Downtown Dining is Now a Destination

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Downtown has become a gastronomic destination in its own right.

Five years ago I would’ve called you crazy if you uttered those words. But things have been booming, as drinking and dining options continue to expand, and everything from wine bars to wood-fired pizzas are on the horizon.

Main Street (aka the 18b Arts District) and East Fremont Street are the epicenters of this epicurean revolution, and though bleak some surroundings may be, once you duck inside any of these eateries, you will find delightful meals, and hand-tooled food aplenty.

I eat out in downtown Las Vegas more than anyone. Ever. (No brag just fact.) Morning, noon and night I patrol these concrete canyons scouting the best places to sooth my savage hunger, and seeking to send you serenely to the most satisfying sustenance. Here’s where you should be supping and slurping right now, but be advised, more superior comestibles are soon to surface.

Image(Holy Ensendada, Batman! We’re in Baja!)

Bajamar Seafood & Tacos

Good Mexican food used to be harder to find downtown than a slot junkie with good credit. These straight-from-Baja tacos (above) immediately changed that. Ignore the surroundings and dive in.

Casa Don Juan

An old reliable with a large menu and a huge following. The tortillas and the carnitas and the great service keep us coming back.

Carson Kitchen

CK started the downtown dining revolution five years ago and is still going strong. Those veal meatballs, oxtail risotto, and glazed donut bread pudding never get old.

DE Thai Kitchen

Forget the regular menu and order off the (not so) secret menu on the chalk board. If there’s a better Kua Gling (spicy ground pork) or soft shell crabs in town, I haven’t found them.

18bin

Brand spanking new, still finding its sea legs, but early experiences with its limited menu have been positive.

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Esther’s Kitchen

I eat here so often they ought to name a booth after me.

EAT

Wonderful breakfast and lunch; to-die-for flapjacks; heavenly hash.

Evel Pie

Downtown is blessed with four good pizza joints, and it all started with Evel Pie. As good as it is, I prefer the dense, chewy slices at….

Image(One of each please)

Good Pie

Nothing more than a counter, some deck ovens, and an assortment of the best slices in Vegas (above). Soon to open a full-service pizza restaurant in the Arts District, much to the rejoicing of pizza mavens everywhere. The pepperoni slice (above) absolutely slays the competition.

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Hatsumi

Robotayaki on East Fremont? Yep, and it’s great. Fine sake list, too.

Jammyland

The drinks here are so good they make me wish I was an alcoholic. A booze-absorbing menu of (mostly) Jamaican food is just the thing after a few of them.

La Monja (The Nun)

This is one fun nun. An indoor-outdoor vibe (at the top of the page) that threatens to do for East Fremont Street what Esther’s did for the Arts District: bring a modern twist to a hoary formula. In this case, by giving ceviches, taquitos, and fish tacos the upgrade they deserve. Everything is under twenty bucks, and the patio has “destination drinking” written all over it.

Ocha Thai

A family-run oasis of good Thai cooking for decades.

Image(Comfort me with meatloaf)

Old Soul

The odds are against Old Soul, but Natalie Young’s food — like the meatloaf above — is so good we don’t care. Take the time to find it and you’ll fall in love.

Oscar’s Steakhouse

Oscar Goodman is an iconic figure in Las Vegas. His steakhouse doesn’t quite match his out-sized reputation, but new chef Ben Jenkins is on a mission to change that.

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PublicUs

We constantly debate the relative merits of PublicUs v. Vesta like a man who can’t decide between his wife and his mistress. We resolve this argument by alternating between them… just like we did in 1999.

7th and Carson

Elevated pub grub (below) at a location we can never quite remember.  ;-)

Image(Once in a blue moon, we eat healthy)

The Kitchen at Atomic

Jackson Stamper’s food might be too hip for the room, but it suits us just fine. One of the best steaks (and rum-brined pork chops) in town, too.

Image(Blimey, mate; takes me straight back to the Cliffs of Dover, it does.)

The Smashed Pig

Ignore the Fremont Street fanny-packers and duck in for a black & tan and the fish and chips (above).

VegeNation

If you insist, there’s a vegan restaurant downtown – the best vegan restaurant in town, in fact. In fact, we have actually eaten here more than once and sorta enjoyed it (hangs head in shame).

Vesta Coffee Roasters

See comment to PublicUs above. And please don’t mention anything to our current wife.

Image(Sweet sammie dreams are made of these)

The Goodwich

We have dreams about the Rueben-ish (above) and the Patty. How good do sandwiches have to be for you to dream about them?

