Eating Los Angeles – From Top to Tacos – Part 2

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EAST L.A. TACO CRAWL

Proceeding from exquisite, punctilious Japanese to wolfing down tacos off the hood of a car is how we were rolling this weekend. Our intrepid sense of adventure led us straight up Olympic Avenue, to Boyle Heights in the heart of East L.A., where Latino feed wagons dole out bulging tortillas to lines of customers, drawn to the food and oblivious to the seediness of the streets upon which it is served. These trucks have huge followings on social media, making them wildly popular with an array of gueros who wouldn’t have been caught dead on these streets ten years ago.

If there’s one thing that distinguishes this taco culture from what most Americans think of as tacos, it is the utter, unbridled abandonment with which these are made. Meat is cooked, braised, or barbecued in great volume, with the pockets of luscious proteins composed with all the portion control of a four year old with an ice cream scoop.

Mealy-mouthed tacos these are not. Big, fat, thick with meat and onions and salsa, fairly bursting from their corn or flour confines. Every bite is an adventure, a balancing act between getting the food into your mouth before it hits your shirt. The results, either way, are glorious.

We began at Carnitas El Momo —  nothing more than a trailer parked on a side-street with three cooks furiously tending pots of luscious stewed pork and searing it on a portable plancha under an unrelenting sun. Our taco guide began us with these overstuffed wonders:

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…and they were so good we could’ve parked our behinds on the curb and spent the day parking a bevy of these braised beauties into our gullets.

But there were other trucks to be tackled, so no mixtos, tripe or tortas for us. After a few bites we were off in search of seafood, Mariscos Jalisco crispy tacos and ceviche tostadas to be precise:

Image(Shrimply delicious – hard-shelled tacos the way they were meant to be)

…then in quick succession, Tacos y Birria La Unica for some crunchy, roasted, shredded goat, dipped in a rich consommé, the savory equivalent of dipping a fudge brownie in chocolate sauce:

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…before ending at Enrique Olvera’s Ditroit Taquería— cut into the backside of a warehouse where his more formal restaurant  (Damian) is located. The long narrow space is really just a backdoor window, but the limited menu showcases tacos given a chef’s touch — composed of top shelf products and brought to tables and chairs on an outdoor seating patio, that, when compared with the Olympic taco trucks, felt like dining at the Ritz.

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Our only regret was lack of hunger, due to having consumed a raft of tacos already, and looking down the barrel of a “secret beef” orgy only hours away (see below). Still, the quality of Olvera’s oeuvre shined through our food comas, enhancing this most humblest of lunches, while respecting the essence of L.A. taco culture. It was the perfect ending to our six taco and two taquito midday snack-a-thon.

A trip to east L.A. is not recommended for the extremely white or faint of heart. Or after dark. Or without a guide. You will feel as out of place as Baptist at a bar mitzvah, but don’t let that deter you. Everyone in line, no matter what their lineage, is worshiping at the same church of Mexican street food brought to its pinnacle of deliciousness. This is may be where some fear to tread, but the intrepid (like our taco hound/guide, the inimitable JB Bagley) press forth, conquering this uniquely Mexican-American territory — a gourmand’s paradise where only the strong survive. And by “survive” we mean retain the strength to always hit another taco truck.

Price:

The Food Gal® says: “Tacos, tacos, y mas tacos…will still only cost you about $5/piece. The most expensive ones at Ditroit, were only $8/per. Mas tacos por favor!”

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TOTORAKU (“Secret Japanese Beef”)

Good manners and good sense keep me from saying too much about this impossible-to-get-into Japanese steakhouse. For over twenty years Chef Kaz Oyama has run Totoraku like a semi-private club  — only accepting reservations from known regulars. It is not like New York’s  Rao’s  — where a limited number of regulars “own” the tables on certain nights — but more like a secret society where only the privileged get his private number and are allowed to book one of the five tables available five nights/week.

The beef extravaganza is the best you will find anywhere; the cooking instructions precise (you grill most of it, yakiniku-style at hibachis at your table), and the booze policy strictly BYO, which means trophy bottles abound. (He originally opened a teriyaki joint in the space in 1999, but that lasted about ten minutes, so he quickly pivoted to exclusive steaks, but kept the sign – see above.)

