Provo may not be a well-known travel destination to those who aren't familiar with Brigham Young University (BYU). Its biggest draw (besides education) are the Cougars. However, once people make the drive to Provo and experience the quiet beauty, majestic mountains, and unlimited outdoor activities, it becomes a destination for more than education, business, and sports.
Brigham Young University is the largest private religious university and the third-largest private university in the U.S. It is funded by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons). This translates into BYU regularly being ranked as the #1 stone-cold sober school in the United States. As part of BYU's honor code, students must refrain from alcohol and from coffee. So, you will find a different kind of partying happening in this happy valley town.
Provo's culinary scene is in a state of transition (a positive one). You will find a steady increase of diverse plates that are reflective of the changing population. Utah is one of the top areas for relocation of refugees and thus benefits from the expanding outlets for cuisine. It also is located in an area that has a strong focus on sustainability and both personal and community gardening.
So, where does that leave us? With a city full of unexpected culinary treats that will leave you with a satiated palate. Provo is anything but a culinary wasteland. You'll find just about anything you think you might need. Even "Mormon Tiramisu."
They're a newcomer in town, but oh-so-lovable. Waffle Love, a waffle food truck, delivers delicious waffles around town. Adam Terry, the owner, decided to leave his day-job as a banker to pursue his love-job of being a waffler. His Liege waffles are decadent. Add a little crème fraîche, some in-season strawberries, and a drizzle of Amano chocolate syrup (another local treat) to your thick and crispy waffle, and you have yourself a breakfast that will last a good while.
If you're looking for a Saturday morning brunch spot, try Communal. You won't be sorry. And if you keep reading, you can see what else it's good for.
Need a bit of a sugar pick-me-up? Or pillowy soft rolls? Provo Bakery is your salvation. You can find just about anything (including game-day specific donuts), but my top two loves are the sugar cookies and the hot dog buns. Strange combination? I'll explain. The former was introduced to me by a friend. He swore by these sugar cookies. I then became the Cookie Coyote, transporting these butter sugar-bombs across the Utah County border into Salt Lake. He was right. Worth the trip. The latter were introduced to me by J Dawgs (don't worry, I'm getting to them).
Cheap Eats/Student Loved & Run/Before a Game
Yes, J Dawgs fits into all of the above. One of my favorite stops in Provo, J Dawgs, originated from Jayson (J) Edwards. After serving an LDS mission to Toronto, he returned to BYU and missed the many food carts he'd experienced there. J decided to open a hot dog stand of his own in a teeny-tiny little stand on the south edge of campus.
He cut each hot-dog with a special criss-cross technique (more crispy real estate), cooked them on a grill, and added his family's special sauce. The result was utter perfection and a viral food love for this small establishment. J entered the BYU Entrepreneur competition and won just a short while later. Now, back to the bun-love. J Dawgs houses their 100 percent beef hot dogs in the fresh-baked buns supplied by Provo Bakery. They are indeed pillowy perfection and are baked to just-the-right-size needed for big dawgs. You need all that lovely bun to catch the sauce dripping out of the hot dog crevasses. This is an absolute must-visit-weekly for any BYU student (or Provo visitor).
More Cheap Eats
It might actually be harder to find expensive eats in Provo, rather than its inverse. Check out Molly's if you're missing home. They serve "Sunday dinner" comfort foods such as brisket and pulled pork that will make you think you're right back in your mom's kitchen, hanging out in your sweat pants, waiting for dinner to finally be done. Although, let's be honest—you're a college student, so you might be wearing sweat pants in the diner and waiting by the kitchen with little decorum. Aren't sweat pants publicly acceptable attire as a student?
If you can't decide what you want, Four Seasons Hot Pot & Dumpling is always a good choice. Make sure to invite friends so you can order more and share. Dumplings are made from scratch, and made to order. You can watch them assemble dumplings as you wait, if you like. The broth is extremely flavorful and the service is colorful (in a good way). Expect dumplings to take time (or call ahead to eliminate this), but also anticipate a good laugh via your server.
Best Latin American
Provo is chock full of Latin American eats, all with a light touch to your wallet. Taqueria el Vaquero is a fantastic taqueria providing some of these said cheap eats. For under $10, you can leave with a full belly. The best menu items are their horchata, which is sweet without being cloying, and their carne asada and carne de cabeza tacos. The street-style tacos are made to order, are flavorful, and do not come with any Utahn-ized additions (read: ranch, cheddar cheese, fry sauce). The salsa is fresh and balances the textural elements well.
Owners Margarita and Ricardo are almost reason enough to visit Pantrucas Chilean Restaurant. Margarita will provide the heart-hug we all need from time to time; their food provides the belly-hug. Your first consideration should be which juice you want. Or how many you want. For many diners, this is the reason to come here. Freshly squeezed peach, pineapple, and cantaloupe are typically available. Expect a little texture. Try not to fill up on only juice. You'd be remiss to leave without trying the choripan or the empanadas.
Let's not forget our pupusas from El Salvador Restaurant. These are claimed to be the best ones found in Utah County. You'll want to try the pork, which are juicy, flavorful, and a can't miss. The other can't miss is the endearing abuelita that you can watch in the kitchen pinching your pupusas with love.
Provo's neighbor, Orem, is the home to a pizza gem, Pizzeria 712. Pizzeria 712 is a small, brick-walled restaurant with a fantastic view of the pizzaiolo who makes Neapolitan-style pies using locally-sourced ingredients. You won't find a static menu due to this fact. This is impressive, especially considering Utah's growing season. Our San Francisco Slice contributor, David Kover, reviewed their pizza last January and noted that their "crust is really good," and all of the pies boasted an "impressive depth of flavor." Try it and you'll see. I especially love the "butternut squash, gorgonzola, bacon lardon, caramalized onion, rosemary" pizza.
Ice Cream and Milk
You won't have to go far to get creamy milk and ice cream. You won't even have to leave campus. BYU has their own dairy lab that sells through the BYU Creamery. You can get any myriad of dairy products, but the ice cream and chocolate milk are by far the best two products. You can't go wrong with any of the ice cream flavors. I have a personal love for Sparkle Sherbet, one of the first carbonated ice creams in existence. You'll find many other flavor options, plenty with BYU related names. Utahns love ice cream—we're among the top ten states for ice cream consumption.
Two words are all you need to describe our next favorite ice cream stop: pie shake. Sammy's does two things really well. The first is what they are known for: pie shakes. They really do merit the praise they have received. Any pie shake is a good shake, but the most commonly mentioned (and my personal favorite) is the Banana Cream Pie Shake. It truly tastes like banana cream pie, but somehow better. The blended shake leaves some textural elements rather than being blended until fully smooth. You'll find granular bits of pie crust and banana—in a most delightful way. The banana taste is fresh and not masked or overly pudding-esque. You can choose with or without whipped cream, but I recommend with. Real whipped cream is the only choice if you love food.
The other part of your meal at Sammy's should be their battered fries: thick cut steak fries, battered and fried. They're perfectly crunchy on the outside and soft and tender on the inside. Combining your salty battered fries with your pie shake is the best way to end any day, but especially a day that occurs during finals week.
Once again, in the land of Orem (Provo and Orem are practically one sprawling city, anyway), you'll find another taste-bud treat: Coney's Frozen Custard & Gourmet Dogs. David Kover must have been on a roll when he came to Utah, because he landed on yet another of my favorite spots. Coney's butters their buns before griddling them, which adds a layer of happy to the stack that includes griddled patties, shredded lettuce, an eggy-soft bun, American cheese, tomato, onion, and the ever-present fry sauce, a staple in Utah. Make sure to order a custard with that burger—they're smooth as silk and will make any medicine go down. It doesn't hurt that they've been recognized yet again for "Best of State" in the ice cream category.
If you're willing to venture to Salt Lake (and most students with cars are more than happy to do so), then The Copper Onion is most definitely on the best burger list. (You can also add this to the "Places to Bring Parents" and "Places to Impress a Date" lists.) The Copper Onion also focuses on utilizing locally grown and sustainable ingredients. One of the best dishes I have eaten there thus far are the beets served with a red onion vinaigrette. Beets were not previously a dish that elicited any type of enthusiasm out of me, but after this particular experience, I am forever waiting for beets to be back in season and on the menu at The Copper Onion. They're firm, slightly sweet, and tart at once, and could easily become any beet snob's favorite dish.
When Carey ventured out to Salt Lake on her quest for the best eats of the nation (fodder for the SE book), this was our third-to-last stop (out of a mere 22 restaurants in one day). The Copper Onion burger made it into the book. That should say something right there. Even after taste bud and belly exhaustion, it still had the ability to make us take another bite. And another. The burger is made with freshly ground griddled Pleasant Creek wagyu beef, a housemade bun, roasted onions, shredded iceberg lettuce, cheddar cheese, and aioli. The burger has a lovely crust and has come cooked to a perfectly pink medium each time I've ordered it. The burger is also one of the best bargains on the menu at $13. It comes with thick-cut steak fries dressed with herbs, parmesan and sea salt.
Impress a Date
Owned by the same guys as Pizzeria 712, Communal also emphasizes a locally grown and sustainable menu. You can find listings on both restaurant sites that will introduce you to each of the farmers, artisans, and purveyors that they have developed relationships with in order to keep fresh food on the common table. The name of the restaurant is meant to emphasize community and common ground, hence, when you dine at Communal, you dine right alongside temporary strangers at communal tables. The food is not tinkered around with much, rather each ingredient is simplistically treated to reach its maximum flavor potential. You can share small bites or order larger proteins to hoard—I suppose it depends on how much you like your date. Communal is also an excellent Saturday brunch stop. Make sure to order the thick-cut bacon, crumbly biscuits served with housemade butter and season jam, and the German pancake with cranberry compote.
A Unique Eating Environment
You will be hard-pressed to find an eating experience like this elsewhere in the U.S. If you're willing to make a quick drive up Provo Canyon, you can visit Park City, a quaint ski town, and home to the famous Sundance Film Festival. Besides fantastic skiing, Park City Mountain Resort is also home to The Viking Yurt. You begin with a 20-minute sleigh ride, which takes you to an elevation of 8,000 feet and a Viking Yurt. There's one dinner service per night and everyone arrives and leaves at the same time. Guests are seated European style, with tables of six or ten—this is a great time to make friends. Diners will then be presented with a six-course, Norwegian-styled feast. There's nothing rushed in this dining adventure.
Just two notes from a friend's personal experience: wear layered clothing and shoes with tread, and make sure you give the chef advance knowledge of food allergies or you will find yourself with a one-of-a-kind story of getting hauled down the mountain.
Best Mormon Dessert
I mentioned "Mormon Tiramisu" at the beginning of this post. How is this Mormon and who makes such a thing? Practicing Mormons do not drink coffee. Gloria's Little Italy is in the center of "Happy Valley" (a local reference to Utah County), which, according to the last U.S. census, is 81.2 percent Mormon. Salt Lake County is less than 50 percent. Adapting to their clientele, Gloria's offers tiramisu that is made with "coffee flavor" and 100 percent caffeine free. At creation, the menu labeled it as "Mormon Tiramisu" although at the time of this post, it has now been changed.
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