High Steaks in Vegas

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Every restaurant in Las Vegas would be a steakhouse if it could be.EATING LAS VEGAS – The 52 Essential Restaurants

It’s hard not to have a soft spot for the American steakhouse. What began in the beer halls and speakeasies of New York City over a hundred years ago (e.g., Palm, Keen’s, Peter Luger, et al) has morphed into the most expensive of restaurant genres, where checks north of $150/pp are now as common as overpriced California cabernets.

Nothing sells here like steaks. Beef, it’s what’s for dinner, and as a class, Vegas steakhouses outperform other restaurants by whopping margins.  If the baseline for a successful Strip eatery is $1,000,000/month in sales, it’s a fair bet that most major meat emporiums exceed that by at least 50%.

So, it’s no wonder our post-Covid restaurant recovery is being led by steakhouses. Hunks o’ prime steer muscle and a formulaic menu are the surest way to fill your dining room, and packed they are…from Summerlin to Las Vegas Boulevard South. Even with the price of beef being through the roof, people are spending faster than drunken sailors on shore leave. Quite frankly, the crowds of free-spending carnivores cramming these places has flummoxed even an old restaurant pro like yours truly. “Where is all this pent-up passion for prime (not to mention cash) coming from?” he thinks to himself as he sees the bodies pressed four-deep at the hostess stand…on Tuesday nights!

Chefs will tell you profit margins on steaks are very low. But there’s something about the beefy vibe that encourages the copious ingestion of booze — from vodka martinis to trophy wines — and when people want to drink, the Vegas steakhouse is here for them.

The point is, the formula for all of these joints is as predictable as a rom-com plot. They all get the same groceries, so all that’s left is how well they tweak them.

These days, everyone features the same 9-10 steak cuts from similar purveyors, letter-box “wagyu” beef that is now about as special as tuna fish, and the same old-same old sauces and sides. (Robuchon potatoes? Check. Shellfish tower? Double your check. Roasted veggies anyone?)

None of this predictability deters anyone from flocking to these restaurants — which, this being America, may be the point.

With all this in mind, we thought we’d take a look at four major players (two newbies and two old souls) to give you a sense of what you’re up against these days.

HARLO STEAKHOUSE & BAR

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Harlo burst on the scene barely six months ago and immediately flipped the script on Andiron, its predecessor steakhouse in the space. The front door is now where the backdoor used to be, and what was once open, bright and airy (trying to mimic something swanky and Southhampton) is now dark, cozy and clubby.

The bar also shifted….in more ways than one.

Image(Inflation? What inflation?)

There is big real estate money behind this project; real pros in the kitchen; and the house is managed by long-time Strip front-man Ivo Angelov (whose loyal following probably accounts for a half of the customers).

Put it all together and you have the kind of out-of-the-gate hit of which most restaurateurs can only dream. It doesn’t hurt that it is the only decent steakhouse for ten-miles, and that Las Vegas’s toniest neighborhoods are all within a fifteen-minute drive. But Andiron had these same advantages and struggled to find its footing (even pre-Covid). Finding itself will not be a problem for Harlo; finding a seat on weekends will be.

Once you’re seated, you can expect the standard cuts and sides, here priced at or above similar fare on the Strip — and when we say, “at or above” we’re not kidding. Prices here have been set without apology and with the confidence (arrogance?) of someone who knows his audience won’t blink at $30 apps and $80 steaks. Fleming’s this is not.

We passed on the seafood tower, instead settling for some very good oysters ($26) served with a compelling yuzu-soy mignonette that made us forget about the excellent cocktail sauce beside it. (By way of price comparison, at Carversteak, thirteen miles east,  the shellfish extravaganza is $165; here it clocks in at $175. So much for the Strip being “too expensive.”)

Image(The salad is there to make you forget you’re eating the inside of an animal)

From there it was on to a smallish, blandish steak tartare ($20) — the only “meh” of the meal — and three Flintstonean shanks of marrow ($30) that would easily serve a table of four. So dense with flavor were the garnishes for the marrow — port wine onions and oxtail jam on toast —  they could constitute a meal all their own.

