John Curtas is …

DISTRICT ONE KITCHEN & BAR

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Lobster pho photo by Sam Morris

Eating Las Vegas has often wondered whether Vietnamese food in America is the ultimate revenge for that little dust-up we caused there in the 60s. They could never hope to outgun us, the thinking goes, so the expats figured they’d bore us to death with their cuisine.

Yep, ELV is definitely not a fan. Vietnamese restaurants, Vietnamese menus, spring rolls, rice, noodles and pho are so similar in so many restaurants, you would swear there is a single kitchen buried somewhere under Spring Mountain Road, cooking and delivering the food to the dozen or so pho parlors lining the avenue.

(“But you’ve gotta try my mother’s goi cuon,” we’ve heard from a couple of Vietnamese/American friends. “It’s totally different and much better than anything you’ll find in a restaurant.” “Have you been to Garden Grove, California?” another has asked us. “The restaurants there are so much better and much more authentic than you’ll find in Vegas.”)

For the record: We did, they aren’t, yes, and no they’re not.

Allow us to explain.

Beef is a big deal in Vietnam. Lot of restaurants like to feature a special they call “7 Courses of Beef” — which is usually seven courses of the cheapest meat possible, sliced, ground and marinated into an avalanche of awfulness. The only thing worse than the off cuts relied upon by the Vietnamese is the cheap-ass lunch meat they stuff into those bargain basement banh mi sandwiches.

To make matters worse, when it comes to grilling, Vietnamese cooks cook everything to well-done — which effectively makes the tough pieces even tougher. To be fair, better cuts work their way into various noodle soups — usually sliced very thin — and the poaching effect can be quite satisfying, in a shabu-shabu sort of way.

Be that as it may, we’ve chewed and chewed on so much budget beef in so many Vietnamese restaurants, our jaw deserves a Distinguished Service Cross. And when someone tells me the restaurant “…uses the whole cow” in preparing pho and other beef dishes, all we can imagine is the owner at home barbecuing prime sirloins and filets while his customers try to masticate their way through some chunk of blade roast.

So let’s get one thing straight: Vietnamese food is challenging (for all the wrong reasons) and boring with a capital B. Or so we thought.

What Chef/owner Khai Vu is doing at District One Kitchen & Bar is standing Vietnamese food on its ear, and creating glamour in a cuisine that used to have all the sex appeal of Hilary Clinton.

He’s doing this by staying true to the idom of the country — food rich in fresh herbs, accents, sour, fermented flavors and loaded with contrasts in both texture and aromas — but tweaking it into small, sexy plates (and big soup statements) that are as far from the same old same old as a soft shell crab is from a Mrs. Paul’s Fish Stick.

Take, for example, his Vietnamese carpaccio:

Italy, meet Vietnam

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Thinly pounded sirloin is stretched provocatively over a rectangular plate, then “marinated” in fresh lime juice and drizzled with sizzling sesame oil. The effect is, at once familiar and strange — with the oil and acid created a warm, salad-like taste, and the sliced onions and fried garlic all by popping in your mouth with every bite. The result is so delicious you’ll be tempted to walk up to the next Italian chef you know and ask him: “why don’t you do something like that?”

Vu doesn’t stop there when it comes to mixing his metaphors. Chinese bao (pork belly buns)…

Beauteous belly buns

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….are getting as ubiquitous as cheeseburgers, but he gives his a Southeast Asian bent with lightly pickled daikon and carrot, micro-cilantro and fresh roasted and crushed peanuts.

The schmear of hoisin and siracha doesn’t hurt a bit either. As fond as we are of Sheridan Su’s bao at Fat Choy, these give them a run for your money.

And then there is the seafood.

Despite having almost 3,000 miles of coastline, seafood isn’t the first thing that leaps into our wok when we think of Vietnam. Maybe it’s because of all those pho parlors, or perhaps it’s because of our prejudice against cheap, farm-raised Asian seafood, but we can’t remember ever ordering anything that swims in a Vietnamese restaurant. If you’re the same, cast aside your bigoted beliefs as soon as you walk through these doors, because the lobster pho alone (pictured at top) is worth a special trip, and the yellowtail collar…

Tokyo, meet Sai gon

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…(known as hamachi kama in Japanese restaurants) is worth two. Perfectly grilled. Clean tasting. Soft, buttery and succulent. It is the apotheosis of this fish, and as good as any you’ll find in a Japanese restaurant in our humble burg.