Image(Comes with a “highly addictive” warning label)

Pop Up Pizza

The only thing wrong with Pop Up Pizza is its customers. Most of them take a gander at these superior pies and wonder where the Domino’s is. The stromboli (above) is so good it ought to be illegal.

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Santos Guisados Tacos & Beer

These guisados (braised meat) tacos are in a class by themselves. Good beers and a full bar in a postage stamp place about the size of studio apartment (above).

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As tasty as things have gotten downtown, it bears mentioning that this entire renaissance has occurred because restaurant owners, chefs and developers finally decided to ignore Fremont Street altogether.

Those of us of a certain age remember all the teeth-gnashing in the 90s and early aughts about how to “revive” Fremont Street….as if that collection of sad, shitty hotels and their slacker/slob customers were the key to downtown’s revival. They weren’t and aren’t. Leave them to their lame-ass beers and souvenirs.

No one under that atrocious canopy gives a crap about spending money. All they want is Vegas on the cheap. Gawking at those stupid light shows and naked street performers is the Las Vegas they deserve.

The good stuff is for the rest of us. All you have to do is walk a few blocks east, or a half a mile south to taste it.

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Do You Like Peruvian Food?

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Do you like Peruvian food?

I don’t.

Tried it again and again and have always wondered what all the shoutin’s about.

Peruvian food is like Cuban to me: it always sounds more attractive in the abstract than in the eating.

Starch on starch on starch. Thick, raggedy-cut fish tossed with lime and onions. Huge chunks of corn (see above). Giant clunky stir-fries full of negligible appeal and imprecise seasoning. Peruvian food is starchier than a priest’s collar, with all the subtlety of a hominy-coated anvil.

It’s like Peruvians took the best of Asian techniques and combined them with a Brazilian’s sense of restraint, which is to say no restraint at all.

Remember when Peru was going to be the next big culinary thing? Well, that lasted right up until a few journalists actually ate the food. After one meal they couldn’t waddle back to their keyboards, so there went the revolution.

But let’s be fair: the food of Peru is tasty. Even if you don’t like eating Guinea pigs.

Image(Pretty cheesy paella)

And it’s filling. And it is the birthplace of all sorts of fruits and vegetables ( e.g. potatoes, avocados, peppers) the world now takes for granted.

And Peruvians are wonderful people. I’ve never had anything less than stellar, friendly, patient service in a Peruvian restaurant…as the staff tries patiently to explain to me why they’re serving potatoes on the same plate with huge, starchy chunks of corn with rice and bread.

Let us also not forget that Las Vegas’s best artisanal bakery — Bon Breads — was started by über-Peruvian Carlos Pereira, and a more passionate, amiable and talented baker you will never meet.

Carlos is always threatening to take me to Peru, and one of these days I’m going to take him up on it. Because I’m sure that Peruvian food, in its native habitat, is much more refined, and much less reliant on bludgeoning your taste buds into submission with carbohydrates.

In the meantime, though, I’m writing this for all of you who actually like Peruvian food, and maybe have yet to discover Lima Limon — a tucked-away bastion of the Andes quite popular with ex-pat Incas and other favorite sons of Machu Picchu.

Image(Come to Papa)

To be honest, I actually enjoyed my meal at LL. The Papa a la huancaina (above) were the perfect salve for a growling stomach — tender. waxy potatoes were coated with a slightly spicy cheese sauce that glistened like a yellow silk blanket. If things had stopped there, or with a few bites of tart ceviche, I would’ve left a happy man.

But I was here on an invitation, you see. From a fan. Someone who really likes Peruvian food. He’s also twice my size and can park a whole order of lomo saltado like he’s nibbling on a Triscuit.

So, off to the races we were. The aforementioned ceviche was followed by a seafood (mainly shrimp) paella that made up for in rib-sticking what it lacked in delicacy. To its credit, at least it wasn’t smothered in cheese. Peruvians love to smother their seafood with cheese. In this case, the cheese was incorporated into the rice.

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If that weren’t enough, our table was soon groaning under thick strips of that lomo saltado, (above) served on a bed of french fries, along with another platter of thick strips of chicken served on a bed of french fried…with rice (below).

To be fair, the rice was damn tasty, as were the fries. The meat was of decent quality and obviously cooked by a pro, and even the shrimps showed themselves to best effect. To conclude, you will eat well at Lima Limon, even if the cuisine sometimes feels thick, clumsy and artless.

Image(Starchier than a priest’s collar)

On the plus side, those potatoes alone are worth a trip, and it beats the pants off of Cuban food.

