Small But Mighty – ROOSTER BOY CAFE

The Rooster Boy Cafe is every food lover’s dream: a small (minuscule really) restaurant where the chef is at the stoves every day, sourcing local ingredients, and cooking and baking her little pea pickin’ heart out to the applause of her faithful customers. It is the type of intimate place that nurtures the soul of a food community. It is the type of place that Las Vegas still has too few of.

Good restaurants start with good groceries and chef/owner Sonia El-Nawal is justifiably proud of hers. Every week she gets a delivery from Kerry Clasby’s Intuitive Forager truck from SoCal, and every morning you can taste the difference they make. If there’s a more locavore, personal, handmade restaurant in town, I haven’t found it.

El-Nawal is a veteran of the New York and Las Vegas food scene. Having worked with industry giants like Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Julian Serrano, her resumé has taken her from San Francisco to the Big Apple to Miami and finally, Las Vegas. Along the way, she’s invented desserts for Nobu, boiled bagels in Brussels, and catered in Mexico City. Looking at her history, you’d think running a minuscule breakfast/lunch spot in at out-of-the-way shopping center is the equivalent of A-Rod coaching Little League. And so it might be. But we in Las Vegas are lucky to have an all-star of her quality slumming it in our midst.

There’s nothing low rent about the food, however, or the beverages. They serve excellent La Colombe coffee here, and the espresso is one of the better ones in town. You pour your own if all you want is a cup of Joe, but the fancier cortados, cappucinos and con leches are just as compelling.

From the moment you approach the cozy dining alcove (practically hidden from the parking lot) and see the table laden with pastries, you know you’re in the hands of a baking and breakfast master. The vibe tells you whatever you get is going to be top notch, and watching the chef/owner patrol the premises (and work the line) just confirms the point.

(Get this galette)

Much is made of El-Nawal’s “Rooster Boy Granolas” and if your idea of going to a restaurant is to eat something you can just as well dump in a bowl at home, go nuts. (Lots of her roughage-seeking customers do.) For our dinero, though, your breakfast cravings will be better served by one of her hand-crafted galettes, pastries, or pancakes. No matter what you order, when you see a Dutch Oven soufflé pass your table, expect to be immediately gripped by ordering envy.

Veggies are market-driven, so whatever looked good that day is what you’re going to get. If you’re lucky, there will be fresh corn (above) tossed with green onions and then walloped with a dollop of creme fraiche and caviar. If you insist upon something lighter, the “From Back Home” brings Middle Eastern healthiness in the form of a pillow-y flatbread surrounded by labne, cukes, tomato and a dusting of zaatar.

That same fluffy pita provides a foundation for Shashouka  — eggs poached in a spicy tomato sauce  — while El-Nawal’s brioche provides the starch surrounding the Frenchy — a superlative baked egg unfortunately dressed with white truffle oil. (I suppose even a chef of El-Nawal’s caliber has to take a shortcut now and again.) They also cure wild-caught salmon here into a firm, gorgeous gravlax. Try finding another breakfast/lunch spot anywhere in Vegas that does this.

(Check out these chilaquiles!)
All of these are worthy contenders for top menu honors (as are the croissants, ginger cake, and pain au chocolat), but the “Mi Corazon” chilaquiles (above) deserve special recognition. These are not your mamacita’s chilaquiles. In place of forlorn tortilla chips drenched in sauce and topped with an indifferent egg, here you find a tangle of fresh-fried crisps laced with cotija cheese, cubes of perfect avocado, and tomato and onion — all sitting in a pool of tangy, herbaceous green chile sauce laced with Mexican crema. The peppery bite is there, but also something deeper, more elemental, more ingredient-driven. In other words: exactly what you’d expect when a cultural standard gets refracted through the lens of a top chef.

On weekends the lines form early, so first timers are advised to go midweek and early, when it’s just Sonia, her tiny staff, and a few regulars at the counter or outdoor tables.  What they accomplish in a restaurant less than 500 feet square is something you need to see for yourself.

One day recently we caught her cooking in a dress and pearls after she’d returned from an early morning photo shoot. “No time to change,” she smiled. “This place fills up fast.” And so it was and so it does — our smallest, most intimate restaurant doing what every chef claims is their golden grail — cooking heartfelt recipes for loyal clients who know and appreciate the good stuff. Las Vegas needs a dozen more Rooster Boy Cafes, but there’s only one Sonia El-Nawal. She’s the best thing to happen to cooking in pearls since June Cleaver baked cookies for Wally and The Beav.

Prices range from $8-$13, meaning: it’s really hard for a couple to spend more than forty bucks here, even if you go crazy with ordering toasts, eggs, pastries and galettes…as you should. Get This: chilaquiles; shakshouka eggs; Frenchy – baked egg in brioche; croissant; pain au chocolat; ginger cake; granola; breakfast galette; wild salmon gravlax; Dutch Oven pancake; buttermilk pancakes; From Back Home – labne with pita; coffee.

