Eating Los Angeles – From Top to Tacos – Part 2

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EAST L.A. TACO CRAWL

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image(Hard-shelled tacos the way they were meant to be)

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

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

Image(Pollo Las Brasas taco)

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

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.

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

IVY BY THE SHORE

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

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

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

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

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

 

Eating Los Angeles – From Top to Tacos

The Beverly Hills Hotel Sign(Gimme gimme)

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

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

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

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

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Polo Lounge

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

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

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

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

Image(Not included: lubricant)

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

The Damage:

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

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Chez Jay, Baby

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

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

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

Image(Sand dabs by the sand)

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

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

Sadly, Denny Miller is no longer around.

The Damage:

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

Image(Niki knows kaiseki)

n/naka

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

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

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

You’re also up against drivel like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Damage:

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

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

This is Part One of a two-part article.

The List 2021 – Vegas on the Rebound

Image(A toast to sanity restored!)

These are the times that try men’s appetites.

And by “try men’s appetites” I mean tempt them unmercifully.

After the trying times of 2020, it seems like nothing but sunshine and rainbows in our culinary world these days. With venue after venue opening (or reopening) to eager mouths and hungry souls.

Downtown is exploding (in a good way), the Strip is awakening like a slumbering giant (or an unstuck freighter?), and the ‘burbs are getting better than ever. Even Tivoli Village has become a destination.

Circa has pumped new life into Fremont Street; Oscar’s now serves the best cheeseburger in town, and we’ve even found a brunch we don’t hate. (High praise indeed!)

For grins and giggles we’ve decided this year to officially keep count of every restaurant in which we eat. In years past we never kept a running total, but generally we averaged around 500/year…for 20+ years.

Covid put an end to that streak — turning us into a soporific shell of our former self.  A somnambulant supper slacker, if you will.

But things have turned around in a big way: It took us all of 2020 to make it to 100 restaurants. This year we did it in a little more than three months.

These are thumbnails of where we’ve been, and why we think you should go there. They are mere sketches, pithy positive platitudes of pontification for your palate’s pleasure, and probably as paired down and word-penurious as our prolific personality can parse.

In other words, they’re short and upbeat and we’ve tried to keep the negativity in check.

And like we at #BeingJohnCurtas always say: you get what you pay for on this website.

So, without further ado, here it is….

THE LIST 2021

THE HEAVYWEIGHTS

Bazaar Meat

Image(Meat me at Bazaar)

It’s been almost a decade since I steaked out the great meat emporiums of the Big Apple, but I’d bet my sweet tenderloin none of them can hold a candle to this pinnacle of prime.

Cipriani

Image(Or as I call it: Friday)

Almost every Friday you’ll find me here at lunch. When someone else puts out a midday repast this elegant, you’ll find me there, too.

Costa di Mare

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As stunning as ever. As expensive as ever. Our splashiest seafood venue is worth a splurge, so don’t complain about the soaking. (You get what you pay for, and ingredients this good, and cooking this precise, are both trés chere. Ivo Angelov, Mark LoRusso and Daniela Santos have this place tuned tauter than the mizzenmast on a ship-of-the-line.

CUT

There are two great steakhouses in Las Vegas and this is one of them. The quality of the meat between CUT and Bazaar is a toss-up (although they source their beef from different purveyors with different philosophies), but on any given night I’d give CUT the edge for the restless inventiveness of Matthew Hurley’s cooking.

Edge Steakhouse

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A real sleeper in the Westgate Hotel. Neither the hotel nor the Yelper clientele quite seem aware of just how great Steve Young’s food is, but if I were forced to rate Vegas steakhouses right now, it would be a strong #3.

Estiatorio Milos

The best Greek restaurant in Las Vegas that isn’t Elia Authentic Greek Taverna. Simply incredible seafood in a stunning new location.

Kaiseki Yuzu

Image(Itadakimasu, Kaoru-san and Mayumi-san.)

Japanese food so authentic you’ll want to start acting like Toshiro Mifune.

Oscar’s Steakhouse –

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(Umani bombs away!)

Ben Jenkins has this place on a roll. His double-cheeseburger (above) belongs on a pedestal of prime.

Raku –

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Still the best izakaya in the West. Fight me.

NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK

Ada’s Wine Bar –

Image(Shrimply the toast of the town)

Eclectic list; small menu; fabulous food  by Jackson Stamper; al fresco setting. So good I’ll even brave the depressing empty-ugliness of Tivoli Village to go there.

