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Duck Rolls Awesome — Tacos, Not So Much; Pub Club, Prosciutto-and-Mozzarella Pasta Salad Hit the Spot

Restaurant: Stella Grill
Steak, Fish, Duck, Sandwiches, Mexican
Location: 4291 S. 900 E., Salt Lake City (Map)
Price Range: $4.75-$19
B — See Foodie Report

I had heard about a great restaurant called the Stella Grill, and finally managed to make it there. I had a vague idea where it was located, based on descriptions, but when I got there, the first thing I thought was, “If they’d just said where Firehouse Grill or Bubba’s BBQ used to be, I would’ve known right where to go.” I also would have been a little concerned. Sometimes, if too many failed restaurants have been in the same building, the location itself can become damaged, leaving an impression that nothing good could be there. But Stella certainly made the space its own.

The outside of the building had not changed since the last time I had been there (it had been a garage and filling station a few decades back), and the Stella sign out front had the feel of a rustic filling-station sign, with the word “Stella” superimposed over a star (I thought, “Clever — a star, like someone from Boston saying the word ‘stellar’ — Stella”) and the word “Grill” under the star, almost like an afterthought. I then pulled into the parking lot (which was pretty full) and saw that a star had been imprinted into a concrete retaining wall at the end of the parking stall, as well as some artsy covers for light fixtures at about knee high. That was kind of nice. As I walked around to the entrance, I saw that the old garage doors were still in place, which I always liked, but the sidewalk leading to the front door was redone with red sandstone pieces, and the star was in place there, too, in yellow sandstone. Again, it was nice and, I’ll be honest, had me a little excited to sit down and eat.

The place was loud inside, the cacophony of voices hitting me like a physical force, like when you go to the Market Street Grill downtown during lunch — all the hard surfaces really made it seem like there were twice as many people there as there really were. Stella had that same feeling, which was at odds with the sort of artisan café that I was imagining on the walk in. I noticed that there were dividers that had been installed around the dining area to provide privacy for diners, as well as add to the general noise level with more hard surfaces. I was greeted as soon as I walked in by a young hostess who seemed afraid to look me in the eye. In fact, when she said, “Right this way,” and started walking, the woman I was with and I looked at each other and said, “Is that us? Should we follow her?” and decided that we should, once she disappeared into the next room. She led us to a tiny table where my friend and I would have sat facing each other, right up against one of the dividing walls. The table had not been wiped down, and she snagged a wash cloth from a busser walking by. While she was doing this, we saw a little booth directly across from it, and asked if we could sit there instead. The booth was set at an angle, the corner of the square table poking out into the walkway, with two chairs and the booth benches also at the same angle. It was quirky and fit with the general decor.

On the far wall was a specials board, listing an appetizer, pasta, salad and entree. I was also surprised that, although Stella was busy, the clientele was definitely older. Half of the people eating there on that weekend night were gray haired, albeit dressed very nicely. I then looked at the menu, and noticed that the prices were a bit higher than I had anticipated on their entrees up to $19 a plate (I had heard nothing about price from people who had gone there, and didn’t know what to expect), which was a little disappointing. On the other hand, the selection was very eclectic, with pasta salads, Mexican food, steak, lamb, game hen, salmon, catfish, chicken and duck. The man who came to wait on us arrived soon, and he certainly had no problem making eye contact with me. In fact, he looked into my eyes so intently that I was certain he was trying to steal my soul. He was middle aged with a lisp, and seemed to take great pleasure in putting his glasses on the end of his nose and bobbing his eyebrows at me, while paying the woman I was with hardly any attention at all. It was very uncomfortable for me, and even she was a little bothered by this, saying something to the effect of “I’m right here, can’t he tell that you’re actually with someone?” It also made it so we couldn’t focus on the menu, because of the continuous comments about how much attention he was giving me, and he kept having to come back to give us time to make up our minds. I asked about the pasta listed on the specials board and learned that it was a pasta salad, not a pasta, and I asked about the Duck Rolls listed on the menu appetizers. His answers were good, telling me what was on them and how they were prepared. He took our order on the third go-round, and I asked him what he would recommend out of the Tacos and Charbroiled Italian Sandwich. He recommended the Tacos, claiming that they were to die for (his words, not mine), so I went with the recommendation, selecting the carne asada and the chili-orange chicken, opting out of beer-battered fish or grilled veggie and guacamole. I also got the Duck Rolls appetizer and a lemonade.

While waiting, I watched the waitresses moving around (he was the only man I saw waiting tables), admired the decor, saw that they had seating outside, and generally got a warm feeling from the place, other than the noise. He brought my lemonade, and I was very pleasantly surprised. It was very tart and very sweet — the kind of lemonade that threatens to suck your face in through your mouth — like the old bitter-beer face in the Keystone commercials. It only made my anticipation grow for what I was going to be served.

My appetizer was delivered by a young girl, who identified the three sauces (spicy plum sauce, mint chimichurri and roasted-pepper sauce) and leaned closer for the confidential aside, “The plum sauce is the best.” And she was right.

First words out of my mouth:
"Wow. That’s pretty.”

The six Duck Rolls were fried to a beautiful golden brown, fanned out like the six-fingered man, there were some greens in the center of the plate, and the three sauces were spread around the rest in a colorful pattern of red, green and gold. It took me a few minutes of burning my fingers before the first bite, because they had come straight from the fryer, and they were cut on a bias, which kept allowing the plentiful chunks of duck to fall out, but that first bite was awesome.

