Eating Las Vegas – The High Water Mark

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Ah…the end of summer. Traditionally when we would be turning in the final copy for EATING LAS VEGAS The 52 Essential Restaurants.

But not this year. This year there is no joy in Mudville. This year the Mighty Las Vegas has struck out. What we once saw as invincible, unconquerable, un-defeatable, has been laid so low as to be in need of resuscitation, not inspection and dissection.

No way can we justify rating or ranking restaurants according to their quality this year. That so many of them are open at all is a testament to the fortitude of cooks, chefs, owners, staff and everyone connected with our hospitality industry.

Even places we’ve disdained in the past now have our undying respect. This is no time for poncy snobs and their persnickety-ness. Effete, elitist, edicts should not elicit during this era of almost endless enervation.

Put another way: it would be exhausting and unfair to critique any retail business struggling to survive in this climate. Our heart’s not in it, nor should it be.

Right now it’s all about survival, and even though a remarkable number of places have re-opened, it’s too soon to tell which ones will make it.

If I had to describe my prediction for the future of local eateries, I’d call it cautiously optimistic. There seems to be real support out there for the neighborhood joints who have weathered the storm (so far). And interest is high in the places on the drawing boards, ready to spring to life in the coming weeks: Main Street Provisions, Good Pie, Yu-Or-Mi Sushi, all have created real buzz, and the public’s appetite for going out seems to be increasing every week. Letting the bars re-open is also a big plus which will boost the business of many. (Restaurants need a lively bar just as much as a bar needs a lively bar.)

The Strip is another beast entirely, as the fates of so many of our favorite cookshops hang in the balance these days, as the beached whales of Las Vegas Boulevard South struggle to find their footing, right the ship, and regain their sea legs. (Mix. That. Metaphor!)

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As of this writing, 15 of our 52 Essential Restaurants remain closed. Some are gone for good (goodbye Twist by Pierre Gagnaire, Hatsumi, Sage…), others hang in the balance (Le Cirque? Picasso? Robuchon?), while a remarkable number have bounced back (even at 50% capacity) and are doing booming business on the days they’re open (usually Wed.-Sun.).

We’ve also gained new appreciation for some places we’d written off in the past (Costa di Mare), and developed an infatuation for a newcomers (ELIO, Letty’s, Raku Toridokoro, Osteria Fiorella) whose menus have knocked us out at every meal we’ve had. (If we were doing a 52 Essential list this year, all of them would certainly be on it, as would ShangHai Taste, Saga , Japaneiro, and Big B’s Texas BBQ.)

Throughout the summer, beginning in early June right through this past weekend, we hit dozens of restaurants, on and off the Strip, and usually found them teaming with customers. Sure, the mask thing makes everyone awkward, and early on, the feelings of discomfort was palpable between customers and staff, but over time these things have faded…even if the unease hasn’t disappeared completely.

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Looking back, it’s now a safe bet to say the publication of our 8th Edition of Eating Las Vegas was the high-water mark of Las Vegas’s gastronomic scene — not the book itself, but  everything that came before it, everything it represented. Thirty years of progress, thousands of hands working for three decades to bring better food and drink to the High Mojave Desert, in a place where once no one thought it possible. My own personal odyssey of eating, studying and writing about this scene led me and others to our event that evening, and it seemed like nothing but blue skies, handmade pizzas and top-flight champagne was ahead for everyone.

But of course it wasn’t. There was an iceberg looming ahead no one saw coming.

It was a grand night, made all the more possible by chefs like John Arena, Chris Decker, Ismaele Romano, James Trees and Vincent Rotolo pitching in to feed us all so well. Toasts were made; speeches were given; babies were kissed; books were signed. At the end of it all was a lively discussion panel with Kim Foster, Eric Gladstone and Trees weighing in with humor and insight on the future of the Las Vegas dining scene. Little did we know how wrong we would all be proven, only two weeks later.

