ELV note: This article appears in today’s Las Vegas Weekly. Click here to read it in its original format, or continue below for ELV’s (slightly edited, slightly more insulting to vegans) version.
ELV’S VEGAN ADVENTURE
Vegan food is usually about as interesting as the people eating it. Which means, not very. Rabid vegans may get excited about a big dish of steamed mung beans, but in my world, anyone who obsesses over what they won’t eat rates somewhere between a Wal-Mart greeter and an actuarial accountant as a dining companion. The problem, of course, is many people who forswear animal products in their diet are gripped by a certain “fear of food.” This trepidation consumes them to the point where they think the more boring some foodstuff is, the better it must be for them. If more vegans would start recognizing Indian food for its historically non-boring treatment of a pure vegetarian diet, this rift in our relationship could easily be repaired, because, happily, the Indian sub-continent has thousands of years’ experience, and hundreds of spices, to disabuse them of that notion. Even better, all of us have Samosa Factory here to deliver the goods.
- Samosa Factory
- 4604 W. Sahara Ave., 258-9196.
- Monday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m., 5-9 p.m.; Friday, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m., 5-10 p.m.; Saturday, noon-3 p.m., 5-10 p.m.
Rick Aco (rhymes with taco) is the man behind the garam masala (what we call “curry”) who bought this unassuming, 40-seat slip of a place several years ago and has turned it into an even better restaurant than it was under the prior owners. It is definitely more vegan and vegetarian than it used to be, and—I can’t believe I’m saying this—all the better for it.
For a fellow who’s about as Indian as Wolfgang Puck, Aco is remarkably faithful to the cooking techniques of the sub-continent; he uses good groceries and is obviously in love with this food. Which is remarkable when you consider he cut his teeth as a chef at SW Steakhouse and Tao Las Vegas. But because of his training, rather than in spite of it, he brings a certain refinement to his dishes that is too often lacking in other Indian restaurants. (After all, under all that curry gravy, who’s going to notice?)
Aco offers 16 vegan entrees ranging from simple charbroiled eggplant to ping pong-sized balls of shredded squash and chickpea flour (called kofta) to a bright, fresh, tomato-based baby spinach curry that could start a meatless-Monday revolution all by itself. Equally good are the aloo (potato) dishes, meltingly soft, cilantro-spice turnips and a big bowl of mustard greens that isn’t much to look at—it resembles a greenish, soupy mush—but is addictive from the first fiery bite. His mesquite-fired tandoor is as old school as cooking can get, and it turns out some of the lightest naan around. Lentil lovers will be in hog heaven (relax, it’s just a figure of speech) with the dal makhni (black lentils with onion and curry). The bottom line: This food is so beautifully seasoned and spiced and expertly cooked that you can leave satisfied without a moment’s longing for animal protein. Vegan chefs who wonder why people don’t flock to their food should flock here and learn something.
Animal lovers needn’t despair, however, as lamb and chicken are treated with equal and tasty respect by this kitchen. Lamb korma uses the deep flavors of cumin, coriander and turmeric to harmonize with the rich and slight gaminess of the meat, and Aco’s tandoori chicken is an herb-coated thing of beauty, not the fake red abomination foisted on the public in so many generic Indian joints. Two contrasting seafood dishes demonstrate this kitchen’s utility with everything in the edible kingdom: shrimp jalfrezi—butterflied and tossed with tomatoes, onions and peppers—is shockingly fresh, while the fish curry brings forth a deep, soothing heat in the form of a tomato-onion gravy that makes a perfect sopping sauce for your naan or leftover rice. Just to show his playful side, Aco serves a cheeseburger samosa (ground beef with melted cheese inside a flaky triangle of dough) that might be verboten in your typical Indian restaurant, but is so good you won’t be able to eat just one. His minced chicken and veggie samosas also put most other Indian versions to shame. Under the prior owners, I considered the samosas here to be the weakest things on the menu. Now they’re one of the best … on a list of dishes that herbivores and carnivores can both fall in love with.