Best in Dough: The Best Bagel in Vegas

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“Bagels anywhere but New York just taste like round bread.” – Calvin Trillin

When you think about it: a bagel taste-off makes perfect sense. Unlike burgers, pizzas or cupcakes, there aren’t hundreds of competitors in the field. The ingredients of a bagel are simple; opinions of quality are ubiquitous, and various anecdotage of its etymology are everywhere.

What we do know about bagels is that you can’t avoid them these days, and Jew and gentile alike claim them as one of America’s favorite forms of bread. (People have been spending more $$$ on bagels than doughnuts since the early 1990s.)

Without boring you with a lot of history, we will recommend this overview of bagels beginnings, and state for the record that they have a lot more in common with the German soft pretzel than anyone wants to admit.

And as long as we’re being frank, as a batter of fact, yours truly is more a fan of the un-boiled bialy than bagels. But I digress.

Image(Max Bialystock would be proud)

Bialy that as it may, we knead to boil things down for you at #BeingJohnCurtas — turn up the heat, and bake things right so as not to leave a flour taste in your mouth.

Once you’ve finished this article, the yeast you can do is bread the word around and crust our findings into the limelight. This is serious stuff folks, and this competition could result in a legend in the baking. Or something like that.

CONTESTANTS

Las Vegas seems to be going through a bagel resurgence these days, with new ones poppyseeding up all over town, bready to announce that all others are toast.  It’s a crowded field (a flock of bagels, if you will will), but not so crowded that we couldn’t slice the contestants down to eight, and weed out the crumbs.

In alphabetical order:

Bagel Cafe

Bagelmania

Bodega Bagel

Einstein’s

Life’s A Bagel

New York Bagel N Bakery

Saginaw’s Deli

Weiss Deli

JUDGES

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Picking the judges was harder than choosing the finalists. We wanted a nice cultural cross-section of bagel aficionados — which is coded language for “mainly Jews.”

This was for two reasons: 1) because other Jews will scream “FOUL!!!’  if an insufficient number of the tribe are there to represent….and I forgot what the other reason was.

So the judges broke down as follows:

Cranky Old Jew (Peter Sidlow)

Mexican Jewess (Rebeca Golden)

Lou the F & B Jew (Louis Hirsch)

Jolly Middle-Aged, Fashioned-Challenged Foodie Jew (Jason Harris)

Random Shiksa (Kathy Kelly)

Wannabe Jew (me)

…and once they were in their places, all took the sacred Hebrew oath: “Are you ready, willing, and bagel?”

And off to tasting we were.

STANDARDS

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With all the pseudo-scientific precision we could muster, our bagel hounds proceeded to break their bread with alacrity. Debates were heated, temperatures rose, and more than one got cheesed off. But in the end, flour power determined the rules:

Crust (1-5) – A good crust should have some kick to it; it should be crusty but not hard. Presenting just enough resistance as you bite into your bagel

Interior/Chew (1-5) – A bagel should never be rubbery; it should be soft, doughy, and delicious.

Taste (1-5) – This is the overall experience. Is it too salty? (That is bad.) Is it too sweet? (Also bad.) Are all the flavors in perfect harmony, aligning the planets and exposing to you all that’s right with the world? (That is good.)

An expert weighs in (from the Washington Post):

“And just what makes a bagel good? Bread guru Mark Furstenberg, founder of local foodie temples Breadline and Marvelous Market, says well-made bagels should have a slightly sweet exterior from the malt syrup used in the water they’re boiled in and heavy but soft insides. How do you know you’re biting into a great bagel? “First, your teeth break the crust,” he says. “Then you get to a pliable, doughy interior. It’s that contrast that’s so pleasing.”

With these in mind, we dove in.

METHODOLOGY

First we said “gluten morgen” to each other — well before noon so everything was as fresh as possible.

Methodology was agreed upon relatively easily (especially for a bunch of Jews). Rather than split Talmudic hairs over fine points, we settled on a simple formula: 1-5 ranking  in three categories: crust, chew (interior), and taste. The max points any bagel could get was 15. (No bagel came close to getting a 15. Only one, the winner, scored a 13, from me.) Every judge gave each bakery a final score, and then all the scores were added together for a final tally.