We could go on and on about the menu (we’ve been in four times and have tried 2/3rds of it), but there’s nary a clinker in the bunch, and standouts like the Five Spices Roasted Cornish Hen and Slow-Braised Pork Belly in Young Coconut Juice will have your entire table fighting for the last morsel.

Lest you think they serve nothing but fork-tender filet and sirloin here, we must admit we’ve had a few pieces of chewy “shaken beef”  (and a very fatty short rib) show up at our table. However, these have done nothing to dissuade our palate from its enthusiasm for this nouveau take on a cuisine we had written off years ago.

As for service, it is earnest and friendly but sometimes inept. (We asked for a ladle for a shared pho and the waitron brought us a giant stainless steel one from the kitchen.)

But the groceries used here are a notch or three above its competitors, and the cooking more careful, more interesting and more scrumptious than you will find in any Vietnamese restaurant in the High Mojave Desert.

So, as it turns out, ELV really loves Vietnamese food. He just needed Khai Vu to interpret it for him.

Eating Las Vegas has both paid, and been comped, for his various meals here. Prices are a flat-out steal, with apps to entrees running in the $6-$12 range. The lobster pho ran us $27 last week, and was more than enough for two people.

DISTRICT ONE KITCHEN & BAR

3400 Jones Blvd. #8

Las Vegas, NV 89146

702.413.6868

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11 Responses to DISTRICT ONE KITCHEN & BAR

  • You don’t actually like Vietnamese food, you like Italian and Japanese food with Vietnamese twists. I’m not surprised, since you don’t seem to know anything about it. How have you managed to avoid seafood? Turmeric-marinated, grilled catfish with dill and onion and shrimp sauce; whole fried whitefish painted with pungent spices and rolled in rice paper with herbs and pineapple-flecked sauce; sour fish soup spiked with tamarind? Curry with chiles, shrimp, pumpkin and lime juice; shell-on prawns fried into fritters with sweet potato, waiting to be wrapped in herbs.

    All Asian cuisines cook meat well done, except in recipes adapted from the West. When you eat without a knife, large chunks of rare meat aren’t possible. It’s only Western Europeans and cultures touched by them (the US, Argentina, etc.) who eat rare meat.

    And no one shares phở; it’s not a family-style dish, which is why they didn’t have ladles for it.

    Also, I don’t know where you’ve been eating in Garden Grove, but I work here, and you have to be completely blinkered to eat badly in Little Saigon. Sadly, you were likely “whited”—subjected to dumbed-down food as a result of lots of unadventurous white Americans complaining about the pungent flavors. And if you’d done any actual research into the Vietnamese restaurants in Las Vegas, you’d have found out that many, if not most, are owned by families from Orange County, provisioned with food from California, since you live in a desert incapable of producing food. Vietnamese food relies on fresh herbs and vegetables; everything you eat has to be flown in from elsewhere, and either quality suffers or prices inflate.

    I’m glad you liked the fusion cuisine at Khai Vu. It looks good.

  • ELV responds: You lost me at “catfish” Dave; but many of your other points (though dismissive and completely inapplicable to ELV) are well taken….to a point.

    ELV loves being lectured by know-it-alls who know nothing — such as when Dave tells us we’re unaware that Vegas’s Asian restaurants are owned by Southern California/Asian families. Really? Do they have to bring in foodstuffs from other locales too? You mean nothing much edible grows in the desert? And GAMBLING is going on in those big hotels over there? We’re shocked. Shocked!

    We have eaten in restaurants in Garden Grove on three occasions — each time with a Vietnamese/American devoted to showing us the “real thing” and have found it identical in composition and taste profile to the recipes available here. Some of those meals included various shrimp dishes made with the cheapest, most tasteless shrimp imaginable. If they knock your socks off, have at it…along with all the Tilapia you can stomach.