At the top of the page you’ll see us with Paul — a genial fellow whose last name we can’t recall. Paul has bought every edition of ELV going back to 2011. He and his charming wife came, listened us bloviate, and waited for the discussions to end so we could sign all of his books. One thing led to another, multiple distractions intruded, and before we knew it, the evening was over and Paul and spouse had left without us making good on our promise.

No matter, we thought at the time, we’ll catch up with Paul _____ soon enough. Maybe sometime this year in a restaurant, or maybe at next year’s release party.

How foolish of us to take it for granted — because there may never be another book signing party — because there may never be another Las Vegas like there was on February 27, 2020.

Paul, if you’re out there, I apologize. I’m sorry I didn’t sign your books and I’m sorry I didn’t get your last name so I could hunt you down and return the favor.

Peak Vegas had been achieved that day and none of us knew it. But I’m still here with pen in hand, Paul, ready to be of service, if ever again you need me.

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Why I Live Where I Live

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My House:

It was never supposed to last this long.

What started as a mild flirtation with Vegas has turned out to be the longest commitment of my life.

What brought me here was a woman (the second Mrs. Curtas), what’s kept me here has been my house.

Before buying this property, my transience was legendary.

Between 1970 (the year I left my parent’s domicile) and 1995 (when I settled here), I estimate I changed residences 22 times. College, law school, children, divorces, moving cross-country three times — things were pretty hectic for 25 years. The longest stretch in a single abode was four years; the shortest were nights spent couch surfing at the houses of sympathetic friends.

Then, one day in June, 1995, my then wife-to-be (the third Mrs. Curtas) stumbled upon an unprepossessing bungalow, smack dab in the middle of town (in old but not really old Las Vegas), and we fell in love at first sight.

With the house at least. Four years later we were splitting the sheets. She moved; I stayed.

It was a bachelor pad/party house for a few years and served all the functions necessary to those pursuits (nothing gets a woman out of her clothes faster than a hot tub), but it fell into disrepair as those exploits faded and the Great Recession took hold. It was nip and tuck for a while whether I could keep it up (insert dirty joke here), but through bailing wire and financial duct tape, things held together.

Now, the final Mrs. C (the long-suffering Food Gal®), has restored its former glory, and I wouldn’t live anywhere else in Las Vegas if you gave me a McMansion on a golf course with a butler.

Image(Feng shui 100, Curb Appeal 0)

As much as I love it, my house has zero curb appeal. There’s barely even a front. All you see from the street is a three-car garage with an iron gate beside it. But as anyone in real estate can tell you, fancy frontage frequently foretells edificial falsity. Or something like that.

The best thing about the place is its shape. Feng shui they call it, and you can’t help but notice the feel-good quality as soon as you walk in the iron gate. That shape is a “U” which wraps around a small rectangular swimming pool — exuding coziness from the get-go.

Most houses have walls; mine has windows. Big ones. Lots of them, some with giant sliding glass doors and some without. More natural light streams in than the Bellagio Conservatory; so much radiance the warmth of the sun is almost all we need to heat the place in winter.

One side of the U is the garage, the other two sides are the “L”-shaped living structure — nothing fancy but laid out for maximum comfort. You feel good when you walk through that iron gate and suddenly see the pool wrapped on three sides by the house. Everyone does. I’ve never had a person come over who didn’t remark how charming the layout is — even at the height of my bachelor revelries when dirty ashtrays, empty bottles, and womens’ underwear strewn about.

Somewhere around 2000 one of those parties ended with my couch — a fully functional living room couch — sitting at the bottom of the pool. Another soirée found some drunken lass spewing chunks all over my master bathroom, after I begged her….BEGGED HER…to stay outside on the lawn if she wasn’t feeling well. Took me three hours and a gallon of Clorox to clean up. Still remember going to court that morning stinking of bleach, no sleep, and middle-aged bachelor despair. Good times.

