Mi La Cai
961 S. State St., Salt Lake City ; 801-322-3590
Fast, affordable Chinese and Vietnamese food in a comfortable, calm setting.
Cuisine: Vietnamese, Chinese
Hours: Su-Th, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; F-S, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Corkage: $ 5
Recommended Dishes: Pho (beef noodle soup), bun (rice vermicelli with vegetables, your choice of meat and a huge egg roll).
February 19, 2009
Popular Mi La Cai easy on the palate -- and wallet
By Vanessa Chang
Kung pao chicken. Walnut shrimp. Lo mein. Plates of these Chinese cuisine all-stars are common sights at Mi La Cai (or La Cai Noodle House). In fact, that's what I mostly see arriving on tables, delivered by the service team that is, for the most part, efficient, fast and friendly.
Servers have to be all that. After all, this is mealtime at one of the most popular, yet little-known, restaurants in the valley. The consistent drone of conversation from regulars, clanging silverware and cell-phone chatter build a frenetic atmosphere.
But the layout and décor lend a degree of calm. Lacquered panels of bucolic Chinese and Vietnamese landscapes add some gravitas to cream-colored walls that hug the dining room's tables and flank the booths, some of which face the window onto State Street; others tuck so intimately into walls, they feel like private rooms.
It's a comfortable atmosphere for a midday break or a very affordable dinner. And the dishes -- ranging from meat-loving to Buddha-friendly -- are, for the most part, good. Chinese dishes have a cleaner, less saucy guise than at most other equivalently priced restaurants. And the Vietnamese dishes are some of the most accessible and freshly flavored in the city.
The very familiar stir-fries come out crispy (when dressed in batter) and sizzling (naked or dressed) with a judicious amount of sauce. Nothing kills fluffy grains of white rice like oozing pools of goo passing for stir-fry sauce. But the sauces in the kung pao chicken ($9.90) and walnut shrimp ($15.55) hug the crevasses of batter with their viscous grip. For those taking out, that crunchiness will most likely be lost.
The salt-baked shrimp (shell-less, $15.55), however, is something that should never see a take-out box and is best enjoyed on the spot with alternate bites of green onions that are scattered like confetti throughout the dish.
Stir-fry lovers should consider changing things up a bit and venturing farther south, culinarily speaking, to taste the sautéed lemon-grass and chile chicken ($8.70) -- no batter, just chunks of tender meat in a red-flecked sauce that's aromatic of that floral, almost coconutty lemon-grass stalk. Served piping hot, the bed of white rice underneath catches every bit of flavor and tames a bit of the chile's heat. It's a great dish to treat a cold.
For those supertasters with milder palates, the house special stir-fried beef ($14.35) provides enough flavor and tenderness to satisfy.
Lovers of pho (pronounced "fuh," $7.80) often cite Mi La Cai as a favorite destination for the bowls of cinnamon and onion-scented broth, filled with thin rice noodles, slices of rare beef (the hot broth gently poaches the thin slices of meat) or meatballs. It's quite refreshing any time of the year, as it works some miraculous, medicinal magic by warming and cooling your body, as needed.
For this time of year, it resuscitates and enlivens without adding worries to your waistline -- if that's a worry.
Pho die-hards are just as impassioned as Philly cheesesteak lovers when it comes to arguments of authenticity and recipes. Some might consider Mi La Cai's too pared down for traditional tastes, but given its affordability, accessibility and efficiency, I'd rather take a svelte, nontraditional version than other forms of fast food out there. So long as I have the requisite, accompanying plate of fresh Thai basil leaves, sliced jalapeños and bean sprouts to flavor to the bowl as I please, then I'm happy.
Many of the sauces in the menu's Vietnamese dishes are more bracing. For example, one of the most delicious items on the menu is bun -- nests of vermicelli rice noodles holding chunks of meat and a freshly fried egg roll -- which comes with a fish sauce-based dressing that can sauce the noodles, carrots and cucumbers, or act as a dipping sauce for the charbroiled pork or that crunchy egg roll ($8.10).