ROOSTER BOY CAFE

2620 Regatta Drive #113

Las Vegas, NV 89128

702.560.2453

(Small but mighty)

 

OLD SOUL

And the winner for Best Food in the Most Obscure Location goes to…….Old Soul!

There’s no other way to say it: Old Soul is so hidden, so oddly-placed, and so not-where-you’d-expect-a-restaurant-to-be that you’ll feel like congratulating yourself once you find the front door. Once you find it, and eat there once, these issues will disappear. From then on, you’ll be too busy enjoying yourself to mind the locale.

That location is inside the World Market Center — a behemoth of a building complex near downtown Las Vegas containing three, intimidating buildings and no retail spaces, save for this single door stuck between darkened windows of one ground floor corner. Even as you valet your car (and you will have to valet it), you’ll glance around inside the Land of the Giants courtyard and wonder where you’ll be eating. The car park will point to the modest sign, and you’ll stroll in, wondering, like all first timers: who in the world in is eating here? (The answer is: fans of chef/owner Natalie Young, Smith Center devotees, and culinary culture vultures looking for her particular brand of gutsy, elevated American food.)

As soon as you enter, what awaits is a capacious, rather dark interior, with well-spaced tables, a civilized noise level, and some oversized art on the walls. The old silent movies they run on the back wall near the bar are a hoot. Between those and the antique furnishings (including the mismatched dishware), the vibe is one of cool comfort, designed to make you forget about what’s outside. Once you dive into the food, the whole place starts feeling, well, like an old, overstuffed sofa you’ve sunk into and don’t want to leave.

Image result for Old Soul Las Vegas

 

The space might be an acquired tasted, but Young’s food is not. She is a self-taught, long-time Strip veteran who found her mojo with the opening of Eat downtown 2012. Her talents have toggled over the years between high-toned French (Eiffel Tower Restaurant) to steaks (P.J. Clarke’s)  to superior flapjacks (Eat), but here she’s found her wheelhouse: boldly-flavored, elemental American dishes with a certainty of purpose that only comes from a confident chef.

Young describes herself as an old soul. Old souls, she’ll tell you, get right to the point. Old souls have seen it all and they know that honesty and simplicity are what counts. An old soul eschews the novel, the contrived, and the overwrought, for simple authenticity. (It’s the reason some old souls jump on planes to Europe whenever they can to taste a country’s food where it originated — not after it’s been deconstructed and reconfigured by Instagram-addicted culinary school graduates. But enough about me.)

An old soul like Young has the confidence to put liver and onions on a menu. She knows a lot of people like liver — especially liver tossed with caramelized onions, and given a piquant punch by grainy, stone ground mustard — and that an older crowd (the types that attend Smith Center concerts religiously), will appreciate a throwback item given just the right update.  Young or old will appreciate the same attention given a thick slab of meatloaf — this one not like your momma used to make, but adorned with cauliflower puree, meaty ‘shrooms, a splash of tomato concasse and a dribbling of red wine jus. It’s comfort food to be sure, but soothing has never had so much sparkle.

Chicken (half a Cornish game hen above) get some gussying up as well with the help of a wild rice pilaf speckled with bits of pickled veggies, and a tongue-slapping chimichurri sauce. Both were so good the Food Gal® and I couldn’t decide which was more worth fighting over: the bird or the starch.

Before you get to these mains (available at lunch and dinner for the same price), you’ll have to navigate the starters, and rather than steering clear, I’d advise you to bump into as many of them as your gustatory canoe can handle. The house-made chicken liver pâté could give a few torchons of foie gras a run for their money, and the smoked trout with house-made applesauce and chive corn cakes will have everyone at your table straining for superlatives.

Most spectacular of the bunch is a head of roasted cauliflower (above), studded with pickled raisins and peppers, sprinkled with more of that chimichurri, and festooned with herbs. All of it sits on a pool of sharp, acidic sauce that’s listed as “tahini dressing” but comes off more like “tangy/fruity vinaigrette.”

As nuts as you’ll be about all of these, it will be the fried oysters (below) with horseradish aioli that will have you making plans to return as soon as you leave. Crispy, meaty and devoid of oiliness, one bite took me straight back to a Connecticut clam shack.

(All that’s missing are the seagulls)

There are also sandwiches available at lunch — including Young’s definitive pan-seared chicken breast with pesto mayo and a veggie “burger” that didn’t make me gag — as well as simple and chopped salads for those who insist.

But if you come here looking to eat light, you’re sort of missing the point. This is soulful American food made by a chef who blends flavors like a maestro — seemingly without effort, but building to a whole greater than the sum of its parts. The food here is as pretty as it is delicious, and that’s really saying something.

(Live a little! This pie is to die for.)

