Five Utah restaurants worth the drive:
Moab » Center Café
Utah's hinterlands can be a dining wasteland, so this gem in Moab is a real find. Owners Paul and Zee McCarroll have been Moabites for 10 years now, offering what they call a "globally inspired" menu. A small-plates menu, available daily from 4 to 6 p.m., is vaguely Spanish, with offerings such as fish croquettes with avocado salsa ($6), marinated olives and Marcona almonds ($4.50) and empanadas ($4). The entrée menu has good variety, from a cedar-planked salmon to rack of lamb. There's always a vegetarian option as well.
Don't miss the » salmon appetizer. It's smoked in-house, cured in a tequila lime marinade, and served with delectable corn cakes, pineapple salsa and a cream sauce flavored with smoky chipotle peppers ($12). It's big enough to share or stand in for a small entrée.
Logan » Hamiltons Steak & Seafood
No need to leave this quaint college town for an urban steakhouse experience. At this relaxed, but not overly expensive Cache Valley restaurant, the steaks are aged, hand cut and cooked under a searing-hot 1,600-degree broiler. There also are prime rib, chops, pasta and seafood, including a unique halibut bouillabaisse in a saffron, tomato broth. Artisan breads and housemade pastries complete the menu. Hamilton's impressive wine list is showcased at monthly wine diners, often hosted by top producers. These events sell out fast, proof that locals are hungry for new dining opportunities.
Don't miss the » Wednesday rib nights. Two full racks with sides, dessert and nonalcoholic beverage for $60. It's enough to feed a hungry family of four.
Boulder » Hell's Backbone Grill
Food capable of nourishing body and soul. That's what Blake Spalding and Jennifer Castle set out to create when they started Hell's Backbone Grill 10 years ago in the heart of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Visitors moved by tiny Boulder's breathtaking surroundings find yet another reward at Hell's Backbone, located at Boulder Mountain Lodge. The chefs-co-owners deserve the critical acclaim they've earned for their organic, locally produced food that bursts with the lusty flavors and vibrant colors of the region. They transform chiles, corn, squash, root vegetables, apples and wild berries, trout and more into dishes such as chile-crusted filet mignon with poblano crema and cowboy skillet trout marinated in molasses sauce.
Don't miss the » chocolate and chile cream pots. The bite of hot Chimayo chile powder and the creamy smoothness of dark chocolate make for a delectable combination.
Midway » Tarahumara
At the heart of the Utah's Alpine culture, you'll find some of the best Mexican food in the state. Everything on the menu is made from scratch, from the moist tamales filled with scarlet-braised pork to the equally bulging chiles rellenos, dark green and frosted with a deep-fried batter. The low-key restaurant is a popular spot for locals after work or after hunt, their families and visitors. Each relish the freshly fried cinnamon churros ($2 for a HUGE portion) as they do the price point. In an area bloated with high-end dining, Tarahumara is a respite for the palate and the pocketbook. Seafood fans should take particular note of the fish tacos and the shrimp and scallop options. Delicious, particularly when doused with the housemade passion fruit-tomatillo sauce.
Don't miss the » churros, which arrive in a huge, Jenga-like stack of four to five piping hot fritters sandy with cinnamon-sugar drizzled with a housemade Kahlùa sauce. For $2, you might as well order two more.
Orem » Pizzeria 712
Pizzeria 712 is one those restaurants that SLC-based diners wish they had closer to home and that Orem locals are proud to call their own. It's the brainchild of two Sundance Resort alums, Colton Soelberg and Joseph McRae. A wood-fired oven is the rustic heart of an otherwise modern, artsy space. Pretention, luckily, isn't on the menu. Instead, it's straightforward and well-crafted fare relying on the same philosophy that popularized Bay Area cuisine. Local, seasonal goods form the foundation of braised short ribs or roasted brussels sprouts roasted with hazelnuts and cider vinegar. The "712" refers to the ideal oven temperature for cooking pizza, and judging by the proper color and blistering of the crust (it's supposed to be DARK brown), the fellows have it down. Topped with fennel and housemade sausage or caramelized leeks, bacon and goat cheese, the thought of each pie beckons on every road trip to and from Southern Utah.
Don't miss the » pepperoni, cheese and potatoes pizza. Tender Yukon Golds and other flavorful potato varieties top a crust softened with oozing strands of Fontina cheese, extra-virgin olive oil and the sugary slick of caramelized onions.
Anne Wilson, Kathy Stephenson, Vanessa Chang and Lisa Carricaburu contributed to this report.