LIFESTYLE

Mexican Food Joints Bring 'Something Special' To Salt Lake City

  • This Aug. 1, 2014 photo shows a cook shaving meat seasoned with chipotle and guajillo peppers at  Chungas in Salt Lake City. In Chungas, a spit turns layers of smoky, marinated pork known as Pastor.  The hunt for a taste of Mexico City brings diners here near a highway overpass in a neighborhood known for tire shops and tacos. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

    This Aug. 1, 2014 photo shows a cook shaving meat seasoned with chipotle and guajillo peppers at Chungas in Salt Lake City. In Chungas, a spit turns layers of smoky, marinated pork known as Pastor. The hunt for a taste of Mexico City brings diners here near a highway overpass in a neighborhood known for tire shops and tacos. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

  • In this July 31, 2014, photo, Concepcion Flores, owner of Panaderia Flores, holds a gelatina cake on Salt Lake City’s west side. Panaderia Flores offers sweet breads, pineapple or pumpkin empanadas and tamales. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

    In this July 31, 2014, photo, Concepcion Flores, owner of Panaderia Flores, holds a gelatina cake on Salt Lake City’s west side. Panaderia Flores offers sweet breads, pineapple or pumpkin empanadas and tamales. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

  • In this July 29, 2014, photo, waitress Maribel Albanez holds a strawberry shake at Chungas Mexican Grill, in Salt Lake City. The hunt for a taste of Mexico City brings diners near a highway overpass in a neighborhood known for tire shops and tacos. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

    In this July 29, 2014, photo, waitress Maribel Albanez holds a strawberry shake at Chungas Mexican Grill, in Salt Lake City. The hunt for a taste of Mexico City brings diners near a highway overpass in a neighborhood known for tire shops and tacos. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

In a west side Salt Lake City neighborhood known for tire shops and taco joints, a pineapple turns on a spit over layers of smoky, marinated pork. The dish is called al pastor, and the place is called Chunga's.

Cooks shave the meat seasoned with chipotle and guajillo peppers, pile it into warm corn tortillas and top with onion, cilantro and matchstick slices of fresh fruit.

Few spots offered the specialty in Salt Lake City until owner Roberto Contreras opened the restaurant about seven years ago. But customers "know al pastor now and they know it's good. It's something special," he said of the signature street snack of Mexico City, where he's from.

Contreras mans the register as cooks zip between salsas and tortillas on the grill. In the evening, families gather outside under umbrellas; on weekdays, the place draws office workers. On sunny days, the line stretches into the parking lot, where a cartoonish sign of a hulking pig in sunglasses with a pineapple in his grip warns: "Do not underestimate the power of the taco."

A waitress weaves around the line with plastic trays of those tacos with rice, black beans and queso fresco, along with other items: chili-smothered burritos, crunchy corn quesadillas and tortas layered with Oaxacan cheese_reminiscent of a smoky-sweet meatball sub. Other options include gorditas and enchiladas. Most of the offerings range from $5 to $8.

And it's not all about the pork: Chunga's also offers chicken, steak and chorizo. And there a few (rotating) vegetarian choices, sometimes including zucchini flowers, cactus and mushrooms.

The restaurant doesn't serve alcohol, but you can cool the heat from spicy salsas with frozen mango, strawberry or pineapple shakes.

The location also offers a view of northern Utah's signature mountain range, the Wasatch, that's particularly nice on summer evenings.

A few blocks away, there's a better-known Mexican restaurant, Red Iguana, where locals often bring visitors fresh off the plane for a half-dozen moles over stuffed enchiladas. Chunga's, a bit farther from downtown and its towering Mormon temple, is among a few lower-profile favorites. Others include bakeshop Panaderia Flores, which offers sweet breads, pineapple or pumpkin empanadas and tamales.

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