Big Dan’s Chinese Noodles –

Image(Long noodles = long life)

Inside the SF Market on Spring Mountain Road are Biangbiang noodles so good they’ll scare the Shaanxi into you.

Barry’s Prime Steakhouse –

Barry’s will forever be a war with itself over whether it wants to be a serious steakhouse or a hangout for the rich and beautiful. Celebrities and good food go together like hockey and high tea, but if that’s the way they want to market themselves, who am I to argue?

Burgundy Cafe & Bakery –

Image(Missing: a mime)

Our French bakery scene is starting to resemble the Left Bank. To Cafe Breizh, Delices Gourmands, and the newly opened Le Cafe Du Vegas, you can add this gem on West Sahara, built from the floor boards to the mille feuille by Chef Florent Cheveau. Straight outta Paris it is, with pastries so Parisian they ought to come with a mime and an organ grinder.

D’Agostino’s –

Donny Thompson’s makeover of Cafe Chloe is still in mid-stream — waiting for the old regulars to either die off or seek their pre-chewed pasta at some other insipid Italian. There’s lots to love here (Tablecloths! Better wines! True Bolognese!), but also some red sauce holdovers on the menu which are best forgotten. Let Brandi guide you and you’ll eat damn well…especially if you start with the antipasto salad.

8East –

Image(We’re very picanha about our steaks)

Fremont Street’s most fascinating food. Asian-fusion filtered through Dan Coughlin’s American-Thai sensibilities. Open for lunch and dinner. So good it ought to be featured on the Circa Hotel marquee. Get the appetizers — all of them — and that picanha steak (above). On second thought, get the whole menu…except the lobster fried rice. It’s good but not worth the tariff.

Good Pie –

Too many pizzas! That’s what I complain to Vincent Rotolo about: his menu is too damn big. Too many toppings. Too many crusts. Too many options. On the other hand, we have yet to have a bad bite here so I should probably just keep my (pizza) pie hole shut.

Johnny C’s Diner –

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A real, old-fashioned diner, tweaked with just enough cheffy accents to keep the snobs satisfied. Avocado toast may be to savories what cupcakes are to sweets, but Johnny Church’s version is to others what a symphony is to a square dance.

Letty’s –

Image(Toasted Oaxacan cheese-wrapped quesataco at Letty’s)

The best tacos downtown. Don’t even think of arguing with me about this.

Main Street Provisions –

Image(Wagyu eating anywhere but Main Street Provisions?)

They took the ham steak off the menu, and for this I can never forgive them. But they kept the polenta hummus, gonzo babaganoush, the fry bread and the best veggies this side of Sparrow + Wolf, so all is forgiven. P.S. We love the short wine list and the cocktails too.

Osteria Fiorella –

Three previous Italians in this space have all fallen flatter than stale focaccia. Marc Vetri’s troops made it a raging success right out of the chute. I actually enjoyed my brunch there, even if the whole time I was dreaming about dinner.

Pizza Forte –

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Mimmo Ferraro is casting pearls before swine by bringing legitimate, big city pizza to unworthy college kids at UNLV who probably think Little Caesars is an upgrade from Domino’s. They won’t appreciate his cheesy, crusty, New York-inspired pies. But we do, Mimmo, we do.

Rainbow Kitchen –

Image(Dungeness love crab?)

Holy har gow, Batman! The dim sum here is spectacular! And a dumpling or three above its competition. This place had the misfortune to open one month before Covid hit (late January last year), and had been limping along since last summer. Now that restrictions have loosened, it has become Number 1 on every shu mai researcher’s list. A well-heeled Chinese clientele has taken to it like hoisin to spare ribs. Killer deals on Dungeness crabs (above) and lobsters, too. Very Cantonese, but also quite welcoming to gwailo. No carts, you order off a menu, much as you do in the nicer dim sum palaces of Hong Kong. “All of our food stays fresher that way,” says owner Bill Chiang, and he’s right.

Robata En –

Ramir de Castro returns! Bringing his unique brand of Japanese fusion to Spring Mountain Road. Like many of the newbies on this list, he’s had a brutal go of it for the past year, waiting to open, then opening with all kinds of restrictions. If you liked him at Yonaka (where he first made his mark), you’ll love his updated takes on tsukune, kaarage and such. I was always puzzled about why Yonaka threw in the towel after an awesome start, loyal fan base, and plenty of publicity, but whatever the reason, he’s back and Chinatown is richer for it.

