To the Housewarming Party: East Liberty Tap House
850 E. 900 S.
Salt Lake City, Utah 84105
Open Seven Days a Week – Noon to Midnight
East Liberty Tap House sits at the sunset end of 9th East and 9th South. It started as rumors—initially conceived as a neighborhood bar, a symbol of Salt Lake’s progress. Here it is, not a full bar, but a tavern tucked inside a bright, tightly furnished, little restaurant. A tavern just serves tap beer, which is the stuff you can buy at the grocery store strength-wise, but the choices, like the food here, are better than average. We drinkers can have a beer in the tavern area without buying food. The majority of the tables are in a more traditional restaurant area where you must buy a bite to get a drink.
This restaurant is not one person’s lifelong dream—it is a new business from Scott Evans, who brought you Pago, Finca and the new Hub & Spoke Eatery. He’s a busy man, and ELTH feels the lack of concentration. It has not arrived with an already beating heart and a full sense of itself. That’s OK. Though it is still a little wobbly on its feet, time will shake that “new, out of the box” feeling. The food, though, is confident, made from locally sourced and select-imported ingredients. The menu is bar food with a twist, which is reasonably priced and pleasantly surprising. The space is fairly spartan with white walls, wood accents and orange Eames-style chairs. It looks like a set for a mid-Century, guy-themed fashion ad—not quite sussed-out, not quite inhabited. The beer selection is small, but full of a rotating cast of always interesting choices—add wine and a selection of house cocktails, and the housewarming party starts.
The Pickle Plate ($3) is small but super potent. Cucumbers, cauliflower and beets share a Gameboy-sized dish with spills of spice and brine. The beets finish peppery but slightly sweet, as do the cauliflower, with mustard seed and fennel singing along. The cucumbers recall my grandma’s fresh bread-and-butter pickles from long ago.
The Beer Cheese Soup ($5) is a bright bowl of good, spicy fondue, eaten with a spoon, and is quite spicy and flavorful. The Mac and Cheese ($8) is a little ho-hum for my needs, but for half a buck more, get the poblano version ($8.50) with onions and peppers— it’s both spicy and satisfying.
The Cheddarwurst Corndog Nuggets ($8) offers a bad-for-you-but-so-good option for those who miss going to amusement parks and state fairs. Crispy and loud corn flavors break down the oily savor of sausage, and the house horseradish mustard keeps me eating more.
The Hand Cut Fries ($3 small, $5 large) are old-school and served on a mesh-edged tin. They also come on a larger baking sheet as a side with sandwiches. For me, they say Wyoming diner, 1975. They’re definitely fresh-made, definitely American and perfect with a Wasatch Chocolate Rye Stout.
The Elk Chili ($4 cup, $10 bowl) is the star of the show, but eat it after a minute, and then quickly, because it is at its very best when it is very hot but also needs the bed of crisps to sop a bit. It’s served over Fritos like a rich man’s Frito pie, rich and deep, and emphasizes the smoulder of chilli peppers rather than their flame. There are no beans here—just a lime crema, cheddar, scallions, Fritos and a big fistful of delicious elk meat in some of the most thoughtful chili in town. The elk is New Zealand–farmed, and it is not gamey in the slightest. It makes me terribly hungry just thinking about it.
A cup of the Elk Chili with a half Chop Salad is the best lunch I’ve had this season. The Chop Salad ($7 half, $12 full), with its emphasis on beets, egg and avocado, is sprightly and light in spite of itself, and the house dressing is original beyond comparison. The first time I tasted it, my thought went, bite by bite: 1. “Wow …” 2. “No. …” 3. “Really?” 4. “Yes.” It stayed in the “Yes” category from then on.
Several people have mentioned the Sloppy Lamb ($10) with tremendous enthusiasm. It’s an exciting idea, comfort and foodie all in a bun—locally sourced lamb, ground and topped with chèvre and flavored with rosemary and honey. The flavor of lamb meat is distinct and quite enjoyable, and it is not comfort food: The flavors are too intense to glide over. The Sloppy Shrooms ($10) should be, pardon the pun, beefier than it is. Like its lamb twin, it, too, is a good idea, but it eats fast. Mushrooms are often fascinatingly flavored and meaty, but here, they are not.
The Trout Tartine ($12)—an open-faced sandwich with a generous steak of salmon-colored trout draped with celery root and hardboiled-egg slices—is a success. Simple and sunlit with inland flavors, it suggests the familial earthiness of the fresh asparagus with butter and eggs on toast that I ate in Minnesota as a child. The trout doesn’t taste of fish at all, and the light saucing of peppery aioli with chopped celery root has charm that butter just imagines. Additionally, the trout is wild-caught from Idaho.
This summer, you might well wander from the Tower Theatre or Liberty Park to East Liberty Tap House for a fun bite and some cold beer. I know this little place is going to be busy every night through what looks to be a long, hot summer.