And you won’t be hungry for at least three days.

Our feast for three that could’ve fed eight came to $80.

LIMA LIMON

222 South Decatur Blvd.

Las Vegas, NV 89107

702.463.0002

 

TRÉS CAZUELAS is the Best Restaurant You Haven’t Been To

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At first glance you might think Trés Cazuelas has the worst location in town.

But what seem to be liabilities are actually assets.  Yes, it’s tucked into a corner of a worn out building that houses the Sand Dollar Lounge and not much else. True, it faces an industrial side street only used by commercial trucks and crafty cab drivers. And of course there is zero bustle and no buzz in the neighborhood. Curb appeal is negligible; pedestrian traffic nil.

But look again, pilgrim. The Strip is only a half-mile east; Chinatown’s food mecca beckons a quarter mile west. Large open windows face that street, and behind them something cozy and comforting this way comes. Parking is a breeze (you pull up right to the front door), and as soon as you step inside, smells of moles, chipotles, and achiote waft over you.

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The place is tiny — no more than 40 seats — but the tables are well set and sturdy, the chairs are comfortable, and the vibe is as if you’ve found the coziest cantina on a Guadalajaran side street.

Fresh-made warm chips and three dips (spicy mayo, pickled onions, and habanero chile-mix, above) greet you, and it takes about three seconds to forget all about the industrial park outside.

Image(Great food while you’re getting your brakes re-lined across the street)

Decisions are easier at lunch than dinner. You can opt for burrito stuffed with al pastor pork or eggs or chicken or one of the usual suspects, or (our choice) head straight for the rotating cast of cazuelas (cauldrons) that change everyday.

Image(I like my food in threes)

Monday finds your cute little trio of bowls filled with tinga de pollo, longaniza en salsa verde, and bistec en chile pasilla, while Wednesday (above) presents fork-tender pork ribs in ancho chile sauce, green mole chicken, and strips of beef amplified by beans, bacon and pepper. You really can’t go wrong with any of these guizados (braised meats), and three of them for $15 is a steal.

And did I mention that the house-made corn tortillas are worth a visit all by themselves?

Image(The best, Jerry. The best!)

Dinner is where this minuscule kitchen punches way above its weight. You will start with guacamole tinged with habanero (above) because it might be the best in town. From there you can’t go wrong with any of the tapas or apps.

We were partial to the garlicky gambas al ajillo, queso fundido, and organic beet carpaccio, but other beauties like a single lamb chop “moruño” (redolent of cumin and coriander), a nice (if small) crabcake, and roasted corn (off the cob) “esquites”, all compete for your attention. The very Spanish papas bravas also do owner Angelo Reyes’ Latin heritage proud, as do his Churrasco Argentino (short rib skewers), and a tart, chunky mahi mahi ceviche.

Image(Positively pulchritudinous paella)

Main dishes are large and mostly meant for sharing — whether you’re getting more of those lamb chops, or diving into a clay pot roasted chicken perfumed by rosemary-garlic sauce, or tucking into more seafood paella (above) than any four-top can handle.

Image(Allium avoiders beware)

A rib eye “Del Torero” (above) is the most expensive thing on the menu ($39), and comes shingled with garlic chips and coated with chimichurri — both announcing the “no prisoners” approach this kitchen takes with its seasonings and spices.

Which is why you come here. Not for some namby-pamby attempt to make Latin cuisine(s) palatable for gueros — these Hispanic dishes strut their stuff, smacking you left and right with garlic, herbs, chilies and spices in full flower.

If Trés Cazuelas has anything in common with its Chinatown neighbors, it is in the honesty and integrity of its cooking. You might as well ask Chengdu Taste to dispense with Szechuan peppercorns as wanting Reyes to dial back the cilantro. This is they way these dishes are supposed to taste, and if you don’t like it, adios muchacho.

The dense flan comes sprinkled with Mexican sea salt, and the coffee, by LaVazza, is excellent as well. The wine list is short, well-chosen and well-priced.

So why haven’t you come here yet, gringo? Because it’s tucked into a next-to-nothing building on a forlorn corner on the cusp of Chinatown? That’s no excuse. If you love pan-Latin cooking the way they’re supposed to be, and can’t resist a great tortilla, and are tired of dumbed-down, warmed-over verdes and pathetic pasillas, then you owe it to yourself to get here pronto.

Lunch for two will run around $30-40; dinner about double that. Despite what the sign says, they no longer serve breakfast.

TRÉS CAZUELAS

3355 W. Spring Mountain Road #35

Las Vegas, NV 89102

702.370.0751