You Can’t Beat This Meat – MABEL’S and SIN CITY SMOKERS

(A man and his rib)

Las Vegas is where barbecue goes to die.

If I’ve said these words once, I’ve said them a thousand times.

Great ‘cue has come and gone over the years. From Struttin’ Gates to Paul Kirk’s R.U.B. to Salt Lick to Little Joe’s at Plant World (remember him?), all the good ones barely make it two years in Vegas before picking up stakes and heading back where they came from. (Kansas City, Kansas City, and Driftwood, Texas if you’re interested.) As far as we know, Little Joe departed for that great red neck smoker in the sky years ago.

Because of the failures of actual, pit-cooked, smokehouse barbecue, the real, smokey deal has been harder to find around here than a pork chop in an ashram.

And because mediocrity in all forms sells in these here parts (Guy Fieri, Giada, Donny and Marie…) set-it-and-forget-it has become the watchword of all of our barbecue restaurants. Why bother trying to do something good, the thinking goes, if your customers can’t tell the difference?

But things they be a’changin’. First out Green Valley way with Sin City Smokers, and more recently with Michael Symon’s Mabel’s.

Steve Overlay’s Sin City Smokers has been around for a while, and the only thing I can find wrong with it is that it’s too far from my house. His ultra-long smoke times produce a beautiful bark, and spoon-tender brisket ($9) that is dense and moist — whether you’re biting into a lean or fatty cut. No mean feat that.

Speaking of brisket, Valley Cheese and Wine proprietor Bob Howald sprinkled the finishing salt you see on the cuts above. He told me he always does it with brisket and he was right: the little flakes of sodium chloride really bring out the beefiness (and smoke) in the meat. Try it sometime.

Symon (pictured at the top of the page) is a well-known celebrity chef from Cleveland. (Full disclosure: I once judged him on an episode of Iron Chef America. He won, if memory serves.) As a Greek-Sicilian, you might presume that he has as much business doing barbecue as dim sum, but like all accomplished chefs (and Overlay, for that matter, who also did some serious work in professional kitchens), when he sets his mind to cooking something, he does it right.

And I’m here to tell you: Mabel’s has got it right.

The brisket is straight outta Austin. More particularly, I’d hold it up to the stuff being done around Lexington, Texas like Snow’s or Louis Mueller). As good as the brisket is, it is the brontosaurian beef rib — straight from Black’s in Lockhart — that will get your attention.

Keeping the Texas vernacular going, Symon’s hot links have that snap, bite and serious heat you rarely find outside of the Lone Star State.

More Carolina-like is his spicy pulled pork sandwich ($14), a thing of beauty in its own right:

(Spicy pulled pork)

And then there is that beef rib ($50). Coated with “pastrami spices”, it is 2+ pounds of pure, unadulterated beefy bliss. According to the menu, it’s enough for 2+ hungry adults. Realistically, it’ll feed four.

Of course, the disclaimer didn’t dissuade yours truly from tearing into one all by his lonesome:

(I enjoy eating things as big as my head)

When I got done with it, there was plenty more on the platter to tackle, including some righteous ribs, truly sour kraut, house made pickles, and cheddar-jalapeno hot links that take no prisoners.

Put it all together and you have the most complete barbecue restaurant to come to town since Salt Lick threw in the towel ten years ago at the Red Rock Resort.

About the only thing I’m not wild about at Mabel’s are the sauces. Three are offered: Cleveland Mustard, Sweet and Sour, and Green Chile. They’re plenty tasty (especially the mustard), but have a guar gum-my thick stickiness to them which imparts a cheap mouthfeel and  impedes their flow from the bottle. Better, if less complex, are the house-made sweet, or sweetly-spicy stuff Overlay is pouring at Sin City:

(Why are these pigs smiling?)

As for sides, I barely pay attention when the meat is this good, but Mabel’s does a killer poppyseed slaw and Sin City does a super-filling “Five cheese smack-a-roni” of uncommon cheesiness.

Desserts at both are minimal and forgettable, but who cares when things are this smokin’?

For years, I’ve told anyone who’ll listen to avoid the beef in our barbecue joints. (I’ve eaten so much lousy, tough, dry, stringy ‘cue in this town, I’ve taken to making my own a few times a year.)

Sin City and Mabel’s are the first places in a long time where I can firmly and happily advise to park the pork and bring on the brisket.

Just like they do in Texas.

