By Lucas Peterson, The New York Times — My friend Brigham didn’t pronounce himself an expert on Salt Lake City, but he had attended nearby Brigham Young University, and I trusted his opinion. So when he told me about Red Iguana, a casual Mexican place that’s “quite possibly the most famous restaurant in the state,” I went directly from the airport. He wasn’t wrong: There was a crush of people standing on North Temple under a weathered red sign. A host at a podium outside was ruthlessly informing a party of 15 that because their whole party wasn’t present, they could not be seated and no, their table wouldn’t be held. “You’d be better off going around the corner to Red Iguana 2,” the host told me when I approached. I was stunned — there was a copy of their restaurant quite literally around the corner to handle overflow.
I opted to get my food to go; it took about 10 minutes. My enchiladas, stuffed with turkey and slathered in pistachio mole ($13.99), were wonderful. The mole sauce was velvety, nutty and fragrant. I began to understand the long wait for a table. It was one of a number of surprises I found in Salt Lake City (a budget-friendly, multicultural dining scene, electrifying sporting events, some great bars), as well as the expected (great hiking and breathtaking vistas, byzantine laws involving drinking in said bars).
First things first: I needed a place to lay my head for a weekend. Since the rise of services like VRBO, Airbnb and HomeAway, I’ve noticed that hotels have been scrambling — a situation that allows frugally minded consumers to land great deals. I booked a Priceline “Express Deal” and landed a room at the Sheraton, in the heart of the city, for a mere $71 per night, or about 50 percent off the published rate. The hotel, a hulking block of umber red brick, was a bit dated but quite comfortable — and even had a Starbucks in the lobby.
But wasn’t caffeine an unwelcome presence in Mormon country? Not really, I learned. First, while Utah is mostly Mormon, within Salt Lake City proper non-Mormons are the majority. Secondly, the church has clarified in recent years that caffeine consumption is not prohibited per se, merely “hot drinks” (assumed to mean coffee and tea). The Mormon Church does play a substantial role in civic life, which is immediately apparent from the layout of the city: the Salt Lake Temple lies in the center of town with the streets North Temple, South Temple and West Temple shooting off from it in all four directions. (This can get a little confusing when, say, you’re navigating an address like 736 West North Temple.)
While I didn’t want the church to play an oversized role in my Salt Lake experience, I certainly had to visit Temple Square, a 35-acre complex that surrounds the main temple. I made an appointment on the church’s website for a free tour and met the two sister missionaries, from the Philippines, who would be my tour guides. Gregarious and dressed in long skirts and sweaters, they led me up to a room with a large statue of Christ, as well as a panorama painting of earth, as seen from space, that covered nearly the entire back wall.
The sisters motioned to me to sit down and one of them asked me about my faith. I responded honestly, which is that I did not grow up very religiously. That piqued their interest, and one of the women asked me if I’d ever considered accepting Heavenly Father into my life. The other was slightly more blunt about it: “I think you should be a Mormon,” she said, smiling.
After that tricky initial conversation, I had a nice time learning about Temple Square, its different buildings, and the history of the main temple, a beautiful structure that dates back to 1893. The guides were good-humored and generous with their time — the tour ended up taking nearly two hours. Near the end, we took a photo in front of a life-size statue of Brigham Young, and they left me with an inscribed copy of the Book of Mormon, recommending choice passages.
While the beauty of the Salt Lake Temple stayed with me, little could match the natural beauty of city’s environs that was visible nearly anywhere I went. The city lies in a valley, with the steep, sharp peaks of the Wasatch and Oquirrh mountain ranges acting as its guardians, ever-visible throughout the city’s 110 square miles. I went for a quick hike one morning up Big Cottonwood Canyon, in the Wasatch range, with some new friends I had met through Brigham. We went up the Lake Mary trail, a short (roughly two miles) but steep trail that provided nice views of the canyon and meadows dotted with flowers. The water level of the lake at the summit of the hike was quite low when I went (possibly because it was in the process of being drained) but the hike was still well worth the effort.
Feeling peckish after the hike, we stopped by two places that were, I was assured by my companions, quintessentially Utah. Cafe Rio, the Beehive State’s take on Chipotle, proved to be nothing extraordinary, but the pork salad I got for $8.59 was a decent enough bargain. Afterward, we went to try one of Utah’s famous “dirty” sodas. Maggie, one of my new friends, offered a decidedly qualified endorsement: “It’s, well, it’s something to be experienced.”
