Utah is like an entire continent in one state. Never, in all my travels around the world, have I discovered a place so dramatically varied in climate and geology in such a comparatively small space. And while I tend to focus on wilderness spots in my Utah writings…(and Utah has no shortage of wilderness)…in this installment I’m going to feature one of the most unique villages in the state: Midway.
Located just 45 miles southeast of Salt Lake City is the Heber Valley…a lush, pastoral, mountain-fringed valley filled with farms and historic villages. And while Salt Lake is a modern, gleaming, cosmopolitan city, the rugged Wasatch mountain range has kept the Heber Valley feeling like yesteryear. The sleepy villages in the valley are home to fantastic small inns, superb restaurants, and artisan shops…but don’t have the artificial, stuffy, snobbish feel of places like Park City, where the Sundance Film festival is currently taking place.
Midway is a town I’ve driven through more than a dozen times, because it’s home to The Homestead, a century-old family resort which has one of the world’s most unique hot springs on its grounds. (You know how much I love hot springs!) The Crater is unique in that it is located inside a natural cave formed by mineral deposits from the hot springs, and its 65-foot crystalline depths are regularly plumbed by SCUBA divers. You can actually get your certification here…after a morning on the slopes in nearby Deer Valley, if you wish. It’s one of the only places in the world where you can ski the country’s best powder in the morning, and SCUBA dive in geothermally heated hot spring water in the afternoon. For more info on the hot springs in the Heber Valley, check out my article on Utah’s hot springs.
The Homestead is an impossibly-charming resort consisting of historic buildings that have been lovingly resorted into hotel rooms, and it’s an integral part of the local culture. When I was there most recently, they were hosting their annual Fall Festival and the entire city was out to look at the scarecrow competition:
The feeling you get in Midway is what you always imagined those small villages in New England were like a century ago. It’s a very close-knit community that seems to really celebrate and treasure the important things in life…family, friendship, good food, and good living. And BOY did I eat well when I was there. The Homestead is home to two excellent restaurants. I had my first dinner at Simon’s, which serves up American homestyle cooking. We ordered most of the menu. We started with fried green tomatoes which was served with a side of pimento cheese (that one made me weak in the knees) as well as crispy-fried cheese curds from a local creamery (more on that in a bit)…then came their house-made rolls, baked and served in flower pots. GENIUS!
The main courses were Fanny’s famous fried chicken (just about the best I’ve ever had), “meat and potatoes” which was far more sophisticated than it sounds…beef braised slowly in red wine and veggies, and served on a bed of fluffy mashed potatoes, a center-cut filet cooked perfectly… OH, and I guess a salad. A spinach and strawberry salad with candied pecans, beets, and goat cheese with pomegranate vinaigrette, thank you very much! Fabulous.
I was actually staying across the road from The Homestead at the stunning Zermatt Resort and Spa, which is owned by the same friendly folks, but feels like a world away. This Swiss-style resort is gleaming and palatial, backed up against the mountains, and when you step out of your car and breathe in that brisk alpine air, you’d almost swear you were in the Alps.
This place regularly wins Best Resort in the state, yet it’s just over the hill from Park City’s posh, world-renowned resorts. (If that doesn’t tell you something, I don’t know what will!) Take note all you skiers…you already know that Deer Valley is the country’s best powder. Zermatt runs shuttles to Deer Valley all day during the season, yet their rates can be HUNDREDS of dollars less than Park City’s resorts, so you can enjoy the welcoming, casual environment of Midway (where dining is just as good, but much cheaper) in the evenings, rather than the swanky, posh-posh lounges of Park City. While Zermatt’s got all the usual resort-style amenities (a stunning indoor/outdoor pool, a sumptuous spa that treated me VERY well), they are known for their food and their carousel. The Swiss-style bakery on site makes the most incredible pastries, and their signature restaurant, Z Chop Haus, fed me one of the best meals I’ve had in a long time.
