Utah chef manifested this restaurant for years — now it’s open in a unique location

Chef-owner Spencer Langi: “All I need is a kitchen and I can show everybody this food.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Spencer Langi, left, owner and executive chef of Café Limón prepares birria tacos alongside his son Villiami Langi at the restaurant in West Valley City on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023. Langi is half Tongan but fell in love with Latin American food, offering a fusion of many cultures.

West Valley City • Spencer Langi said he was astonished the first time he had a patacón.

Growing up half Tongan between Hawaii and Utah, he was introduced to boiled green bananas. Mashing them into a circle and frying them highlighted flavors he didn’t think were possible.

“The first time I had patacones, or tostones, and it was explained to me that it was a banana, there were so many thoughts in my head,” Langi said. “Growing up, eating boiled green bananas wasn’t as delicious as a fried plantain with meat on top.”

The more he learned about Latin American food, the more he felt his creativity expanding. He thought about the many ways he could incorporate seasonings, sauces and combinations from his culture with this newfound admiration for Latin American food.

Langi also incorporated Spanish terms into his vocabulary. In his mind, he switched the word green bananas to plátanos, and he also figured that no other Anglo name was more appropriate for his first solo restaurant than Café Limón (“lime” in Spanish).

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Yuca shooters at Café Limón in West Valley City on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2024.

The restaurant opened in January in the cafeteria space of 2050 Decker Lake Blvd. in West Valley City, which houses a business consulting company. Behind the austere rectangular tables and plastic chairs, there is an incubator for creative Polynesian, Asian, American and Latin American fusion cuisine.

“This might sound crazy, but I feel like I’ve manifested this opportunity,” Langi said. “I was always talking to my girlfriend and telling her, ‘All I need is a kitchen and I can show everybody this food.’”

When he had the chance to take over this kitchen with a concept of his own, he was already prepared. The decades of learning, and imagining a way to make many cultures harmonically clash in a dish, paid off.

Melting pot

On a typical day, Langi shapes a yuca mixture into small, thick cups, fries them and tops them with shredded beef, guacamole and cotija cheese. He calls them “shooters” and they represent the amalgamation of cultures, flavors and textures that have shaped his life, as yuca — also called cassava — is a popular root in both Latin America and some Pacific Islands.

He also prepares Colombian-style empanadas for breakfast, using a method that’s popular in Latin American kitchens: folding the dough with the help of a plastic bag, then shaping them with a cookie cutter.

The menu changes from time to time, and often includes birria tacos, Hawaiian-style barbecue pork tacos, burgers and garlic chicken bowls.

His cuisine may not be traditional of any of the cultures from which he takes inspiration, but he carefully selects the best of each to highlight flavors and create unique items.

He learned to cook in kitchens across the valley, and through a chef apprenticeship program at Salt Lake Community College and his catering business, Coco Limón. His girlfriend, Adelita, who is Colombian, was the one who introduced him to those patacones, and influences the mix in Café Limón.

Though the restaurant is somehow hidden in an office building, being surrounded by the rich ethnic food industry in West Valley City inspires Langi to do his best work

“It’s a unique location,” he said. “It’s a really nice area. West Valley is very big and just full of a lot of different cultures. And I’m hoping to kind of capture and represent some of that.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Colombian style empanadas at Café Limón in West Valley City on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2024.

A solo operation

Langi knows opening a restaurant is a gamble, as even established joints are fearing for their survival under the pressures in Utah’s food industry. The restaurant’s former co-owner dropped out of the project — and Langi is banking on people learning about the restaurant and coming over for a meal.

“I’d just been working, working, working towards [the restaurant],” he said. “So when this happened, it was really at a point where it was like I either need to go look for a job or I can grab the bull by the horns and see where it goes.”

His kids help him out when they can, he said, but for now, it’s mostly a solo operation — with Langi working as owner, cook, dishwasher and marketer.

Langi’s son, Villiami, 17 and a high school senior, goes in anytime he doesn’t have class and helps take orders, pack food or whatever is needed. Villiami grew up helping out at his dad’s catering business, and listening to him talk about his dream to open a restaurant or a food truck. Opening Café Limon is the beginning of that adventure and Villiami wants to be a part of it.

“I see it as something I could do to support his dream,” Villiami said. “He wants to have his own place. I want this to work out for him. So I’m just helping out any way I can.”

While he’s there, Villiami takes advantage of the kitchen and makes modifications to Langi’s regular breakfast burrito recipe, his favorite at Café Limón.

“It has scrambled eggs, rice … and well, I throw meat in there whenever I make it, because I can,” he said, “and beans, cheese, sauce.”

Langi said he knows some employees from the building’s offices by name. They have made it a routine to try something new from the restaurant every day at lunchtime.

Andrew Graham, a software manager, said he has tried everything on the menu since the place opened — except the poultry dishes he avoids because of allergies. His favorite is the pork chile verde, which includes marinated pork in salsa verde over rice.

“I like the variety that he has, with specifically a little South American flavors and a little bit of Mexican or American classic,” Graham said. “It’s a go-to if you want something different.”

Though it’s convenient for him to just go downstairs to get these “unique” kinds of food, Graham acknowledged, he would commute to the restaurant if it were anywhere else.

As for Langi, he said hopes this location thrives — and that what was born as a regular date between two people of different cultures expands and becomes popular in a city that’s known to adopt kitchens that find common ground among diversity.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Spencer Langi, owner and executive chef of Café Limón gets ready for the lunch rush at the restaurant in West Valley City on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023. Langi is half Tongan but fell in love with Latin American food, offering a fusion of many cultures.

Alixel Cabrera is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of communities on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.