Eat, Drink and Be Merry: Provo’s Up-and-Coming Food Scene
19 North University Avenue Provo, UT
Monday – Saturday 11:30 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.
Monday – Thursday 5:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m.
Friday – Saturday 5:00 p.m. – 10:00 p.m.
801.607.2485 | facebook.com/blacksheepcafe
Up until recently, I never really considered Provo a place that cultivated any authentic type of food culture. It’s full of various chain restaurants, fast food joints and a few dives that offer a bit of local charm, but Provo’s food scene was almost nonexistent. That was until I attended Local First’s Celebrate the Bounty event, where three Provo sparkplugs brought their A-game: The farm-to-table virtuosos of Communal Restaurant, the Southwestern Native American pioneers of Black Sheep Cafe, and the regional comfort food experts of Station 22. I was fascinated by the diversity and presentation of their food, and, when Black Sheep took home the Best Taste award, I knew I had to make a pilgrimage into the heart of Provo.
All three of these restaurants can be found on University Avenue, between Second North and Center Street. Once you park, it’s no sweat to visit all three restaurants in one night—which I highly recommend. After sampling their cuisine and chatting with the people who make them tick, it wouldn’t be too surprising to see more independent restaurants start popping up in Utah County.
Black Sheep Cafe specializes in contemporary Southwestern Native American cuisine, which means fans of traditional Mexican food will be on familiar ground just long enough to get their minds blown by the Native American aspects of the menu. It’s owned and operated by Bleu Adams and her family: sister Katt Mason is co-owner and sous chef, her brother Mark Daniel Mason works as executive chef and their mother Alberta Mason is responsible for Black Sheep’s secret weapon—authentic Navajo fry bread. The venture began with the inspiration that Bleu and Katt gleaned from the traditional food that their mother would make while they were growing up on a Navajo reservation. “My mom is a great cook. When we were teenagers, I remember going around to the tribal administration buildings to sell burritos and desserts. These experiences made me really love and appreciate the effort that she put into making her food,” Adams says.
Adams’s decision to open Black Sheep in Provo was influenced by several different factors. Her parents went to BYU, and as she was already familiar with the culture of returned LDS missionaries living in Provo, Adams thought that Native American cuisine might appeal to the missionaries who have served on reservations. “The food’s a lot different than what you’d get on a reservation, but it’s familiar enough to draw them in and let us introduce them to more contemporary versions of the food they’ve already tried,” she says.
In addition to dishing up some truly authentic and delicious food, the restaurant itself serves as a living, breathing testament to the relevance of Native American culture in our society. “I wanted to create something that incorporated food, art and my culture, which are three things that I love,” says Adams. Just left of the entrance, you’ll find Winston Mason Design, where Bleu’s father meticulously crafts silver jewelry. The back of the restaurant has been converted into gallery space and has been set aside for the display of contemporary Native American art. And let’s not overlook the food. Black Sheep’s menu offers several authentic Southwestern options like posole and enchiladas, all of which are made completely from scratch. What makes this place special, however, is the Navajo tacos.
Black Sheep offers three variations of Navajo tacos: one topped with pinto beans that have been slow roasted in pork juices and topped with tangy queso menonita, and two topped with braised pork and either red or green chili sauce. Each of these is available individually, or diners can get the Navajo Taco Trio ($17.00) with smaller versions of all three—a great idea for date night. I opted for the Trio, and though I could have easily scarfed all three of these delectable dishes, I split the entrée with my wife. The anchor of the dish is the homemade fry bread ($4.00)—it’s warm and pillowy, yet more chewy than soft. You can’t really lose no matter what topping you get, but my personal favorite was the pork in red chili sauce. It’s this magically rustic blend of earthy spices distilled into a sauce that made the slow-roasted pork sing. The sauce is spicy, but not aggressively so—it strikes a comfortable relationship between heat and flavor, which can be difficult to achieve. The green chili sauce is less spicy and more herbaceous—it works with the pork in a completely different and delicious way.
If you’re lucky, Black Sheep will still be featuring the Hog Jowl Tacos ($9.00), which earned them the Best Taste award at Celebrate the Bounty. They consist of homemade blue corn tortillas stuffed with shredded meat taken from, yes, the jowl of a hog. Hog jowl has the same flavor as pulled pork, but it’s much more tender—the stuff melts in your mouth. The tacos are finished with pickled jicama and a sweet maple bay leaf barbecue sauce. A single bite fills the palate with the salty jowl, the acidic jicama and the sweetly smoky barbecue sauce—a combination that offers an ideal bite of food.