SIN CITY SMOKERS

2861 N. Green Valley Pkwy

Henderson, NV 89014

702.823.5606

http://www.sincitysmokers.com/restaurant

MABEL’S BBQ

Palms Casino and Resort

702.944.5931

http://palms.com/mabels-bbq.html

 

 

 

CHINA MAMA is Back, Baby!

CHINA MAMA has returned from the dead. If you’re wondering where it went, well, that’s a story as inscrutable as a Mandarin soothsayer.

Those of you who remember our burgeoning food scene of a decade ago may recall China Mama as the first progenitor of authentic Shanghainese dumplings — xiao long bao — those soup-filled pillows of ethereal porcine bliss.

In much the same way as Lotus of Siam was the first authentic Thai restaurant in Vegas, CM brought a taste of real China to our doorstep — things like sliced-fish with pickled mustard and dry-fried pepper chicken — cooking well beyond cornstarched glop of its Chinese-American predecessors.

And then there were those pastries and dumplings. Steamed or fried, or filled with pork or cucumber and shrimp, they were all the rage among intrepid foodies for a good five years.

Then something happened.

Chefs moved on (the siren song of the Strip claimed the first one), ownership changed (more than once), and the food started a slow, steady decline.

Of course, if you asked management if/why things were different, they would look at you with a straight face and say, “Everything same,” but you knew it wasn’t.

Things got so bad that we wrote the place off altogether about four years ago and vowed never to return.

Then, something happened.

A woman named Ivy Ma took the place over recently, closed it down, spruced it up, and decided to restore China Mama to its former glory. And restore it she has.

Taking a page from place like Din Tai Fung in SoCal, Ma  opened up the kitchen and placed it behind a giant glass wall that proudly advertises the fresh-made pastries that made this place famous in the first place.

Those dumplings may bring you the first time, but a menu full of fabulousness will have you returning time and again.

Like the old days, you should head straight to the “Pastry” section of the menu. There you’ll find the Steamed Juicy Pork Buns ($13, above) and Mama’s Special Pan Fried Pork Buns ($12) — as essential to a meal here as chopsticks and hot tea. From there you won’t want to miss either the green onion pancake ($8) or the “Beef Roll” ($13):

The potstickers ($10) are killer too, but be careful lest you reach gluten-overload and lose your ability to dive into a resuscitated menu that’s better than ever.

Ma has done wise by keeping many of CM’s greatest hits. Crispy duck ($22), Jumbo Shrimp in Special Sauce ($24), and Dry Pepper Chicken $16) hold forth with those pastries and hold their own. There are two sides to the menu, and the one with pictures on it is where gringos will want to go. It lists all of CM’s signature dishes, and even has pictures to entice the bold and assuage the timid.

Not pictured but still magnificent are items ranging from the simple (Cucumber Salad with Mashed Garlic $6) to the sublime (Awesome Meatball in Clay Pot $19). In between you have plenty of standard issue stuff that still manages to sing (Szechuan TanTan Noodle, $10, and Twice-Cooked Pork with Spicy Sauce, $13). Also highly recommended is the Sliced Fish in Hot Chili Sauce ($24) — a dish that will never be accused of false advertising — it being for serious chiliheads only.

All of these dishes are meant to be shared, and in keeping with Chinese tradition (at least as it was explained to me), the number of items ordered should roughly equate to the number of diners at table (2 people, 2 plates; 4 people, 4 things, etc.) although The Food Gal® and I usually honor this custom in the breach — it being almost impossible for two hungry gwailo to resist some form of dumpling, and at least two other plates.

Irresistibly, you will be drawn to  the don tot (Portuguese egg tarts, $5, above) for dessert. Resistance is futile so order them as soon as you sit down so you won’t have to wait while they’re freshly made. Order two orders or more. However many you get, it won’t be enough.

All of these things taste as good as China Mama used to taste, maybe even better (those tarts are definitely better)….and all of it making for some mighty tasty leftovers.

As for service, it’s been spot-on, top-notch, and on-it-like-a-bonnet for all three of our return visits. (And they had no idea I write about restaurants.) Whatever Ms. Ma has inculcated into her servers is obviously working, as they are bi-lingual, informed about the menu, and very attentive.

As for liquids, they bring you hot tea, but you have to ask for water.

Just like in China.

CHINA MAMA

3420 South Jones Blvd.

Las Vegas, NV 89146

http://www.chinamamavegas.com/

VETRI

Italian food and Las Vegas have had a stressful relationship for decades.

Like a lousy marriage, lots of things suck, but familiarity keeps us together. There are zero surprises, but at some level, that’s all you want from each other.

