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West Valley City • Once upon a time, and not so long ago, a strip-mall restaurant was not a place you expected to eat happily ever after.
But finding good food in inconspicuous places is no longer a fairy tale in Salt Lake County. I'm thinking of Tosh's Ramen in Salt Lake City and Sicilia Mia in Holladay as just two examples of relatively new restaurants that appear to be thriving in obscure locations.
Now you can add Los Molcajetes to those finds. This small West Valley City eatery, squeezed between a barbershop and a grocery catering to Latinos, offers quality Mexican food at a very affordable price. It's popular with the takeout crowd, guys who need a hearty lunch to fuel their manual labor, and families. During one recent visit, the young daughter of a server was learning the ropes, delivering glasses of water and boxes for leftovers.
And there very well may be leftovers. The specialty of the house is the molcajete, a feast that features grilled strips of steak and chicken, several large grilled shrimp, a chunk of chorizo and fingers of white cheese, served in a metal bowl fitted inside the pot of lava rock from which the dish gets its name. Underneath all that protein is a delicious green tomatillo sauce, enriched with melted cheese and strips of what tasted like Anaheim peppers.
You will want to use the steaming flour tortillas that come with it to mop up that sauce, which also plays well with the included side dishes of refried beans and tomato-flavored rice. The molcajete comes in portions for one ($14.99), another that feeds up to four people ($23.93), or you can make it a party for four to six ($49). It's a lot of food for the money, made with quality ingredients, although a couple of the steak strips were a tad chewy.
There's also a seafood version of the molcajete ($32.99) with crab, shelled shrimp, shrimp in the shell, octopus and clams.
For a place that only has eight tables, Los molcajetes has a menu so large it was impossible to taste everything during the course of a couple of visits. It's open for breakfast with a selection of five egg dishes ranging from Mexican-style eggs to huevos rancheros, all served with beans and tortillas ($7.99). For lunch or dinner, eight meat options (from shredded pork to tripe to beef head) can be made into meals ranging from tacos to burritos to gorditas ($1.75 to $6.99).
The tacos are simple and small, just a tortilla topped with your choice of meat. But a salsa bar at the front of the restaurant is stocked with chopped onions, cilantro, sour cream and a selection of sauces, including one that will toast your taste buds.
Beyond the seafood molcajete, there are a dozen fish offerings that range from a shrimp and octopus cocktail ($14.99) to shrimp in the shell in a buttery, spicy sauce ($12.99) to fried tilapia ($11.99).
I'm a sucker for chiles rellenos, and this version did not disappoint ($8.99). It was straightforward: two Anaheim chiles stuffed with cheese and smothered in a mild sauce full of onions and tomatoes, topped with a sprinkle of white cheese. What I liked most was the breading that just barely coated the peppers. A healthy portion of those delicious refritos and rice rounded out the plate.
An entrée of pork ribs in sauce ($8.99) was big enough that I took half of it home, and believe me, it was just as good the next day. I opted for the green sauce, full of pepper strips, that made me sweat only a bit; the red sauce is reportedly a few notches higher on the heat scale. The tender meat was cut into large chunks, some of which contained a bone, but that only made it more flavorful. Perfect for a cool fall day.
Enchiladas are another of my go-to dishes at a Mexican restaurant. At Los Molcajetes, they are made with either cheese or chicken ($7.99). Both were excellent, overstuffed with filling and steaming hot. The chicken was well complemented by the milder green sauce, while the cheese benefited from the additional heat of the red.
Fajitas are served sizzling hot on a skillet ($10.99 for grilled chicken, $11.49 for steak). It's a generous serving of meat and grilled onions and peppers, topped with grated cheese and served with more of those hot tortillas.
The chicken flautas ($6.99) were the weak link in my sample: The filling kept falling out of the rolled, fried tortillas, which were on the chewy side.
For kids who haven't yet developed a taste for Mexican cuisine, there's a choice of a cheese quesadilla (which the toddler in our group described as "warm and gooey"), a hot dog or chicken nuggets for $4.99, which also includes a drink.
It's a shame Los Molcajetes doesn't have a license to sell beer, because there's nothing better than a frosty brew with spicy food. But diners can choose from a variety of soft drinks, horchata (made by steeping almonds or grains in milk) or milkshakes.
Los Molcajetes is part of growing trend in northern Utah of small ethnic restaurants offering good, inexpensive food. It's modestly furnished and the plates are plastic, but it's your appetite, not ambience, that matters here. If you're in the neighborhood, it's worth a visit, especially for that overflowing molcajete.
Food • HH
Mood • H
Service • H
Noise • b
The modest exterior of this little Mexican café doesn't do justice to the good things coming out of the kitchen. The large menu offers everything from huevos rancheros to an overflowing lava rock molcajete full of a delicious green sauce, melted cheese, chicken, steak and shrimp. The chiles rellenos are excellent, as are the pork ribs. For the money, this place is a real bargain.
Location • 4031 W. 4100 South, West Valley City; 801-875-2838
Online • losmolcajetesut.com
Hours • Monday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Tuesday-Thursday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Children's menu • Yes
Prices • $-$$
Liquor • No
Reservations • No
Takeout • Yes
Wheelchair access • Yes
Outdoor dining • No
On-site parking • Yes
Credit cards • Yes