    And your statement that “…all Asian cuisines cook meat well done” is patently absurd, and tells ELV that poor Dave can’t (realistically) see the edible forest for all the turmeric trees.

  • I’m from Garbage Grove originally. And john is correct it’s pretty much all the same stuff as here. The main difference is its way cheaper for the same stuff. There is of course some diamonds in the rough which we don’t have but there is all 1000 vietnamese joints of course 5 will stand out over out 100 maybe.
    But besides that I think you are blowing up district one way too much. Yes pretty good but I don’t know if u are getting the happy ending special that us peons don’t get. I will be back. Also their wings would be the bomb if they food processed all that marinated shit on the bottom and spread it over wing. Free tip for district one.

  • What, were your feelings progressively more hurt as the day went on, so you decided to edit your comment?

    I don’t know what to tell you; your dining companions must have been defective. Just like going with an American to a burger restaurant doesn’t guarantee a great meal, going with a VN-American to a VN restaurant doesn’t mean you’re going to the best place or getting the best food.

    What was the real reason you panned your city’s entire Vietnamese restaurant scene? Were the waitstaff not sufficiently buxom? (There are topless coffee shops and quán nhậu for that). Did they not comp enough for you? Were they unimpressed with your eye-rollingly pompous use of the editorial (or is the royal?) we? Or was it just not fancy enough to be worthy of your presence?

    You have, however, helped me decide what’s for dinner… cá kho tô, whitefish (and no, not tilapia… ugh). More for me, I guess. Good night, you Prince of Las Vegas, you Maharajah of the Mojave.

  • Nice edits to your comment, John; loving that Royal We. Which somewhat-non-obscure Asian dishes contain large chunks of rare meat, again? My inquiry is twofold: to possibly expose your fallacy, or to be proven wrong so that I might eat this food unknown to me (with a side of humble pie, if so).

    Also, shrimp trend towards neutrality in the realm of protein.

  • ELV responds: Geez Louise, Yumpin’ Yiminey, and Ay Chihuahua! People are actually PAYING ATTENTION to ELV’s comments and when he edits them?

    ELV is both horrified and gratified by this. ;-)

    To set the record straight: The ONLY restaurants (or class of restaurants) we consistently love are those where the hostesses have MAJOR HEADLIGHTS. (All of our regs know this.) Poor Asian eateries — where the fembots tend to be on the slender and petite side — DON’T STAND A CHANCE!

    The only way Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, or Japanese places can possibly get in our good graces, then, is to COMP us and KISS OUR ASS. (All 101 restaurants on Spring Mountain Road KNOW this, and labor mightily to keep up happy from the moment we stroll in the door until the moment we (don’t) get the check. This is because Asian restaurants are ACUTELY AWARE of the importance of good p.r., and because they NEVER fail to coddle the gaijin and DON’T REALLY CARE whether a V.I.P. like ELV ever pays.

    Concerning Mathew’s comment(s): Anyone who’s ever experienced a true Mandarin banquet or Japanese kaiseki meal knows that the chefs take great care to cook all proteins to their maximum state of tenderness — not to a rock hard brick like you routinely get at downmarket places. Even Koreans know a thing or two about bringing bulgogi, galbi or jumulleok to a proper state of doneness.

    Do not mess with the Zohan on these things.

    Best and bon appetit to all (and thanks for the spirited discussion).

  • very well written John. tradition reinvents itself every few years anyway. its how we and gastronomy continue to evolve

  • ooops hit send to fast. and congrats to Khai Vu and entire team at district one for completely rising the bar whilestill maintaing Viet integrity as John dilidgently points out

  • I must agree with you, John. I have had many dull Vietnamese meals in Las Vegas (as well as So Cal !). The whole beef thing is usually a disaster. My wife, and business partner, have been to District 1 more than a half dozen times, and this food is exciting. As Joe Muscaglione points out to those who think that a cuisine is stuck in time, maybe their heads are stuck somewhere, too. Good job, John.

  • Paul, thanx for not calling me out for my typo.because of course i hit send TOO fast. lol

  • Anthony Bourdain says that a bowl of pho is pretty much the best meal ever. Who in their right mind would argue with him?

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