Restaurant Review: Saola Reimagines Asian Classics | Restaurant Reviews | Salt Lake City Weekly

Restaurant Review: Saola Reimagines Asian Classics 

If you're skiing in Big Cottonwood this season, keep Saola on your radar.

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  • Alex Springer

Though I was born and raised in Utah, I can't say I've developed much interest in our local winter pastime of hitting the ski slopes. There was probably an opportunity to get really into skiing back when I was a bit younger, but seeing as how I wake up sore if I sneeze while bending down to pick up a stray LEGO, I think that ship has probably sailed.

If I did hit the slopes, however, I'd need my après-ski victuals to be something special—something that nursed my wounded pride, healed my aching joints and convinced me that my time was not wasted on a sport where I could get frostbitten and sunburned at the same time. After dining at Saola Restaurant and Lounge, I think I've found a spot where I can get all of those things, and then some.

Located near the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon, Saola features creative interpretations of classic Vietnamese cuisine that have turned it into a neighborhood favorite. Like the reclusive arboreal creatures from which Saola gets its name, this restaurant is a rare find. Here you have a menu that borrows liberally from Vietnamese, Cantonese and Malaysian cuisine, only to reimagine familiar dishes like egg rolls, wonton soup, pho and Peking duck in fantastic new ways. As a fan of the wide variety of Chinese takeout and Vietnamese pho options we have along the Wasatch Front, I was excited to see how Saola put its unique spin on these classics. Again, if I was a skier, I can pretty much guarantee you that a big bowl of pho and some dumplings would be a major part of my wind down routine.

Whether this is a post-skiing rendezvous or just a jaunt near the canyon to satisfy a craving, Saola will have something you'll like. It's always a good idea to start with some of their small plates and build your experience from there. Their pork skewer ($14) or bulgogi skewer ($18) are stalwart selections, each of them presenting a rich and flavorful preparation of their chosen protein; the bulgogi is made with filet mignon, so it's tough to go wrong there.

The appetizer that spoke volumes to me was the Sichuan Dumpling ($14), as it both looks and tastes gorgeous. The dumplings in question are made with shrimp, and arrive in a bowl of Sichuan chili oil with a bit of soy sauce and chopped scallion. It's as elegant as I've ever seen a dumpling look, and the flavors are absolute dynamite. The Sichuan influence uses heat as a numbing agent that, through some alchemical process that is unknown to me, makes your tongue resonate with the soft textures of the shrimp itself. I've been a dumpling fan for as long as I can remember, but it has been a long time since I've been this awestruck by a dumpling's preparation.

As you work your way up to the larger plates, you should decide whether you want to dabble in Saola's signature noodle dishes or just splurge on the Peking duck ($54). There's really no wrong answer, but if you do go with the duck, be prepared for fireworks. I know there are probably people reading this who would shrug this off because they once had some rubbery duck from who-knows-where, but this definitely ain't that. It's crispy and golden on the outside while remaining juicy and tender on the inside. Definitely spring for the steamed buns or steamed crepe to go along with this, so you can build the crispy duck wrap of your dreams.

For something low-key but no less luxurious, Saola's Pho Hanoi ($28) is an excellent option. If you're a fan of pho, you know it's not uncommon for pho to come served with sliced brisket or some other tasty protein. At Saola, your pho is prepared with filet mignon, which should be raising your eyebrow right about now. Pho is tough to mess up, but I am here to tell you that some tender filet mignon swimming in a beef bone broth that has been simmering for a full day before it gets into your bowl is a revelatory experience.

Pho is and has always been a celebration of rich, unctuous flavors pulled from thoughtfully-spiced broth, so when you pair that celebration with filet mignon, you're getting an unmatched tribute to what pho can accomplish. As you would expect, the meat melts in your mouth, and works in tandem with that lovely bone broth for a dish that is ideal for warming up after a day on the slopes. My future as a skier may be uncertain, but my future with this pho will be long and fruitful.

Now that ski season is drawing ever-closer, you'll want to keep Saola on your radar if you're heading up Big Cottonwood at all. Its swanky take on Asian classics are sure to become your new post-slope obsession.

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