Mexican pizza: yes; beans: no, at Sandbar’s vibrant island outpost

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It’s hard for me to tell, at this early stage, if the “Pierpont Entertainment District” (which takes out big ads in City Weekly) exists only in our minds, exists only in the minds of clever PR and marketing types, or is the real deal. I suppose time will tell. The Pierpont District certainly doesn’t have the critical mass of patrons or the energy and vibrancy of, say, Denver’s LoDo.

However, it’s beginning to feel like Salt Lake City’s fun zone: roughly the area encompassing West Temple to 200 West and 100 South to 500 South. There, you’ll find clubs, bars and restaurants like Lumpys Downtown, Bliss, Elevate, Donovan’s, The Hotel, Gracie’s, Mo’s, Spencer’s, Trofi, Christopher’s, Squatters, Metropolitan, Red Rock, Settebello and a few others I probably forgot. All are within easy walking (or staggering) distance from one another. Oh, and how could I forget Sandbar? I’ve been eating there lately, with mixed results.

Unless you’re a total stick-in-the-mud, it’s hard not to like the island atmosphere of Sandbar. The floors look like a sandy beach, reggae-spiked tunes play loudly throughout the colorful interior, overhead lamps are made out of tin beer buckets and there’s even a chandelier constructed from used Corona bottles. The servers (I haven’t seen any male servers yet) wear denim miniskirts, and there are Tommy Bahama rum and Jagermeister bottles embedded in the pillars and columns throughout the sprawling club/restaurant. TV screens abound, and dining tables consist of beer bottle-caps covered in an inch of clear lacquer. Are we in Scottsdale or on Melrose? Sure feels like it.

Particularly on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, Sandbar is a boisterous, high-energy scene; it seems as though many of Port O’ Call’s former patrons (the young ones) have found their way to Sandbar. Guys, have your pick-up lines ready; gals, be sure to wear heels.

The rest of the time, Sandbar functions primarily as a restaurant. And that’s where things can begin to break down. At a big, lengthy lunch with a dozen or so City Weekly staffers, I had the opportunity to sample much of the Sandbar menu, and most of the appetizers. And I’ve gotta say: This place is all over the map with their food. Some items are downright delicious; others are disappointing and detestable. Order carefully.

For starters, when your Sandbar server asks you if you’d like chips and salsa, you should know (and perhaps she should tell you) that they ain’t free. Chips and salsa will cost you $4, or $7 with guacamole. That seems awfully steep, to me, although the thin, light and crispy chips and trio of salsas were very good—and very plentiful; the “bottomless” chips come in a big metal Corona bucket. Still, why fill up on chips and salsa when you could order the best thing on the Sandbar menu for only $7? It’s the Mexican pizza, which begins with a fried flour-tortilla “crust,” topped with tender shredded chicken and Serrano-pepper cream-cheese guacamole, along with a 3-cheese blend, tomatoes and cilantro. The cheese blend, with cojita, pepper jack and queso fresco, is particularly flavorful. I’ve never quite understood the appeal of taquitos and chimichangas: beef, chicken and such rolled in tortillas and deep-fried. But, if you like your meat deep-fried, you’ll like Sandbar’s.

Aside from the Mexican pizza, my favorite dish at Sandbar is the marvelous machaca beef burrito ($9), which comes with sides of rice & beans. It’s a mammoth tortilla stuffed with lightly seasoned, shredded, tender machaca and served with sour cream, guacamole and salsa. But, here’s the conundrum: I would have liked to have my machaca in taco form, because I wasn’t hungry enough for a giant burrito. Regular taco dishes at Sandbar consist of two large flour tortilla tacos, plus rice and beans. The taco choices are Baja fish, ground beef, Mahi, carne asada, citrusmarinated chicken and Ahi. No machaca. Well, that’s not quite true. You can get machaca in your tacos if you order the “six-pack” of tacos ($12). But the tacos at Sandbar are large already, and I can’t eat more than two. So, I order the beerbattered Baja fish taco ($7) and, of course, I’m disappointed. Because what I really wanted was the machaca. Sigh ...

The Ahi tacos ($8) were bland—thin slices of lightly seared Ahi (pink in the middle with a white outer edge) tasting of little more than mayo-heavy chipotle aioli. That same aioli marred the carne asada taco ($8), although it was DOA anyway: tough, overcooked strips of chewy steak that I’ll bet are also used for the Sandbar fajitas, which I opted out of. Thankfully though, food prices at Sandbar are low and portions are generous. So you won’t lose the farm trying out items like the chipotle BBQ chicken salad (not bad) or the green chile burger (better).

It’s a shame, however, that too many of Sandbar’s dishes come with sides of Mexican rice and beans. I’ve tried them on three different occasions now and they’ve been, well, I hate to use the word disgusting, so let’s say, less-than-pleasing. Much less. The beans, in particular, are a bitter, gloppy combination of smashed and whole beans that had to have come from a can. But even canned refried beans are better than these. Here’s a suggestion for the chef: Pick up a copy (I’ll even loan you mine) of Rick Bayless’ Authentic Mexican and turn to the recipe on page 207 for “brothy beans.” You can make them in big batches and, I guarantee, your customers will go gaga for those beans.

122 W. Pierpont Ave.

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