It is easy to see why Oyama-san keeps the secrecy thing going. One set of social media pictures and the place would be overrun with FOMO Instagrammers and Millennials more interested in bragging rights than the food. The day that happens will be the day he closes up shop. A meal here feels like you’re in someone’s home — if that someone was a dedicated Japanese chef sourcing some of the best beef on the planet. Since I’m looking forward to a re-match with all that meat, these words will be all you’ll get…besides this picture of one of their ancient hibachi grills:

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A litany of the dishes seems ridiculous (or needlessly braggadocios), given the futility of describing food most will never try for themselves. There is no menu; and the 10+ courses toggle between all sort of beef cuts, from ultra-tender tartare to spongy beef throat, bracketed by a simple amuse-bouche platter of minced and chopped delights, and a soul-warming crab soup at the end — all of it served by an attentive staff, threatened not by flames or unruly customers, but by the tsunami of big-hitter red wines being poured all around them.

They handle the meat, the guests and the wine with good-natured aplomb, keeping your four-hour cholesterol-fest moving at a smooth clip. Carbohydrates are non-existent, and everyone is usually too drunk for dessert. But I’m sober enough to remember I promised Kaz-san I would say no more….so I will say no more.

Interior of Ivy at the Shore in Santa Monica. Photo of the bar with pitchers of fresh roses and pineapples on the bar, and, small french cafe tables with bamboo chairs for people who want to have drinks and appetizers adjacent, as well as a view of the entire front room with tables and chairs 1930’s french paintings on the walls and an 8’ tall painting of a clipper ship with writing on the ocean “brave men run in my family“. In the windows next to the ceiling are a collection of 1920’s french sailboats.

IVY BY THE SHORE

Santa Monica is a funny place — it has some of the most expensive real estate in America, but always seems in danger of being overrun by people who can barely afford to park their backpacks. Any day of the week you’ll find the homeless mixing with the well-heeled here, interspersed with tourists and Inland Empire families seeking to escape the summer heat. It’s probably the greatest mingling income brackets anywhere in America, which is one of the reasons we love it.

Ocean Avenue runs the length of the western edge of the city, and the name is a bit misleading. You can see the ocean from Ocean Avenue, but it’s still a half-mile hike to get to it, down huge cliffs, across the Pacific Coast Highway and large expanses of sand. There is a nice park running atop of those cliffs, beside which is a strip of mostly motels, and one tourist trap restaurant after another.

It’s something of a rule of thumb that the closer to the Santa Monica Pier you are, the worse the food gets, but there is one exception. It is something of a tradition for us to stop by the Ivy at the Shore  for our last meal before heading back to Vegas.

We do this for several reasons, one of which is the food, expensive as it is, is still actually quite good in a laid-back California sort of way. The other is you never quite know when some Los Angeles Dodger, or that guy who used to play that guy in that sitcom might walk in. (Besides beach bums of all stripes, Santa Monica is also full of “what’s her/his name?” actors.)

They serve old-style, Cali comfort food here, like they have been since 1984, and it never fails to hit the spot. While you’re waiting for Steve Garvey or Bob Saget to walk through the door, you should order a couple of the fresh squeezed juices. The come in milk shake tumblers and are worth every penny of the $10 they charge for them. Then nibble on scones right out of the oven (served with good butter), as you peruse the menu:
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Don’t expect any surprises on the menu, just well-made standards like crab meat eggs Benedict, a spicy corn chowder, a good burger, seriously crabby (deep-fried) crab cakes (below) and salads made without compromise.
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The Ivy has gone from new-fangled to old-fashioned in the thirty-five years we’ve been showing up, and still feels like the owners care about quality. Most restaurants this age would be starting to show theirs, but even the pink thing has been kept fresh. In spite of being a celebrity hang-out (and despite us being a nobodies in this part of the world), I’ve never detected a whiff of attitude from its staff, and from the young(er) couples all around us, it looks like its reputation has grown beyond those of us who remember their glory days of 1992.   Colorful, comfortable, beach-y and bright, it is the best you can do on Ocean Avenue. For a price.
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You can eat well in The Southland if you’re willing to pay for it, and you can eat well and cheaply if you know where to look. But whether you’re stalking the wilds of Santa Monica, or crawling through the barrio, or stuffing yourself with superior sushi, you had better know the territory. And have a nice ride.