The Caesar ($15) had its charms (crunchy anchovy croutons, lots of grated Parm), as did the warm milk bread and butter. All were served at the right temperature, as was the excellent butter. (Frigid salad, less than impeccably fresh bread, and rock hard butter being unforgivable sins at this level, and the banes of our existence.)

As there were only two of us, the main event was slightly truncated…meaning only one protein and a couple of sides hit the table. At eighty-eight bucks, an aged rib eye better deliver the goods, and by and large this one (below) did. Impeccably trimmed and cooked, it was all that is loved about the marbled succulence of this cut.

Image(Holy cholesterol-fest!)

Not really sure what the two-week aging brought to the dance but the beefy flavor was there in spades, even if a certain mineral-rich tang was not. The blistered green beans ($10) and crispy ‘taters ($11) were all that and a bag of almond romesco– the snappy sauce adorning the Phasoleolus vulgaris.

Our biggest surprise of all, though, was reserved for the pasta:

Image(Impastably delicious)

Gina Marinelli is the talent behind these creations, and her rotating cast of pastas will depend on whatever is seasonal the day you arrive. We sprang upon the Spring papardelle with English peas, morels, goat cheese and poppy seeds (above) to see if she was up to her old tricks, meaning: sometimes her pastas go an ingredient too far for our tastes. But this time everything had its place and there wasn’t a flavor wasted. Really spectacular stuff. Worth going for all by itself and enough to make you forget your inner carnivore.

Besides the tariff, Harlo has announced its big-league intentions by hiring a pastry chef — in this case, a young chap named Alberto Rodriguez, who does a panoply of worthy sweets, including a mean Grand Marnier soufflé:

https://twitter.com/i/status/1501736412307095557

They also do the bloated caviar service-thing here (caviar and truffles now running neck-and-neck with “exclusive” Japanese wagyu in the faux luxe sweepstakes), and no shortage of ostentatious spirits for those needing to impress themselves by stupidly combining Louis XIII cognac ($200/shot) with salty fish eggs — one of those things you do because having bad taste isn’t much fun unless you can show off about it.

The wine list is evolving and it isn’t exactly cardiac-inducing, but don’t expect any bargains either. Bottles under a hundy are sprinkled here and there, but the calculation has obviously been made that the landed gentry is now ready to cough up big bucks for bottles. By-the-glass options start at $12 and zoom quickly above $20, topping out at $45 and $65 for “reserve” Cali cabs. That’s sixty-five bucks for a glass. Of wine.

As you can see, Harlo is not for the faint of heart or pocketbook. It is a big-hitter steakhouse with the pedigree and prices to prove it.  Direct aim has been taken on a customer base who used to travel many miles for beef and cooking this good. They’re staying closer to home these days, and apparently spending like it’s 2019 again. Only time will tell if Harlo will succeed in out-stripping the Strip, but for the time being, Summerlin’s fat cats now have a steakhouse to call their own.

Our meal was comped and we left a $100 tip, augmented by our dining companion’s $100 tip.

CARVERSTEAK

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Waiter: How would you like your steak sir?

Me: Like winning an argument with my wife.

Waiter: Rare it is!

Steakhouse quality is so high across the board, searching for the preeminent purveyor of prime is a fools errand. Instead we look for the subtleties that distinguish them, and hope that something stands out. Often, beyond the differences in decor, it does not.

And none of this is by way of criticizing Carversteak. Only to point out how, to set themselves apart, chefs and owners strain mightily  to convince you they’re doing something unique, even when they are not. At Carversteak, occasionally they are.

Sometimes you just throw up your hands and admit you have no more shits to give as to whether Carversteak’s “yellowtail sashimi crudo with avocado , serrano chili, ginger-lime ponzu”:

Image(Toto, we’re not in Golden Corral anymore)

….is all that different from Harlo’s “hamachi crudo with ginger-soy vinaigrette, avocado puree and serrano chili.”

