Travel Fare: Sampling Utah’s delightful hidden food gems
Road trip season is just around the corner, and while you’re travelling across Utah, visiting its numerous state parks and unique attractions, you’ll naturally want to grab a bite to eat. You can find the Golden Arches just about anywhere—but there’s no reason to forego delightful food just because you’re on the road. In fact, Utah is filled with hidden food gems, eateries that offer surprising and distinctive dining options off the beaten track. We’ve compiled a few suggestions, from Logan to St. George, for you to try out on your travels.
Down in the dazzling landscape of Moab, a day hiking, horseback riding or biking can leave a person famished—and there’s nothing like a good burger and fries from Atomic Grill and Lounge to hit the spot. The restaurant offers fare that is “familiar, but unique,” says owner Tim Buckingham. If you want a simple burger, the restaurant is happy to offer it—but if you want to expand your horizons by trying out elk stew, buffalo meatloaf or vegetarian chorizo, Atomic Grill and Lounge offers those up, as well. Patrons can order by choosing whatever burger they like—natural raised beef, organic chicken, grass-fed buffalo or house veggie—and then select from Buckingham’s list of chef’s burgers, like the Blue Duck: duck bacon, grilled onions, bleu cheese, lettuce and the house sauce.
“Why burgers? I thought it would be a great challenge. To take the most popular
American dish and make it inspiring and unique,” says Buckingham, who says he loves for people to be pleasantly surprised when they eat at his restaurant. “We use high-quality ingredients. I try to buy locally as much as possible. Even the sauces are made in-house.”
Buckingham opened the restaurant—then called Buck’s Grillhouse—in 1996, and ran the restaurant until closing for repairs in 2014. After an extensive remodel, he reopened as Atomic Grill and Lounge, where he decided to put burgers first and foremost on the menu. He still kept some of the old favorites, but he wanted his restaurant to showcase a satisfying burger that a patron could still feel good about eating. To that end, Buckingham says he loves to utilize game, and calls himself “anti-fast-food.”
“The stuff they put in your food nowadays is horrible. I think people need to get back to food we used to eat a lot of back in the day. Venison and game, things like that,” he says. “I think it’s a good alternative—not the processed stuff they get nowadays, but real food. It not only tastes great but is good for you!”
Whether you need a respite from cold weather, a simple and soothing pot of soup, or an excuse to try out something authentic and delicious, Four Seasons Hot Pot and Dumplings is the place for you.
Located at 236 N. University Avenue in Provo, Four Seasons’ exterior has no frills, its windows often completely fogged over on a cold day. The interior is perfunctorily decorated, but don’t let that distract you—this restaurant is about the food and the experience the food gives you. Yongjun Wang, the owner of this mom-and-pop restaurant, is originally from China and speaks little English, although his desire to serve his customers and make sure everyone has gotten their full is easily apparent. He came to Provo nearly 11 years ago to open the restaurant while his daughter attended nearby BYU.
Hot pots, like its cousin, fondue, are served as a broth on a hot plate. Patrons can order their individual pots with a base flavored as mild, medium or spicy, although for most, the medium will be enough to cause steam to rise from your ears as quickly as it does from the bubbling broth. Wang chops vegetables like Napa cabbage, lettuce, mushrooms and mung beans and sets them onto a buffet along with various meats—slices of beef, shrimp, fish balls and imitation crab. Rice sits in a rice cooker alongside slim uncooked soba noodles. Patrons can select whatever they want to flavor their broth, and then let it all cook fondue-style before serving themselves from their individual pots.
Wang comes by frequently with a teapot full of hot water to replenish those still hungry. Four Seasons is an all-you-can-eat, so the price of one pot of soup gives you as many bowls as you desire it to. And for those who have overheated or had a misstep in ordering a broth far too spicy for their taste buds, Wang also supplies ice cream and popsicles included with the price of the meal.
If you’re ever out in Vernal and you need a breakfast spot, look no further than Betty’s Café. The original Betty opened the café on September 1, 1996, but it’s her daughter, Lynne Johnston, who runs the popular breakfast and lunch spot today.
“We wanted to just do a lot of good home cooking. The vision basically was just to open up a little café and fix the food that we knew how to fix,” says Johnston. “We specialized in breakfast and still do. It just caught on and has just really been a mainstay in the town.”
Located in an old Arctic Circle building, Johnston says the feel of the café has gone from its original corporate roots to a comfortable red-and-blue spot decorated with antiques to make it feel homey and welcoming. “Nothing really fancy at all,” says Johnston. “Just clean and cozy.”
Betty’s is open seven days a week for breakfast and on weekdays for lunch, and is a favorite with locals, although tourists tend to find the spot “through various online websites,” muses Johnston. Whatever a patron orders, Johnston says she hopes they get it with a side of the café’s homemade breakfast potatoes. She takes pride in those potatoes—peeled every morning and then set into buckets with cold water over them, sliced to order and then crisped up on a hot grill.
“They come out good and golden and crispy brown,” she says. “They’re a must.”
But beyond its potatoes, Betty’s Café offers a trove of good homemade cooking, from French toast, sausage, slab ham and nice thick-cut bacon for breakfast to chicken noodle soup, beef stew and chili for lunch. They make their jams, strawberry and raspberry, in-house, as well as their own salsa.
