Regular readers of this column may have noticed that I rarely dislike the restaurants I try.
There are a few reasons for this. One is that I like just about every kind of food, as long as it's well prepared using quality ingredients.
Another is that many of my reviews stem from reader recommendations. If people go to the trouble of e-mailing or calling me about a restaurant, the place must have a lot of good things going for it. (Keep those ideas coming, by the way!)
So, as I say, I usually have a good experience. But liking a restaurant and enjoying a place so much I want to go back are two different things in this highly competitive restaurant market. Z'Tejas falls into the latter category.
The culinary goal of Z'Tejas, a national chain with one location in Utah, is to meld the diverse cuisines of the Louisiana delta, Texas hill country, Asian-influenced Pacific Coast and desert Southwest, which seems trendily ambitious to the point of folly, until you try the food.
My predecessor at this job reviewed Z'Tejas shortly after it opened in 2001 and liked it, but other critics and the public were not so kind. The place's own public relations folks admit the beginning in Utah was "rocky."
But since then, several things have happened: new management, a new chef and the inauguration of the annual Chile Festival, which this year runs through Sept. 11. During the festival, Jack Gilmore, creator of the Z'Tejas menu, will be in town to introduce a new Chile Pepper Menu.
I'd like to shake Jack's hand. Our family enjoyed a meal at Z'Tejas on a recent weeknight that was everything the menu promised: innovative, delicious and unpretentious all at once.
For starters, we tried the flavor-packed shrimp and guacamole tostada bites. I liked them, but the generous dollops of fresh guacamole make for messy finger food.
Our favorite appetizer was the special Hector's chili verde. We gobbled down three tortillas worth of chunky pork in a sublime sauce that is a medley of bright tomatillo overtones and deep and spicy garlic and jalapeno undertones. If you have a chance, you must try it.
My husband wolfed down his smothered burrito, a simple but potent presentation of grilled chicken rolled in an oversize tortilla, drenched in smoothly spicy red chile sauce and served on a bed of aromatic "Tejas rice."
I adored my stuffed pork tenderloin medallions, an elegant and earthy serving of seared pork wrapped around poblano peppers stuffed with chorizo sausage, cheese and onion, with roasted garlic cream sauce drizzled over the top. If the description doesn't have you drooling, wait 'til you taste it.
Our kids loved the grilled chicken pasta, a thoughtful dish for a kids' menu with mellow, lightly creamy pasta, just a breath of spice, thin-cut strips of veggies and chunks of blackened chicken.
For dessert, we tried the "famous" ancho chile fudge pie, which resembles a big slice of heated- and spiced-up brownie dough in a pie shell. That's not a bad thing, mind you. (The recipe, published in Wednesday's Food section, is available on the Deseret Morning News Web site: Some like it hot.) We also liked the peach and berry cobbler, served in a hot skillet with ice cream and a bourbon ginger sauce that deepens the flavors of both fruit and pastry.
They're introducing new menu items during the Chile Festival, including barbecue shrimp queso fundido, green chile cheese enchiladas and more of that chili verde.
Personally, I can't wait.Appetizers $2.95-$8.50, salads $2.95-$9.95, entrees $7.95-$19.95, kids' meals $3.95, desserts $4.95-$5.95.
Rating: *** 1/2
Where: 191 S. Rio Grande (The Gateway)
Hours: Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sunday, noon-9 p.m.
Payment: Local checks, credit cards
Phone: 456-0450Web: www.ztejas.com
Stacey Kratz is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants for the Deseret Morning News. E-mail: email@example.com