Desserts have always been tricky for me. I’ve been to many restaurants that offer great food, but see their dessert menu as an afterthought. Black Sheep offers a dessert that I still think about in the wee hours of the evening. It’s known as Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Bread Pudding ($8.00), and it’s fantastic—two triangles of pumpkin bread baked with chocolate chips from Orem’s Amano Artisan Chocolate, served warm and soaked with a caramel bourbon sauce. The warm bread soaks up all that gooey chocolate and caramel for a truly decadent taste of autumnal flavors.
Within the last few months, Black Sheep has added several local beer and wine options to their ever-expanding menu. Diners can now find beer from local breweries such as Epic, Squatters and Uinta along with a fully stocked wine list. In addition, Katt Mason has collaborated with Chef Mark Daniel Mason to create some unique cocktails to complement their menu. Diners can look forward to enjoying Cactus Pear Margaritas and Chipotle-Cilantro Bloody Marys along with their Southwestern menu.
During my conversation with Adams, I came to the realization that the reason Black Sheep’s food tastes so good is because of its rich cultural tradition. The food that you get here has been perfected with years of traditional preparation, and it’s made with ingredients that are all found locally. Black Sheep Cafe is definitely a restaurant worthy of a trip to P-Town.
Station 22 Cafe
22 West Center Street
Provo, UT 84601
Mon. – Sat. 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.
From the outside, Station 22 resembles a genteel Southern country club. While you wait to be seated, you can smell all of their food cooking in this glorious mixture of maple syrup, toasty waffles and fried chicken—I think the clever bastards must pipe it in directly from the kitchen. Both Station 22 and Black Sheep are located within Provo Town Square, which is the property of Richard Gregory, who I’ve come to regard as kind of a Happy Valley godfather—he’s known for muscling out national chains that want to infiltrate his property. Station 22 as we know it today is actually the result of a fairly new direction that Gregory has put into motion. Last June, he hired Jason Talcott as a managing operator, and the two have turned the restaurant into the kind of mythical purveyor of good, local food that you secretly hope every city has. “We want it to feel like we were expecting our customers, like they’re just coming home for dinner,” Gregory says.
Gregory is originally an architect from the food and wine mecca Napa Valley, and that food culture definitely influenced his interest in operating a restaurant. “Growing up in Napa Valley, we have food and wine and that’s it. I’ve always loved food, and I’m able to articulate what I like. As long as I have the right help, it works. That’s where Jason comes in,” Gregory says. Talcott is a Utah local who was working for the Heirloom Restaurant Group when he met Gregory. “I started following Station 22 on Facebook. I came in, looked around, and saw it as the place I had been dreaming of opening. I was so jealous! As fate would have it, I was running a dining booth at the Rooftop Concert Series, and the folks from the Provo Downtown Alliance introduced me to Richard. We talked for about an hour about food, music and all things Provo,” Talcott says.
Their menu is made up of dishes from all over the place—ratatouille, pot pies and Adventist veggie burgers. I started with a few of their signature dishes: The Memphis Chicken Sandwich ($9.99) and the Sage-Fried Chicken and Waffles ($10.99). The candied bacon and maple syrup provide the sweet and salty element that I love about this dish. The waffle was thick and crispy, and it worked well with the dish as a whole, but, on its own, it wasn’t too memorable. Overall, the Memphis Chicken Sandwich was decent. I really liked the ciabatta roll, and the spicy fried chicken delivered a nice kick to the tastebuds. The slaw provided some crunch, but I would have liked some sweetness to counter balance the heat of the spicy butter glaze. I was also hoping for a more substantial piece of chicken—the meat of my sandwich may have been fried for a little too long, which sapped the chicken of some necessary juiciness. My wife ordered Belle’s Turkey ($10.99), which is a traditional hot turkey sandwich with a few twists thrown in. Instead of a dollop of mashed potatoes, the sandwich is paired with a healthy serving of mashed root vegetables and smothered in Station 22’s famous root beer gravy. I love a good hot turkey sandwich, and the subtle sweetness of the gravy along with the buttermilk fried onions made this one stand out from the rest.
From a service standpoint, my visits to Station 22 had a few hiccups. On one visit, we had three different waiters checking up on us. Initially, I thought this was nice—our drinks were always kept full and our food arrived promptly. However, it became a problem towards the end of our visit. As they were out of soup and sweet potato wedges, I asked if I could have a side of collard greens instead. When our first waiter brought my check, I noticed that they charged me for the side. After explaining the situation to our second waiter, he informed me that I wouldn’t be charged. When our third waiter brought me the receipt, it turned out that I was charged after all. All the waiter juggling created a bit of a failure to communicate, which ended up costing me a couple of bucks. Despite these few missteps, it’s important to note that Station 22 has been entertaining the dinner crowd for just under a month, and with that comes a few kinks to work out. I have faith that Station 22 will fully realize its potential for greatness as their experience grows.