Although two different bagels were sampled from each bakery (a plain and an “everything” bagel), the impressions of both were combined into one score. So, for an example, each judge tasted the crust of both (different) bagels from the same bakery but gave only one score for the “crust” category — for how well it does the crust on two different bagels. (Go ahead, start splitting those Talmudic hairs.)

Judging was blind (only after all the scores were in did we know flip the plates over to reveal the names), but there were active discussions during the judging, comparing sensations if not scores.

It was actually quite remarkable how much we agreed on so many of the entries.

Image(New York Bagel array)

Crust, bite and texture were key. Soft and bready didn’t cut it. Blandness was the bugaboo of the lower rated bagels, while a strong, fresh-baked, sweet/wheat/yeast quality (sometimes slightly salty – New York Bagel, sometimes with a touch of tang – Life’s A Bagel), tipping the scales greatly in the winners’ favor.

Some of the bagels didn’t even look the part, and resembled a doughnut that had lost its way. A couple were so pale they could’ve decorated a Mormon wedding cake. The worst sported the texture of cheap white bread.

Judging Comment of the Day (describing Bagelmania’s “everything” bagel): “This is the Backstreet Boyz of bagels…nothing is In Synch.” (Thank you, Lou.)

The envelope please….

THE WINNERS:

Image(Random Shiksa Kathy K. holds the gold)

Gold MedalLife’s A Bagel

The clear winner, scoring 10 points higher than second place. Beautiful crust, salty-sweet, just the right chew, it was the top-rated bagel of 5 of the 6 judges.

Silver Medal New York Bagel N Bakery

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My pre-tournament favorite was less dense than the winner (but not by much), with a slightly softer crust and a slightly sweeter finish. It edged out….

Bronze Medal (tie) Bodega Bagel/Weiss Deli

Both worthy in their own right, but lighter, and lacking the substantial doughy/chewiness, distinctive exterior, and overall punch that separated the top two from the pack.

Also-rans – Bagelmania, Saginaw’s

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To be fair, these two were close to Bodega and Weiss in scoring, but were miles behind the top two. We ignored price-to-value ratio, but if you’re factoring that in, Bagelmania (at almost 2 bucks a pop) would be dead last.

Dishonorable Mention – Einstein’s, Bagel Cafe

To give you an idea of how lame these were, Life’s A Bagel scored 69 total points, and New York Bagel 59. The next two tied at 56. Einstein’s (33 points) edged out Bagel Cafe by a point.

Quibble if you will, but when you do side-by-side comparisons like this, lots of pre-conceived opinions crumble, and quality shines through. People are full of opinions, but nothing hones the palate better than comparative tastings — whether it’s bagels or Burgundy.

And if you don’t like our results, do your own tasting!

Just be sure to have plenty of Jewish friends.  ;-)

Many, many thanks to Lou Hirsch for doing all the heavy bagel lifting.

Congratulations to Life’s A Bagel! We’ll be seeing you for a nosh soon.

L’Chiam!

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What’s New In Vegas – Part Deux

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You can’t talk about Las Vegas without mentioning Circa. A modern behemoth on the western end of Fremont Street, it is the first major hotel/casino to open downtown in forty years.

It sits at the far western terminus of Fremont, catty-corner to the Plaza Hotel, and across the street from the Golden Gate — Las Vegas’s oldest hotel. To say it brings a breath of fresh air to the run-down environs of downtown is like saying a Rolls Royce adds a touch of class to a drag race.

The resort has gone all-in on sports betting and pool-lounging, with Olympic-sized video screens indoors and out. The effect in the sports book is one of immersion: bringing the hi-def athletes so close to the viewer they appear larger than life.

The Legacy Club and rooftop pool have quickly become attractions in their own right, and on the second floor you’ll find two very different restaurants, side-by-side, which are two of the best of their kind anywhere in town. In the basement is the show pony — a new high-steaks entry in our beef emporium wars.