My house is more masculine than feminine, more Palm Springs than Palm Beach. It feels like it should’ve belonged to someone in the Rat Pack — not Frank or Dino or Sammy, but a minor hanger-on like Joey Bishop. It practically screams for men in Sansabelt slacks and cigarettes to be strolling around, asking the missus (in a beehive of course) when the martinis will be ready.

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My Neighborhood:

Like I said, smack dab in the middle of town. Practically its geographic center. Two miles from downtown; 3 miles from the Strip. Five minutes by car to the Sahara Hotel, ten to the Bellagio. Twelve to Chinatown. The only places too far for me to get to are areas (Summerlin, Green Valley) I don’t want to go to anyway.

Being one of Vegas’s older precincts, there are trees aplenty, walk-able streets are right outside my gate, and the neighborhoods don’t look like a stucco farm. I know my neighbors well-enough to knock on their doors and ask for help in an emergency, but not so well that we’re always in each other’s business….which to my mind is exactly how well you should know your neighbors. I’m sure they all think of me as slightly anti-social, which is just fine with me.

Mine is the shittiest house in a fancy neighborhood — surrounded on two sides by two-story structures too big for their lots (very Vegas that), and sheltered on two others by the circular street containing the other eight houses. (“Always buy the lousiest house in a good neighborhood,” my dad used to intone, and that’s exactly what I ended up doing.) Between the unassuming front, and being tucked among more impressive digs, we are sheltered from attention and the wind and that’s just the way I like it.

A Starbucks, and a supermarket and the best bagels in Vegas are only a five minute walk from our front door. There’s also a serviceable pizza parlor in the same center, and the UMC emergency room a quarter mile away, if things get out of hand — like they did in 2008 — when some bad oysters had me retching, fainting, and breaking my face (nose and eye socket) twice in one long night. Never was any man happier to be within walking distance of a hospital.

My neighborhood isn’t perfect, but it’s closer to the things I love (good food and wine, downtown, my office, the Strip) and far enough from what I hate (soulless suburban sprawl), to make it as perfect as you can get in Las Vegas.

My City:

Calling my relationship with Vegas “love/hate” is an understatement. You have to make your peace with Las Vegas, I’ve told people hundreds of times over the years. If you don’t, it will eat you up.

Everything Las Vegas doesn’t have — taste, neighborhoods, culture, museums, art, music (show tunes don’t count, neither does whatever the fuck this is), intellectuals, education, people who give a shit, residents who care about something other than money — will drive you crazy if you let it.

What it does have — weather, convenience, friendliness, good jobs, a great airport, proximity to California, some of the greatest restaurants on earth, a burgeoning local food scene, great Asian food out the wazoo — makes living bearable. (The awesome assortment of Asian eats is what we’d miss most if we left town.)

Let’s face it, though, in terms of community, Vegas ranks somewhere between a prison colony and a dormitory — our miles and miles of strip malls and stucco (made possible by politicians who sold their souls to real estate developers decades ago), have sapped and stifled all community spirit from the place. It’s why our schools are so crummy and no one ever feels connected to the place. Heck, even The Food Gal® (born and raised here) doesn’t feel connected to the place.

In Vegas, you co-exist with your neighbors, you don’t really share anything with them. Go to any neighborhood in any season — the number of people who are out walking, sharing, feeling connected to their environs you can count on one hand. Las Vegas is a place to make a good living (until recently) and that’s what it’s always been, and what it remains, 40 years after I moved here.

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So why do I stay? Well, I love my job, and my wife and my house. I love my swimming pool in summer, and walking to work anytime it’s not summer. I love our coffee culture and and the young chefs who DO give a shit and want to make this place a better place to live.

I’m nuts for all the good bread and the few French bakeries you can find around town, and I love going to Chinatown every Sunday — something I’ve been doing since 1995.

I love our Thai restaurants (one of which is the most famous Thai restaurant in America). I love big, fancy, expensive restaurants that are better than any big, fancy restaurants anywhere that isn’t New York or Paris.

