There is certainly no shortage of Mexican restaurants in Utah. I'd have to use the fingers and toes on both hands and feet to count the ones I like in Rose Park and West Valley alone. The one place I wouldn't expect to find authentic South of the Border flavors is at a ski resort. But, that's precisely what you will find—authentic Mexican flavor—at Snowbird Ski & Summer Resort's El Chanate restaurant.
"Chanate" in Spanish means "blackbird." It's an appropriate moniker, then, for it soars at such a high altitude. I recently spent a weekend at Snowbird to help judge a chili cook-off, which gave me plenty of time and opportunities to reacquaint myself with El Chanate's. During the chili cook-off weekend, chefs from five Snowbird eateries—The Aerie, The Lodge Bistro, The Steak Pit, the Forklift and El Chanate—prepared different chilies for a "people's choice" competition. Among them were a lamb chili, a white bean and sausage chili, a red chili made with Prime beef, and a buffalo meat chili. But when all of the chili spoons were put away, the crowd favorite was from chef Carlos Perez of El Chanate.
The chili is indeed award-worthy: a red chili brimming with tender roasted pork and posole-inspired hominy in place of the traditional beans. The pork chili will appear on El Chanate's winter menu. The restaurant's décor, which dates back to the 1970s, is somewhat out-of-date. But I'm told that, by the end of spring, a facelift—á la the magnificent makeover of The Aerie a few years back—will be completed. With the (Ian) Cummings family now majority owners of Snowbird, look for many of the food and beverage facilities there to get an upgrade as well. For starters, the all-new Summit restaurant—a 23,000 square foot eatery with 360-degree views at the top of Hidden Peak—will open in December.
If you haven't visited El Chanate in a while, I encourage you to do so. I was told that longtime chef Perez has been encouraged ("unhandcuffed" is the way one employee put it) to create dishes inspired by his homeland, Chihuahua. That unleashed creativity shows up in an appetizer of pork empanadas ($10), which are lightly fried and stuffed with shredded, slow-roasted pork, Chihuahua cheese, creamy salsa de árbol, and zippy habanero salsa.
A generous serving of chips and salsa comes gratis at El Chanate, and they are splendid. The rich, red-chile salsa is excellent; the large homemade chips are light, without a speck of grease or oil. While munching on chips and salsa, take time to peruse the beverage menu and its selection of some 40 different tequilas, ranging from El Charro Silver ($8) to Herradura Seleccion Suprema ($49). There are many enticing margaritas, including my favorite, the Silver Fox ($14), made with Cabo Wabo Blanco, Cointreau and El Chanate's superb house margarita mix.
Before we get to the entrees, a couple more appetizers are worth noting. An order of shrimp taquitos ($11) consists of four large shrimp wrapped in tortilla strips, lightly fried until just cooked through and tender, served with house-made pico de gallo atop a lattice-design of salsa de árbol and avocado-tomatillo salsa. It's a gorgeous dish that tastes as lovely as it looks. One more excellent app is the mini sopes ($10): a trio of small masa-flour cakes topped with spicy shredded chipotle-flavored chicken, queso fresco, salsa de árbol, avocado-tomatillo salsa and sour cream.
Chef Perez is gifted when it comes to cooking pork. Order any pork dish from the El Chanate menu, and prepare to be bowled over. One of his secrets is to baste the pork frequently while it slow-roasts, which not only helps keep the pork tender but also gives a glistening, delicious "bark." It's irresistible, so don't hesitate to order the pork tacos ($14): two generously sized tacos stuffed with delectable, adobo-marinated pork and topped with minced red onion, cilantro and chile de árbol sauce. The carne asada tacos and beer-battered fish tacos are equally inviting. All come with a side of deliciously decadent creamy refried beans (lard is the secret here). Unfortunately, the accompanying Spanish rice was a bit dry and disappointing.
Still, the service at El Chanate is top-notch, and I have a feeling that talented new general manager Riley Marlowe has something to do with that. He's energetic, focused and seems to be a man with a plan: to elevate the El Chanate dining experience for customers old and new. He recommended we try the pollo & mole entrée ($21), and I'm glad he did. This was a juicy, roasted chicken leg and thigh, smothered in Perez' "original mole recipe," which had both sweet and spicy notes from mole made with fresh pumpkin, dried guajillo and ancho chiles, almonds, raisins and chocolate.
However, of all the dishes I enjoyed at El Chanate, my favorite was the pork chili Colorado ($17). Think not chile verde (which is also very good here), but rather chili rojo. The chili Colorado is a hearty New Mexico-style chili consisting of bite-size chunks of slow-roasted pork, bathed in a rich red-chile sauce made with broth and guajillo chiles. It comes with warm tortillas for soaking up every bit of that killer Colorado sauce.
Dessert options include mud pie, coconut panna cotta, frozen Key lime cheesecake, and a brownie sandwich with dulce de leche and topped with ancho chile chocolate sauce. However, I prefer the sensational simplicity of a sizzling sopapilla ($6): flash-fried flour tortillas tossed with sugar and cinnamon and served with chocolate sauce and agave syrup for dipping.
The blackbird seems to be soaring at Snowbird.