 

Eating Los Angeles – From Top to Tacos

The Beverly Hills Hotel Sign(Gimme gimme)

Los Angeles is a city, a county, a tangle of towns and a state of mind. It begins in the San Gabriel Valley just west of the El Cajon Pass, and ends at the beach cities along the Pacific Coast Highway. In between are almost 5,000 square miles of municipalities (88 in all), along with the biggest spaghetti bowl of freeways in America. Hidden among them are all sorts of good things to eat.  Getting to them, however, will always be a challenge, in more ways than one.

If you’re driving from Las Vegas, the gravitational pull of L.A. is palpable. Once you’ve crossed that mountain pass, it is downhill all the way until you hit the terminus of the Original Route 66 underneath the Santa Monica Pier. Driving is the only way to see LA, by the way, it having sold its soul to the cult of the car before anyone reading these words was even alive. (There are walk-able areas among its many towns, but they are laughably small, and you’d better know the territory before beginning any trek, unless you enjoy hobnobbing with the homeless.)

But up to the challenge we were, so drive there we did (courtesy of friends with sweet, oversized rides befitting the landscape), to check out the food scene. This time, though, we weren’t in search of the best new places. This time we were big game hunting — bagging the ultimate elusive prey like Hemingway on a bender, led by a local food guide, and armed with credit cards instead of shotguns.

It was epic eating of a particular SoCal sort, punctuated by meals both highbrow and low, from the absurd to the sublime. We covered a lot of territory in four days…and here is the tale:

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Polo Lounge

It doesn’t get more old school than The Beverly Hills Hotel — perched on a hill above Sunset Boulevard, looming over swimming pools and movie stars like an edifice of pink excess. The BHH has been in more movies and dreams than one can count, and its Polo Lounge serves as a de facto commissary for big shots of the movie producer ilk. (These days, you’re more likely to be rubbing shoulders with FOMO Instagrammers and bachelorette parties than Jerry Bruckheimer, but such is the century we live in.)

While it is still possible to be seduced by the prospect of running into B-list actors and eurotrash here, we came for the food…and maybe a little of the glamour that this place still wears like a faded fur on Norma Desmond.

What we found was a lot more spruced up than we remember from 20 years ago. Now a part of the Dorchester Collection, its mega-rich owners cannot be accused of letting it go to seed. Things were polished to a fare thee well; the bathroom fixtures are now more Louis Quinze than Louis B. Mayer, with carpet so plush you could sleep on it.

There is lots of obsequious head-bowing as you stroll through the joint  (which must be the way hotshot Hollywood hottentots like it) and food calculated not to offend — artfully presented and tasty, but un-challenging to the palate (which is another way wealthy barbarians like their pablum). There’s nothing particularly interesting on the card, just the standardized menu fare that gets hustled out of hotel kitchens from Long Beach to Louisville — here made with better groceries than most. You will eat well, but you won’t be so distracted by the food that you can’t spend most of your meal searching for someone famous. Which is, after all, the whole point of this place.

Image(Not included: lubricant)

Worthy menu items included a really good piece of California sea bass — a fish that never seems to find its way to Vegas, 240 miles up the road — a substantial steak, excellent steak tartare, mammoth double-decker club sandwich, and a not over-priced wine list. On the down side: prices are astronomic and service metronomic — for the privilege of paying $32 for a Cobb salad, and 42 bucks for fish tacos (above), you also get waiters who barely look at you.

The Damage:

Around $130/pp. The Food Gal® says: “Only my husband is dumb enough to pay forty-two dollars for fish tacos. Get a salad and hope Jennifer Aniston shows up to make it worth your while.”

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Chez Jay, Baby

We’re spoiled, of course. You can pin a lot of negatives on Las Vegas restaurants, but bad service isn’t one of them. From our haute cuisine palaces to pizza/pasta/sports pubs, the management and staffs both on Strip and off are always happy to see you.

The great thing about Chez Jay is, it never got the snooty L.A. memo. Here, the absence of attitude is as refreshing as the salty breeze coming off the Pacific. Even when you roll in slightly inebriated, late at night (Who? Me?!) with the kitchen about to close, it feels like you’ve staggered into an old friend who is happy to see you.