Saginaw’s –

Image(Better than…?)

Sex is great, but have you tried “Derek’s Favorite” roast beef and salami sandwich?

YUGA KOREAN –

A pleasant surprise right next door to the Village Theaters on West Sahara. Friendly service. Easy to love Korean ‘cue.

Yu-Or-Mi Sushi –

Is it top-drawer, drop-your-chopsticks sushi of the Kame, YUI, or Kabuto persuasion? No, but it’s a damn site better than most neighborhood spots, with some interesting sakes and Japanese beers.

OLD RELIABLES

China Mama –

Image(The Mamas of China Mama)

Our best Chinese restaurant. Period.

DE Thai Kitchen –

Small but mighty. Small but incendiary menu. The Kua Gling (spicy southern Thai dry curry) separates the men from the boys in the Thai spice brigade.

E-jo Korean –

Image(E-jo banchan, I say, before I do.)

It had been ages since we ate here. One of the first Korean restaurant locations in town that’s still going strong. (Back in the day, there were several in Commercial Center, but all have gone to that great banchan in the sky.) Modest but satisfying, and filled with fellow Korean travelers chattering away in their native tongue the day we visited.

Elia Authentic Greek Taverna –

Jammed every night it’s open, with good reason. Beautiful Greek food even my yia yia would approve of.

Ferraro’s –

Former Chef of the Year Francesco di Caudo was a Covid casualty — which tells me means they’re going back to basics at our oldest and best Italian. But the basics here have always been solid, and the wine list remains an Ital oenophile’s dream come true — now with some beautiful discounts on some of its best bottles.

Kung Fu Thai-Chinese –

There is something delightfully old school about this institution on Valley View at Spring Mountain Road. Most of it is standard issue, but sometimes a body just wants to getta big dish of beef chow mein.

Los Antojos –

Image

Image(Tacos, tacos, y mas tacos!)

Hadn’t been in almost a decade, even though it was in the early editions of EATING LAS VEGAS – The 50 Essential Restaurant (Max Jacobson was a huge fan). I was alone. Ordered a couple of things. Sat down. Removed the mask; fiddled with the phone. Within minutes the manager came over, dropped his mask to reveal and ear-to-ear grin and shook my hand. Then he pointed to various notices, articles, and awards on the wall (from Saveur magazine to Food Network) and thanked me for all the national recognition they received after our first book came out in 2010. Made my fucking day. P.S. The food is still great (as it has been since 1995), at this ultimate Mexican hole-in-the-wall.

Nakamura-Ya –

Image(I’m urchin you to try this uni linguine)

Japan goes Italian with some creamy, seafood-packed pastas. The real deal that’s also a real deal.

Ohlala French Bistro –

French resilience should never be underestimated. Another mainstay that came through Covid smelling like a rosé.

Orchid’s Garden –

Not the best dim sum by a long shot, but a lot better than it used to be.

Partage –

The Three Musketeers — Vincent, Yuri and Nicolas — have created a following for all things French….in the middle of Chinatown. Their new wine store venture — French Cellar by Partage — has quickly become the in-spot for Burgundian imbibing.  Incroyable!

PublicUs –

This place is so crowded nobody goes there anymore.

The Black Sheep –

Jamie Tran is on this season’s Top Chef. Go Jamie Go! And go you should to hear neighborhood powerhouse that’s soon to be one tough ticket, until she expands, which we hope happens soon.

7th & Carson –

The Irish breakfast is worth a trip all by itself.

Sparrow + Wolf –

Image(Endless pastabilities)

Brian Howard’s seasonal menus are things of beauty. Blink and you’ll miss them. Therefore, we suggest you hit S+W seasonally, if not more often, if you want to thoroughly examine what our most restless chef is rustling up.

Windy City Dogs –

A thing of beauty.

The Italian beef didn’t wow us; the Chicago dogs did.

Yi Mei Champion Deli –

Weird Taiwanese spot tucked deep into a Spring Mountain strip mall. No one speaks much English, service is spotty, decor is mid-century-someone’s-warehouse, but some of the soups will save you a ticket to Taipei.

JURY STILL OUT

Flock & Fowl –

Will be changing its name and concept soon. Good bar food is tough to find, and better-than-average bar vittles is what they’ll be shooting for here. We’re rooting for it.