Shops specializing in flavored, or “dirty,” sodas have proliferated in Utah; while many of the state’s residents are prohibited from consuming alcohol or coffee for religious reasons, there is certainly no ban on sugar. Shops like Sodalicious and Swig have truly gone the extra step — adding shots of flavored syrup and creamer to their drinks — and have even come to legal blows over who’s allowed to use the word “dirty” in describing their wares. We headed to Swig and sampled several of the concoctions (a large 44-ounce soda with a shot of syrup is $1.99; the specialty sodas can run around $3). The Missionary — Sprite with shots of coconut syrup, dairy creamer and something called “Tiger’s Blood” (it tasted like piña colada) — I found undrinkable. The Big Al, however — Diet Coke with coconut syrup and lime — was surprisingly tasty.
Fortunately, better food options awaited me elsewhere. Straw Market has fantastic breakfast deals, including their “short breakfast” — two eggs, hash browns and toast or cinnamon roll, for only $4. I opted for the $3 breakfast burrito instead. An extra frugal tip is to go near closing time, when they put their baked goods on sale for 50 cents an item: a couple came in when I was there and nearly cleaned out the bakery case. I also had a good experience at Layla Mediterranean Grill and Mezze, a restaurant in nearby Holladay. I was able to create a filling dinner and save a few bucks by selecting a three-item combo from the appetizers section for $14. I got a couple of meaty crab cakes, some tender stuffed grape leaves and some excellent French fries covered with a za’atar spice mixture.
After a good dinner, I wanted to experience some Salt Lake City night life. I will admit that I didn’t think it would offer much. I was wrong. There’s a healthy and active bar culture, even if it’s slightly hampered by the state’s drinking laws. I learned this the hard way: I went into the Copper Onion, a place I’d heard good things about, and asked if I could sit down and have a drink. A woman who was eating at a counter stood up and began ushering me toward the door. “First of all, you can’t just ‘have a drink.’ You have to order food. But we’re closing.” Lesson learned: In Utah restaurants, you have to order food in order to be served alcohol. Another rule is that the preparation of alcohol cannot be visible to patrons in newer restaurants, a regulation sometimes referred to as the “Zion Curtain” law.
I headed toward Main Street instead, which had no shortage of actual bars. The sidewalks were packed with people; groups of girls stumbled in and out of bars, guys sat on large planters lining the parkway, checking their texts. It was a loud, buzzy scene, and I barely even noticed when a random young woman approached me, pointed and slurred, “Ok. You. Come on, come with me.” She and her friends beckoned me to follow into a packed bar called Whiskey Street. I went and, finding the place a bit loud for my taste, quickly made my exit a few minutes later. The place next door was more my scene: a bar called Bodega with a “speakeasy”-style bar called the Rest in the basement. (There actually wasn’t anything secret about it; I just asked if I could go downstairs.) In the quiet, cozy space, I ordered a Little Horse ($11), a delicious cocktail with vodka, blackberry and lemon juice.
The Rest was fairly elegant, with its antique-appearing light fixtures, taxidermied animal heads mounted on the walls, and shelves crammed with hardcover books. A place I went to later, X-Wife’s Place, was a dive in the best possible way. Indifferent service, cheap drinks, cheaper pool tables, all in a run-down shack of a building? That’s my kind of place. I got a $1.50 Coors (they also do 16-ounce Miller Lites for $2) and headed out to the back patio, where there were some tables, couches and a cornhole game. The pool tables at X-Wife’s Place, which are just a buck to begin with, are free with a drink purchase, Monday through Thursday from noon until 7 p.m.
My favorite experience, though, was at a Real Salt Lake Major League Soccer game — my first, ever — at Rio Tinto Stadium, against the Chicago Fire. While the cheapest seats on the team’s website were $35, I went on to StubHub and snagged a $12 general admission standing ticket right near the goal. The game, which Real Salt Lake won, was absolutely raucous, especially in my area. The diverse crowd of fans, some of whom have formed their own club like supporters groups were continually shouting, chanting, waving flags and beating drums. One group of supporters behind me flew a large banner that read in Spanish, “Esta Pasion Es Real,” or “This Passion Is Real.” Feeling the electricity of a rocking stadium as the sun set in the distance over the Oquirrh Mountains, I found myself becoming a convert, too.