La Morena Cafe
1458 W. North Temple, Salt Lake City ; 801-322-2255
This bare-bones Mexican restaurant has been serving some of the best chiles rellenos and chile verde in the valley since 1995.
Cuisine: Mexican, Mexican
Hours: M-F, 11 a.m.-7 p.m.
Corkage: $ 0
Reservations: Not accepted/necessary
Recommended Dishes: Chile verde, chiles rellenos.
December 1, 2010
A roundup of Mexican flavors
By Lesli J. Neilson
The Salt Lake Tribune
I recently ate at three Salt Lake Valley Mexican restaurants, which hadnít been visited by The Tribune for more than five years. While I didnít find the overall dining experience out of this world at any of these places, I did discover some excellent menu items along the way.
Since 1995, La Morena Cafť has been housed in a nondescript building in the Fair Park neighborhood near North Temple and 1400 West. The signage is so simple itís easy to pass it by.
I think owners Maria and Manuel Ramirez must have the right idea, as the restaurant has some peculiar hours: Itís open Monday to Friday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. I imagine this allows the family to have a life outside of the restaurant business.
The white-walled restaurant is decorated with colorful Mexican blankets and pictures of local Latino dignitaries, and the Ramirezes keep the 27-seat place virtually spotless. The two-page menu offers the greatest-hits of Mexican cuisine: tacos, enchiladas, tostadas, burritos, chimichangas, tamales and flautas.
Rice and decent-tasting refried beans accompany nearly every dish, including a big carne asada burrito with rather tough, diced steak, lettuce, avocado and pico de gallo ($9.10), whose flavors never really seemed to come together. Iíve tasted lighter, fluffier masa that holds proteins such as pork, beef or chicken in the tamales (one for $7.45; two for $10.10).
But the real gems on the menu are the chile verde (side for $3.25; bowl for $6.25; and topped on just about any dish) and cheese-stuffed chiles rellenos, which, though fried, are light (one for $8.20; two for $11.50). Tender bits of pork mingle with onions, spices and habanero chiles, which give the chile verde its heat.
Iíve thought about that sauce more than once since my visit to La Morena. I might consider picking some up for dinner, and then heading to Hectorís Miramar to purchase some absolutely delicious flan.
Some people have a love-it or hate-it opinion about the dessert, which used to be a textural challenge for me, but not anymore. When itís done poorly, it can be rubbery and tasteless. But when itís done well, itís a tender, caramel-coated wedge that easily gives to the slice of a fork and can be devoured in minutes. Such was the case at Hectorís Miramar.
Situated just west of Nightmare on 13th, this restaurant was once a car lot. Glassed-in sales offices now serve as individual dining rooms ó perfect for families with young diners. The giant posters of commercial beer bottles on some walls arenít, however. Letís just say dťcor is not this restaurantís forte.
Hectorís Miramar may be known for its seafood. But in several of the fish dishes I sampled, I found the cod to be watery, in the case of the ceviche, and tasteless, in the case of the fish tacos, as well as the shrimp and octopus in an appetizer cocktail. With all the fresh fish thatís available now in Utah, thereís no excuse for using frozen.
Instead, diners would do better to stick with dishes such as the enchiladas and chicken quesadilla, which come with great-tasting refried beans. Beans and rice accompany nearly every dish.
At Sandyís Mi Ranchito Grill, youíre better off steering clear of Mexican standards such as the chiles rellenos, quesadilla and enchiladas. Instead, turn to dishes such as costillas de puerco (pork ribs), calabacitas a la Mexicana (squash Mexican-style), nopales a la Mexicana (diced paddle cactus) and soups such as caldo de res (meatball soup).
All of these dishes were offered at a Saturday buffet ($11.99 for adults, $3.99 for children). Thereís only one problem, which is a big one: The restaurant has stopped offering the weekend buffet. Mi Ranchito Grill is the only local Mexican restaurant Iíve ever heard of offering a buffet ó complete with made-on-the-spot, steaming tortillas. Perhaps the restaurant could pare down its buffet offerings to not take such a loss or offer the buffet at one of its other locations in American Fork, Salt Lake City or Orem.
