Generally speaking, when you’re struggling with culinary delights at your local bar, your evening is probably spoiled; You’ll be thrown sticky menus teeming with deep-fried and freezer-cooked dishes. Some of them will no doubt be stacked, loaded or stuffed. Maybe all three if you’re especially lucky.
This is where The Pearl, one of Utah’s newest bars, aims to reimagine what a local watering hole can be. Anyone like Vietnamese-inspired street food? Oh, and we, before I talk about my first meeting, let me spare you all the trouble of avoiding a long list of pearl and sea puns, your oyster worlds and all. Please.
The Pearl is the work of Jacob Hall, Chase Worthen, Mike Askerlund and Tommy Nguyen, a quartet that is likely familiar to many. Nguyen counts Takashi, Rai, and the last post office on his resume in the kitchen; the remaining trio are the owners of the Alibi cocktail bar in the city center, a cozy cocktail bar on the main street in the city center.
The pearl is the collision of all their experiences combined. To be clear, The Pearl is first and foremost a bar; you will need your ID and twenty-one years of life behind you to enter. Whether it’s a fancy cocktail or a snack, you’ll head to the bar to order. I especially liked the lack of bar stools in the middle of the bar; no need to lean over friendly talk to get your glass here.
menu is moderately brief and includes ten courses right now. Nguyen rushes past our table and thinks it will be an ever-changing collection. The residents of two neighboring apartment buildings under construction (built *after* the Pearl was built, apparently) are going to have some fun with this.
We start with a few kebabs, lemongrass pork ($5) and Vietnamese sausage ($7), and completely forget the suggestion to wrap our proteins in the included romaine leaves (with pickled vegetables and herbs for garnish). A sad mistake is quickly replaced by a joyful dizziness when we are presented with the next dish – caramelized pork belly with egg ($14).
Large chunks of tenderly fried pork belly are served alongside the silkiest, most quivering eggs. The egg – barely formed – easily turns back into a satiny smudge with the slightest movement of chopsticks. From there, it’s the most decadent of dips, an umami cloak fit for a pig king. Walking past our table, Hall invites us to enjoy an egg and pork together. Late. He didn’t have to worry, the dish was self-evident, elementary. Briefly considering ordering five more. What stops me is the fact that I plan to return and not be treated like a glutton.
What follows is Kim’s initially modest egg rolls ($8), which were begged to our table by various members of the team. I wonder how good an egg roll can be? We’ve all been eating them for years, is it a well-trodden lawn? They are light and brittle, densely stuffed with pork, shrimp, tree ear mushrooms, and more. A little greasy, and from beginning to end the impressions are frank. It’s authentic family cuisine, cooked from the heart, as Nguyen explains: “The recipe belongs to my mom.” [hence the name Kim] and she was here watching me cook it every night this week.
Finally, on a plate with herbs and mushrooms. An attempt to atone for all the rottenness of previous dishes quickly turns into another crushing success. In this familiar Asian rendition, firm Chinese cabbage is gilded with caramelized garlic, teetering on the edge of sweet, uplifting rather than bitterly burnt. Mushrooms bring snap and more umami. Getting an image yet?
A Southeast Asian flair permeates the cocktail list. Of course, they will concoct anything, but when we entered, there were five thoughtful compositions on the menu. On Hall’s advice, I tried Ca Phe ($13), described as a Vietnamese coffee cocktail with robusta, chicory, coconut, and spices. That’s everything the espresso martini you secretly order isn’t. This is the adult version, and there’s no need to look around the room in embarrassment before ordering (raise your hands if you remember Kristauf’s Martini bar days).
Speaking of which, Pearl joins the stellar lineup in the area where I would bet money to become in next hotspot. Around the corner is Blue Copper Coffee, Nohm, Water Witch, Laziz Kitchen, Central 9th Market, and Scion Cider Bar. There’s some pretty apocalyptic roadwork going on in the area right now, so plan ahead, but also know that you’ll get a seat here before the crowds inevitably clear.
Tuesday – Saturday 16:00 – day off
Sunday brunch from 11:00 to 16:00
917 S 200W, Salt Lake City, UT 84101
Hi, I’m Stuart, nice to meet you! I am the founder, writer and debater at Gastronomic SLC; I am also a former food critic with over five years of experience at the Salt Lake Tribune. I have worked extensively with several local publications, from Visit Salt Lake to Salt Lake Magazine, not least helping to advise national television shows.
I’m an award-winning journalist and have been covering Utah’s food scene for nearly fifteen years. I am largely fueled by a critical obsession with rice, alliteration, and the use of big words that I don’t understand. What they say about me: “True”, “I thought he was older”, “I don’t share his feelings.”
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