SALT LAKE CITY — It’s been nearly three years since the three-day extreme makeover, and if three consecutive “Best Restaurant” awards from Salt Lake Magazine hanging on the wall counts for anything, chef Matt Lake can go ahead and claim victory.
Well, as much victory as a guy who runs a restaurant is capable of claiming.
In a business where you’re only as good as your last taco, tamale and pico de gallo, Alamexo restaurant on State Street in downtown Salt Lake City is holding its own quite nicely — and all this after a pending world record in transitioning from one style of eating establishment to another.
In just 72 hours in October 2013, the New American restaurant known as Zy became the Mexican restaurant known as Alamexo.
Everything changed: The interior design, the cuisine, the pricing, the sign out front.
Basically, what Matt did was send the entire restaurant back to the kitchen to get the order right.
The saga began in 2012 when Matt stepped into the Salt Lake eatery scene with the kind of cooking pedigree that even if you were making one up it probably wouldn’t be as good.
He was raised around food. When he was a boy in Circleville, New York, an hour and a half north of Manhattan, his father, Gary, opened a deli that grew into a successful catering company. Honed on food preparation, at 18, Matt was off to the Culinary Institute of America in New York City, where he graduated in 1991 at the top of his class.
He apprenticed under top chefs Marcel Desaulniers (author of “Death by Chocolate”) and Mark Miller (Coyote Café), and by the time he was the ripe old age of 22 he was running the kitchen at New Heights restaurant in Washington, D.C. In 1996, at 26, Food & Wine Magazine named him to its annual “Best New Chefs” list and New Heights became a must-dine spot in D.C.
From there it was back to New York City, where, among a string of other successes, Matt became the first non-Latino hired by legendary chef Roberto Santibanez to work in the kitchen at Rosa Mexicano, the city’s premier Mexican eatery.
He’d no doubt still be showing off in Manhattan if love and marriage hadn’t entered the picture. While in D.C. Matt met his wife, Catherine, a Utah girl from Layton. When their son Nathan came along, they decided to move to Utah. Catherine, who graduated from law school in Brooklyn, found work at a Salt Lake law firm, while Matt lived here but continued to work there, commuting weekly back and forth to New York.
That lasted until four years ago, when Matt decided to become a full-time westerner, which is when he opened his Zy restaurant, featuring a trendy new American menu.
On paper, it was a surefire winner — superstar chef, hip downtown location, New Age vibe, traditional American food with a 21st-century flair.
It probably would have worked spectacularly in Manhattan.
But the restaurant languished on State Street. Part of the problem was people didn’t walk in the door because it looked too fancy.
The handwriting thus on the wall, Matt decided to turn to his true food love, the only cuisine he says “I can eat breakfast, lunch and dinner” — Mexican.
For months, he plotted a hostile takeover of his own restaurant.
After closing on a Friday night in early October 2013, they papered the windows and worked round the clock transforming Zy into Alamexo, literally going from Z to A. (Among the many things Matt learned with Zy is that when it comes to name recognition, starting with an A is considerably more advantageous, especially in the internet age).
Tuesday morning, the paper came off the windows and, viola!, Alamexo was born or reborn, as the case may be.
Ever since, the reviews, and the traffic through the front door, have validated the switch. Alamexo made Salt Lake Magazine’s “25 Best Restaurants in Utah” list in 2014, 2015 and 2016, while another reviewer of Utah restaurants, Gastronomicslc.com, ranks Alamexo among Utah’s top six Mexican restaurants.
Perhaps most gratifying to Matt is when customers ask to compliment the chef and he comes out from the kitchen to meet them.
“They’re shocked,” he says. “They like the Mexican food and expect me to be Mexican.”
Nope. But he knows how to cook like one.
Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays.