Thai Me Downtown
ELV note: The following article (in slightly abridged form) hits the newsstands today in the Las Vegas Weekly. You can access the original by clicking here, or continue reading below.
THAI ME DOWNTOWN
The beef curry is just one of many tasty reasons to sit next to Tony Hsieh at Le Thai.
Photo: Beverly Poppe
Two restaurants opened in downtown Las Vegas at the end of last year, and in a number of subtle and not so subtle ways, each is charting the landscape for what downtown diners can expect in the future.
One is yet another steakhouse (yawn) aimed at feeding those who want to bask in the mobbed-up aura of our ex-mayor, while the other is a feisty little Thai restaurant that simply wants to serve you good food. Oscar’s exhibits all the imagination of a Tony Soprano hit (iceberg wedge anyone?), while Le Thai puts forth aggressive (and authentic) versions of fiery food priced right. Oscar Goodman’s namesake trades on kitsch like “Vinnie’s lobster bisque” – and presumes we know who “Vinnie” was and that he knew something about soup – while chef/owner Dan Coughlin is content to churn out a killer nine dollar pad Thai that sells like hotcakes. Placed at opposite ends of Fremont Street, these two are in a figurative tug of war over the future of the new/old Vegas, and if and how they succeed will tell us a lot about what eating out will be like in this area in the next ten years.
The Thai/Irish Coughlin is the scion of the King of Siam restaurant family – operators of several Thai restaurants in the valley for decades. His mixed blood serves him well as he brings a certain youthful (and very American) sensibility to an ethnic cuisine that he (quite literally) has in his bones.
His tom yum (Thai hot and sour soup) and drunken noodles take a back seat to no one’s, and that pad Thai maybe the best version in town. Before you get to them, though, you’ll want to nibble on his succulent chicken wings (both juicy and crispy), while addictively dipping them in his spicy Siracha/ranch dressing, or an order of tangled pork jerky – not as candied and sweet as some versions, but no less appealing for it.
The waterfall sauce (a vinegar-spiked fish sauce) accompanying those sweet bits of pork is as compelling as any dipping sauce you’ve ever had, and like most of the flavors on this menu, is aggressive without being overpowering. Like the aforementioned pad Thai, the fish sauce/vinegar/sugar-based Awesome Noodles are awesomely tossed with big chunks of whatever protein you wish, and the Pad See Ewe (literally: stir-fried with soy sauce) doesn’t skimp on portion size either. That virtually everything on the menu is under ten dollars is remarkable – as is Coughlin’s signature soup: a Thai beef and meatball noodle so full of melt-in-your-mouth meat you’d swear you’re in a slurpy Thai steakhouse.
Chowing down on these specialties takes place in the crowded front room – containing only a few tables and a five seat bar – or the slightly more open outdoor patio in the back. The menu is short and simple, everything is priced to sell, and the whole 50 seat joint has an über-cool vibe that makes you want to return. The size and the immediate popularity of the place, creates something of a challenge for the small service staff, whose demeanor runs the gamut from distracted to overwhelmed. I’ve been in three times and have yet to see a smile on any of their faces.
None of the customers seem to mind, however, and all of them (Tony Hsieh included, who seems to be in every day, giving good meeting) have adopted the place as a de-facto clubhouse. Coughlin is catching the zeitgeist of what downtown threatens to become: a human-scaled environment for those seeking the anti-Strip. He has had the guts to do what no chef or restaurateur could bring themselves to: take a gamble on an area that’s been a pariah to restaurants for two decades. (Oscar’s should be applauded for the same reason, no matter how gimmicky it is) His crowded little establishment is a testament to how starved this area has been for something affordable, tasty and real. 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