Bad Italian and Vegas have always gone together like Stella and Stanley, or Sunday gravy and melted mozz, but the good stuff has been harder to find than a goomba with a good vocabulary.

To keep the metaphor going, think of great Italian food like a good marriage: it’s simple, and relaxing, but also full of wonderful little grace notes that reassure you you’ve made the right decision, and with occasional surprises that remind you why you fell in love in the first place.

Sure, we’ve had plenty of celeb chef phone-ins (Giada, Scarpetta), and sea of red sauce joints (Rao’s, Buddy V’s, Maggiano’s, a bajillion joints off Strip), but anything close to authenticity has always taken a back seat to stuffing the conventioneers with as much chicken parm as they can swallow.

And fuggidabadit if you expect dedicated Italian chefs to refine their craft here. The kind of genre-expanding cooking that big cities take for granted, e.g. Sarah Grueneberg in Chicago, Fabio Trabocchi in Washington D.C., or Andrew Carmellini in New York City, is unknown in these parts.

Make no mistake: Las Vegas is the spiritual home of bad Italian food. There may be worse Italian restaurants in Nebraska and North Carolina, but we have more of them, per capita, than anywhere in the country.

Around here, quality not only doesn’t sell; in fact it’s actively spurned. Around here, people like being bored by their Italian food, and numbed into complacency.

A good Italian restaurant is ingredient-driven. A great Italian restaurant takes the world’s greatest raw ingredients and gives them a higher purpose — much as a preeminent musician takes their instrument to heights no one else can achieve.

Even at its most basic level, Italian food is soothing (that’s why it thrives on mediocrity). Average Italian satisfies the way pop music does: it is catchy and popular and forgettable. Great Italian food, like opera, will take your breath away.

Image may contain: food(Tonnarelli grana arso with seafood)

VETRI, if you let it, will take your breath away.

The qualifier is important, because, splendid  as it is, Vetri isn’t for everyone. There are no easy answers here, toe-tapping is kept to a minimum, and crowd-pleasing isn’t in its vocabulary. And like all great Italian food, it often accomplishes more with less.

Consider the following:

Clichés of all kinds have been canned.

Pizzas are kaput.

Soups and scampi have been scuttled.

Meatballs are missing in action.

Caesar is nowhere to be found.

Place settings are spartan.

No giant hunks of cheese or curled ribbons of prosciutto will be ceremoniously brought to your table.

The bread basket is oddly modest.

Something-for-everyone proteins (pork chops, salmon, chicken breasts) are non-existent.

In other words, if you’re looking for a typical Italian meal, as defined by your typical upscale Italian restaurant, you’ve come to the wrong place.

But if you have the chops for a black belt modern Italian food experience — like the best ristorante in Italy are putting out these days — you’ll think you’ve died and gone to Bergamo.

(Fusilli with saffron)

Consider this #2:

Your typical dinner here will might go foie gras pastrami with brioche and mostarda ($28); Swiss chard gnocchi with brown butter ($30), tonnarelli grano arso (toasted wheat pasta, with seafood, $38); and some whole roasted baby goat (more than enough for a couple, $52).

Or perhaps you’d like something a bit lighter, like a squid and artichoke galette ($22), raw fish crudo, a pickled veggie/antipasti platter ($32), and some simple spaghetti with chunky San Marzano tomatoes and basil ($26).

(Veal tartare with crispy sweetbreads)

Or maybe you want to throw in with the big boys and take down some veal tartare with sweetbreads, a sweet onion crepe (really more like a thick tarte) served with white truffle fondue, followed by either a whole roasted branzino for two ($110), or a a brontosaurian bistecca Fiorentina (also for two, $195), that, like the sea bass, is enough to keep 3-4 trenchermen occupied.

Mere plebes may be happy with a gorgeous stuffed guinea hen breast ($48, also enough to split), and the cutest little bone marrow raviolini ($30) you’ve ever seen:

However you want to slice it, Vetri can make it work.

Make it work, mind you, if modern, intense, thoughtful, elegant Italian cuisine is what you are after.

To put it bluntly, if you’re the type who sings the praises of Piero’s, do yourself a favor and stay put.

If you’re looking for volume with your starches and proteins, look elsewhere.

Because Vetri is something of a contradiction — one both underwhelming at first (minimalist decor, an unfussy look, short, simple menu, that bread basket) and then one that dazzles with its attention to detail.