Or take the ubiquitous shrimp cocktail — one might dazzle you with Cajun remoulade (Harlo), while others —  Caversteak, Golden Steer, SW et al — stick strictly to the horseradish catechism.

The same thing occurs with side dishes:

Image(You cheddar believe, this is as gouda as it gets)

“Oh look honey! They have mac ‘n cheese with aged cheddar!” says you, feigning excitement.

“That’s much better than the mac ‘n cheese with smoked cheddar and gouda, isn’t it?” Said no one ever.

They’re all good, soothing, and cheesy, but basically only minor variations on a theme you’ll find in every steakhouse in Vegas, if not America.

Carversteak does a “baby iceberg wedge” ($19), garnished with an onion ring and a soft-boiled egg. Harlo throws pastrami into the ($16) mix, and tops its lettuce with lavash. (How very unleavened of them!)  The Golden Steer keeps it simple and pours on the blue cheese sprinkled with bacon and tomatoes ($10). Is one “better” than the other? Does an onion ring and an egg justify doubling the price? Or are you paying for real estate and decor? Or do you even care?

Where Harlo announces itself as ingredient-driven, here the menu emphasis is recipe-driven — in this case by restaurant vet Daniel Ontiveros — a dude who knows his way around premium proteins.

We didn’t have the “Lobster en Croute” , but at least it is something different. (Cream sauces are back!) Ditto the green goddess “Crudité” — which almost makes hummus wondrous:

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….and a chunky, mayonnaise-y steak tartare (below) that combines creaminess with a kick. Definitely one of the more unforgettable ones we’ve tried….and we’ve tried them all:

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Other items which kept our attention included the “Caviar Poppers” (gougères stuffed with lemon-chive crème fraiche), and the previously maligned yellowtail sashimi, that made up for in presentation what it lacked in innovation.

Finally, there were the proteins. Being a two-top our capacity was limited, but the 20 oz. Kansas City strip ($76) claimed to be aged for 28 days and tasted every bit of it.

Image(Best steak of the bunch)

We don’t want to go too far out on a limb here, but of all the boffo beef we’ve had during this two-week steak-out, this one had the deepest, most penetrating flavor. Both sauces (Bordelaise and Peppercorn) were textbook perfect, with the latter disappearing the fastest.

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The Food Gal® ordered the salmon (above left), even though doing so should be grounds for divorce anywhere but the Pacific Northwest. To our surprise, as much as we fished for flaws, our critic’s net came up empty. Fresh and firm, it was flawless, right down to the curry broth beneath it. All in all, a nice way to give this over-served, insipid (and often stale-tasting) species a little sass.

Big hitters will no doubt love the Brobdingnagian (42 oz.) Pat LaFrieda Tomahawk, which gets its hefty price tag ($260) from the branding of the beef (cf. Harlo where you get 2 ounces less Flannery Beef for eighty fewer bucks). These humongous cuts are all the rage these days, and make sense for large parties, even if the weight advertised includes the prodigious bone. Regardless, large parties of beefy men take to these things like a college boy to a kegger.

Cocktails are by über-booze maven Francesco LaFranconi, and the wine list won’t cause cardiac arrest.  How much better can a steakhouse get?

Our dinner a deux was comped and we left a $120 tip.

SW STEAKHOUSE

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We’ve run hot and cold about SW over the years. Two perfunctory wallet-bending meals in a row (over five years ago) had us writing it off forever, and it was only Mark LoRusso taking over the kitchen (after the shuttering of Costa di Mare) that brought us back.

It’s a huge (300+ seats) restaurant that can feel like Grand Central Station on busy nights — which is almost every night of the year. It shows itself best if you’re able to score a seat on the patio, but those fill up fast. As busy as it gets, the noise level remains remarkably conversation-friendly, and the lighting is soft, not-too-low — complimenting the aging Boomer crowd seeking to forget the ravages of time when their hair was dark, their thighs were firm, and they had less chins than a Chinese phone book.

