (shell-less, $15.55), however, is something that should never see a take-out box and is best enjoyed on the spot with alternate bites of green onions that are scattered like confetti throughout the dish.
Stir-fry lovers should consider changing things up a bit and venturing farther south, culinarily speaking, to taste the sautéed lemon-grass and chile chicken ($8.70) -- no batter, just chunks of tender meat in a red-flecked sauce that's aromatic of that floral, almost coconutty lemon-grass stalk. Served piping hot, the bed of white rice underneath catches every bit of flavor and tames a bit of the chile's heat. It's a great dish to treat a cold.
For those supertasters with milder palates, the house special stir-fried beef ($14.35) provides enough flavor and tenderness to satisfy.
Lovers of pho (pronounced "fuh," $7.80) often cite Mi La Cai as a favorite destination for the bowls of cinnamon and onion-scented broth, filled with thin rice noodles, slices of rare beef (the hot broth gently poaches the thin slices of meat) or meatballs. It's quite refreshing any time of the year, as it works some miraculous, medicinal magic by warming and cooling your body, as needed.
For this time of year, it resuscitates and enlivens without adding worries to your waistline -- if that's a worry.
Pho die-hards are just as impassioned as Philly cheesesteak lovers when it comes to arguments of authenticity and recipes. Some might consider Mi La Cai's too pared down for traditional tastes, but given its affordability, accessibility and efficiency, I'd rather take a svelte, nontraditional version than other forms of fast food out there. So long as I have the requisite, accompanying plate of fresh Thai basil leaves, sliced jalapeños and bean sprouts to flavor to the bowl as I please, then I'm happy.
Many of the sauces in the menu's Vietnamese dishes are more bracing. For example, one of the most delicious items on the menu is bun -- nests of vermicelli rice noodles holding chunks of meat and a freshly fried egg roll -- which comes with a fish sauce-based dressing that can sauce the noodles, carrots and cucumbers, or act as a dipping sauce for the charbroiled pork or that crunchy egg roll ($8.10).
Minus the deep-fried goodness, it's another healthy option if ever you find yourself at Mi La Cai with officemates or friends.
Mi La Cai may not be the most authentic haven of Vietnamese or Chinese cuisine, for that matter. It might deter those who prefer to dine at complete holes-in-the-wall. But for many, including me, it's a saving grace for the wallet and overall constitution when it comes to affordable and relatively healthful options that taste good.
Now, let's just work on seeing more Vietnamese dishes in circulation around the dining room.
Mi La Cai is easy on the wallet with its relatively healthy Chinese and Vietnamese fare.
Fast, affordable Chinese and Vietnamese food. Opt for steaming bowls of pho (beef noodle soup), bun (rice vermicelli with fresh veg and your choice of meat and Mi La Cai's signature egg roll).
Location » 961 S. State St., Salt Lake City ; 801-322-3590
Hours » Sunday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Children's menu » No
Prices » $
Liquor » Beer and wine
Corkage » $5
Reservations » Yes
Takeout » Yes
Wheelchair access » Yes
Outdoor dining » No
On-site parking » Yes
Credit cards » Visa, MC