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Barry’s Downtown Prime

Could a new gilded age be upon us? One look at Barry’s and you’d think so. All brass, glass and sass, the decor echoes the 70s (a fern bar without ferns springs to mind) with its gleaming surfaces inset with oversized booths. It is a huge (300+ seats), underground space, but the muted lighting (and the way they’ve chopped it up), creates a certain clubby intimacy. What it has also created in a few short months is buzz — the sort of vibe that spreads like jello shots through a day club.

What Barry’s has in spades is the sort of steakhouse-as-nightclub atmosphere first perfected at N9NE in the Palms, and then carried forth by the STK Steakhouse chain (a meat market as concerned with beefcake and babes as it is with its beef).

Now, it’s a well-known fact that celebrities, short skirts and superior sustenance go together about as well as chocolate chips and shrimp. An inviolable alimentary axiom posits that the quality of the cuisine always is inversely proportional to the number of hot chicks at the bar. NO ONE DENIES THIS!

(Parenthetical digression: last month I went on a barbecue tour of Eastern North Caroline (the spiritual home of whole hog ‘cue), and there wasn’t a babe within 30 miles of the smokehouse. FACT. You won’t find any cleavage or clippy-cloppy stilettos at a New England lobster shack, either.)

The point is: the food at Barry’s is beside the point. It’s really just a placeholder for having a good time. Chef Barry Dakake made a name for himself (and perfected this template) at N9NE at the Palms. Now he’s gone underground to take his steak fame to another level.

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Dakake knows how to make a steakhouse good but not too good. This is not to damn him with faint praise but to admire his tightrope walking/business acumen. Barry’s doesn’t want fussy gastronomes sniffing around; it wants big wallets and big egos prowling for hot trim. Eventually, it will turn into a Lavo, Tao (or the aforementioned STK), and it’s only a matter of time before it is crawling with hockey and football players. Until then, it is a worthy addition to the Vegas steak roster.

The aforementioned bar has plenty of top-shelf booze and expensive cocktails to whet your whistle. Pound down a couple for a cool forty bucks, and then check out the wine list.

To be fair, it was conceived in a pandemic and executed in a panic so you can forgive its lack of imagination. Prices are high (but not pre-Covid Strip high); interesting bottles are few and far between. To give you an idea: a $24 of Nozzole Chianti Classico will set you back $70. Nothing is under fifty bucks and good bottles for under a hundy are harder to find than a collared shirt in the casino. Settle for an Oregon Pinot Noir or some weak-ass Merlot, or bring your own if you don’t mind a fifty buck corkage.

With those preliminaries out of the way, it’ll be time to tuck into the menu. Prepare yourself for the shockingly bad (gummy-flabby lobster potstickers), the bizarrely bad (a “real” garbage salad, appropriately named), and the could-be better (a bland steak tartare)…as well as the usual steak suspects.

Venture too far from the herd and a mixed bag awaits. A braised short rib in an eye-opening harissa-mint sauce wins “best in class” no matter whose you compare it to. But then there’s a Mary’s Farm organic chicken both voluminous and sloppy. (Adorned with a prosciutto “crisp” of no consequence other than to impress the rubes.)

The $76 Dover sole is good….but not $76 good, and I can’t recommend the salmon. Not because I didn’t like it, but because ordering salmon in a steakhouse is like going to a bordello for a back rub. AMIRITE?

Image(This filet slays)

Dakake doesn’t know how to make a bad steak, so you’re on solid turf if you decide to skip the surf. Everything is flawlessly charred, slightly smokey and seasoned so well that saucing them becomes an afterthought. All meat comes at a price and with a pedigree, but even the 8 oz., $56 filet (above) is a succulent slice of superior steer. I can’t remember the last time I praised a filet.

As good as the steaks are, it is a pasta dish which is destined to be a showstopper: the lobster mac ‘n cheese. Brimming with enough richness to induce an infarction, it has “signature side” written all over it:

Image(Lobster ‘n mac me, please)

For dessert you will get the baked Alaska, not because you love baked Alaska but because you’ll see it being flamed table-side all around you. I’ve never understood the appeal of too-hard, mediocre ice cream inside a charred meringue crust, but I’ve ordered it here, twice. This is because I’m a fool for fire, and an idiot for anything singed tableside.