This downmarket, laid back louche-ness has been drawing us to this lovable dive for thirty years. Only a stone’s throw from the Santa Monica Pier, the place used to be filled with drunks and fisherman (not to mention drunk fishermen) and smelled like Coppertone mixed with bait. The smell is gone, but the boozers remain. This is a good thing. There is a quiet, scruffy alcoholism to Chez Jay that provides the perfect antidote to its upscale neighbors. “Every guy who ever played Tarzan used to hang out there,” says writer/director James Orr, and you can still feel their presence every time some worn-out fellow with a weather-beaten tan and a floppy hat walks in.

Image(Sand dabs by the sand)

What you’ll find at CJ is the opposite of hoity-toity: a smiling welcome (whether you’re a has-been actor or not), strong, well-made cocktails, and an old-timey “steaks, seafood, chops” menu with some surprisingly tasty fare. Skip the so-so steaks and head for the garlic shrimp or sand dabs (above). And tip your sassy waitress well: she’s honed the skill of reading people into a fine art.

If there’s a better way to bring eating Los Angeles into sharp relief than lunch at the Polo Lounge and dinner at Chez Jay, we haven’t found it.

Sadly, Denny Miller is no longer around.

The Damage:

Two entrees and a few stiff drinks will run about $50/pp. The Food Gal® says:  “Chez Jay is old-school fun whether your spouse is sober or not when you arrive. Sadly though, Billy Bob Thornton, was nowhere to be found, either.”

Image(Niki knows kaiseki)

n/naka

Then, shit got real. Scoring a res at n/naka takes the patience of Job and the perseverance of Sisyphus. The person typing these words has neither, but he does have friends with connections, so in we strolled to the toughest ticket in Los Angeles — a small house on a corner of a commercial street containing a 30 seat restaurant, a multi-course kaiseki meal, and a bill that would choke a horse.

Having appeared on the first season of Netflix’s Chef’s Table made a ticket to this meal harder to come by than a backstage pass at the Oscar’s.

Fawning, persistent press has sealed its fate as one of those places that actually transcends the hype and has become a cultural touchstone. To eat here is to know what high-falutin’ Californian food is about, but you no longer come to n/naka just to eat; you come to embrace it as a status symbol. As with the French Laundry up north, the food (good as it is) has become beside the point.

You’re also up against drivel like this:

Though the effort to evolve the restaurant industry’s bro culture has seen some progress, those toxic roots still run deep. Niki and Carole carved out a successful restaurant in a male-dominated industry while cooking a historically male-dominated cuisine, never compromising on their vision and values. “What is so interesting about the whole subject, about how kaiseki is this male-dominated form, is that it’s a form that relies so deeply on nature, which seems to me to be inherently feminine,” says Kleiman. “So I find that in a way Niki is this correction.”

…so woe to the diner who wants to assess things through a prism of culinary objectivity rather than a “gendered lens” of alphabet soup sexual politics.

Because these things are so important to Los Angelenos, chefs (Carole Iida-Nakayama and Niki Nakayama) have found their perfect niche: a casual-yet-formal, California-inflected Japanese kaiseki restaurant that pushes all the right buttons. Here, you can enjoy the best seafood/sushi/produce Cali has to offer, and congratulate yourself for doing the right thing while paying for the privilege.

Of course, we’re more interested in the dashi than gendered lenses, so our thoughts drifted to similar meals we’ve had in Tokyo, New York, and Las Vegas.

Nothing compares to Japan, where these multi-course, hyper-seasonal feasts are rigidly formal, with flavors so obscure they sometimes border on the invisible. Las Vegas has a kaiseki restaurant, and like n/naka, Kaiseki Yuzu is tiny, pristine, and all about impeccable technique. It can’t compete with the Nakayamas when it comes to right-off-the-boat fish, or produce grown in their own back yard, but in terms of what I saw on the plate, I’d call it a push. (Our kaiseki is also $100/pp cheaper than their kaiseki.)

Where n/n excels is in unforced elegance. The restaurant itself is simple bordering on the austere, but look closer and you see exquisite details — in the plates, the table, the seating and the food. They don’t miss any of their marks here. Service is as smooth as the inside of an oyster shell, and informative without being intrusive.

