Las Vegas’s Chinatown is neither Chinese nor a town. But in a city where a pseudo-neighborhood that is neither green nor a valley is named just that, or where a Town Center isn’t either, and a Town Square is neither, I guess the appellation fits as well as any.
This stretch of Asian-themed strip malls, starting a mile west of the Strip, could just as easily be called Asiatown or Vietnamtown or Koreatown. In fact, of late, Malaysiatown might even apply. The only country on the Pacific Rim that is scarcely seen among the 40+ restaurants here is Japan; and even it has several worthy representatives.
Once you pull your car into one of these malls, you enter a unique world that will be more fascinating (if a little smokier and less friendly), than the one you just left. Some things take a little getting used to, but that’s all part of the adventure in leaving your culinary comfort zone.
Some of these include being the only round-eye around, the perfunctory service, and seeing lots of edible animals with their heads still attached. A little easier to digest will be how cheap dinner for two can be. In fact this area may be the only one in all of Las Vegas where you have to work at spending more than $50 for dinner, for two.
Also, don’t be put off by all the places specializing in massages and “relaxation” therapy, even if more than a few appear to be the sort where your happy ending for the evening doesn’t need to end with the evening’s meal. Rather, take comfort in the crispy sides of roast pork and the lacquered, bronze sheen of fowl hanging in windows, the pungent smells of marinated beef being barbecued tableside, and the hordes of native families chowing down on the authentic food of their homeland. All of which will make it seem like you’ve taken a short trip to a strange and foreign land which, in a sense, you have.
The “Chinatown” designation originally applied to a quarter-mile long, two-story strip mall at 4215 Spring Mountain Road, about a mile and half west of the Strip. When it opened in 1994, it was filled with Chinese restaurants, drug stores, gift shops and the 99 Ranch Market. As garish and poorly maintained as it was and is, it instantly became a magnet for Asian tourists and émigrés seeking a semblance of homeyness amidst all the Vegas craziness.
Slowly, over the next ten years, other Asian businesses began a steady encroachment into the original mall, so that today, what started out as exclusively Chinese, has Vietnamese, Korean Japanese, and even a Filipino fast food joint on the premises. Look immediately to the east, and you will see The Center at Spring Mountain, home to a few eateries, and then travel two miles to the west, until you hit 5115 West Spring Mountain – a newer, cleaner shopping center that is chock full of them. Sprinkled between them are a myriad of Asian eateries that deliver an edible education for non-Asians, and more bang for the buck than anyplace in town.
My scientific approach to eating Asian is simple: the place where you feel most out of place is where you’ll find the best food. Increasingly, I’ve been thrown some curve balls in this regard as a few of my favorites have become more gringo-friendly – with easy to read menus, and pictures of their food for the truly timid. I’m always reassured, however, when my server seems flummoxed by a request for more water, another set of chopsticks, or the bill.
One of the early jumpers on this show the round eyes what they’re orderin’ bandwagon was Tofu Hut (3920 Spring Mountain Road, phone 257.0072). The Hut, part of a chain of Korean restaurants out of southern California, is on the north side of the street (unlike the malls and most of the restaurants), and it’s in a free-standing building. Your fears of inauthentic-ness, based upon these factors and the color pictures on the menu, will be assuaged when you notice it shares space with a muffler shop. Order any of the stone crock tofu soups on the menu, or the quite excellent cold salads, kalbi (marinated beef rib) or bulgogi strips of spicy/sweet marinated beef or pork), and try to ignore the non-stop smokers who seem to need some nicotine with their native cuisine.
Back across the street, on the second floor of the original “Chinatown” Mall, you will find Capital Seafood (4215 W. Spring Mountain Road #B-202, phone 227.3588), and Emperor’s Garden Sichuan (4215 Spring Mountain Road B-203, phone 889.6777), right next door to each other. Like most of the restaurants here, they are criminally cheap, and because the Chinese (and the Vietnamese and Koreans and Japanese and Malaysians) are the choosiest eaters on the planet when it comes to freshness, and that quality is palpable when you enter any of these establishments.
