Roman Conteras fell in love with cooking in high school, when he and his friends held grilling competitions.
He tested sauces and marinades in real time on the grill, where he also experimented with different grilling techniques, watching how they affected flavor and texture.
It was a scientific approach, but the real measure of success? The reaction of friends and family when they ate his food.
Contreras said that he has the same goal as the new executive chef at Flanker Kitchen + Sporting Club: To feed people good simple food, and make them happy.
“The whole concept is new,” Contreras said of his menu, which debuted in early August. “It’s based on authenticity and going back to my roots. I’m originally from San Diego, coming from a primarily a Hispanic background and culture. … [Food] doesn’t always have to be extravagant. Sometimes less is more, just focusing on the flavor, and complementing the protein you’re working with, and just using that to give you a good flavor profile.”
Those landing at Flanker — in The Gateway, at 6 N. Rio Grande St., in downtown Salt Lake City — to watch football this fall will find a sizable appetizer menu that includes such sports-bar favorites as wings, chicken tenders, loaded tots and fries, nachos and chips and guac. There are also slightly fancier options, like spicy tuna bites on crispy rice.
“Handhelds” include the backyard burger (an elevated cheeseburger), the farmhouse burger (topped with Swiss cheese, bacon jam and a fried egg), plus fried chicken, pulled pork and steak sandwiches. On the lighter side, there’s Caesar and Cobb salads, and a multigrain bowl.
The half-rack of baby back ribs draws on Contreras’s long history with barbecue, starting with those high school backyard grilling competitions. Smoked for 12 hours over applewood, the ribs are drenched in Contreras’ house barbecue sauce and served with a side of honey-mustard coleslaw.
Contreras said he definitely took the less-is-more approach with his street tacos, focusing on the basics — quality protein, fresh veggies, the best corn tortillas he could source — and not overseasoning or oversaucing. He said his aim is to create something “very authentic, that feels like home,” and bring a little bit of San Diego to Salt Lake City.
“I wanted to deliver just real tacos,” he said. “Back home, that’s a go-to. They’re simple, but they’re delicious.”
The fish tacos, he said, don’t use cabbage, but jicama pickled in lime juice, which has a lighter, fresher taste. He adds Fresno peppers and cilantro, which he described as a pico de gallo without the tomatoes. He pairs that with fluffy cod, lightly coated in a beer batter that uses soda water and Mexican beer as the base.
“It’s almost more like a tempura,” Contreras said. “It’s very light. We keep it crunchy and keep that nice balance. A lot of people get scared when they hear the word ‘fried.’ They think it’s going to be heavy and fatty and greasy. These are the total opposite, with the combination of the jicama and the fried fish, you can easily eat three or four of these.”
Tacos do come served in threes, or you can order “The Big Tacowski” and get two of each: fish, carne asada, carnitas, or vegan chorizo and potatoes.
Contreras said the new menu was also an opportunity to play around with new dishes, like Southern shrimp and grits.
“I’ve always wanted to take that dish and elevate it,” he said. “We’re doing it with prawns that are garlic-seared with fresh herbs. Instead of doing your traditional grits, which are loose and creamy, we’re doing grits cakes. They’re nice, fluffy, big cakes with sauteed bell peppers, caramelized onions, parmesan cheese and butter. We coat them in flour, and we deep fry them. They’re nice and crunchy on the outside, but fluffy on the inside. They’re complimented with a very nice Louisiana Cajun sauce, which is also really creamy and buttery.”
Before joining Flanker, Contreras said he was offered a position with the Waldorf-Astoria, but decided against it. Flanker, he said, gives him both the opportunity to experiment, just like he did in high school, while also sinking deeper into his culinary roots.
“I just wanted to deliver and use and utilize my experience and my culture and background to bring something different, but also some authenticity,” he said. “It’s almost like soul food, but Mexican food. It’s soulful. It’s comfort food. Most Mexican food is kind of heavy. It sits in the belly, and makes you feel at home. You’re comfortable. You just want to throw back a couple of beers, and relax. That’s what I wanted to deliver.”
Flanker Kitchen + Sporting Club (6 N. Rio Grande St., suite 35, Salt Lake City; 801- 683-7070; flankerslc.com) is open Wednesday and Thursday from 5 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m., and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. The bar has a number of sports-related events coming up during football season — check their online calendar for times, dates and details.