It doesn’t even have a sign, has only been open two weeks, and relies only on word of mouth to get customers, yet Le Thai is packing them in at lunch and dinner.
Because chef/owner Dan Coughlin has had the guts to do what no chef or restaurateur could bring themselves to: take a gamble on downtown Las Vegas. Downtown Fremont Street to be precise.
To be more precise: smack dab in the middle of the East Fremont Street pub district — where ELV has taken numerous chefs and investors over the past two years, only to have them poke around and say “pass.”
This has been discouraging to say the least. Even though it’s the only part of town that is growing and doing anything interesting, established food people keep looking at downtown as nothing more than a low-rent curiosity with no business potential. As a result, finding a good meal down there has been harder than locating Oscar Goodman’s humility.
So why have experienced chefs and owners rejected downtown so unanimously? Only to have an American/Thai cook show them up as fools for not seeing the potential?
ELV is glad you asked that question. Because he has the answers.
The answers to why no one (until now) has has the chutzpah (and the vision) to see the economic potential downtown are:
1) American chefs (especially established Strip chefs) are spoiled by the Strip’s easy money;
2) Established American restaurateurs, especially well-known, casino-financed, Vegas restaurateurs, have been spoiled by our wealth of restaurant riches;
3) Established Strip chefs and American restaurateurs are so engrained in the sure-thing mentality of our hotels, no one wants to gamble on anything anymore; and,
4) No one wants to live above the store.*
Remarkably, none of this applies to Asian chefs and restaurateurs, who have created Vegas’ most dynamic restaurant scene on Spring Mountain Road — which also happens to have the lowest-priced food in town.
So predictable has the Strip become (hello Michel Richard mediocrity!) that all the exciting stuff is now taking place in the neighborhoods. (Hello Le Thai, Bread & Butter, Nakamura-Ya, et al!)
Perhaps we’re being too harsh on established chefs, but there’s no doubt the boom boom restaurant phenomenon of 1998-2008 fostered a build it and they will come mentality that encouraged total risk aversion. And the numbers they do on that three mile stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard South are so huge (even in a bad economy) that down-scaling to human-sized eateries seems like working for chump change. And between that, and having the Fremont Street Experience and the failed Neonopolis drain all of the life out of the area (thanks Jan Jones!), Fremont Street has been a pariah since the mid-90s.
And unlike the Strip, the customer base isn’t handed to you on a silver platter. Nor is there a blueprint for success. It takes vision, ambition, and living (figuratively) above the store….not just collecting a big paycheck for slaving away every Weds.-Sun., then running back to your comfortable digs.
Living above the store is what Coughlin and chefs like Kengo Nakamura, Mitsuo Endo, Kichi Okabe and Chris Herrin are doing. They build their places out, and are there morning, noon and night. No one is guaranteeing them a paycheck, and getting customers in the door is done by putting out a great product and hoping word of mouth takes hold.
In the case of Le Thai, in less than two weeks, word of mouth has taken hold. Dan Coughlin is blazing a trail for others, making Fremont Street “safe” for the establishment — who will soon notice his success and start buying up real estate and making it “safe” (in a much less organic way) for Monochrome Valley-ites and Summ-R-Lamers.
Equally blazing is Coughlin’s pad Thai — maybe the best version in town — and his drunken noodles and Thai beef and meatball soup take a back seat to no version we’ve ever had. The menu is short and simple — again, something the Asians seem to master, but that American chefs can’t seem to grasp with their something for everyone mentality. Everything is priced to sell, as they say, and the whole 50 seat joint has an über-cool vibe that makes you want to return.
For doing this gigantic favor to downtown, Coughlin deserves to be lauded far beyond whatever plaudits will be bestowed on the ridiculous Oscar’s (at the other end of Fremont Street) by its sycophants. If Goodman is anywhere to be seen on the premises after the first few months, we’ll be mighty surprised. (“He’s not doing anything unless there’s big money in it for him,” one downtown insider tells us.) Big money or not, Coughlin is here to stay. He and his little restaurant are the real deal, not some ginned up publicity freak show.
You should go. Early and often.
Not just because it’s downtown. Or because the food is so good.
But because it’s downtown and the food is so good.
523 East Fremont Street
Las Vegas, NV 89101