If you don’t identify as a self-loathing pyromaniac, the carrot cake and campfire s’mores are worthy alternatives.

A meal for two here, exclusive of booze, gets to two hundred dollars faster than you can say “medium-rare.” One of our three meals was comped; one of them happened anonymously. The service was excellent each time.

BARRY’S DOWNTOWN PRIME

Circa Hotel and Casino

8 Fremont Street

Las Vegas, NV 89101

702.726.5504

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Saginaw’s

I hesitate to name Saginaw’s “The Best Deli in Town” because every time I bestow such benefaction, the recipient of my beneficence is out of business within a year. (Same thing happens with barbecue.)

But it is, and the proof is in the latkes. “Most of them in other restaurants look like a hockey puck,” Paul Saginaw (above) will tell you. “Ours take longer, and they have a good amount of schmaltz in them.”

That’s really all you need to know about this place. It’s full of schmaltz — Jewish olive oil — the kind of bred-to-the-bone Jewishness which is proud of its culinary heritage, not running away from it.

“When we first opened,” he continues, “our corned beef outsold turkey by this much (placing his right hand high above his left). Now, they’re about equal.”

“Nobody eats lox (cured salmon) anymore, even though it is cheaper,” Saginaw says. He then admits other smoked fishes, despite their keto-approved healthiness, are considered the domain of 80 year old Bubbees. These admissions come after I question whether the classic Jewish delicatessen is now about as fashionable as Henny Youngman.

He admits that it has. Pickled herring, smoked whitefish, lox used to fly out the door. No longer, he says wistfully. Lox now takes a back seat to cold-smoked Nova, if you can sell it at all.

This may not bode well for the future of delicatessens, but as a dedicated faynshmeker, I would urge you to take one bite of this beauty before writing them off entirely:

Image(Whatever you do, don’t Passover this Nova!)

At the drop of his fedora, Saginaw will wax poetic about rendering chicken fat and skins down, filter it into schmaltz, then frying the gribenes (cracklings) before whipping them into the chopped liver and sauteed onions. The result, when done right, like it is here, is otherworldly:

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You’ll have to travel to New York, or Ann Arbor, or Los Angeles to find any as good.

He admits no self-respecting Millennial would be caught dead professing admiration for chopped liver…even if they swoon over some fancy-schmancy paté. Such are the tides Saginaw’s is swimming against.

And then there is the corned beef — the holy grail of edible Judaism.

Brined in Michigan to Saginaw’s specs, flown to Vegas and finished on-site, it is so good it could turn a Hindu into a Hebrew:

Image(Beef – properly curated and corned)

As I’ve said on social media, don’t even talk to me about the best corned beef in town until you’ve had this bad boy.

Bread crust with real crackle, soft-yet-dense chewy rye enveloping lean, salty/spicy meat, it is a sandwich that puts its competition to shame. “Even the New York delis use cheaper bread and pre-slice it these days,” he rues. “Ours takes more time but we think you can taste the difference.”

Saginaw’s house-made, slightly-spicy Russian dressing has twelve ingredients in it and is worth a trip all by itself. So are the house-fried potato chips. They get their breads from Bon Breads locally, and he’s looking for a local bagel bakery which meets his standards. (Right now they’re coming par-baked from New York).

The desserts are from the nonpareil Zingerman’s Bakehouse. They also do real half-sour (“new”) pickles here along with fully sour (“old”) ones; the cream cheese is “the cream of the cream cheese crop” (according to Cooks Illustrated), and even the kneidlach (matzoh ball) soup is a deeper, denser, more intense broth than the shiksa stuff you’re used to.

Spend five minutes with Paul Saginaw and you’ll find his enthusiasm for good deli is infectious. He’s in the restaurant every day, and is a non-stop fount of opinions you can learn from. (Get him talking about bread and fatty brisket and he’ll make a convert of you forever.)

This deli is his labor of love and it tastes like it. Don’t even think about telling me your deli is better until you’ve tried it.