The sake and wine lists are short and superb and like the Polo Lounge, much softer in markups than what we’re used to in Sin City. (Absurdly overpriced Vegas wine lists have inured us to sticker shock forever.)

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The food is one eye-popping course after another, smoothly, almost effortlessly served with succinct explanations and instructions. There’s an old joke about every waiter in L.A, being a wannabe actor, so the boss says, “Why don’t you try acting like a good waiter for a change.” No one’s acting here; the service is as good as it gets.

The point of kaiseki is not as much to wow you with a single dish, but to soothe your soul with a parade of bite-sized, ultra-fresh delights, plucked at the peak of their deliciousness. It actually started out as a few small savory bites served to blunt the effects of strong green tea during a  sadō  – Japanese tea ceremony, but has morphed into its own thing. Both here and across the Pacific, “kaiseki” now denotes the height of Japanese epicureanism — a prix fixe, omakase, tasting menu (does anyone call them degustations anymore?) representing the pinnacle of a chef’s skill — hyper-seasonal, and full of symbolism (both obvious and inscrutable), edible and otherwise.

Your twelve courses aim for each station on the kaiseki cross: Sakizuke, Zensai, Owan, Yakimono etc., and to a plate, there was something to rave about.

You begin with a Sakizuke of Hokkaido uni so fresh it practically sparkled. Sippery-slick, orangeish-tan and luminescent, it enveloped a carrot coconut ice and was topped with a dollop of trout eggs, every element announcing right out of the chute the chef’s skill at combining disparate ingredients into a whole greater than the sum of its parts:

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This is high-wire cooking without a net, and every bite has to be in perfect balance with what came before, which it was in the Zensai course (assortment of small bites), showcasing the chef’s repertoire:

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….and then on to “Modern Zukuri” course (raw fish from live seafood, usually served whole) of the kind of freshness you only find within a few miles of an ocean:

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…and from there your meal proceeds through an Owan (soup course), with dashi so bracing we could’ve slurped it all night long.

One course leads seamlessly into another: after the Tai (sea bream) soup comes twin ribbons of sashimi, followed by grilled sea trout, and then the star of the show: a Mushimono of a peeled, poached tomato wrapped around lobster, floating atop fennel mochi croutons in a tomato broth:

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Gorgeous, complex food somehow retaining its elemental simple dignity — the best evocation of summer on a plate we can remember.

A couple of things I didn’t “get” on the menu: some weird  jelly of cactus leaves, cukes and chia seeds as the Sunomono course — usually a tart, refreshing cucumber salad. This one could compete with okra in the slimy foods Olympics. Ending the meal with with Nigirizushi (after the A-5 Mizyazaki wagyu course) was likewise odd.  “Must be a Cali thing,” I thought to myself. It sure as shootin’ ain’t a Japanese one. The signature dish of spaghetti with abalone and Burgundy summer truffles (ugh) was also about as seasonal as ski boots on a surf board, but these were but tiny blips in an otherwise extraordinary experience.

I may have had it with western tasting menus, but you’d have to be one jaded palate to ever tire of a proper kaiseki dinner. There are only a handful of restaurants in America that can compete with n/naka in delivering a meal of such subtle refinement. I’m fairly certain there isn’t a better one in Southern California when it comes to service.

The Damage:

Cost pp (including wine and sake but nothing too precious): $560. The Food Gal® says: “Loved it, but there’s definitely a California bump in pricing which is ridiculous.”

Image(Mizumono – ginger-poached plum, lavender ice cream, warabi mochi)

This is Part One of a two-part article.

The Speech

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Speaking in public is as natural to me as polishing off a Poulet de Bresse en Cocotte avec Champignons Glacée et Truffes with a bottle of Clavoillon Puligny-Montrachet 2018.

Between my legal career, trial work, teaching gigs and second career as a semi-famous food critic, I suppose I’ve addressed crowds (ranging from a handful to hundreds) at least a thousand times in my life.

In that last capacity, I get asked occasionally to give talks to local groups who want to hear about my career as that food dude who has spent most of his adult life obsessing over restaurants.

About a month ago, I gave such a speech to a nice group of local Rotarians. Wonderful people; nice lunch (at the always-lovely Lawry’s).

