In the beginning there was La Frontera restaurant – a family-owned place that would go on, over time, to spin-off Mexican eateries such as La Puente, La Luna, La Fountain, Cafe Silvestre and Lorena’s. I won’t go into all the details and family tree here, but there’s a good article in The Salt Lake Tribune archives that gives an accounting of the “genealogy” of popular Utah Mexican restaurants. Here, the focus is on Lorena’s Mexican Restaurant.
Opened by Tob and Lena Paul in 1989 in Woods Cross, there are families – including my wife’s – who are three generations deep in eating family meals at Lorena’s. I can tell you this: They don’t show up for the ambiance. Lorena’s isn’t much to look at, inside or out. But if you’re looking for solid, delicious Mexican-American fare at bargain prices, this is the place. You will not leave hungry.
There are two recipes I’ve tried for years, without success, to get my hands on. One is the green chile gravy (aka chile verde) at Lorena’s and the other is their homemade salsa. Crispy corn tortilla chips fried in-house arrive free at each table along with a simple but delicious red chile salsa. It’s smooth, not chunky, with just the perfect amount of spiciness. I’ve tried numerous times to replicate that salsa at home and have yet to be able to. Thankfully, you can get a big bag of chips and salsa to go for $2 at Lorena’s. And while you’re at it, you might as well pick up an extra pint of salsa to take home for another 2 bucks.
Lorena’s also does a nice job with their homemade guacamole, although I have to say that it seems overpriced at $6.75 for a side of guacamole compared to the low cost of everything else on the menu. For example, a sirloin steak smothered in salsa with Mexican fries, rice, refried beans, guacamole and two tortillas is a mere $11 – and that’s one of the most expensive items on the menu.
Lorena’s opens daily at 10 a.m. and serves breakfast items such as huevos rancheros ($7.50), chorizo con huevos ($7.50) and authentic Mexican-style menudo ($6), which is beef tripe in a spicy homemade broth with hominy and a tortilla for dipping. My wife’s stepbrother is especially partial to the egg platter ($7) – two eggs cooked to order with a slice of grilled ham, refried beans, two tortillas and papas (fried potatoes).
When I was in college in Colorado I experienced my first burrito smothered in green chile gravy – sometimes called Denver green chile or Denver chile verde. It’s a flour-thickened sauce, slightly spicy, made with anaheim chiles and slow-cooked chunks of pork. That’s the style of chile verde/chile gravy served at Lorena’s. I’d give my right arm for the recipe.
In my opinion, the Large Combination plate at Lorena’s is one of the best meal deals to be found on the planet and I ordered a Large Combo for takeout last week. Here’s what you get for a measly $10.50: a taco, tostada, burrito, cheese enchilada, Mexican rice, refried beans, a side of chile verde, and a thick flour tortilla. That is A LOT of food for just over 10 bucks.
My wife is gluten-free so there’s not a whole lot at Lorena’s that she can enjoy. However, she does really like the shredded chicken tostada. It’s a crisp corn tortilla with tender shredded chicken topped with iceberg lettuce and diced tomato. Service at Lorena’s, by the way, is always fast and friendly – even on the weekends when it used to get crowded, before the pandemic.
There’s a section of the Lorena’s menu that allows guests to customize their own combo: a choice of either three items such as tamales, burritos, enchiladas, tacos, etc. for one price or two items with sides of rice and beans. I typically opt for a homemade pork tamale and bean burrito smothered in green chile with a side of rice and beans, which is only $9.25. By the way, the refried beans are creamy and wonderful and the Mexican rice is also excellent.
The enchiladas at Lorena’s are full of cheesy goodness, which is my nephew’s favorite dish there. For $10 you get two cheese enchiladas smothered with green chile and more cheese, along with sides of those heavenly beans and rice.
This is not fancy food, tweezer food, or Instagram friendly food. But, if you’re looking to fill your belly for just a few bucks, Lorena’s is the perfect place to do it.
Photos by Ted Scheffler
Culinary quote of the week:
“I don’t drink anymore for Cinco de Mayo. I celebrate with Mexican food, or as it’s known in Mexico: ‘food.’” — Craig Ferguson
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Originally trained as an anthropologist, Ted Scheffler is a seasoned food, wine & travel writer based in Utah. He loves cooking, skiing, and spends an inordinate amount of time tending to his ever-growing herd of guitars and amplifiers.