Evening dinner review
Since we first heard about Sapa several months ago, we have been waiting and watching with excitement. Sapa is the latest venture from the proprietors of West Valley’s Pho Green Papaya, a long-standing favorite of ours. The limited information we could put together on Sapa was that it would be much closer to home and would be built around imported, centuries-old, Vietnamese “stilt houses”. We figured the food would be South East Asian in some capacity, but other than that, we didn’t really have a clue.
We continued our waiting and watching and then with what seemed to be little to no fanfare Sapa opened their doors a couple of weeks ago. The only mention I saw of the restaurant’s opening was a few short paragraphs in In Utah This Week, and I thank them for that because as soon as we knew the place was open, we headed straight over to see what was going on.
Located on State Street just next to Burt’s Tiki Lounge, Sapa has a small parking lot just to the north of their property, although for a restaurant, which I have read seats over 200, some crafty parking on the street, or maybe in the huge nearly empty lot of a nearby store (not naming any names here) may be in order. Let’s just say, parking probably won’t be a problem. So, you will quickly find yourself outside Sapa’s imposing and impressive antique wooden doors, which were imported from China. Sapa is a BIG restaurant, yet it never feels overwhelmingly so. The restaurant is partitioned into four unique spaces. Two indoor areas consisting of comfortable table, booth, and banquette seating. A long sushi bar, and finally the outdoor space.
The interior design is very contemporary, featuring an array of dazzling red blown glass lamps hanging overhead. The walls are decorated in a mix of paintings, kimonos and quilted fabrics. I personally found the design chic, but not pretentious.
This outdoor space is bordered by the ornate aforementioned Vietnamese stilt houses. These large carved structures cast an impressive frame around the central patio. Right now they stand empty with unfinished open interiors. After speaking with Sapa’s management, I was told the spaces will lie dormant for the time being, so people can check them out first hand (much as everyone was on the night we dined there). In time, the plan is to build a hardwood floor into the houses and feature additional seating. There appeared to be plenty of outdoor seating, which is hard to imagine at that particular corner of State Street, but the beautiful imported buildings, the large sculptures, and most of all the big fence around it all, have truly created a serene outdoor dining oasis.
With the summer heat upon us, we opted to dine indoors. I went with a cooling Mojito ($7), whereas Wendi threw caution to the wind (or sun should I say) and went with a pot of Jasmine Pearls Tea ($4). The Mojito was by no means a classic, but it still made me happy on such a warm day. Wendi cooed over her “lovely” tea (it must have been good if she could drink hot tea on this nearly 100-degree evening).
The menu is substantial, including items from Japan, Thailand, China, Vietnam etc. In essence, the menu is split in two. Part one is a mammoth sushi selection; I counted over 40 different sushi rolls, and a wide variety of nigiri selections. The menu’s second act is an array of Asian appetizers, soups, salads and entrees.
We decided to eschew the sushi element of the menu. SLC already has so many formidable sushi eateries, creatures of habit that we are, if sushi is in our future, we are headed to Takashi or Kyoto. Instead we focused on the appetizer and entree selections, which made for delicious reading. We were tempted by duck spring rolls, edamame satay, citrus marinated short ribs and more.
We started with an order of the Summer Spring Rolls ($6):
A couple to our left, who we later learned were celebrating their 45th wedding anniversary, seemed to be enjoying a great meal. As our summer rolls came out, we started a conversation about what we had all ordered. They too had just tried the dish and had only one complaint, which we too discovered.
The rolls were such that you need to be ready to get a little messy. One bite and I had veggies flying all over the place, but then again, I am an expert in getting food everywhere. The rolls featured plenty of crunchy veggies and a fried tofu center. The two sauces that came drizzled on the plate were both nice additions, and overall this messy little appetizer was quite satisfying.
Another appetizer was the beautifully presented Tuna Tataki ($13):
We both found this dish spot on. Good quality tuna, lightly seared around the edges, with a hint of spice, the whole shebang topped a pile of crunchy goodness of onions and daikon. The bottom of the bowl featured a rewarding ponzu sauce, which I always love to sop up with the crunchy veggie leftovers (making more mess!). Wendi was at one point moved to say she felt this was the superior to Takashi’s Tuna Tataki. High praise indeed!
Done with our appetizers, we started on our main courses. I decided to order a glass of red wine and was quite perplexed to find only one option by the glass. At least I think this was the case. I checked with our waitress and she was a little unclear too, it being her first day. But sure enough, there is only the one option, seems like a serious omission to me. Otherwise, the liquor menu offers a range of cocktails, wines, and beers.
The first entree to arrive was the Drunken Noodles with tofu ($10):
We had hoped for a kick of heat in the dish. We both agreed that we expect our drunken noodles to be on the spicier side. Other than the lack of heat, the dish had a good flavor, nothing exceptional, but for $10, the portion was large with plenty of tofu (enough to take home and put some Sriracha on your leftovers).
I briefly toyed with ordering the citrus and oyster sauce marinated short ribs. This was the choice of the anniversary couple next to us and garnered glowing reviews from them. But in the end, I just couldn’t take my eyes off the intriguing Lamb Saute ($16). The dish was described as “Lamb Saute marinated in curry powder, lemongrass, various spices & wok seared with onions and tomatoes”:
I’m a lamb nut when it’s done correctly. Unfortunately, all too often in stir fries or curries, I find lamb chewy, tough or too fatty. The lamb here was anything but. It was wonderfully tender with no trace of gristle or extraneous fat.
The sauce took a few moments to really grow on me, I was worried at first. I shouldn’t have been, it ended up being a very rewarding plate of food. The lamb wasn’t drenched in sauce, but more silkenly coated. The rich, bold taste was accented with cardamom and cinnamon, a perfect foil for the strong meatiness of the lamb. A very good dish, could I have the recipe please? Pretty please?
At the recommendation of our new long-married friends, we finished up with the Mango Mousse Paradise ($6.00):
As soon as the plate arrived at our table, we guessed off the bat it was not made in house. Indeed we checked and our waitress confirmed the cake came from the same people who cater Utah Jazz events. Debates about in house preparation aside, it was still a hit for us. The mango cream filling, the delicate yellow cake, and the drizzled mango sauce were lip-smackingly good.
We both thought the dessert options on the menu were underdeveloped. With such a grand restaurant space, and deep menu of Pan-Asian fare, it read as an after thought to me. Maybe additions of a red bean dessert, Thai sticky rice or even something as simple as flavored ice creams (basil, ginger, green tea) would feel more natural than the tiramisu and such on offer.
So was Sapa worth the anticipation and excitement? I’d tentatively suggest it was. The menu is very expansive and we intend to take in many repeat visits to work through it. Desserts could be thought out a little better, as could the wine menu. These are minor problems for what looks to become a great addition to SLC’s dining scene. I for one can’t wait to see how the work on the stilt houses progresses. That could all lead to some very unique dining experiences indeed.
Sapa Sushi Bar & Asian Grill
722 S State St, SLC, UT 84111
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.