If Harlo is ingredient-focused, and Carversteak full of surprising recipes, SW takes the steak as the cheffiest in the bunch, as LoRusso’s mosaic of raw tuna shows:

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If that doesn’t convince you, then perhaps this Snake River Farms carpaccio with balsamic “pearls” will:

Image(Nothing says “don’t try this at home” like balsamic pearls)

All of this is the domain of Mark LoRusso — unsung hero and former top toque of the shuttered Costa di Mare upstairs — who made the transition from Italian seafood to meat seamlessly. We’ve followed LoRusso’s career since the early 2000s, and everywhere he has moved he has made his mark without fanfare, but with the confidence of a real pro who elevates any kitchen he controls.

When they announced he was taking over SW last year we had no doubt it would up its game and it has, re-invigorating the (previously tired menu with Sardinian lobster gnocchi ($29), Alaskan King Crab ravioli ($24/$48), and a thick with lobster bisque that shows off LoRusso’s seafood chops:

Image(Is that the bisque you can do?)

At these prices, you expect the steaks to be perfect and they are. (See the strip pic at the top of the page.) The tone is set with the incredible/addictive Parker House “monkey bread” that kicks things off, and continues through impeccable wagyu skewers, a properly dressed Caesar ($24), and a marrow bone large enough to slay a few Philistines should the need arise:

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No one seems to mind that it has always had the shortest, least interesting menu, and (until recently) the highest prices of any steakhouse in Vegas. We’ve always had a tough time squaring these with the cattle call feel of the joint. Locating a bottle of red wine on the list beneath a Benjamin is tougher than finding a slot junkie with a dental plan.

Regardless, it appears to be a bullet-proof restaurant — packed through thick and thin — overflowing with customers and conventioneers who would line up for a table if Russian tanks and the Bubonic Plague were rolling down Las Vegas Boulevard.

With LoRusso at the helm (aided by Michael Outlaw’s superb desserts) the food is well nigh flawless, as is the service. Both are so good you’ll probably forget you just paid a hundred bucks for a filet.

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Our bill for a bone-in strip steak ($84, top of page), with several sides and a bunch of freebies (including a Brontosaurus-sized marrow bone) came to $213 and we left a $100 tip.

GOLDEN STEER

Image(Breaking up and making up since 1982)

The secret to running a successful restaurant is hiring people who give a shit. – Nectaly Mendoza (Herbs & Rye)

If the Golden Steer was a girlfriend, we’d have one of those “can’t live with ’em; can’t live without ’em” relationships. To say it’s been love-hate over forty years is an understatement…kinda like saying I might’ve had a teensy-weensy bit of an issue with the the whole “till death do us part” thing from 1973-1999.

Sometimes we’d go multiple times in a week; others would find us staying away after another spate of indifferent service from a fossilized crew, warm wine, and a menu as dated as the Rat Pack vibe the place was trading on.

“Never again!” we fumed six years ago after storming out. Tired, threadbare, shopworn…going through the motions…you name it, the adjectives came flowing forth. So over-the-hill did it seem, that we expected a death notice any month. Further cataloguing the failings and service insults no longer serves a purpose, so let’s just say it was obvious, around 2015, that no one gave a shit, and were content to milk the old cow(?) for all she was was worth until someone turned the place into a weed shop or Walgreen’s.

Now, amazingly, people give a shit and it shows. Covid forced the Steer into a reckoning (and new management), and it came out of that nightmare smelling like the apotheosis of prime. Amanda Signorelli (daughter of the owner) now runs the joint with her husband Nick McMillan, and they’ve managed to spruce the joint up and give it a subtle facelift, while retaining the 1958 vibe that gives the Steer its old school patina.

The Steer is cheapest steakhouse of this beefy bunch, except when it is not. The “Chateaubriand for Two” at SW is pegged at $160, while the one here will set you back 190 samolians.  Another exception: the Steer’s 12 oz. filet (“The Aristocrat of Tenderness) is priced two bucks more than Carversteak’s ($71 v. $69).