Minus the deep-fried goodness, it's another healthy option if ever you find yourself at Mi La Cai with officemates or friends.
Mi La Cai may not be the most authentic haven of Vietnamese or Chinese cuisine, for that matter. It might deter those who prefer to dine at complete holes-in-the-wall. But for many, including me, it's a saving grace for the wallet and overall constitution when it comes to affordable and relatively healthful options that taste good.
Now, let's just work on seeing more Vietnamese dishes in circulation around the dining room.
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.
April 5, 2006
Great Vietnamese in Utah? Pho real
By Lesli J. Neilson
A bowl of pho can be intoxicating. The heady aroma of beef and spices, such as star anise, nutmeg and cinnamon, drifts up to greet you by way of the soup's steamy tendrils. The beef noodle soup deserves to be part of America's mainstream cuisine. Not all pho is made equal, however. Pleasantly surprised by the number of Vietnamese restaurants offering pho, I visited 11 in the Salt Lake Valley. Some restaurants, such as Cafe Trang, serve two variations of pho. Others, such as Pho Bien Hoa, offer 16 versions. If the restaurant's pho selection is numerous, expect a container holding soup spoons, condiment dishes and chopsticks to be on the table. Bottles of hoisin and sriracha always accompany pho. Sometimes fish sauce also is included.
At each restaurant I ordered the smallest bowl, which was a hearty portion, with a combination of meats such as rare beef (paper-thin slices that cook in the hot broth), flank steak, fatty flank, brisket, fatty brisket, beef meatballs, tendon and tripe.
Don't knock those last two items until you try them. If prepared and cooked properly, the tendon should melt in your mouth and the tripe should be julienned and tender. Both cuts of meat add positive textural elements to the pho. The halved beef meatballs are another story. The dense little balls are rather chewy and springlike, and are perhaps an acquired texture for some palates.
Fresh condiments that accompany pho include Thai basil, lime wedges, jalapeno slices, bean sprouts and sometimes cilantro and sawleaf herb, an expensive herb that is similar in taste to cilantro. Each restaurant offered a combination of these condiments. When condiments were less than fresh, omitted or great-tasting, I noted it.
My three favorite restaurants were Pho Bien Hoa, Pho Anh Dao and Pho Hoa.
Here are my notes from each restaurant (my favorites are designated with an asterisk):
Cafe Trang: 818 S. Main St., Salt Lake City, 801-539-1638; 4835 S. Highland Drive, Holladay, 801-278-8889; 1442 E. Draper Parkway, Draper, 801-571-3888; 1811 Sidewinder Drive, Park City, 435-655-8884. One size bowl. (Two selections: $6.95-$7.25.) I ate at the Main Street location. Nice cinnamon and star anise aromas in a complex, dark broth. Good broth-to-noodle ratio. Dishware is a higher caliber than at other pho places. Individual plates replaced a community plate of condiments. Hoisin arrived in small, individual dishes.
Pleasant décor. Efficient, extremely gracious service.
East-Sea Restaurant: 3695 S. Redwood Road, West Valley City, 801-972-9009; 120 N. 900 West, Salt Lake City, 801-596-8963. One size bowl. (Six selections: $5.25-$5.95). I ate at the Redwood Road location. Savory, dark broth had a faint star anise aroma, not overpowering. Good broth-to-noodle ratio. The beef balls were made with coarse ground meat and were superior to others I sampled. Bean sprouts were a tad past their prime. No Thai basil or sawleaf herb. Hoisin and sriracha sauces came out in small condiment dishes.
The vast restaurant, complete with a dance floor, obviously caters to weddings and banquets. The place can feel cavernous when there are only a few diners in the place. Service is friendly and accommodating.
La-Cai Noodle House: 961 S. State St., Salt Lake City, 801-322-3590. One size bowl. (Four selections: $5.95.) This was the most elegant Vietnamese restaurant I visited. Pho did not appear to be the main draw. Upscale dishware. Lighter-colored broth, not as complex as some. Nice noodle-to-broth ratio. Slightly skimpy on the amount of beef. Although no pho accoutrements were pre-set on the tables, once I ordered, the server brought a community plate of condiments and sauces. Professional, but not exactly inviting, service.
