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Xiao Li Restaurant (Salt Lake City UT)
||307 West 200 South,|
Salt Lake City, UT 84101
Reviewed by: Jacqueline M. Newman
Winter Volume: 1998 Issue: 5(4) page: 12 and 19
It is August, sunsets are beautiful, but a you-can-find-it-in-any-city bookstore beckons. We have been away from home eight days and are high on beauty but low on things we have left behind. Four of our group stay on in Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, four are lounging in a motel in this city, and four are getting a between-the-pages fix perusing the books. My husband waits in the entryway refusing to join. He reads local freebie newspapers such as Catalyst and City Weekly and notices a Chinese restaurant review. He proffers it as a gift but the idea brings groans from the minors. We are not in agreement and put it after two pre-selected eateries serving barbecue, bison, and beef.
We retrieve the others at the motel and drive off to check things out. Can not eat at the first on our list, it is closed. At the second restaurant choice, having a vested interest, I refuse to go in and send one adult and the teens who groaned over having to eat Chinese food. No way, they say, so it is off to the newly found Chinese restaurant. On the way there, we notice that it is also in the Salt Lake City Visitors Guide, as one of more than a hundred American and other ethnic choices. However, it is but one of two in the Asian section, the other is Thai. Start to wonder why so few are listed, then realize that the hundred or so others in Salt Lake City probably do not advertise. There are twenty-two Chinese restaurants touted in the City Weekly, probably a free listing location.
As Chinese restaurants in middle-America cater mostly to non-Chinese tastes we do not expect much, but are intrigued with the review because it chides people for only willing to go to inexpensive Chinese restaurants. And, it says that people should be willing to pay a little extra for good food, which this place has. As that is exactly how I feel, I am certainly tempted to try Xiao Li. I thank my hubby as we drive there and hope they are touting a good restaurant. We park behind it, go in, then wonder about the review because we are greeted by a very casually dressed young Caucasian who quickly disappears to set our table for eight.
Peering in, we see only one table with two Chinese people and not an Asian service person in sight. Are we foolish to take this gamble when I know a respected Chinese restaurant in the nearby town of Bountiful, owned by Gregory Skedros? Never gave that a thought because I detest waiting on lines, a requirement at his Mandarin Restaurant on 348 E. 900 N.
Feel better after we read two reviews in the entryway that say Xiao Li was voted the 'Best Chinese Restaurant' in the Salt Lake City Magazine and 'Best New Ethnic Eatery' in the City Weekly. Gambling, I ask if the owners are there and am rewarded when a beautiful young Chinese woman appears introducing herself as the owner.
We learn that she and her husband had a restaurant in Calgary in Canada and are still partners in another one in Provo, Utah called 'China Lily.' They wanted a place of their own so rented this space even though its history included many restaurant failures before they came. She says they were not daunted.
They expose brick walls, put down gray tile floors, hang lovely Chinese scrolls and pictures, bring in traditional-looking rosewood tables and chairs, cover their cushions in yellow jacquard silk, set up a black screen decorated with a jade, turquoise and oyster motif to block the kitchen, train the chefs, and open knowing that if they cooked excellent fresh ingredients after they are ordered, they will succeed. Succeed they do in the town where she earned an MBA; from BYU, as Brigham Young University is known.
The menu and the food at Xiao Li are delightful surprises. We began with Wor Wonton, a soup with many wontons and ever so many freshly prepared ingredients including shrimp, mushrooms, scallions, roast pork, celery cabbage, broccoli, three kinds of mushrooms, snow peas, carrots, bamboo shoots, and baby corn. This mélange comes in a simple but distinctive broth that allows the fresh ingredients to keep their personalities. We love everything about it except for the roast pork. One earlier 'I don't like Chinese Food' man in our group has five bowls of it forcing the waitress to refill the broth many times.
Rice comes family-style in a Japanese wooden bowl, a large soup spoon as ladle. It, too, is refilled frequently. We use rice bowls and have ours with General Tso's Chicken, lightly fried chunks served with a thick, flavorful, and piquant sauce with overtones of sweetness. Salt and Pepper Chicken includes only the white meat cut in strips and sauteed with onions, green peppers, and a few carrots. This dish comes seasoned with salt and a red pepper powder and pays homage to the southwestern influences in the area. We are pleased as punch to enjoy its homage to the locale.
Green Bean Beef in a black pepper sauce wins the heart of the fellow who before, had no love for Chinese food. He wolfs the beans and the beef almost as quickly as they are set on our table. Large Shrimp with Black Bean Sauce wins many of us as does the lightly fried brown-sauced House Special Tofu sauteed with vegetables. One growing teenager in our party wants Peking Chow Mein. Expecting nothing special, we agree as he is a chow hound. How wrong we are. A bed of lightly fried egg noodles arrives topped with delicious vegetables and bits of chicken. We all taste, enjoy the delicate white sauce, and assist him. When none is left, he ask for House Fried Rice to fill his bottomless pit. Made Yang Chow style with omelet slices, no soy sauce, and wonderful bits of vegetables and meats, he is obliged to share it.
The dessert menu, only half Chinese, delights anyone with a sweet tooth. The young folk try the Rocky Road Mousse Cake and vote it a success, the Mud Pie garners even more votes. The adults prefer the Candied Bananas and the Candied Apples; both served western style with a topping of ice cream. This creative approach crystallized the molten sugar syrup and is an idea I will copy forever.
Lei Li and her husband are good cooks and good restaurant managers. They serve Chinese food loved by all including Lemon Chicken and Sweet and Sour Pork. They also serve most dishes classic style and a few with a bend to local tastes. Their food is fresh and fabulous, their dumplings a gorgeous presentation of hand-made batter rolled and stuffed with pork and a secret blend of spices. And ever so many of their dishes delight the eye, please the nose, and also taste terrific.
The restaurant has a liquor license. My son-in-law comments on their wine list and calls the Caymus Conundrum at thirty-six dollars a bottle a remarkable wine at a good price. We stick to tea which is fresh, green, and of gorgeous taste. Wish we had discovered this gem earlier in our visit to this city as Xiao Li serves lunch, buffet style; a great idea for hungry young folk. It also allows you to order dishes at that time from the regular menu. The restaurant is only open at lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and at dinner, from 5:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.
Yes, Utah has exceptionally fine Chinese food. Ask my grandson who never liked Chinese food before. He wants to go back there for more. If you live there or are traveling through, try this Chinese food venue; he says: "Bet you will love it, too."