Itís a shame, really, because my tastes have gone beyond burritos, enchiladas and quesadillas. Instead, I crave more traditional home-style Mexican cooking or cocina casera. And Iím sure others do, too.
Tribune's rating system
1 star Good
2 stars Very good
3 stars Excellent
4 stars Extraordinary
$ Entree under $10
$$$$ Above $25
1 bell Quiet (under 65 decibles)
2 bells Can talk easily (65-70)
3 bells Talking somewhat difficult (70-75)
4 bells Raised voices (75-80)
A bomb Too noisy for normal conversation (80+)
The Tribune covers the cost of all meals at reviewed restaurants. Star ratings are based on a minimum of two visits. Ratings are updated continually based on at least one revisit. There is no connection between reviews and advertising.
February 27, 2004
By Nancy Hobbs
Salt Lake City was hardly the place to find global cuisine in the 1960s -- there were a few Asian restaurants and a couple of Mexican diners. (Anyone remember the old Tampico?) So when La Morena restaurant opened in 1967 at the old Guadalupe Center as a way to help fund language outreach and early-education programs for Spanish-speaking families, it felt like a big leap forward in broadening our cultural and culinary horizons.
It was the place to go for "authentic" Mexican food, and though today it may seem a little dated, with only basic chiles (anaheim and jalapeno) and no adobo sauce, it whetted the appetites of Utahns hungry for something different.
When Adnan Khashoggi bought property around North Temple and 300 West and started building the Triad Center, the Guadalupe Center and La Morena became casualties of that development. There were other Mexican restaurants to fill the void, but for some people, including Maria and Manuel Ramirez, La Morena was irreplaceable. Maria waitressed at La Morena for 14 of its 19 years; her husband Manuel cooked there for eight. When it closed in 1986, they went on to other ventures, but nine years ago opened their own cafe. With the La Morena name no longer encumbered by the infamous Khashoggi bankruptcy, they chose to revive it.
The new La Morena Cafe is a compact, white building with colorful Mexican blankets hanging between the windows and half a dozen booths inside. Hurricane-shaped cups advertising Circus Circus and Slots of Fun casinos double as straw servers on each table.
The food is basically what was offered at the original, with ground beef as the staple ingredient in hard- or soft-shelled tacos, enchiladas, burritos and chimichangas. The house specialties, then as now, are chile verde and chile rellenos.
Customers -- many of whom recognize Maria, and vice-versa, from "the old days" -- tell the Ramirezes that it's the kind of food they have missed.
The chile verde is especially good, with chunks of pork and diced onions and chiles in a tasty sauce that isn't too hot. It can be ordered by itself, with a side of hot tortillas ($6.75), but also is used to "smother" burritos, tamales, rellenos and even baked potatoes.
The rellenos are made with mild chiles filled with cheese and surrounded by a deep-fried egg batter, then topped with chile verde for a scrumptious mix of flavors ($6.10 for one; $8.10 for two).
The smothered burrito is the other house favorite, filled with the cafe's creamy and flavorful refried beans, then topped with the chile verde and cheese ($5.85).
I especially like the chile verde with huevos rancheros ($6.30), which were delivered just as they should be: two perfectly fried eggs topped with chile verde sitting aside flaky, seasoned rice and hot, luscious refried beans, with a small garnish of cold, shredded lettuce and a basket of hot tortillas on the side. Nothing to gussy it up or detract from the classic.
The only drawback is that since the cafe isn't open Saturdays or Sundays, it's not an option for a weekend breakfast.
In fact, La Morena's hours may be a limiting factor for a lot of customers. It is only open weekdays from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., though with the switch to daylight savings time, it will stay open until 7. The Ramirezes shortened their hours after the 9-11 terrorist attacks, which Maria describes as "a turning point for the cafe."
Like most dining enterprises, business at La Morena took a hit, with people staying home evenings, and even curtailing lunch outings. A second hit came with changes to the state's liquor laws that made beer-only licenses more expensive -- too much to justify keeping a license, Maria said. Hence, the switch to primarily lunch and early-dinner crowds, which come mostly from nearby state and private office buildings and an adjacent urban campground.
For those who can make La Morena a destination spot, it is a friendly and inexpensive retreat with real Mexican comfort food.