Niu-Gu is an experiment of sorts. In the few months it has been open, it has gone from a simple noodle parlor, with a limited menu of Chinese soups and starches, to a full service restaurant serving everything from the formal farm-to-cup Chinese tea service to the best, freshest friggin’ fish we’ve ever had in Chinatown:
(Silky, rich, true Pacific black cod)
How well they succeed is going to tell us a lot about just how sophisticated people want their Asian food to be.
Before we get to this fantastic food, a little history is in order. Chinatown as we know it in Vegas really began in 1995 with the opening of the Chinatown Plaza on Spring Mountain Road. Back in the 1960s through the 1980s, the Chinese population of Las Vegas was too small to be of any notice, but by the early 90s it was well over 15,000 and growing. Growing so much that a group of Taiwanese investors built the original mall on a lot two miles west of the Strip on a street that, up until that time, was known mainly for its potholes. (Old timers remember SMR as the lousiest stretch of road in the entire county, a distinction it held for decades.)
Besides creating an identity for the area, the interesting thing about the Chinatown Plaza in 1995 was that it featured a large, full-service Asian supermarket (99 Ranch Market), and ten Asian restaurants — ranging from a pho parlor to a Chinese barbecue joint to a real seafood and dim sum house. Then and now, most of these were designed for the tour bus crowd, but despite the variable quality, there was no doubt among the foodies of the day (of which ELV was one of maybe a dozen) that a sea change was taking place in the way we were about to eat. (ELV — the man, the myth, the abhorrer of all Asian stereotypes — wrote the very first food article for the very first edition of Las Vegas Life magazine about the 99 Ranch Market. Don’t remember Las Vegas Life? That’s okay, no one else does either.)
Things expanded up, down and sideways along Spring Mountain Road for the next thirteen years with slight bumps in quality and a definite increase in quantity. (At last count, there were 107 restaurants in the area, of which we have eaten in 96.)
Then 2008 hit. And the Japanese invaded. Not in the way they used to er….uh….wander into China on a regular basis, but in a good way.
It is hard to overestimate the impact Endo-san (Raku), Segawa-san (Monta) and Zenbayashi-san (Zen Curry) have had on our culinary scene in general and Chinatown in particular. When they opened eight years ago, you could feel the goosebumps among lovers of authentic Asian eats. No longer was Chinatown just a place to eat good and cheap. Suddenly, real, chef-driven restaurants were the order of the day, along with superb quality. Those flames were fanned by the Food Network, Yelp and others, including this website, and these days, we’ll put our panoply of pulchritudinous pan-Pacific purveyors up against almost any city’s in America.
China’s chefs have been a bit behind this curve — they still boast the largest number of restaurants along the three-mile stretch of Chinatown — but most of them haven’t celebrated Chinese cuisine as much as sling it.
Now, along comes Niu-Gu (pronounced NEE-you- Goo: the name means “beef bone” and is a reference to the stock used in noodle soups), trying to carve out a niche of better quality Chinese dining, using top-shelf ingredients and making them sing.
And sing they do.
What chef/owner Jimmy Li is doing is bringing forth the kind of recipes usually reserved for the fancier Chinese places in our better hotels — the kind where dinner for two can easily top a buck fifty. All of this is being done in partnership with wine distributor/Asian maven/fast-talking Sicilian Joe Muscaglione whom, we think, has made it his personal mission to upgrade both the food in Chinatown and its image on the local and national stage.
While Jimmy is whipping up beauties like this finger-licking-good garlic crab:
….Joe has been hard at work whipping the young, good-looking staff into shape, and giving them a huge dose of European service done right. (It doesn’t hurt that Jimmy’s beautiful wife Jing is on the premises, either.)
Not that the place is formal — far from it. It’s only 48 seats and intimate and comfortable in a way few Chinese restaurants (off the Strip) are. Muscaglione’s idea is to combine the best of Chinese food (with a few dozen menu items rather than a few dozen menu pages) and combine them with the best Chinese teas and (eventually) a small, well-chosen wine list. The place is still on its shake-down cruise, but one thing that you can count on will be intense, drop-your-chopsticks dishes like the ones above and items like this beef tongue in XO sauce:
…and a strawberry-flecked lobster salad:
…and a large, fresh oyster swimming in a sweet-pungent garlic broth of divine intensity:
And we haven’t even mentioned Li’s rack of lamb:
…that may be the best in the City. Certainly it’s the best in Chinatown, and for $16 it’s a steal even by Spring Mountain Road standards.
About the only act they don’t have together yet is dessert. But like ELV always says: “If you want a great dessert in an Asian restaurant go to a French one.”
Or get a great Chinese chef to team up with an East Coast Italian:
As we said at the top, this place is experimenting with the Chinese restaurant formula in all the right ways. Wethinks Spring Mountain Road is primed for Jimmy Li to do for Chinese cuisine what Mitsuo Endo did for Japan’s.
We also thinks this place is gonna be da bomb. Check it out.
ELV has eaten here four times in the eight months it’s been open. His first two, more starch-centric meals (for two) were each around $60, and his last two, more formal meals have been comped. There is no wine or beer license yet, so they encourage you to BYOB, and Li’s food goes perfectly with Alsatian whites and big, bold reds.
NIU-GU NOODLE HOUSE
3400 S. Jones Blvd. #16
Las Vegas, NV 89146