Generally though, the cuts here are a little less expensive, but not by a lot. For example, a classic one-pound New York strip is $65 here, $78 at SW, and $62 at Carversteak. Harlo’s clocks in at an eye-popping 96 buckeroonies. Yikes! (Swear to god, they must price these things by blindly throwing darts at a board.)

Over two recent visits, we sample just about every cut on the menu, and even the filet impressed us more than we expected. Our table loved them all, but this rib eye was the true show pony:

 

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….followed by a dictionary-thick slab of prime rib:

Image(Missing: gobs o’ horseradish sauce)

….which appeals to many more for its caveman appeal than general taste. (We’ve always considered prime rib more of a horseradish sauce-carrying vehicle than anything else.)

The new menu is substantially shorter than the multi-paged tome that used to confront you — which featured everything from broiled quail to veal saltimbocca. Thankfully, they kept the toasted ravioli ($14) and oysters Rockefeller ($17), although why they call the so-so escargot ($17) a “house specialty” is anyone’s guess.

And for the 563rd time I will criticize them for not using a wooden bowl for the Caesar salad (yes, it makes a difference), but otherwise tell you it is a beautiful rendition and worth every penny of your seventeen dollars. The wedge ($10) is a blessedly simple version, but doesn’t suffer for it:

Image(Salad, not Caesar)

Ooh and ahh over the bananas Foster. Skip the cherries Jubilee.

The Italian food is just as awful as it always was. Thankfully, there is now less of it.

The wine list is short, but well-chosen and well-priced. Lower your expectations and you’ll be well-served, even if the bottles are still too warm and the sommelier service nothing like what you get at more vino-centric steakhouses.

All in all, the Steer has made a dramatic comeback. Covid’s many losses were somehow its gain, and the newest crowd of avid steak eaters has taken to it like Dean Martin to a martini.

A decade ago, the iconic golden steer statue underneath the lettered sign had faded into a yellowish-tan, and was allowed to stay that way…for years. Her(?) name, BTW, is “Betsy”. This stood less as a metaphor for the Steer’s decline, and more as a direct signal advertising the fact. And it made us sad every time we drove by.

Now Betsy gleams bright and lustrous, trading on the past but looking to the future, a mere stone’s throw from the Las Vegas Strip, but competing with it just the same. Long may her golden hide shine.

Our last dinner for two came to $260, including tip. An earlier dinner (where we ate the entire menu) was covered by generous friends who have the pocketbooks to match their prodigious appetites.

Image(Vegas steakhouses are once again en fuego!)

The Final List – 2021

Image(Bento lunch at PublicUs lately?)

Try as we might, it doesn’t look like we’ll get to 400 restaurants this year. As of this writing, we’ve hit 333 establishments, and even if we kick it into high gear, it’s doubtful we have 70 more meals in us in the next 50 days.

By way of comparison, back in my halcyon/salad days (ten years ago), 500/year was pretty much the norm…for 20 years in a row.

Now, The Food Gal and I will go two, three, sometimes even four days in a row without eating out. Once unthinkable, now, a concession to the down-sized Strip  and our not-getting-any-younger selves.

But serious ground was still plowed in the past few months….with some new and not-so joints floating our boat in all the right ways.

Compared to a year ago, Las Vegas is now a target-rich environment, but lezbee honest here: it is still a pretty weird place, restaurant-wise.

The Strip has rebounded, but has become something of a shitshow on weekends. There has been a tectonic shift in the food and beverage industry here, but the ground is still moving beneath our feet and I cannot yet opine on just how the dust will settle. Suffice it to say, things are palpably different: options are down, prices are up, reservations challenging, and sourcing a real problem at the epicurean end of things. All of our big-hitter spots want to pretend they have gotten back to their 2019 selves, but they have not and you can feel it.