For dessert, get whatever cobbler they’ve made that day. And the cherry pie (above). Each of them a la mode. You’ve come too far to deny yourself such a sweet release, so give in to temptation. You can thank me later.

(Open for lunch and dinner. With starters in the $10-$15 range, and mains all under $25, the food here is a serious bargain, particularly at dinner. Full cocktail bar with plenty of whiskies and libations, but the wine choices – what few there are – are of interest only to an octogenarian alcoholic.)

OLD SOUL

World Market Center

495 S. Grand Central Parkway

Las Vegas, NV 89106

702.534.0999

The Best Burger in Town

America’s obsession with juvenile food is subsiding.

Press your ear (or stomach) to the ground (as we do) and you’ll find the food media paying scant attention to tacos, pizzas and burgers these days.

People aren’t going apeshit over ramen like they were five years ago, cupcakes have been consigned to the corner (where they belong), small plates are sooo 2014, and Brobdingnagian milk shakes have been marginalized.

With any luck, perhaps one of these days the New York Times will end its decade-long love affair with David Chang.

In the meantime, Chang and his bao buns notwithstanding, grown up dining has returned. Classics are back.

If you require evidence, just look at what’s opened here in the past few months. Cipriani, Vetri and NoMad are nothing if not throwback dining experiences. Look past the modern industrial look of Factory Kitchen and what you’ll find is a classic Italian meal. The only thing modern about Mott 32 is the decor and the cocktail program.

Heck, some of these places even offer cheese at the end of your meal. How fin de siecle is that?

But some things never go out of style, and a great burger is one of them.

Amidst all the Eataly anticipation at the end of the year, a sizeable (300 seat) meat emporium quietly opened in the Palace Station hotel. Called BBD’s (Beers, Burgers, Desserts) it brought forth a gargantuan menu of everything from burgers and steaks to amazing bowls of duck ramen ($18) to never-seen-before dishes like Buffalo burnt chicken wings ($13):

On top of those, it also features probably the best beer selection in town (notice I said “best” not “biggest”), fried pickles and hot chicken. There’s a Philly cheese steak served with smoked onions ($15 and excellent) , a one-pound Bavarian pretzel, and even lamb gyros for those so inclined.

But the real stars of the show are the burgers. Three are offered: the dry-aged prime steakhouse burger ($19), a griddle burger ($10 single, $14 double) that seeks (and succeeds) at elevating the In-N-Out burger template, and a steamed burger ($8 single, $12 double) mimicking the chopped onion, grey meat magnificence of a White Castle slider.

They offer 20(!) different sauces (all made in-house), potatoes a number of ways (the classic french fries above, are potato perfection), three salads (who gives a fuck?), and the usual frivolous fat-filled fried stuff (onion rings, poppers, cheese sticks and such).

But your attention is drawn to the meat from the moment you walk past the butcher shop at the entrance, and that’s where your gaze should stay.

Those burgers are each superb. Made with in-house ground beef, juicy and packed with the kind of dense, mineral-rich beefiness that is but a wisp of memory in the hamburgers most people consume. I’ve said for years: the best burgers are always found in good steakhouses, because good steakhouses use the best beef and treat it right.

The beef here tastes like it could’ve come straight from Delmonico or CUT. The grind is coarse and the packing is just firm enough to hold together and sear properly, the better to retain the juiciness essential for proper burger apotheosis. I can’t remember when I’ve tasted better.

Seasonings are on-point, too, telling you that someone in the kitchen is paying close attention to the details.

As much as well love all of the cheeseburgers here, I have to admit the steamed mini-burgers (above) are my favorite. They taste like what White Castles would be if they were 3xs thicker, used great meat sandwiched in a superior bun and satisfied your cravings without laying in your stomach like a cheap, greasy brick. (The latter is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if you’ve been parking booze in your gut all night.)

Those minis are not to be missed, but neither are any of these meat patty sandwiches. The beef in the dry-aged prime burger (above) is aged for 40-50 days and achieves that tinge of umami-laden gaminess true beef aficionados look for. The grilled beauties (not pictured) are next-level delicious as well — one bite and you might forswear In-N-Out forever.

Put them all together and you have a hamburger hamlet of unbridled greatness, the likes of which Vegas has never seen under one roof.

All of this is the handiwork of one Ralph Perrazzo — a Long Island chef (and Bradley Ogden alum) who won some burger battle on some food network show, paving the way for his expansion to Vegas. Sorry Ralph, but I don’t take those shows very seriously anymore, but your food is the real deal, and whether it’s juvenile or fashionable or not, I intend to eat many more of your burgers, and take them very very seriously while doing so.

(A burger lunch or dinner for two, without booze, should run between $25-$50, depending on how many sides or appetizers you tackle. The beer selection is for serious suds lovers.)

BBD’s

Palace Station Hotel and Casino

2411 West Sahara Ave.

Las Vegas, NV 89102

702.221.6513

https://eatbbds.com/experience/