‘Always evolving, never stagnant, continually striving for something better, consistently delicious.’ – Gustavo Arellano, author of ‘Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America’ (2012)
One of the most satisfying results of the hybrid culinary Diaspora that has made millions of Americans enthusiastic fans of Mexican fare is the fact that concerns about the authenticity of ethnic dishes really should not matter as much as some think. Undoubtedly, as Gustavo Arellano, a nationally syndicated journalist who has authored a well-received recent book on the northward migration of Mexican food, suggests, the kitchen easily can accommodate smart chefs who know how to experiment and bring their own worthwhile, and equally credible twists to a particular ethnic cuisine.
And, the recently opened Taqueria27 in Lamplighter Square along Foothill Boulevard precisely fits that bill. The creation of chef Todd Gardiner is an appealing, tasty, and affordable upscaled rendition of Latin street food, with prices comfortably and reasonably positioned between the numerous casual Mexican-owned eateries and the small number of higher-end bistros which serve Mexican-inspired food.
The food side of the menu is deceptively compact but indicative of Gardiner’s wise approach to keeping the demands on the kitchen manageable while offering enough diversity to suit virtually every imaginable type of dietary practice, preference, and restriction. Tacos come in orders of two or four and, as observed during a recent lunch-time service with plenty of diners, customers were more than happy to order several varieties and share accordingly. The emphasis is on fresh ingredients and house-made tortillas, sauces, and other items such as chorizo. The tacos come in all meat varieties including a duck confit selection that includes fire-roasted vegetables, leeks, and a chipotle anejo syrup that is well-moderated in terms of heat.
The fish tacos change accordingly to what is available fresh. The escolar was the choice during a lunch service one day and the light, breaded results in the taco were exceptional. The carne taco was an eye-appealing composition with the marinated beef, crisp radishes, nopalitos, avocado, and a brightly-colored chimichurri that accented the taco satisfyingly. The meat was perhaps a bit thicker for this particular profile than what is typically seen but its flavor was as consistently fresh and lively as other items. The wild mushrooms and griddle vegetables taco options looked equally promising.
Gardiner, whose resume is well-known to many serious veterans of the Salt Lake City and northern Utah culinary scene, says that he also will offer occasional taco specials featuring sweetbreads, tongue, and other fillings that underscore the taco’s incredibly versatile medium. Other menu entrees feature house-made moles (rojo, verde, oaxacan, and amarillo) with achiote chicken, beef, pork, and grilled portobello mushrooms as options. The platters run between $11 and $14 with two sides. Diners have the choice of pinto beans cooked with smoked chiles, black beans, lentils, and cilantro rice.
An especially appealing starter is the butter lettuce salad with a green chile and gorgonzola dressing that comes in small and large portions but even the small size is a perfectly moderate opener for two. The salad is finished off with pumpkin seeds and pears. Other salad choices (also in small and large size) feature a house caeser and baby spinach, and diners can add wild mushrooms, roasted peppers, house-made chorizo, chicken or beef for a nominal charge. The guacamole, of course, is served with fresh tortilla chips and the varieties range from the tropical citrus to classic takes with tomatillo and blistered chiles. Even the additional starter options of queso fundido, nachitos, and quesadillas keep the menu under control for high quality standards even as they satisfy quite a broad range of dining preferences for taste and dietary practices.
And, Gardiner’s wise, meticulous planning for the restaurant, five years in the making, shines through on the other half of the menu, with an excellent selection of tequilas – numbering 40 or more – that are perfect for sipping and as the foundations for margaritas, which are refreshing without having that biting sour taste which occasionally overwhelms the palate. The chef-owner tips also his hat to the budding empire of locally produced beers with selections from Epic, Squatters, Uinta, and Wasatch as well as some favored Mexican imports such as Pacifico and Negra Modelo.
One of my favorite accompaniments with tacos is a fine Herradura, Milagro, or Patron tequila for sipping. And, T27’s selection is no small feat in a state where the outsiders’ perception still is focused on whether anything respectable in libations can be found at a casual restaurant such as Gardiner’s. The tequilas represent many categories in depth and price range: Silver, Reposado, Añejo and Extra Añejo.
And, Gardiner has scored a mini-coup by offering Carlos Santana’s tequila, Casa Noble, in the near future which is being specially ordered into the state. At time of publication, this particular tequila is available in only a little more than a dozen markets, including Austin, Denver, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Houston.
The branding concept for T27 has the right elements in place. Located conveniently close to the University of Utah and to the neighborhoods surrounding the busy Foothill Boulevard corridor, the restaurant’s minimalist décor is warmed by red leather benches, chocolate-colored booths, southwestern art, sections of distressed wood that have been recycled, and a large chalk art panel drawn by local artist Malia Denali that highlights dining specials and the impressive selection of tequilas. There is an open presentation kitchen which adds to the sensations of the T27 experience.
A recent lunchtime service underscored the easily embraced ambience of T27. Diners, many of whom were in formal and casual office wear, clearly enjoyed their meals and conversations. The acoustics are ideally controlled, too. T27 is an ideal stop for solo diners or groups to linger on a weekday evening or weekend afternoon over tacos, a sampling of starters, a margarita, and perhaps a couple of sipping tequilas.
Likewise, Gardiner has opened a coffee bar next door which features cocoa, cider, chai, Millcreek Roasters coffee, Italian sodas, juices and features breakfast pastries from Pierre’s Country Bakery and free Wi-Fi service. He added that he’ll begin offering breakfast dishes with a Mexican theme shortly.
The restaurant, located at 1615 South Foothill Drive in the Lamplighter Square, is open every day, except Sunday, from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. The coffee bar opens at 6 a.m. and closes an hour earlier than the restaurant. Individual menu items range in price for $4 to $14.
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