“We’re special because of the quality of food we put out, the way we take care of it and the way we handle it,” says Johnston. “We’re a very small place! We cater to the customer.”
Seven years ago, Jeff Nielson and his wife, Heather, had a building on their hands and no idea what to do with it. What had been a wholesale produce distribution warehouse was no longer operational, and they had to find something to do with the property. With few other pizza options in Price, the two decided to open a pizza location all their own: Big Dons Pizza.
Jeff and Heather started Big Dons by creating and testing their own pizza dough variations, then their own sauces, sausage, chicken marinades and even homemade ranch dressing. Every part of the process is tried and tested and wholly homemade, which is what makes the pizza spot unique.
“Everything we do is from our own style of cooking and recipes. It’s definitely the homemade pizza dough crust, the homemade sausage that we make, the chicken. The recipes are all homemade. We have seven different sauces. We definitely differentiate ourselves because of the handmade and homemade touch,” says Jeff.
The specialty pizzas at Big Dons—all tested and given the thumbs up by Big Don himself, Jeff’s father—are made with style and flair. Jeff recommends The Toninator: spinach, marinated chicken, marinated artichokes, asparagus and Asiago cheese on pesto sauce. Not your style? Try the Kaluan Pig: homemade Italian sausage, pit ham, bacon, pineapple and apples on white sauce, drizzled with BBQ. More of a calzone lover? That’s OK. Every specialty pizza at Big Dons comes as a calzone, too.
Jeff and Heather make several dessert pizzas, too, like the Banana Bonanza, where pizza dough is topped with cinnamon, caramelized bananas, streusel topping and homemade cream cheese frosting.
If none of that is calling your name, never fear: Jeff and Heather made sure that simpler pizzas (cheese, pepperoni) are also available under the header “Boring Classics” on their menu.
“We try to make it fun. We want to implement that all the time in our business,” laughs Jeff. “We could invent all day. It’s really good stuff, and we want people to try what we have.” Photo by Terlynn Westphal
When Donalene and Dail Brady bought One Hot Grill in 2012, they had a bit of an uphill battle in a couple of ways.
One was the less-than-stellar reputation the St. George eatery had earned in its waning years. The other was their relative lack of experience in the restaurant business—Donalene had run the local Meals on Wheels program for years, and son Dail had helped both her in that endeavor and his grandmother, who had run a nearby Dairy Freeze when he was younger. But in terms of running a burger joint, they were as green as the relish they put on their Chicago-style hot dogs.
In just a few short years, One Hot Grill has become the spot to go for lush, meaty burgers, sandwiches like the Reuben with house-made corned beef, or those Chicago dogs. And while it hasn’t been easy, Dail says, the customer response and growing collection of devoted clientele makes it worth it. And he’s at the front and center for it—Dail works the counter himself as a means of connecting with the people who come into his establishment.
“When you start something out and it seems like a good idea, it seems like it should be easy, and when it’s not, it sure gets frustrating,” he says. “When you find out why and overcome it, it feels good to have succeeded a little bit.”
One secret to success is in the ingredients, Dail says, including fresh ground beef and buns baked in-house for the burgers, or two kinds of franks (red-hot Chicago and Vienna) and buns shipped in from Chicago for the hot dogs. Those efforts have earned One Hot Grill the title of Best Burger in Southern Utah in 2014 after extensive taste-testing by staff from the St. George Spectrum—a title that survived a challenge a year later by a Cedar City restaurant.
“I like doing a good job. That’s what I’ve based this place on,” he says. “I figure, if I’m going to put my name on it, it’s going to be good.”
A few blocks away from Utah State University, Logan’s best-kept gastronomical secret has shared a building with a gas station. Tandoori Oven fills both its cozy dining room and the adjoining market of candy bars and jerky with the warm smells of traditional Indian cooking. It’s a labor of love and passion that has made the restaurant a favorite among locals since Sham Arora opened its doors ten years ago, says Mohit Arora, Sham’s son.
“If you don’t love what you do, it’s not going to come right,” Mohit says, noting that his father loves talking to customers as they come in. “Some days are hard and some days are easy, but when you start loving it, it shows in what you do.”
Tandoori Oven was the second of Sham’s attempts to strike out on his own after emigrating from India in 1999 and working in an Indian restaurant in Salt Lake City. From the beginning, the goal of the family-run restaurant has been to ensure each diner gets a quality experience by using fresh ingredients and tried-and-true recipes in their made-to-order dishes.
“We try to do our best to make sure our customers are happy, our quality’s maintained. If there’s no quality, there’s no us. We think of our customers like god: if they’re happy and satisfied, we can be happy,” he says. “The customers are like family to us. They’re like a part of the family business.”
In the beginning, the restaurant portion of the business had only four tables, but has grown to have more than 70 seats, and the restaurant will expand to fill the gas station portion, too, Mohit says. The gas station will still be part of the business, but it will be moved into an adjoining building that used to be a cleaner’s. Tandoori also recently opened a second location in Idaho Falls, run by Mohit’s younger brother. The growth is a mark of the small, steady steps the family has made towards success through hard work and dedication.
“Everyone starts small, no one starts big. If you start big, you’ll never know the journey of it. Anything takes time to build. You don’t see success overnight,” Mohit says. “It’s not about money, it’s about the success, wanting to do something. It’s one life—doing something while you’re here, making a name for yourself. Somebody should remember you.”