The newly re-opened Le Cirque, for example, seats only on Thurs.-Saturday nights. If you’re hungry for better restaurants Mon.-Weds., good luck picking your way through the meager offerings available on Las Vegas Boulevard. Things are easier in the ‘burbs, but aside from Italian, very few interesting ideas are floating out there.

And when you run off one of the best Mexican chefs in the world (Enrique Olvera) for a joint called “Casa Playa ” (at the Wynn), include me out.

So, the Strip is mostly a pain (or, even worse, boring), but local eateries are booming, so you would think that would satisfy us, wouldn’t you?

Wrong.

Both have a long way to go before Vegas claims its destiny — which is to be one of the most exciting restaurant cities (for tourists and locals) in the world.

A short list of what we still need (in the neighborhoods):

Some decent French bistros. It seems like every other opening is Italian these days. C’mon frogs! Show the flag! Vive La France and all that!

More affordable wine, less crappy “craft” beer.

A few new interesting Mexicans (to compete with a raft of mediocre places going through the motions for the mucho macho grande burrito crowd).

Who does a guy have to blow to get a decent sandwich shop around here?

Less shitty breakfast joints; more in-house baking.

For all the Insta love for John Arena and friends, there are still only about four places in Vegas to get a decent pizza.

Why isn’t there a ramen shop downtown?

How about a good, retail bread bakery somewhere fer chrissakes?

Or gelato? (There is an ice cream shop on Main Street, but it is terrible.)

It’s time for crepes and fondues to make a comeback.

Outside sidewalk dining….EVERYWHERE!

And finally, what the f*ck happened to good Indian food in this town?

(As usual, all restaurants come highly recommended unless otherwise noted.)

THE LIST

MANGIA MANGIA!

Italian food never goes out of style, but the boom in quality over the past few years has been a little crazy. No longer is Vegas the home to cookie-cutter eye-talian straight from a can. There are so many good ones popping up (and older ones upping their game), that we thought we do homage to Italy by painting THE LIST in the color of its flag.

Milano

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Of all the beautiful Italian food now available in town, this may be the most compelling. Simple, striking dishes that let the elemental flavors of Italy shine through. Great breads, challenging location, reasonable prices. Too hip for the room, but southern Strip foodies, and industry pros (starved for decent, non-franchise food in this part of town) may save it.

Aromi

We need to get back here. Best cioppino you’ll find this far from the Amalfi Coast.

Brezza

Open every night and already a tough ticket. Set to become the worthy successor to Carnevino as our best Italian steakhouse.

Cipriani

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Every Friday for a reason. Northern Italy served by the smoothest crew in town.

Esther’s Kitchen

My last lunch was a disappointment. Covid hangover? Staffing issues? Coasting on reputation? Sadly, I fear my love affair with Esther’s has run its course. Remember that hottie who once fascinated you? The one of whom you could never get enough? The mere mention of her name aroused something primal — passions rumbling deep and seemingly forever, never to be quenched. Then, time, the enemy of us all, came between you. You see her again after you’ve both strayed and what once seemed fresh, so beckoning, now suddenly feels forced and stilted. Both your energies falter at the sight of each other. The sparks that once ignited, the fires that once burned so brightly have been dampened forever. You try, but both of you know you’re just going through the motions.

Yeah, that’s me with Esther’s. Nice new barstools, though.

Ferraro’s Italian Restaurant and Wine Bar

The only reason I don’t eat here more often is I would end up spending my children’s inheritance (we’re talking hundreds and hundreds of $s here) drinking from this wine list.

Matteo’s/Brera

Eduardo Perez does some of our town’s most impressive pastas at these sister restaurants in the Venetian. Great pizzas too. And salads, and carne, and deserts, and…

.Osteria Fiorella

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Our cheffiest Italian. Marc Vetri (above) can stun you with his in-your-face flavor combinations…and the restaurant can stun you with the size of the bill.

FRENCH CONNECTION

We’re light on French food this year — a condition that will be rectified with a vengeance come January.

