Mexican food with a little extra from 2 new Utah restaurants
By Stuart Melling
Special to The TribuneFirst published Nov 12 2013 11:15AM
Park City • Pop quiz time. I’ll give you a restaurant name and you give me the first three words that enter your mind: Billy Blanco’s Motor City Mexican Burger and Taco Garage.
I’m guessing you picked something like "preposterous, ridiculous and bizarre," right? Those were my three choices until a recent excursion to the Jeremy Ranch-area restaurant had me instead pondering "canny, considered and cool."
Park City restaurateur Bill White — the Billy Blanco in question — has considerable nous in putting together restaurant concepts with a level of execution few others in the state can match.
The décor of White’s newest creation makes the name seem downright bland — it’s outrageously outlandish. Imagine a mechanics’ workshop that has gate-crashed the Vegas strip and then decided it would rather serve up a mélange of American and Mexican food — rather than toil on the many vehicles that litter the space.
The place pops with sparkling chrome, from the various muscle cars and motorcycles on display (sometimes hoisted on great chains above diners ‘heads) right down to the wrench and screwdriver sets inlaid in the bar counter. Diners get an oil rag in lieu of a napkin, and even the bathrooms stock workshop hand soap.
Fortunately, the cuisine is no slouch. To start, share an order of Blancos Nachos ($8) — a meal in itself: a pile of crunchy chips, Oaxaca and cheddar cheese, black beans, jalapeños, olives, crema and salsa. I opted to bolster the lot with tender short ribs for $3 more. Also worth your time are the dry-rubbed BBQ Ribs ($2.75 each), served with a trio of Carolina mustard sauce, Kansas City BBQ sauce or lip-smacking hot sauce — stellar sauces that would put many barbecue restaurants to shame.
Mexican fare like tacos and burritos form half the main menu while "gringo" dishes like hamburgers and fried chicken fill the other. All come with a side from a selection of cotija-spiked rice and beans, crisp french fries, ho-hum mashed potatoes, coleslaw, fabulous tater tots (yes, you heard me) or greens.
Tacos come three to an order — frustratingly with no option to mix and match. Tejano short rib tacos ($10) were decidedly delicious with more of that juicy beef short rib and even better when washed down with a Chrome Margarita ($10) from the extensive full bar.
Fish tacos ($12) were recommend by our server as better grilled, and I didn’t argue. The mahi-mahi filling does well without the heaviness of visiting the deep-fryer, hearty enough in itself and then layered with cabbage, cilantro, crema and surprisingly bold cotija.
A California burrito was equally loaded and full of flavor down to the last bite, offered with carnitas ($12), carne asada ($10) or adobo grilled chicken ($10). From the gringo side of the menu, a Philly cheesesteak ($12) held its own against others from around the valley starting with a base of hefty durable bread that supports weighty amounts of meat, cheese, peppers and onions.
For dessert, proceedings don’t get any more genteel — I went with a hot fudge sundae ($6.50), a mighty concoction with sweet crunchy pretzel pieces, whipped cream and malted chocolate sauce.
Some might balk at the prices, but I’d dare anyone to name a place in the area where you could enjoy a three-course meal, in such lavish style, for little more than $20. I’ll concede the restaurant won’t be everyone’s cup of tea; the brash, over-the-top attitude will rub some the wrong way. For those happy to indulge the tongue-in-cheek atmosphere, it’s a fun restaurant.
Luna Blanca Taqueria in Salt Lake City is a more sedate experience. From the same operators of the successful Cafe Trio, the restaurant interior is clean, modern and bright with an abundance of open space. If my pre-dining research hadn’t told me otherwise, I easily could have imagined this a chain restaurant, given the minimalist aesthetic and strip mall location. The menu, too, is concise and composed; the single sheet details food on the front, with drinks occupying the rear.
From the reverse side, you can mull over Luna Blanca’s full bar, which offers 15 beers and as many tequilas again, ranging from El Jimador ($3) through to Vida Añejo ($13) and cocktails such as a house margarita ($5) served in a petite mason jar.
As you’d expect from the name, the central focus is gourmet tacos and a supporting cast of salads, burritos and quesadillas. Of particular note is that Luna Blanca allows patrons to order any taco à la carte, meaning you can mix and match to your heart’s content or, like me, order the whole selection in one tacolicious sitting — that’s what those extra holes in the belt buckle are for, right?
The complete list of tacos comprises carne asada (with salsa fresca, $3), carnitas (with cilantro and pickled red onion, $3), chicken (with avocado crema, cilantro and shaved radish, $3), fish (grilled or fried with pineapple and jalapeño slaw, $3.75), mushroom (with quinoa, peppers, onion and crema, $3), seared shrimp (with salsa fresca and avocado cream, $3.75), al pastor (with roasted pineapple and cilantro, $3.75) and last, a taco of the day.
My favorite of the bunch was the meaty portobello mushroom with the unexpected addition of the quinoa adding a welcome extra dimension (which was employed to similarly great effect in a tasty mushroom quesadilla, too, $6). I also enjoyed the carnitas lifted by zippy onions and the special of the day — slightly spicy, shredded pork tinga ($3.25).
Overall, though, nothing delivered the uppercut knockout blow I was hoping for. Many craved just a little more pep and verve, and a few veered into the territory of dry and forlorn.
For dessert, a tres leches cake ($8) was vastly underwhelming, especially at the price point. Instead, go with the churro bites ($5), superior in every regard. These little doughnut bites are shaken in a bag of sugar at the table by your server, before being unleashed gleefully onto your plate.
Luna Blanca Taqueria is almost the finished article. Save for some fine-tuning of certain dishes, most of the package is plenty enjoyable: the general concept is solid, the dining space is likable and the staff attentive and engaged.