In short, it is sophisticated Italian food, the kind that well-heeled Italians eat.  Food that echoes the shuttered B&B Ristorante , only more finely-tuned. Food to be enjoyed, contemplated, and discussed, not gorged upon. The kind that you’ll find at Dal Pescatore in Mantova, or Del Posto in New York. All of it served in a nonpareil setting — without a doubt the most spectacular of any Italian restaurant in the country —  56 floors up. The location puts to lie the old adage that the higher you get off the ground the worse the food gets.

Those breads, you will discover, are baked in-house, with artisanal wheat (from Arizona, of all places), which is ground into flour in-house. (Nothing says “don’t try this at home” like grinding your own flour.) And when you bite into the bread, or dip it into superb olive oil, or get that firm, toothsome, sweet-wheat sense from your noodles, you realize the payoff is worth it.

And when you inhale the nut bread they bake for the cheese selection here, you’ll wonder if you’ve ever tasted any better.

Between the breads and the pastas, it’s hard not to fill up and forget about the rest of the menu. You can craft an ideal meal here without ever venturing into the “secondi” section, and to my mind, the starters and pastas are where the kitchen does its best work.

Las Vegas had the benefit of B&B’s stylish pastas for almost a decade, but it’s gone now and we live in constant threat of regression. This may be just fine with many — let’s face it, Piero’s and The Bootlegger are packed every night — but to a certain level of epicurean, they just don’t cut it. Not when there are goodies like thinly-sliced porchetta with tuna sauce to be had ($22), or casoncelli alla bergamasca with sage and olives ($32), or foie gras pastami on the bill of fare:

Before you get to your table, a stop at the bar to take in the view and one of David Cooper’s cocktails is mandatory. After that you’ll want to navigate Rafael Garcia’s wine list, which isn’t exactly chock full of bargains, but didn’t piss me off, either — which means there’s plenty of drinkable stuff that mere mortals can afford. The by-the-glass list is a treat unto itself, and covers the Italian peninsula from Sicily to Venice.

After three meals here, I can’t claim to have conquered the entire menu, but I’m close. The only disappointing dishes have been the mesquite grilled seafood misto ($52 and very much by-the-numbers), and an antipasti platter that was more style than substance.

The cheese selection is also a little thin, but what they had was in peak condition. My guess is bets are being hedged to see how much of the stuff actually moves. This is Las Vegas, after all, land of the fromage-frightened….unless, of course, it’s mountains of melted (cheap) mozzarella.

(Casoncelli alla bergamasca with sage and olives)

All of this urbane elegance 50+ floors above Flamingo Road begs the question: How did Vetri get here and how is Las Vegas going to react to his stylish cuisine?

He got here somewhat serendipitously because the Lorenzo Fertitta’s son was graduating from Villanova two years ago. The son had booked his graduation party at the original in Philadelphia,  and when Marc saw the name on the reservation book, he realized it was the same people who had previously approached him about coming to Vegas. He then knew he could kill two birds with one spectacular dinner, so he cooked up a storm, the Fertittas were suitably impressed, and now we may have the second best Vetri in our backyard — which means we might have the second greatest Italian restaurant in America right here.

Which doesn’t mean a goddamn thing to your average Vegas visitor.

So I had to pop the question to MV: was How he was going to adjust his food for the sake of the Vegas market?

“Not at all,” he assured me.

Having tackled his menu, I believe him. For the time being.

The second thing I did was warn him that he would soon have hotel honchos telling him more basic Italian food is “what our customers want,” and “Why can’t you put a meatball on the menu?”

He pooh poohed the idea. They all pooh pooh it at first.

It’s bound to happen. It’s happened with everyone from Joël Robuchon to Sirio Maccioni. RESIST MIGHTILY, MARC VETRI!

Sooner or later (usually sooner) some hotel executive gets tired of hearing customers (or casino hosts) complain about the food at their fancy restaurant. “Would it hurt them to put a scallop dish on the menu?” the refrain usually goes, or “If it’s Italian, why isn’t there any pizza? My kids wanted pizza and I just dropped 50gs at the craps table fer chrissakes.”

Silly boy, I thought to myself. I should’ve bet him a bottle of Barolo it will happen…but I respect the guy too much to take his money.

Yes, Marc, your cuisine is stellar, and the room is gorgeous, the service is precise, and on any given night you might be running the first and second best Italian restaurants in America. But that doesn’t mean people won’t want you to dumb yourself down for the sake of the good old dollar.

Welcome to Las Vegas.

VETRI CUCINA

Palms Hotel and Casino

4321 W. Flamingo Road

Las Vegas, NV 89103

702.944.5900

http://www.palms.com/vetri-cucina.html