Evening/Lunch restaurant review
Overall: Great Value
Food: Just right
After weeks of heavy hinting by Wendi, I finally agreed to head over to Cindy Lee Cafe for an early dinner. Wendi has been a fan of the restaurant at lunch time for a long time and it was finally time to run the Gastronomic Salt Lake City rule over the place. I have only ever heard good things about the place, so I was excited to see what the fuss was about.
With the challenge of parking in downtown Salt Lake City surmounted, we arrived at 4.30PM (ish). As we stepped through the doors we were instantly greeted, sat and handed menus. The restaurant was practically deserted as we arrived, only one other couple were already dining. This was the first indication that the restaurant focus is lunch, not dinner. Indeed, the restaurant was sufficiently quiet that we had barely opened our menus when the waiter (very friendly I should add) pounced to take our order.
The restaurant is a very large and slightly sparse affair. I felt a few plants or items scattered around would make for a less clinical feel. I would call the space functional at best, it has a certain diner-cum-cafe feel. That said I wasn’t expecting a super-fancy dining experience. I’d expected the focus to be quick, cheap and filling. And that’s no problem by me, provided the food stood up to the test.
I quickly glanced at the menu to check for an alcohol list; I didn’t spot one. A survey of the restaurant, counter and serving space didn’t indicate the tell-tale signs of a booze-carrying restaurant. I didn’t expect one to be honest, lunch is their main focus after all. We happily ordered a pot of Jasmine Tea ($2.00).
The menu was surprisingly large, which made the small appetizer selection somewhat underwhelming. They consisted mainly of bog-standard Chinese options (egg rolls, pot stickers etc). We went for the Chicken Lettuce Wraps to start things off light ($7.25):
The chicken was bathed in a sweet sauce atop crunchy noodles, served with the obligatory iceberg lettuce and hoisin sauce. The first few bites were decent enough, but the sauce quickly became too sickly sweet I thought. Wendi concurred. It would be great to see some more varied appetizers, especially given their Vietnamese entrée options.
The rest of the menu looked far more enticing, a mix of both Chinese and Vietnamese options. At the super-low prices I decided to pig out and order two entrées. This proved to intrigue our waiter who suggested that I might have ordered too much food for one. I explained I didn’t mind leftovers for supper and he seemed happy enough, if not slightly bemused. I really wanted to get a feel for both cuisines served by the restaurant and which if any was the stand out winner. At $7 a plate, I couldn’t really go wrong.
The menu seemed to suggest Vietnamese was the speciality so I went for the luscious sounding Chicken with Lemon Grass and Red Pepper ($7.25):
The generous chunks of chicken had obviously been marinated for a great deal of time. The lemon grass seasoning had permeated deep into the flesh which was wonderfully tender. My only complaint was the preparation had caused the chicken to look on the greyish side. A few bites was all it took to forget looks though. The lemon grass flavor was deep and rich. The red pepper provided a pleasant warmth that didn’t threaten to overwhelm the more delicate nature of the dish.
Wendi also took the Vietnamese route and selected the Vietnamese Noodle Salad with Bean Curd ($6.55):
Thin rice noodles were topped with fresh bean sprouts, fish sauce, onions and lightly fried Tofu. Wendi preferred more kick to the dish and asked for a separate bowl of chilli oil. It appeared table side in seconds. With her heat levels satiated Wendi proclaimed the dish delicious.
For my Chinese entrée I ordered Chicken Fried Rice ($6.25):
During my university years I practically lived off fried rice; ever since that time it has been a special comfort food to me. Chicken fried rice may not seem terribly exciting but it is one of my baseline dishes. I think you can tell a lot about a restaurant in how well they prepare the basics. It is surprising the variation that one can find in this most simple of all dishes. How badly can you go wrong with chicken, rice, egg and onions?
Thankfully Cindy Lee’s chicken fried rice hit all the right buttons, taking me straight back to my university days. Crunchy onions, smoky soy-seasoned rice and chunks of chicken. Heaven (for me at least!). I would happily try their other Chinese selections off of this. Based on both of our exemplary Vietnamese choices though, I would steer any Cindy Lee Cafe virgin in the Vietnamese direction first.
As we chowed down on our entrees, the kitchen staff started to close the kitchen down. One of the wait staff came over and mentioned not to rush. Even though we were by now the only diners present we felt perfectly comfortable and welcome, we happily took our time while the staff hung out with their kids and closed the restaurant down.
Service was attentive throughout, staff checked on water and our food at timely intervals. I would recommend Cindy Lee Cafe to anyone; especially if a quick, cheap and tasty bite to eat is your priority. I’d temper the recommendation by commenting that lunch seems to be their main focus. I wouldn’t turn up late in the evening and expect them to be open. Indeed, I am not certain of their exact hours, on-line searches yield nothing. I wouldn’t bet against them opening until business quietened, seeing closing times varying each day.
Given the lack of people in downtown Salt Lake City (evening and weekends) I can certainly understand their rationale for early closing. Hopefully the planned developments for downtown Salt Lake City will change this over years to come.
Hi, I’m Stuart, nice to meet you! I’m the founder, writer and wrangler at Gastronomic SLC and The Utah Review; I’m also a former restaurant critic of more than five years, working for the Salt Lake Tribune. I’ve worked extensively with other local publications from Utah Stories through to Salt Lake Magazine and Visit Salt Lake.
I’m a multiple-award winning journalist and have covered the Utah dining scene for more than a decade. I’m largely fueled by Uinta Cutthroat, alliteration and the use of too many big words I don’t understand. I ate all the pies.