Pho 99: 4187 S. Redwood Road, Taylorsville, 801-288-4197. One size bowl. (Sixteen selections: $5.50.) The broth was overly aromatic and sweet tasting. Slightly wilted Thai basil and tired bean sprouts. Old dried garlic and onion flakes also were on the table.
The faded outdoor sign and dingy interior made it evident that the large space is in need of a serious cleaning and redecorating. Extremely cordial, efficient service.
*Pho Anh Dao: 825 S. State St., Salt Lake City, 801-539-8155. Small and large bowls. (Fifteen selections: $4.95-$5.50.) Clearer broth than others. Too many noodles for the amount of broth. Satisfying amount of tender beef, julienned tripe and tendon. Fresh bean sprouts, perky Thai basil and lemon wedges substituted for the usual lime.
Older space, nicely decorated. Hospitable, professional service.
*Pho Bien Hoa: 4146 S. 1785 West, Taylorsville, 801-969-2515. Small and large bowls. (Sixteen selections: $5.50-$6.50.) A favorite. Well-balanced broth, complex flavor and aroma. Good noodle-to-broth ratio. Generous amount and selection of meats. Fresh bean sprouts, plate included sawleaf herb.
Clean, cheery, lime-green surroundings. Perfunctory service.
Pho Cali: 1631 W. 3500 South, West Valley City, 801-972-2808. Small and large bowls. (Twelve selections: $5.65-$6.65.) Overly aromatic, sweet, clear broth. Not much depth of flavor. Tendon not cooked until meltingly tender.
Condiment plate included sawleaf herb.
Bare-bones décor except for a few scenic paintings. Overly lit, cafeteria-feeling. A constant Vietnamese chatter coming from the kitchen was refreshing.
*Pho Hoa: 3460 S. Redwood Road, West Valley City, 801-972-9000. Small and large bowls. (Sixteen selections: $6.45-$7.52.) Seventy-seven locations worldwide. The sole Utah location takes the guesswork out of ordering by separating its menu into "for the beginners," "just regular," and "the adventurer's choice." Menu makes pho more approachable. Tendon sliced too thickly. Good pho otherwise.
Fresh condiments, including sawleaf herb.
Efficient, friendly service. Bright, clean surroundings.
Pho Saigon Noodle House: 1830 W. 3500 South, West Valley City, 801-746-7684. Small and large bowls. (Thirteen selections: $5.50-$6.30.) Semi-dark broth, overly sweet, contains cilantro, green onions and sliced onions. Proper noodle-to-broth ratio.
Condiment plate included fresh sawleaf herb.
Booth seating and a lattice ceiling add charm to the setting. Chandeliers brighten up the place. Televisions playing Asian music videos might appeal to the younger set. Kitchy art and faux fruit serve as decoration. Accommodating service.
Shanghai Café: 145 E. 1300 South, Salt Lake City, 801-322-1841. One size bowl. (Three selections: $5.95.) Pho arrived lukewarm. Wider-than-usual rice noodles were all broken up. Dark broth was overly aromatic and had a sweet flavor. Too many noodles, not enough broth. Tripe was haphazardly cut, tendon was cut into thick chunks, halved beef balls almost squeaked when bitten into. Sad-looking Thai basil, fresh bean sprouts. No fish sauce was on the table.
Tired décor, menu folders need cleaning. Dishes seem thrown together with no attention to detail. Perfunctory service.
South China House: 428 E. 900 South, Salt Lake City, 801-364-9918. One size bowl. (Seven selections: $4.95-$5.25.) Dark broth without much complexity. Good noodle-to-broth ratio. Tripe was lacelike. Broth was hot and cooked the flank steak perfectly. Mildly tired bean sprouts, fresh Thai basil.
Décor was slightly kitschy, replete with year-round Christmas decorations. Clean surroundings. Personable, efficient service.