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Sandwiches are in the $15-$22 range but easily feed two. A meal for two with plenty of leftovers should be about $50, including tip. I had five meals here before I met and interviewed Mr. Saginaw. Service was always friendly and helpful and lickity-split.

SAGINAW’S

Circa Hotel and Casino

8 Fremont Street

Las Vegas, NV 89101

702.726.5506

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8East

Sitting within a stone’s throw of Saginaw’s, on the same side of the second floor, is a stark contrast to a traditional deli and big hitter beef emporium. 8East checks the boxes for those wanting something Asian, unique, modern, and flexible. It is not a noodle bar, per se, nor is it all about bao, or dedicated to dumplings. What you’ll find is a mix and match menu of Asian nibbles from across the Pacific, given a personal spin by chef/owner Dan Coughlin.

Coughlin is something of an Asian-American phenomenon. His family has run traditional Thai restaurants for years, and he struck out on his own a decade ago with the fabulously successful Le Thai on East Fremont. Given a bigger space to work with (above), he’s let his imagination run wild (but not too wild) with the various techniques  of the Far East.

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The cuisine itself is hard to pigeonhole, but that’s part of the fun. Coughlin may be playing with flavors from all over the Pacific, but he has enough restraint to keep things in focus.

You can toggle between the traditional (a steamed egg custard with soy and sesame), to the trendy (pork belly bao) and never find a flaw. His Dan Dan and Sizzling Noodles would be right at home on Spring Mountain Road, while seared circles of carpaccio, adorned with baby tatsoi greens and dressed with citrus wasabi creme, are straight from the Nobu playbook.

Coughlin is unabashed in wanting to use the entire Asian flavor palette, as when he drops traditional Chinese sauteéd green beans with ground pork, right next to bites of Hawaiian musubi, and a Tokyo crepe rolled, sushi roll-style, around sauteéd mushrooms and fried tofu.

Image(My little dumplings)

He doesn’t make a big deal about his vegetarian offerings, but he should. Dishes like the simple, stir-fried bok choy in oyster sauce, the fried tofu, and the mélange of mushrooms in butter are some of the tastiest plant-based recipes you’ll find, in Asia or anywhere.

Page two of the menu finds a plethora of impressive proteins  — from definitive salt & Szechuan pepper wings to cumin lamb lollipops to crispy pork belly — square chunks of sticky sweet pork that could be sold as meat candy if someone wanted to make a killing. The only entree over twenty bucks is the Five Spice New York Strip ($25), with echos of Chinese spices playing off good beef and a tangy “butterfall” sauce.

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About the only thing we can’t wholeheartedly endorse is the “$MKT-priced Lobster Fried Rice” (above). It’s plenty good, but (as we like to say), it ain’t $55 good. Stick with the Brisket Fried Rice ($16), or one of the noodle dishes if starch is what you seek.

Sharing is the mantra here, and experimenting with Asia, the theme. Coughlin’s menu has something for everyone and packs quite a punch for such a small operation (at such a small price point). The only thing it needs now is customers.

Nothing on the menu (except that steak) is over $16. Two people can eat like kings for $50, and four will be stuffed for a Benjamin, exclusive of booze. We haven’t tried any cocktails, but they’re quite proud of them. The wine list is barely adequate to the task; the sake selection a little better.

8EAST

Circa Hotel and Casino

8 Fremont Street

Las Vegas, NV 89101

702.726.5508

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To summarize: Barry’s is a worthy addition to Vegas’s high-end sweepsteaks; Saginaw’s is best in show by a Moses mile; and 8East is a breath of fresh Asian-fusion air in a part of town that needs one.

Derek Stevens’ team should be applauded for shaking up a hotel’s culinary offerings with something other than the usual steak, Italian, coffee shop suspects. There’s also a burger restaurant (Victory Burger, below) which is fine, if not life-changing, and a coffee bar (Jack Pots) with some tasty brews and tastier breakfast cakes straight from Zingerman’s.

Bottom line: You don’t need to leave the premises to eat very well, and it’s been a long long time since anyone said that about a hotel on Fremont Street.

Image(Victory Burger!)

 

 

 

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.

Image(If hot tubs could talk…)

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.

Image(We heart French bakeries)

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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