It was a version of the same talk I’ve given many times over the years, charting the culinary history of Las Vegas, my food-writing origins, and the state of our gastronomic state….all of it spiced with recommendations and tales of my many tangles with celebrity chefs.

I was sober, not hung over, and plenty prepared (not always the case years ago). But still, I rambled and forgot a few things, and it’s been bugging me ever since.

My wife (the long-suffering Food Gal®) was in attendance and gave my speech a “it was fine, you were great” review in the same tone she uses to cheer me up after another mediocre performance in bed.

So….I’ve decided to actually write out the same speech I’ve been giving for 25 years and condense my thoughts into a single 20 minute script.

There may never be a next time. Perhaps my speech-making days are over. (As I told the Rotarians: I’m a dinosaur and I know it. I was Las Vegas’s first real restaurant critic, and I’m probably destined to be its last.)

But if there is another one, if I am asked to give one more, I’ll be prepared, for once.

Image(Thanks, Rotarians, for the bio and the sunburn!)

Intro

The three questions I get asked most often when someone hears I am a restaurant critic are: How did you become one? How many times a week do you eat out? And how do you stay so thin? (turn sideways) The answers are: It’s a long story; ten times a week; and I have the metabolism of a hummingbird.

As for my weight, well, to quote the late, great Los Angeles food critic Elmer Dills (remember him?): I’m not as fat as I could be nor as thin as I should be.

Being a restaurant critic is a lot like being a horse put out to stud: It sounds like a great idea until you have to do it on command, all the time.

Anyway, being a serious critic — one who writes for money about restaurants on a regular basis — you get a lot of dudes (it’s always guys) who’ll look at you and say, “I could do that; sounds like fun No big deal. I like to eat.” It’s the same shit they say when they meet  male porn starts: “Damn dude, that ain’t work. Sign me up!” Well, like a porn star, you look at these fools and say, “No, dude, you can’t. You couldn’t keep up with me for three days.”

Of course, as with sex, the tasting is the fun part; the work is in making it fun for others. But more on that in a minute.

First, let’s talk about how Las Vegas went from “The Town That Taste Forgot” to Gourmet Capital to Celebrity Chef Hell…

So….how DID we go from the Town That Taste Forgot to one of the gastronomic capitals of the world? People like to say it started with Wolfgang Puck at Spago in the Forum Shops in December, 1992, but in reality, it began a few years earlier with a chain steakhouse….and that steakhouse was…

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Ruth’s Chris! Yes, as the story goes, Ruth Ertel — the founder of Ruth’s Chris — loved to gamble in Vegas. Her favorite dealer at Caesars was a fellow named Marcel Taylor. Taylor was an ambitious sort, and sometime in the late 80s he persuaded Ertel (over the objections of her board of directors) to open an outlet in Las Vegas. The thinking then was: Why on earth would anyone ever leave a casino to eat? Every hotel in those times had four different eateries: a coffee shop, a buffet, a steakhouse, and a “gourmet room” serving “continental cuisine.” (From which continent they never really specified.)

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Keeping the customer captured was on every hotels’ mind back then. The thought that people would leave to peruse the dining options at another hotel was ridiculous. The idea they might venture a mile off the Strip to eat was unthinkable.

But in 1989 Ruth’s Chris opened on Paradise Road and within a year it was the best performing venue in the chain. Other prime chain steakhouses took notice, and within a couple of years, Morton’s and Palm (back when both were actually good) had opened outposts here.

The next big moment came in 1994/1995 when Gamal Aziz (a forgotten name but pivotal in birthing Vegas’s gastronomic renaissance), brought Emeril Lagasse, Charlie Trotter, and the Coyote Cafe’s Mark Miller to the MGM. Soon thereafter, a non-celeb chef joint at the MGM –Nob Hill — was the first restaurant in Las Vegas to spend more than $1 mil on its build-out. These days, $10+ mil is more the norm.)

Steve Wynn paid close attention to the the success of Spago, and the MGM. By 1998, when he opened the Bellagio, he was ready to dial things up to “11”. As I’ve said many times: when the Bellagio opened in Las Vegas, the gastronomic ground shook in the High Mojave Desert and the whole world felt the shudder.