As nice as these amenities are, I’ve always hated the fact that there’s nothing organic about our town — it exists solely because of tourist money. The only thing that’s ever grown here are monuments to human greed and stupidity: casinos.

But things have grown better over thirty years. Downtown may have a long way to go but it’s now live-able and walk-able — something unthinkable twenty years ago. There are good bars and great coffee and a dozen good restaurants to choose from. I walk to my haircuts these days, and I buy wine from the a store that would be right at home in a much bigger city.

But our supermarkets are shit, and there’s only two independent bookstores in the entire county, and our movie theaters don’t show anything that isn’t a tent-pole blockbuster.

And we’re still saddled with a single cheese store, no seasons, and a terrible newspaper.

Image(Summer bounty at Intuitive Farmers Market)

God bless the scattering of “farmers markets” around town, but they are so small as to be a drop in the bucket — and you’d better fill your bucket early and fast if you want to get the good stuff.

You have to face facts about Las Vegas: it is, and always will be a tourist town, populated by folks who make a living off of others who come here to solely to drop sizeable amounts of disposable income in our buckets. Gambling is the greatest business in the world, my father used to say, a commercial transaction without a product. We don’t make anything; the only thing we sell is hope.

And hope is in short supply these days.

As gambling has receded as Vegas’s primary source of income, the livability of the town has increased. And it’s become a nicer place to live not because of its parks, or sports or music. We’ve done it with food and drink, like I predicted we would twenty years ago. That’s the good news.

The bad news is figuring out whether we have truly reached peak Vegas, and if our economy is going to remain mired in muck for years to come. Put another way: Is a boom town worth living in if it is no longer booming?

It’s all so exhausting these days. But when I get tired of these contemplations, I can always retire to my humble abode, and thank my lucky stars for a cool pool and the house surrounding it. In Las Vegas, in summer, sometimes that’s all you need.

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New Restaurants Are Floating Our Boat + One That’s Already Sunk

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Writing strictly about restaurants is no longer an obsession with us. This doesn’t mean we no longer prowl the streets of Las Vegas searching for good eats, but only that we’re not nearly as consumed by it as we once were.

We at #BeingJohnCurtas are now content to occasionally explore what’s new in local eats, but mostly, we retreat to the tried and true these days when it comes to dining out. After 25 years of this gig, we’ll leave the manic examination of our food scene to the erudite influencers and other excitable youngsters.

John Curtas can still get a boner, though, over the crispy authenticity of Ton Ton Katsuya, and his panties get moist over the mole taquitos at La Monjá.

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Ton Ton is terrific — a must for lovers of the panko-crusted, high-heat, deep-fried pork cutlets and seafood that Japanese chefs do better than anyone.

La Monjá (The Nun) is the latest in Dan Krohmer’s quest for Vegas restaurant hegemony. It hit a rough patch right out of the gate after opening in September (both original chefs left/were shown the door), but the simple menu of ceviches, tacos, steak, shrimp, and enhanced Mexican street food tastes like a sure winner….and a welcome change of pace from all of the “elevated American gastropubs” at this end of Fremont Street.

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While in one of his ever-rarer exploratory moods, Mr. Curtas recently ventured to Burnt Offerings. This excursion illustrates why he’d rather leave the intrepid examination of oddball eats to others — Burnt Offerings being by turns compelling and slightly weird.

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The chef/owner — Jennifer Weiss Eckmann — has done a fine job updating a run-down Chinese joint on West Sahara into a presentable restaurant, but her Glatt Kosher menu is too ambitious by half.

Strict adherence to Jewish dietary laws means she also won’t be open on Friday and Saturday nights, and while we loved some things (her sauces and dips are a dream, so is her chicken-matzoh ball soup), we left shaking our heads over others (the barbecue beef needs work, and a lot more time on the smoke).

It is too late in John Curtas’s life for him to argue with people over arcane religious eating rules, so all he can do is wish Eckmann well, and try to get back some weeknight to suss out more Yiddish sustenance.