At Capital (a Vietnamese take on Chinese seafood) a four pound, stir-fried lobster or huge Dungeness crab (in season), redolent of green onions, sweet soy, ginger and black beans, served with a cold seafood salad (full of fresh shrimp and scallops) in a ponzu-fish sauce dressing, and some tofu with meat (pork) sauce, and a nice side cabbage salad with some crispy peanuts, and a beer, will run about sixty bucks — and that’s the most expensive meal for two I’ve ever had in any of the 33 restaurants I’ve eaten at up and down this boulevard. The lobster alone would easily run over $120 at a prominent steak house. Emperor’s does Sichuan classics like twice-cooked pork, spicy beef, an exemplary mu shu (both vegetarian and pork), mapo doufu (pockmarked woman’s bean curd), and tea-smoked duck at prices no less appealing.
Harder to find, but no less worth the journey is Penang Malaysian Cuisine (5115 W. Spring Mountain Road, phone 648.9889), that features the ultra thin, stuffed bread known as canai roti-made before your eyes-and the perfect compliment to the spicy and rich Rendang beef, spicy satays, and thick curries coming out of this kitchen.
Asian chefs don’t do canned, frozen or prepackaged, as you will also taste a half-mile down the street at Noodle Palace (5155 Spring Mountain Road #203, phone 798.1113)-home of the best potstickers in town-along with the numerous Shanghai noodle dishes that Marco Polo made famous. Fourteenth Century Italians probably didn’t know what to make of thick, pan-fried rice noodles with squid and preserved vegetable, but once he told their tale (and recipe), the world was hooked…as you will be.
Along with the Malaysian influx, the last year has brought two Korean/French(?) bakeries to this area: Provence (5115 Spring Mountain Road #225, phone 341.0168), and Crown Bakery and Coffee Café (4355 Spring Mountain Rd. Ste 207, phone 873.9805). Everything you might find in a classic French bakery is here, from profiteroles to palmiers, along with Italian-like wedding cakes so ornate they would make Tony Soprano blush. The Koreans seem to prefer their breads and pastries puffier and made with less butter and sugar than the French, but there is no shortage of selection, and anyone craving a chocolate éclair, or a white mung bean bun (yumm…), will be in heaven.
Another phenomenon of the past five years has been the influx of the (very “Hong Kong”) bubble tea parlors, specializing in those big, brown tapioca ball drinks known as “boba” tea. Almost all the restaurants now feature some of these colorful “tea” drinks on their menus, for the real deal go to Volcano Tea (4215 Spring Mountain Road, phone 873.0301) or, half a block west, Tea Planet(4355 Spring Mountain Road #106, phone 889.9989). Volcano Tea is faster and more kid-friendly, while Tea Planet serves some truly odd food (Chinese French Toast anyone?), along with its hipster vibe and exotic drinks. Smoke-o-phobics should (ironically), dive into the Volcano and bypass the Planet.
And if all of these don’t give you enough reasons to visit “The Chinatown That Isn’t” consider some final arguments: everyplace is either locally or family-owned, the food is the healthiest on the planet, and the star f*cking that defines the Vegas restaurant scene for the rest of the world is noticeably and refreshingly absent. Gan bei!*
*Drink the cup! -Mandarin
10 DON’T MISS DISHES IN “CHINATOWN”
1) Spicy beef-Emperor’s Garden Sichuan. The twice-cooked pork ain’t bad either…
2) Potstickers-Noodle Palace. And any of the noodle dishes.
3) Beef Rendang/Canai Roti-Penang Malaysian Restaurant.
4) Dolsot Bi Bim Bap (beef vegetable kimchi over rice in stone pot)-Mother’s Korean Grill (4215 Spring Mountain Road Ste. 107, phone 579.4745).
5) Cold soba noodles with tempura vegetables-Shuseki Japanese Restaurant (5115 W. Spring Mountain Road #117, phone 222.2321). Tough to find. Worth it.
6) Ayam Rendang (chicken with lemongrass in a thick curry sauce)-Penang Malaysian Cuisine. On this menu, the weirder it sounds, the better it is.
7) Whole lobster (or Dungeness crab) with chef special sauce-Capital Seafood.
8) Any of the clay pot tofu soups-Tofu Hut
9) Catfish Hot Pot – Hue-Thai’s Famous French Sandwiches (5115 W. Spring Mountain Road, #223). Eat the hot pot, skip the sandwiches.
10) Pho dac biet xe lua (4 types of beef with soup noodles in beef broth)-Pho So Mo (4745 West Spring Mountain Road, 252.3934). Probably the best Vietnamese, although we also like Pho Saigon 8 (5650 Spring Mountain Road, 248.6663) .
11) Profiteroles (cream puffs) and Green Tea Snow (a nutty, fruity slushy with mochi)-Provence Bakery.