In addition to supplying Utahns with comfort food from all over the nation was the idea of having a place where people from all walks of life could meet and socialize comfortably. Station 22 offers an eclectic menu of sodas for the non-drinkers in the area. Gregory’s experience with wine tastings in Napa Valley inspired him to create a similar option for folks who don’t drink alcohol. Some of the brands they have available are Brigham’s Brew from Wasatch Brewers, Cheerwine, Virgil’s Special Edition Bavarian Nutmeg Rootbeer, Cock n’ Bull Ginger Beer, Reed’s Ginger Beers, Butterscotch Beer and many more. “There are lots of places for LDS folks and non-LDS folks individually. Our craft soda list is a way to bridge that gap,” Gregory says. Soon, Station 22 will be providing its customers with a selection of beer and wine that will satiate those customers who like something a bit stronger with their comfort food. Overall, Station 22 has definitely created an atmosphere that is conducive to socializing regardless of one’s background, and I look forward to the day when it hits its stride and everything comes together.
102 North University Avenue
Provo, UT 84601
Sat. 9 a.m. – 2 p.m.
Tues. – Fri.
11:30 a.m. – 2:30 p.m.
Tues. – Sat. 5 p.m. – 10 p.m.
Closed Sunday – Monday
The last stop on this journey was Communal Restaurant, which many people consider to be a true pioneer of the Utah County food scene. As the name would suggest, diners join one another at a large wooden table, and the food is prepared in portions that are big enough to share. All of the ingredients are acquired locally, and it communicates a strong sense of what Utah is capable of as a producer of food. Communal is part of the Heirloom Restaurant Group, a collection of local restaurants and caterers of which Orem’s Pizzeria 712 is a member. Colton Soelberg is the man behind this local collective, running the show with co-owner and director of catering, Joseph McRae, and it’s evident that he’s passionate about treating his diners to an excellent experience. “You have a finite amount of bites in this life, and each bite is one less that you’re going to be able to experience. We’re committed to making those bites the best they can be,” Soelberg says.
Soelberg grew up in Provo, and after working in restaurants all over the country, he decided to bring his culinary expertise back home. “After seeing some of the more unique restaurants in New York and San Francisco, I realized that Utah County didn’t really have anything like that. It was like a blank slate,” says Soelberg.
From a culinary point of view, Communal is all about crafting sophisticated yet comforting dishes from the best seasonal ingredients that Utah has to offer. When dining at Communal, it’s a good idea to start with some of their menu’s Small Shares. The La Ney Ferme Beets ($8.00) and the Mixed Radish Salad ($12.00) are both cool and refreshing. The beets are cooked to an al dente consistency, and each one packs a surprising pop of sweetness. In contrast, the Mixed Radish Salad is pleasantly crunchy and the lemongrass dressing adds an acidic tone that complements the fresh radishes nicely. I also couldn’t pass up their Deviled Farm Eggs ($2.00 per egg). Their preparation varies from night to night, and I liked the two options that I tried. One of them was prepared with crispy bacon, and the other was adorned with a slice of smoked salmon. They were delicious, but two bucks is a bit steep considering their dainty size. As an entrée, the Koosharem Valley Steelhead Trout (half portion $13.00; full portion $24.00) is excellent. It’s cooked in a glorious mixture of brown butter, lemon and capers, which emphasize the trout’s natural flavor. It’s rich, flaky and best of all, it tastes like it came from Utah’s own waters.
Both Soelberg and the staff of Communal are dedicated to a professionalism that comes through in their food. I had a few minutes to watch sous chef Vance Lott prepare the night’s orders. Despite preparing food for dozens of guests, he remained enthusiastic about the work that he and his colleagues do at Communal. Soelberg says, “We’re dedicated to commitment and consistency, no matter what. It’s making that decision to spend two hours cleaning the kitchen after closing, even though you’ve just been slammed by the Friday night dinner crowd.”
In addition to serving great food, these three restaurants have come to represent a movement to bring more local flair to Utah County. Whenever local businesses can cause people to reinvest in their community, that community inevitably becomes stronger. If the occasion to visit downtown Provo ever comes your way, it’s worth it to stop by any of these three fine establishments for a memorable culinary experience.
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