Burgundy French Bakery and Cafe

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First class French pastries (above) have made a name for themselves off the Strip, and there’s no putting that genie back in the bottle.

Le Cirque

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Love what they’ve done to the place (above). We don’t love the exclusively prix fixe tasting menu (with no a la carte options). At this point, Le Cirque is like the grande dame of Vegas: an aging diva seeking to recapture her past glories. Can she do it? Well, just about everyone is rooting for her, but the applause may dim once they realize it will cost a house payment to eat here.

GO FISH

Good seafood in the dessert used to be harder to find than a hooker who would take a check. No longer. The wonders of air freight have brought the best stuff to the ‘burbs.

Image(Mumbo gumbo at Legends)

The Legends Oyster Bar & Grill

Top shelf seafood in an unlikely location. All-over-the-map menu seems disjointed, but the quality of the cooking (and those groceries,) comes through in the gumbo (above). About the only thing I wouldn’t order here is the beef stroganoff.

Saga Pastries + Sandwich

Image(Shrimply delicious)

There is no better tube steak in Vegas. Or waffles. Or breakfast sandwich. Or the tiny, open-faced shrimp sandwiches (the shrimp not the sandwiches).

Yu-Or-Mi Sushi Bar

Great neighborhood sushi. Great bar too.

Elia Authentic Greek Taverna

Don’t even think of eating Greek anywhere else.

Jamon Jamon

Image(Prawn star)

The name means “ham ham” but the seafood is fine fine indeed. I’d eat here every week if a dozen other restaurants weren’t beckoning me.

WORKING CLASS

Informal eats that have fueled us to a fare thee well over the past six months.

Nevada Brew Works

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The Food Gal® prefers this smashed/caramelized/fromage-filled beauty (above) to Soulbelly’s thicker, juicier patty:

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We’ve almost come to blows debating the issue.

Letty’s de Leticia’s Cocina

…and on the eighth day, the lord invented the quesotaco:

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Black & Blue Diner

Reminds me of the Connecticut roadside diners of my youth. Nothing fancy, but decent eggs, biscuits and gravy, and great service.

Hard Hat Lounge

Image(Get a pizza this!)

The idea of finding me in a joint called the “Hard Hat Lounge” would seem as unlikely as finding me changing my spurs at a rodeo. But the square, Detroit-style (thick, cheese-encrusted crust) pies (found on the “Guerilla Pizza Menu”) have developed a real following in this “upscale dive bar.” It’s stoner food to be sure, but it is good stoner food….even if you’re not stoned.

Soulbelly BBQ

The best ‘cue in town. One of the best burgers, too. ‘Nuff said.

PublicUs

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Coffee, baked good, and breakfasts fit for the gods (see above).

Serrano’s Mexican Food

Nothing fancy, just solid Mexican home cooking with a friendly and appreciative staff. At lunch it is filled with day-laborers who know a good thing and a good deal when they eat one.

Real Donuts

…has re-opened! On West Charleston.

Homer Donut GIFs | Tenor

Saginaw’s

My go-to for deli. Nothing else in town can touch it. Wish it was easier to get to.

Windy City Beef ‘N Dogs

Oh those snap dogs from Vienna beef. The Polish is a winner, and like everything here, is straight from the City of Big Shoulders.

Pop Up Pizza

A nice slice from a place you would never expect to find one.

PACIFIC RIM

It wouldn’t surprise me if one day our Asian food scene surpasses the Strip in gastronomic preeminence. 

Image(Legal eagles bao before me)

Xiao Long Dumplings

There’s a new dumpling in town. Actually, they now seem to be popping up all over. This one is serious about their folds, and its gigantic selfie-magnet mascot (above). Nice build-out of the old Harbor Palace space — so sleek and clean will make you forget how badly the former operation sucked.

Chinglish Wine Bar

The Cantonese food impressed us more than the “wine bar” did. But we’ll go back for the mapo dofu (pockmarked woman’s bean curd) along with a more than decent Peking duck.