While I was desperately trying to decide WHICH house-aged USDA prime steak to order, the chef sent out a lovely amuse bouche of lobster claw and tail meat, local veggies, and avocado cream. Next came the bread plate, house-baked bread and pretzels with herb butter:
We started with traditional Swiss fondue, then moved on to a beautiful lobster bisque. Then I saw “raclette” on the menu and there was no way I wasn’t ordering that! Raclette is a very special Swiss cheese that’s hard to find, and Z bakes it with zucchini and tomatoes, topped with a pine nut streusel. I can’t explain to you how delicious it was. By the time my 21-day dry aged New York strip arrived, I was already bursting at the seams, and I couldn’t finish all FOURTEEN OUNCES of it. (The rest kept me company back to my room.) They cooked it perfectly to order (medium rare), by the way…something that is surprisingly rare, even for good steakhouses. Chef Joey Pesner came out to see how we were doing and asked what we’d like for dessert, and all I could do was groan. So he sent out a tiny one-bite dessert…something I wish more restaurants would do. A little chocolate mousse wonder that was perfectly bittersweet with a hint of espresso. What a meal! On the way back to the room, we had to take a spin on Zermatt’s famous carousel:
The next day we were told we should eat at Tarahumara, a word I instantly recognized. The Tarahumara are a small native tribe who live in the Copper Canyon region of northern Mexico, and I was immediately curious about how this word made it to rural Utah. I did NOT have high expectations for a Mexican food restaurant in Midway. I’m from Texas. I ate Mexican food daily in the womb. It is, to this day, my favorite food.
So, imagine my surprise when, after my [first] meal at Tarahumara, I actually said out loud, “That’s the best Mexican food I’ve ever eaten.” And I wasn’t lying. Greg, the restaurant owner, is a 47 year veteran in the industry (mostly in nearby Park City), and when he met his wife Gloria, who grew up with the Tarahumara, they delved into an exploration of northern Mexico’s cuisine. This restaurant was the result, and I’m not the only one who recognizes how incredible it is. Half their patrons drive an hour from Salt Lake to dine there. They have a whopping 73 reviews on Yelp (no other restaurant in Midway comes close). Even by Yelp standards, a restaurant with that many reviews that STILL has 4.5 stars is almost unheard of. This is truly a world-class restaurant hiding in sleepy little Midway…OKAY enough about the restaurant, WHAT ABOUT THE FOOD?!?
We started with their impressive margarita selection, and I really wanted to work my way through the whole list because they all sounded amazing. The Rosangel Margarita is made from a tequila that is aged in port barrels and was paired with house-infused hibiscus flower tequila, and fresh squeezed lime juice. Almost no sugar at all in this one, piquant and tart and incredibly sip-able. After a quick trip to the salsa bar (which features 45…count them…house-made salsas), I was ready for ANOTHER margarita, so the ginger margarita soon made its way to the table, followed closely by the passion fruit margarita, sweetened with agave nectar.
While the main menu may contain a healthy selection of classic Mexican favorites, the specials board was what interested me most. Shrimp fajitas grilled over sugarcane. Papaya chicken quesadillas. Duck tacos with mango sauce. Then…at the bottom of the list…huitlacoche tamales. Huitlacoche is known as “Mexican corn truffles” on menus in the US, but it’s more commonly known in the agricultural community as “corn smut,” a fungus that destroys entire fields of corn in the Midwest. Farmers curse the fungus as they watch their fields burn, without a clue that the corn they are destroying has been miraculously transformed into a delicacy that fetches $50 a pound or more on the gourmet market. I have read about huitlacoche for years, but it’s so rare that it’s VERY hard to find in this country. I literally jumped out of my chair when I saw it on the menu, much to the amusement of the owner. When the tamales arrived, I dove into them…and what a flavor! Corney, to be sure, but earthy and nutty and mild and delicious. The tamales were served with their house mole, one of the most complex sauces of any of the world’s cuisines.