People take it for granted now, but the Murderer’s Row in one hotel: Julian Serrano at Picasso, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Prime, Olives, Aqua, and the Maccioni family, with its double-magnum of of Big Apple excellence —  Le Cirque and Circo — was like nothing ever seen, in any hotel, anywhere in America…before or since.

By the turn of the century, every national food and wine magazine, not to mention most major newspapers (remember them?) were sending writers to cover our restaurants.

(If you’ll permit me a slight detour: then and now, the lack of attention paid by Las Vegas’s mainstream media to the culinary explosion going on on the Strip, has been an embarrassment to this town since 1995. And don’t get me started on the lame-ass lip service paid by our LVCVA to our food scene — even though our restaurant scene has been, for over twenty straight years, one of the most famous in the world. Our world class dining became a big deal in spite of our local media, not because of it.)

Thus it was written in The Book of Ruth’s Chris (any biblical scholars out there?) that one steakhouse begat another and the MGM begat the Bellagio and Bellagio begat Mandalay Bay which begat the Venetian, which begat Caesars upgrading its dining options, as well as begatting all sorts of bar raising for new hotels like Aria and the Cosmopolitan.

The early aughts were the halcyon days of the celebrity chef  — Ogden, Palladin, Palmer, Batali, Flay, English, Keller (both of them), Mina, Lagasse, Andrés — when casinos would throw money at anyone famous if they’d agree to slap their name on the door. This regrettably led to to the Giadas, Ramsays, Changs and Fieris showing up (who were not, let’s say, as dedicated to quality as the original pioneers), but as with any fad, you have to take the good with the bad.  On the whole, though, it was a net gain for all concerned, and going to Vegas just to eat (something else that was unthinkable in 1995), became a trend in its own right in the first ten years of this century.

A word or two about celebrity chefs: I’m of two minds about famous chefs: on the one hand, they made this town. On the other, most of their restaurants are a joke, the culinary equivalent of an Elton John picking up a fat paycheck for a show where others sing his songs for him. Without celebrity chefs we’d all still be swooning over the Circus Circus Steakhouse; now that they’ve made their mark (and their cash), most of them should slink back to whatever TV studio keeps them employed. Just the other day, I had a colleague ask me about Bobby Flay’s new Italian restaurant, because, he said, “My wife likes Bobby Flay.” (eye roll) Summoning all the tact I could muster, through clenched teeth I muttered: “Bobby Flay is to Italian food what Chef Boyardee was to noodles.”

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Famous chefs (most of them) are just brands. They don’t cook; they don’t even run businesses. They just sell their names for cash. Cash that you pay. For the privilege of them not cooking.

What started as the raising of the bar in a few huge hotels, got taken to the Stratosphere (the atmospheric one not the pathetic one), when the French Revolution took hold between 2005 and 2010. In short order, we saw three of the world’s greatest chefs — Joël Robuchon, Guy Savoy, and Pierre Gagnaire — plant their flags, directly from Paris, and our gastronomic revolution was complete. By 2010 even snooty New Yorkers and imperious Parisians were taking us seriously.

Now, let’s be honest here: did all this fame show up because of our wealth of natural resources? Our verdant food culture? Amber waves of grain and pristine seafood? Nope, they came because there was gold in them thar hills and every one wanted a nugget. 40 million mouths are a lot to feed, and unlike Orlando or Branson, MO, the Vegas tourist is flush with cash and ready to spend it on experiences they can’t get there or in Paducah. (I don’t know what people spend their disposable income on in Branson and Paducah, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t overpriced caviar and champagne.)

These fancy schmancy restaurants weren’t for everyone, but they represented an aspirational level of hospitality you couldn’t find anywhere but Vegas! Baby! And it was available to all! Unlike intimidating New York, snooty Paris, or self-impressed ‘Frisco.

And talk about the pendulum swinging: in about a decade (95-‘o5), we went from 99 cent shrimp cocktails and cheap buffets to being the most expensive high-end restaurant city in the country. Not to harp on the sex thing again (but it is fun isn’t it?), but some Vegas menus (and wine lists) should be served by a proctologist with a side of K-Y Jelly.

