It doesn't seem like long ago that in the Cottonwood Heights area around the Old Mill (aka the Cottonwood Paper Mill), the only game in town was D.J.'s Beer Garden (now Hog Wallow Pub) and The Cotton Bottom Inn. The terrain looked a lot more like the west desert than anything resembling a thriving metropolis. Then came the Old Mill golf course, office parks and Rivers restaurant and brewery (now Trio), with its posh upstairs hideaway Private Reserve. They were soon followed by Market Street Grill & Oyster Bar and, more recently, Luna Blanca Taqueria and others. My, how the neighborhood has grown!
Well, a recent mini-getaway to Hyatt Place in Cottonwood Heights—my wife had certificates for a free stay—offered the opportunity to try out the area's newest occupant: Bandits' American Grill. I'm glad we did—once we found it, that is. Whoever was responsible for the street design in this area must've been partaking of hallucinogens; navigating the Escher-like labyrinth to hideaways like Luna Blanca or Bandits requires a first-class GPS system.
The original Bandits' Bar & Grill was created by "head bandit" Ron Parker in the greater Los Angeles-area city of Thousand Oaks, in 1990. A few years ago, Shane Barber and his wife, Jen, opened Bandits in Park City, and they also own the new Cottonwood Heights location. "Jen and I are true locals here, and we're excited for Bandits to become a great neighborhood spot," Shane said of the new Cottonwood restaurant.
Although the menus are similar at each location, the décor and ambience of each Bandits is unique. At the new Bandits, customers are greeted with a roaring fire pit, which serves as a beacon to the sprawling outdoor deck for dining in warm weather. Inside, the restaurant is spacious, with lots of stone and wood surfaces, an inviting lounge area, Utah-themed historic black & white photographs on the walls and a glassed-in kitchen, which allows patrons to eyeball the chefs.
I have to admit experiencing a bit of sticker shock when we ordered our appetizers. While $8.99 seems like a hefty price for a single grilled artichoke, it sure was tasty—nicely charred from the 1,800-degree grill and served with an addictive aioli. A smallish cup of tri-tip chili ($5.99) left me wanting more. It was a highly spiced, tomato-based chili con carne with meaty chunks of tri-tip—easily the best chili I've had in ages. Why do so few restaurants serve chili anymore, by the way? I just wish there were a larger-size portion available on the menu. Tri-tip—a specialty at Bandits—finds its way into many other dishes, however, like the steak salad ($13.99) and the generously sized nachos, a melty mélange of tortilla chips smothered with cheese, baked beans, tomatoes, barbecue sauce and beef tri-tip pieces served in a big cast-iron skillet with sour cream drizzled on top.
Service at Bandits is about as good as it gets, from a friendly greeting and seating, to keeping water and wine glasses filled. That's not something I was really expecting from a place that is self-identified as a "family" restaurant. Likewise, the vibe is much more upscale than what I usually associate with family dining.
The main sections of the menu are barbecue-heavy—not surprising, since rotisserie-smoked and hardwood fire-grilled proteins are Bandits' backbone. Barbecue items come with a choice of Bandits' housemade barbecue sauce or jerk sauce; I recommend requesting both, on the side. I ordered the BBQ Combo ($20.99), which offers a choice of two items from a list that includes boneless chicken breast, roasted half chicken, baby back ribs, pulled pork and tri-tip, plus two side dishes. I opted for the ribs and half chicken, plus Beehive Cheddar mac & cheese and a side of "ranch" beans. The chicken was blessedly not overcooked: It was tender and juicy, and it paired nicely with the tangy, slightly sweet housemade barbecue sauce. The ribs, on the other hand, were tough and chewy. In fact, they tasted like they'd been sitting around for a day or two, and then reheated and sauced à la minute, as the French say.
I'd heard raves about the tri-tip ($13.99) and prime rib ($15.99) sandwiches at Bandits, and justifiably so—which made all the more surprising my disappointment in the stand-alone tri-tip filet. I like my steaks rare, but this was ultra-rare—closer to raw—and unappealingly tough and chewy. That was in stark contrast to an excellent salmon fillet ($19.99), grilled to perfection atop a cedar plank. The cedar-plank salmon was lightly spiced, juicy and flavorful—not an easy feat to achieve on a blast-furnace temperature wood-fired grill. The sides of rice and a veggie medley (carrots, cauliflower and broccoli) were also enjoyable and perfectly cooked.
My wife, though, zeroed in on a "freedom of choice" issue at Bandits that had occurred to me as well. My BBQ Combo came with a choice of two sides (from a dozen of them), while her salmon dish included the aforementioned rice and veggies. "I'd like to be able to choose my own side dishes," she said. Makes sense, right? It's hard to understand the logic behind requiring certain sides—roasted fingerlings and asparagus with the "brick" chicken, for example—while giving patrons the freedom to choose with others. I'd imagine, however, given the excellent table service at Bandits, that substitutions would be accommodated.
The dessert section is small, but do yourself a favor and order the bread pudding ($6.99) before you depart. It's a warming, wonderful dessert that'll leave you feeling that you made out like bandits.