There’s no shortage of dessert on the menu, because the restaurant owns the bakery next door, which specializes in tres leches cake (an old family recipe), house-made churros, chocolate cake with vanilla bean, coffee, cinnamon, and ancho chile, and every Mexican confection under the sun.
I left Tarahumara in a daze. (And it wasn’t just the creative margaritas!) It took me several hours to process the meal, and just to be sure I wasn’t dreaming, I went back AGAIN the next day. I got to quiz owner Greg and his son David a bit more about the restaurant, which uses organic flour, GMO-free corn, no hydrogenated fats, and makes all their tortillas and chips in-house. (They were speaking my language! But I was still dumbfounded to stumble across this in tiny, traditional Midway.) Of course I wanted more huitlacoche, but they had run out of the small supply they had been able to source. So I had to “make do” with this:
A roasted poblano pepper stuffed with crab, lobster, and prawns, smothered in Oaxaca cheese, on a pool of roasted red pepper sauce. Oh, and it was served with wax beans from a farm a couple of miles away. So as bizarre as it seems for me to say this…if you’re as crazy about Mexican food as I am, you need to high tail it to Midway, Utah and eat a few meals at Tarahumara. It is E-P-I-C.
That certainly wasn’t the end of our culinary adventures. The following night we were invited to dine at the Blue Boar Inn, a world-class B&B in Midway that consistently receives AAA’s 4 Diamond award. (Almost unheard-of for a B&B.) In 2012 it won best B&B in Utah, along with Best European Fine Dining and Best Chef. And Chef Eric May has spun a magical menu that reflects Midway’s Swiss heritage, Utah’s legendary game, and France’s most beloved classics.
First out was seared scallops (and LOOK at that sear!!!), shaved fennel, baby watercress, and local tomatoes on a brown butter orange vinaigrette. We also ordered a charcuterie plate with house-cured wild boar salami and coppa.
Next came a pair of salads…the one at left is their house salad with local greens, house cured gravlax (cold smoked pickled salmon), asparagus and avocado with a white balsamic vinaigrette. They also brought out a salad of arugula, poached pears, and Maytag blue cheese with a port wine vinaigrette.
Our party size was large enough that we were able to order EVERY entree on the menu. Mine was bacon-wrapped rabbit tenderloin with carrot puree, poached asparagus, and microgreens. But there was also a schnitzel of pork loin with a sunny side up egg, house made spaetzel, and a lemon caper white wine sauce. Then there was cassoulet, a French favorite, a pot of beans slow baked with wild boar, pheasant, rabbit, and rattlesnake sausage. And did I mention the poached halibut on quinoa with edamame, zucchini, and heirloom tomato salad with a crispy polenta cake? Okay…I’d better stop. Pair all this with a tour through their Wine Spectator-awarded wine list, and you’d need to take a stroll around the property to clear your head, too!
Blue Boar’s handful of rooms are all named after famous authors, and the inn is too picturesque for words. The bar at left, called “Truffle Hollow,” is steeped in antiques, from the floor (which was the reclaimed roof of a French barn that was used as a hangar during World War 1, to the 500 year old hand-carved bar, to the tables and chairs which came from an 19th century French bistro.
The grounds are no less impressive, and I found it incredibly hard to tear myself away from this very special place. And after such a meal, I decided to walk back to Zermatt, enjoying the stars and the twinkling lights of Midway in the valley below. Tiny, sleepy, authentic, undiscovered Midway, with less than 4,000 residents. Where I had just had some of the best meals and seen some of the most unique and fabulous hotels of my entire life.
Now before you think that all I did on this vacation was eat, there’s another blog coming! From a historic train ride where we were held up by bandits, to foraging for wild watercress beneath an alpine waterfall, to my very first hot air balloon ride! But that’s a story for next week.
For now, I leave you with an image of sunrise behind the accordion-playing-bear-statue on the front porch of the Zermatt resort in one of the most surprising and unique destinations I’ve found in these magnificent United States…Midway and the Heber Valley.
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