Mojarra Madness | Dining | Salt Lake City Weekly
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    click to enlarge ENRIQUE LIMÓN
    • Enrique Limón

    I grew up with a very limited definition of what Mexican food really is—it landed somewhere between taco day at the school cafeteria and skipping class to split an order from Taco Bell with my friends. For years, I didn't think much of the history, versatility and nuance of Mexican cuisine, mainly because I figured that the whole spectrum of the country's culinary culture could be wrapped up inside a hard shell and served with a side of tater tots called "Mexi-fries." I'd like to say that approaching Mexican food as an adult is a much more well-rounded, culturally diverse endeavor—which it is, if you know where to look—but it's amazing how many of these fascinating dishes get eclipsed by tacos and burritos.

    Don't get me wrong, I love burritos and tacos with all my heart, but thinking that those near-perfect options span the length and breadth of Mexican food is a gross disservice to some truly fantastic comfort food. For those eager to shed the corn-chip scales from their eyes and take a closer look at what Mexican cuisine has to offer, look no further than Julia's Mexican Food (51 S. 1000 West, 801-521-4228).

    Longtime visitors will remember a charming but divey spot that cranked out quality dishes like menudo and ceviche, but Julia's has undergone some renovations over the past year that have made quite a difference. Swatches of pink and yellow painted across the walls create a vibrant dining space, complete with hand-drawn quotes and Spanish proverbs that have been written on the walls. “Quien sabe lo que siembra, no le teme a la cosecha” (He who knows what they’ve sowed, does not fear the harvest ) is scribbled by the front entrance. An inescapable big screen TV occupies a prominent spot in the dining room, displaying Telemundo or a hotly contested fútbol match, depending on the time of year. Let's also not forget one of the most welcome of changes—Julia's has shed its cash-only policy and now accepts credit cards.

    At lunchtime, the place is packed with an almost exclusively Latin American clientele—which is your first sign that a restaurant is whipping up the good shit. While Julia's has a huge variety of tacos served on homemade corn tortillas, I recommend you veer onto the path less traveled. Take for example, the rocking pambazo ($8). Loaded with chorizo, cubed potatoes and queso fresco crumbles all packed inside a guajillo-soaked bun, think of it as the layman torta’s more dangerous cousin. One bite accompanied by the restaurant namesake’s homemade habanero salsa and you’ll be sold.

    click to enlarge ENRIQUE LIMÓN
    • Enrique Limón
    Also of note are the albóndigas ($10.50). I've often encountered these Latin-inspired meatballs as appetizers around town, but the most notorious appropriator of these fist-sized globes of ground meat would be the tapas scene. Most tapas joints have some variation on albóndigas, but they've got their size ratios all wrong. The ones at Julia's are monstrous and arrive, soup style, in a hot broth spiked with chile oil. Like most menu items here, the albóndigas come with complimentary chips and salsa—a good, spicy homemade brew—and a tabletop wicker basket stacked with warm, freshly made corn tortillas.

    Regardless of the engineering challenges, if you give me a stack of tortillas with my meal, I'm going to figure out the best way to wrap them around my entrée. In this case, one meatball on its own presents a structural threat, so it's best to slice those suckers in half—that way you get to see the sliver of hard-boiled egg lovingly placed within each meaty sphere—and arrange them side by side. Slap them with some chopped onion and cilantro, and you've got something special on your hands—along with all that lovely chile broth that bursts forth with every juicy bite.

    If pure spectacle is something you like in a meal, then check out the mojarra frita ($14.50). Named for any fish in the cichlid family—this one's tilapia—mojarra is a whole fish that's been scored, deep-fried and served bones, fins, eyes and all. Its skin is crisp from the fryer, and the fact that it's staring up at you as you start slicing into the tender flesh of its belly offers a singular dining experience. It's served with sliced tomato, avocado, lettuce, rice and beans, along with Julia's excellent tortillas, all of which jumpstart the brain into thinking of all kinds of creative combinations. Despite the charred appearance of the little guy on my plate, the tilapia is beautifully cooked. It's flaky, tender and goes very nicely with a squeeze of lime and some Tapatío for good measure.

    As an out-of-the-way beacon of tasty Latin American comfort food, Julia's is one more reason to pay Rose Park a visit when you're craving something that's both new and accessible. Julia’s Mexican Food knows exactly what it has sowed—and it’s damn good.

    Open: Sunday-Monday, 9 a.m.-8 p.m.
    Best bet: Those giant albóndigas
    Can't miss: The grandeur of deep-fried mojarra

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