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Another opening that has him all a-Twitter is Garagiste Wine Bar & Merchant (above) in the Arts District in downtown Las Vegas — the first true wine bar to open in like….forever. Owners Mario Enriquez and Eric Prato are Strip veterans and have sunk their savings (and considerable expertise) into an operation unlike anything  Vegas has ever seen.

This is not some suburban supermarket wine sipping stop (a la Grape Street or Local), this is the real, big city deal — the type of wine bar gaining currency from Los Angeles to New York — featuring a highly curated list of exotic grape juice from some of the most interesting wineries in the world.

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With everything from JL Chave to noteworthy Nebbiolo to natural wines, Garagiste (the name refers to small-batch, exclusive, Right Bank Bordeaux wineries) is banking on a growing Millenial thirst for great grapes to take hold here, and the early returns (and crowds) have been encouraging.

Those looking for Sonoma chardonnays like they discovered during some insipid California foray should stay in Summerlin.

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On the buzzkill front, word came down yesterday that bBd’s in the Palace Station Hotel and Casino will be closing next week. Those who follow us know what huge fans we are of Ralph Perrazzo and his meat machinations. bBd’s had quite simply the best burgers in town.

It also had an incredible beer program featuring obscure artisanal brews from all over the globe. The meat was ground in-house, and the steaks were a steal, equaling anything you can find a mile to the east at a 20% discount.

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So what went wrong? Plenty. Like many a chef before him, Ralph was seduced by clueless hotel F&B honchos. We’re sure they sang him a sweet song about all of the fabulous upgrades and renovations which were going to set a whole new paradigm for the Palace Station — the ultimate low-rent, smelly ashtray, god’s waiting room, grind joint.

Yes, they built a bunch of new rooms, threw in a movie theater, and expanded one side of the depressing casino to accommodate some new food options, but what they didn’t/couldn’t do is change the clientele.  Or the reputation.

Everyone from Lake Mead to Los Angeles knows what the Palace Station is: an old people hotel. Hell, it was our dad’s favorite whenever he came to Vegas….and he loved coming to Vegas.

Anthony John Curtas (1926-2006) loved the Palace Station (formerly the Bingo Palace), because he was in his element. But he is gone now, and even as he as his contemporaries have died off, their favorite hotel is burdened with their legacy of dropping all those coins into all those slots for all those decades. Trying to upgrade the PS is like trying to make horseshoes hip.

The other problem with bBd’s was its size. The bar was the length of a football field and it was too big by at least 100 seats. And the name and the logo also stunk (sorry, Ralph). bBd’s had about as much chance for success as John Curtas in a triathlon.

We ate there about ten times in the year it was open. And we’ll dream about Perrazzo’s steamed cheeseburger until he finds another (smaller, more locals-friendly) place to bring his boffo beef.

We’ll let Ralph P. have the last word here:

The past year John Curtas has snuck into bBd’s multiple times for lunch and dinner, eating his way through our menu spending his own money. In NY, food writers and reviewers for a publication don’t get a comp number or want to be taken care of for some marketing material. Their experience as a regular guest is what is looked upon, a true test to what the place is not by one visit but multiple. Hate him or love him, I completely respect his way of reviewing a place even if we were not in this book of great places in Las Vegas.

Going on 25 years in this business Yelp, FB, etc has put a serious change on how we operate. Restaurant owners and chefs appreciate the food bloggers & legitimate food reviewers more than ever. I look forward to doing more in LV and sharing that with all the people who have been nothing but supportive of my heart & soul that is bBd’s that was started in NY.

We have some big news coming out soon and can’t thank the team at bBd’s enough for pushing. I say it all the time you are only as good as your team and your relationships with the product that comes in the back door. This business is a professional sport that comes with many obstacles and adjustments and you must be Michael Jordan. Thank you Mr. Curtas

Thank YOU, Ralph, we look forward to you floating our boat with whatever you have planned:

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