As the makeover of downtown Sugar House continues apace, dining options there keep growing as well. The newest eateries to open are located in a new square and office complex just off Wilmington Avenue. I'm beginning to feel jealous of Sugar House residents, given how many good new restaurants have popped up there in the past year or so.
SOMI Vietnamese Bistro is a terrific new addition to the neighborhood. If you're as curious about the name as I was, SOMI is a combined abbreviation for the husband and wife team of Sophia and Michael Eng, who own and operate the restaurant. Sophia spends most of her time in the kitchen, while Michael keeps a keen eye on the dining area—welcoming guests, filling wine glasses and treating new customers like longtime friends.
If you're thinking that SOMI is probably just another Vietnamese pho emporium, think again. It is on the menu, but this is an upscale eatery with much more than just pho to offer. For starters, the décor is strikingly modern, with a vivid color palette that includes avocado and orange highlights, but also with wood furnishings that give the restaurant warmth.
The menu is divided into five parts: starters, noodles (soups), vermicelli, rice and main dishes. I can rarely resist beef carpaccio, so I placed an order for bo tai chanh ($14) immediately while we perused the wine list. Shortly, a dozen or so beautiful, thin medallions of raw filet mignon appeared, garnished with Thai basil, jalapeño slices and crushed peanuts with sweet and tangy chili vinaigrette alongside. The carpaccio was excellent. However, I'd warn anyone who isn't familiar with raw jalapeños that a single slice can create an inferno on the tongue, which sort of wrecks the subtlety of the lovely carpaccio.
Much of the food at SOMI looks like edible art; the dish presentations are very pleasing to the eye. That's certainly the case with the starter of "skinless" shrimp rolls ($6). It's a pair of rolls with tender shrimp, crispy pork, chives and vermicelli rice noodles wrapped in romaine lettuce leaves, served with pickled carrot and daikon, cucumber and dipping sauce. If you prefer your spring rolls less naked, try the more traditional cha giò ($8). These are crispy fried rolls filled with ground pork, mushrooms, onions, taro and carrots, and although deep-fried, they are still light and delicious. Everyone seems to serve sliders of some sort these days, and SOMI is no exception. Sliders here ($9) are steamed bao buns stuffed with crisp, bacon-style pork and scallions with hoisin sauce—simple, but delicious.
There's a nifty little beverage list at SOMI that includes a handful of specialty cocktails (like the Singapore sling or the Thai one on), five sake selections or so, a nice assortment of local and imported beers, and surprisingly good wine options, including producers such as Carol Shelton, Bucklin, Boutari, Jean-Luc Colombo, Willm, Adami, Schug and more.
Although I said that SOMI isn't merely a pho noodle house, they do serve pho that's as fab as I've had anywhere. I loved my large bowl of pho tai ($10), which begins with beef bone broth that cooks for days, to which is added a generous portion of rice noodles, bean sprouts, Thai basil, onion, scallions and thinly sliced beef ribeye—the latter of which cooks in the broth on the way to the table. The pho is fragrant and inviting; with hints of star anise that lends a very subtle, slightly sweet, licorice-like flavor to the broth. It's fantastic. Meat lovers will appreciate the other pho option at SOMI, called pho dac biet. That one has the aforementioned ribeye, plus brisket, flank, oxtail and meatballs ($11).
The main dishes section of the menu is where SOMI really differentiates itself. I wasn't expecting to find slowly simmered oxtail with taro, herbs and spices ($25) on the menu, nor pan-seared rack of lamb ($29). But like those dishes, the heavenly grilled (whole) branzino ($27) is elevated via the use of well-balanced spices and sauces; in this case, the fish is served with tamarind sauce and sliced scallions. We also really enjoyed the seafood pan-fried noodles ($22), which is a mélange of perfectly cooked scallops, shrimp, squid and branzino with mushrooms, bok choy, bamboo shoots and other veggies, all atop a layer of crunchy egg noodles (sort of the consistency of grocery store ramen noodles before they're cooked). The delicate sauce of the dish helps to soften the noodles; it's quite unique.
Oddly perhaps, at lunchtime the main dishes at SOMI are replaced mostly by popular Chinese ones, such as kung pao chicken ($9), mapo tofu ($9) and General Tso's chicken ($10). However, the pho, vermicelli and rice dishes remain. I really enjoyed my lunch of bun thit nuóng ($10). It's a large plate of tender, bite-sized slices of marinated and seared pork, served atop soft, warm vermicelli. Note: Vietnamese vermicelli is not the same as the thin, angel hair-type egg pasta you'd find in Italy. This vermicelli is long rice noodles, white and about the thickness of ramen. All of the lunchtime vermicelli dishes (pork, short rib, chicken, vegetarian) come with one of those dee-lish fried spring rolls I mentioned, plus lettuce, bean sprouts, cucumber, pickled daikon and carrot, and that irresistible chili vinaigrette.
The only thing left to tell you is that during my visits, the service was friendly and flawless. SOMI isn't just a good new addition to Sugar House; it's a great new addition to the Utah dining scene.