First words out of my mouth after first bite:
"Oh, man, that’s good!"

The spicy plum sauce was excellent. It had a depth of flavor, with a variety of Oriental spices and the slightest hint of heat that really left me wanting to go back for more. The mint chimichurri, however, was not my favorite. On each bite, I got an immediate hit of mint, then it was just a run-of-the mill pesto sauce, and not a very good one at that. The red-pepper sauce was good, albeit bland. Being a red-pepper sauce, I expected a little bit of heat, but got none. Little did I know that I was getting a bit of a preview of the tacos that were to come.

When the tacos came out, I was immediately disappointed. They were on a pair of small corn tortillas, like I could have gotten from a taco cart on the side of the road downtown. And that would’ve cost me no more than $2, not $9.50. Worse, there was a big dollop of guacamole in the center of each taco, which I didn’t know was coming. I could’ve sworn that there was no mention of it on the menu. I told the waiter about it, and he offered to have them remade after saying, “It’s just a lump on top,” so I chose the latter. Service had already been a little slow, and I didn’t want to put off eating any more. They came with a side of black beans and a Southwest corn succotash with bits of peppers that was pretty, and a dozen or so corn chips that looked like they had been fried there on site.

So I made up my first taco and took a big bite ... what a bummer. The chili-orange chicken was bland. I detected no orange, certainly no chili ... and I wouldn’t have minded a little cilantro. I love cilantro. That’s one of the reasons I love those taco carts! And it would’ve given the taco some flavor. But the only seasoning I got off it was salt. So I moved on to the second taco without much hope.

The carne asada was better, but still was no match for their $2 brethren. Every so often, I got a bite of beef that had a good crust on it (two bites?), and had a moment of happiness, but it was not enough. The black beans, for all I could tell, had no seasoning at all, other than being poured from can to pot to be warmed up. The corn succotash was good, and I used the corn chips to gobble it all up. However, all in all, I would’ve been happier standing in the street at a taco cart and not felt like I had been robbed. If not for those Duck Rolls, I could’ve eaten a second entree.

Last words out of my mouth before leaving:
"I'd come back for the Duck Rolls any day.”

On my second visit, I decided to go American — a sandwich. I remembered the Italian charbroiled sandwich because it came with prosciutto, and I would eat a shoe if it had prosciutto on it. But I had decided to go with American. So I carefully avoided looking at the sandwich with prosciutto ... don’t look at the prosciutto ....

When I arrived, the place was as busy as before, and the specials board listed the special pasta as the prosciutto and mozzarella. I failed.

I was seated in the same area that I had been before, and looked at the menu. In the section of sandwiches that did not include the prosciutto, the Pub Club caught my eye, but supplied no explanation. When my server came and I asked about it, he said it was turkey and bacon, with lettuce tomato and mayo, and a choice of bread. He also said that it comes with chips or a salad, or I could upgrade to get any of the pasta salads for $1.50 extra. I’m not a big fan of turkey sandwiches, and prefer clubs that have ham and turkey, which this didn’t, but the the thing that was keeping my attention was that I could upgrade the side and get the pasta salad with prosciutto and mozzarella! So I could stay American and still get my prosciutto fix. Life was good. I ordered it on sourdough bread, and got the same lemonade from last time. When my food arrived, the wait was a bit long, particularly considering nothing was actually being cooked.

First words out of my mouth:
"Looks like great bread!"

The bread was sliced thick, the top crust was sprinkled with corn meal, the turkey was thick sliced, with thick-sliced bacon and tomatoes, leaf lettuce, and mayo. The pasta salad was made with rotini, and was sprinkled liberally with chunks of prosciutto, chopped basil, peas and tomatoes. I’m not a super big fan of pasta salad, because it tends to be a heavy, mayo-based dressing, but this looked to be dressed with a creamy vinaigrette. The space between the sandwich and the pasta was filled with what was probably plain Lay’s potato chips. Nothing against the sandwich but, for my first bite, I wanted some of that prosciutto.  So, wielding my fork like a spear, I carefully impaled some of that Italian ham, mozzarella, pasta, greens, peas and tomato, looking for the perfect bite and ... bliss.

First words out of my mouth after first bite: "Amazing!"

The flavor of the prosciutto was not masked by the dressing or other goodies in the salad and, at one point, I got a chunk of meat the size of the last digit of my little finger and could have died a happy man. The peas added a richness that was a great foil to the vinaigrette, without taking too much oomph out of the prosciutto. What a great way to start the meal!

The sandwich was cut in half and had some good heft to it. The bread was soft, while the crust had some good chew. Not only that, but the smoke from the bacon really went well with the turkey. The turkey itself might have been smoked, as well, although I wasn’t quite sure, because I never got a bite without bacon. But it was a good sandwich. The chips added nothing to the meal other than a bit of salt and crunch between bites of the soft and chewy of the sandwich and the pasta salad. But the Stella Grill took something that I’m not a big fan of and made it enjoyable. That’s saying something.

I finished and had that life-is-good feeling that comes from a full stomach. A stark contrast to my experience with the tacos.

Last words out of my mouth before leaving: "Great place for sandwiches." Foodie Report

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     food·ie (fd)
     noun. Slang.  A person who has an ardent or refined interest in food; a gourmet.