The trouble with reaching the top is, like the New England Patriots, you have nowhere to go but down….and that, ladies and gentlemen, is where we find ourselves today. To be sure, the rising tide has raised all boats, but staying afloat, will be harder and harder in the coming years. Big deal meals are not the big deals they used to be, and the quadruple whammy of aging Boomers (who fueled the 90s boom), fading celeb chefs, the Great Recession, and the past two pandemic years have made the future of fine Strip dining very uncertain…and that’s where our local dining scene has stepped up to the plate.

While the Strip may be in a slump, new things are constantly happening in Summerlin, Chinatown, and Downtown. And I’m happy to report there are now even good things to eat in Henderson, of all places (Saga, Rebellion Pizza). Where there used to be only a sprinkling of local spots and miles of franchises, now you have locally-owned, affordable, chef-driven restaurants making big splashes all over the ‘burbs.

Even if peak Vegas has passed, we still boast the best steakhouses in the world of any city that isn’t New York or Tokyo; our Chinatown is a bang-for-the-buck gem; and female chefs (like Jamie Tran, Gina Marinelli, and Nicole Brisson) are dynamos powering our local restaurant resurgence. And at the drop of a hat, I can start waxing poetic about our French bakeries, coffee scene, gastropubs, and pizzas galore.

And you can criticize Millennials, Gen-Xrs and the Instagram/Tik Tok generations all you want, but they’ve been raised to demand better ingredients and better eating and that genie ain’t going back in the bottle.

Becoming a Critic/Doing the Work

Okay, you’ve had your history lesson, but who’s this fellow giving it to you?

To answer the first question I posed at the top of my remarks, I’ve been covering the Las Vegas food and restaurant scene since 1995. When I started I was it: there were no others writing about food with any regularity or even the pretense of journalistic objectivity. I’ve never been especially prescient in anything (as my ex-wives can tell you), but one thing I did see coming down the pike was the sea change about to envelope our food and beverage industry.

As they say: In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. So I started knocking on doors and asking media outlets if they were interesting in having someone cover/critique all these fabulous new eateries that were invading our humble burg…first in a trickle, and then in a tidal wave. No one was interested except Nevada Public Radio. I aced the audition (and already had a face made for radio), so I started my radio commentary years with a tongue-in-cheek admiration for Martha Stewart telling me what size tomatoes to buy.

 My first gig on KNPR radio was a sweet one for 15 years. From there I moved into segments on our local CBS and NBC affiliates, wrote for every publication in town except the Review Journal, and eventually ended up writing 8 editions of Eating Las Vegas – The 52 Essential Restaurants, which published its last edition in 2020.

Basically, I got into food writing because I wanted to be a consumer advocate. At their core, that’s what any critic is. When it comes to food, we want to guide you to where best to spend your hard-earned cash, and at our best, we teach you something while we’re doing it.

You may not like my advice on tuna tartare or tacos, but I share it from a storehouse of experience going back decades now, and from trips to Tokyo to Tuscany. To be a good food critic you need to eat a lot, read a lot, cook a lot and travel a lot. Thankfully, I’ve been able to do all four. (That hummingbird thing really helps). Comparison might be the root of all unhappiness, as Cicero said, but it’s also informs every good critic’s opinions.

Food writers are dinosaurs and we know it. Once people could take and access high quality pictures of potential meals on their phones, our goose was cooked. But we still bring something to the table. When you peruse social media for pretty pics or recommendations, all you get is crowd-sourced opinions based upon personal preferences. All taste is subjective, of course, but having done the work, traveled the globe and eaten everywhere (especially in Vegas), what I offer is the same thing Anton Ego did in the movie “Ratatouille”: perspective. An Instagrammer will only tell you if they liked something; a good critic will tell you why you do.

At this point I’m pretty much the professor emeritus of Vegas food writers, and I content myself being an influencer, occasionally writing blog posts at www.eatinglv.com (like this one!) and spreading the love for all the worthy eateries I can find.

I’ve been very lucky: I’ve had a front row seat for the biggest culinary revolution ever to happen to an American city. In spite of my prickly opinions and prejudices, I have enormous respect for people who work in restaurants. To be a good critic you have to be in love with your subject and I am. I have been in love with restaurants since I was eight years old and my passion has never waned.

I am in love with them and always will be because a good meal, shared with family and friends, is the loveliest expression of our common humanity that I know. As the great food writer Alan Richman once said: “Food is life itself, the rest is parsley.”

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