Milpa

Image(Everything but the location bowls me over)

Beautiful, fresh-ground tortillas, nice tacos, local sourcing, and hard-working chefs with a great idea in the wrong place.

Steve’s Pig Pickins BBQ –

Good ‘cue. Terrible location. We shall see.

NEVER AGAIN

Hugo’s Cellar –

Read this and weep.

Mint Indian Bistro –

Vegas once boasted a host of outstanding Indian eats….or at least a half-dozen addresses of acceptable sub-continent alimentation. What the hell happened?


That’ll do it for the first quarter of the year. As bullish as we are about Vegas’s restaurant future, it won’t truly be “back” until the great Strip dining palaces are open more than 3 nights a week. Fingers are crossed; breath is being held.

In the meantime, find someone who covers more territory than I do, and I’ll buy them dinner at Restaurant Guy Savoy.

If you’re interested, here are the restaurant meals I’ve had since January 1st of this year, in order:

  1. Jack Pots – Circa
  2. Cipriani
  3. Saginaw’s
  4. D’Agostino’s
  5. PublicUs
  6. Vegas Test Kitchen
  7. Cipriani
  8. The Tap House
  9. DE Thai Kitchen
  10. PublicUs
  11. Hugo’s Cellar
  12. Cornish Pasty
  13. Goodwich
  14. Yu-Or-Mi Sushi
  15. Cipriani
  16. Orchid’s Garden
  17. Financier – Winter Park, Florida
  18. Hamilton’s – Winter Park, Florida
  19. Boca – Winter Park, Florida
  20. Croissant Gourmet – Winter Park, Florida
  21. Bosphorous Turkish – Winter Park, Florida
  22. Rocco’s – Winter Park, Florida
  23. Financier – Winter Park, Florida
  24. FARM – Bluffton, South Carolina
  25. Skylight Inn – Ayden, South Carolina
  26. Sam Jones BBQ – Ayden, South Carolina
  27. Rodney Scott BBQ – Charleston, South Carolina
  28. Lewis BBQ – Charleston, South Carolina
  29. Waffle House – Somewhere in Georgia (Birthday Breakfast!) Image
  30. China Mama
  31. Main Street Provisions
  32. Cipriani
  33. Oscar’s Steakhouse
  34. Yi Mei Champion Deli
  35. Kaiseki Yuzu
  36. E-jo Korean
  37. Ferraro’s
  38. Robata En
  39. Cipriani
  40. Yu-Or-Mi Sushi
  41. Barry’s Prime
  42. Cipriani
  43. Johnny C’s Diner
  44. Good Pie
  45. Good Pie
  46. Cipriani
  47. Oscar’s Steakhouse
  48. YUGA Korean BBQ
  49. Steve’s Pig Pickins BBQ
  50. 8East
  51. 7th & Carson
  52. Elia Authentic Greek Taverna
  53. Saginaw’s
  54. Yu-Or-Mi Sushi
  55. Milpas
  56. Cipriani
  57. Burgundy Bakery & Cafe
  58. Bazaar Meat
  59. Windy City Dogs
  60. 7th & Carson
  61. Kung Fu Thai-Chinese
  62. Raku
  63. Main Street Provisions
  64. Yu-Or-Mi Sushi
  65. Esther’s Kitchen
  66. Cipriani
  67. Big Dan Chinese Noodles
  68. Ohlala French Bistro
  69. Saginaw’s
  70. Osteria Fiorella
  71. 8East
  72. Saginaw’s
  73. Edge Steakhouse
  74. Cipriani
  75. Big Dan Chinese Noodles
  76. Estiatorio Milos
  77. Letty’s
  78. Partage
  79. Los Antojos
  80. Del Taco (Yes, Del Taco.)
  81. Yum Cha Dim Sum
  82. Mint Indian Bistro
  83. Osteria Fiorella (Brunch!)
  84. Milos
  85. Nakamura-Ya
  86. Papa Noodle
  87. Los Antojos
  88. Saginaw’s
  89. Cipriani
  90. Costa di Mare
  91. Flock & Fowl
  92. Good Pie
  93. Sparrow+Wolf
  94. The Black Sheep
  95. Main Street Provisions
  96. Cipriani
  97. Pizza Forte
  98. Ada’s Wine Bar
  99. CUT
  100. Cipriani
  101. Rainbow Kitchen
  102. Letty’s
  103. Milos
  104. Main Street Provisions
  105. Cipriani

Image(Big Dan Shaanxi Noodle Shop)