8East

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We don’t get here often, but when we do, we kick ourselves for not coming more.

Nittaya’s Secret Kitchen

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New digs, better food, fun place for a full panoply of sweet-hot Thai classics.

Chanko Shabu & Izakaya

Dark and cozy, feeling almost illicit when you enter, like it’s a speakeasy with a secret password. Those feelings evaporate as you’re taken to high chairs around a U-shaped central bar where waiters deliver decent sushi, potstickers, swish-swish (shabu-shabu), and other izakaya fare. Not in the same league as Raku, but fun and informal at a gentler price point.

Shanghai Taste

Still our go-to for xiao long bao and other starchy delights.

China Mama

Every Chinese restaurant in Vegas is judged by a single standard: Is it as good or not as good as China Mama?

Rainbow Kitchen

…is as good as China Mama. Better in some areas (roasted fowl, seafood, dim sum); not as good in others (noodles, soups, stir-fries and such).

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DE Thai Kitchen

On our regular DTLV lunch rotation for a reason. The small menu never gets old and still will kick your ass.

LET’S MEAT

Inviolable Food Axiom No. 26: Every restaurant in Las Vegas would be steakhouse if it could be.

Bazaar Meat by José Andrés

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Someone asked me the other day what was my favorite steak in Vegas and I said the “vaca vieja chuleton” from here. They’ve reduced the menu and the wine list, but I’d still put it up against any steakhouse in America. With Candace Ochoa (above) at the stoves, there’s no doubt it will stay that way.

Main Street Provisions

Justin Kingsley Hall does a lot of things well — from Scotch eggs to hummus to empanadas — but it’s his burger, steaks and (rabbit) boudin that keep us intrigued.

8oz Korean Steakhouse

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A few years ago, in the space of about a year, Vegas went from having like two Korean steakhouses to having ten of them. 8oz. is, far and away, our favorite.

Ricon de Buenos Aires

It’d been years, but then we went back twice in a month. A meat fest at a good price for all the steer muscle you need. Nice service; nice Argentine wines too., but we wish there were more of them.

SW Steakhouse

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God bless Mark LoRusso: he’s one of the few chefs in town who could move seamlessly from upscale Italian seafood (the closed Costa di Mare) to helming a big-hitter American steakhouse without missing a beef. Thanks to him and his crackerjack team, including Michael Outlaw, and Lauren Adkins:

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….this bastion of beef has taken on a whole new level of sophistication.

Vic & Anthony’s Steakhouse

Difficult to get into these days. Don’t even think of showing up without a res. Competes with Oscar’s across the street, and Barry’s down the street for downtown prime supremacy. As our foodie friend JB says: “Solid. Unspectacular but solid across the board.” GREAT wine list chock full of bargains.

Capital Grille

A white tablecloth lunch with a view to boot!

Wally’s

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We are of several minds about Wally’s. We love the wine list, the wine store, the menu, the cooking of Chef Eric L’Huillier (who does the best steak frites in town), and just about everything we’ve tasted (except the pizza). We’re glad it’s open for lunch and staffed by a bunch of old Vegas pros. On the other hand, you’ll easily drop a hundy for two for lunch without whetting your whistle a bit.

FUGGIDABADIT

“Not plain terrible, but fancy terrible. Terrible with raisins in it.” – Dorothy Parker

Delilah

Food and decor by Carnival Cruise Lines. You will be told upon entering that you have two hours to eat and to listen to a lot of dumb music.

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That’s it. My last list of the year. We’ll probably weigh in on these pages in another few weeks with our Best Of/Worst Of year-end “major awards”, but in the meantime, eat out often and eat out locally. And if you eat out more than me, we need to talk.

And remember: Life is short; eat more doughnuts.

Image(You donut want to miss Tonya and her sprinkly cakes of pure pleasure)

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THE END

 

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‘s crispy tacos and ceviche tostadas to be precise:

Image(Shrimply delicious – hard-shelled shrimp 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 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.