Pouring Over Downtown’s Coffee Scene

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Downtown is awash in great coffee these days. So, as a public service, we at #BeingJohnCurtas thought we’d scope them out for you.

Before we begin, some admissions are in order:

One, yours truly is no coffee connoisseur. In fact, coffee is something yours truly swore off of for the longest time. Having been married to two caffeine fiends in a row (the type who need a hot, steaming cup in their hands the minute their eyes pop open in the morning), we pretty much gave it up for a decade or so in the late 20th century.

Admission number two: #BeingJohnCurtas doesn’t give a puck about pour-overs, cold brews and nitro this or flat white that. John Curtas is a coffee classicist first and foremost.

Image(Cappuccino at Writer’s Block)

Italy is where JC regained his caffeine mojo fifteen years ago, and Italians are the coffee standard by which all others are measured. A bad cup of caffè is harder to find in Italy than a Southern Baptist, and when it comes to brews — from ristrettos to correttos — they get it right, whether you’re in an airport, a trattoria, or a convenience store.

Coffee is wonderfully subjective, both the flavors and one’s relationship to it. One man’s macchiato might not cut the cortado for another. Some use it simply to get up in the morning; for others it’s a social thing. Some people like to drink coffee all day long; others can’t stomach it after lunch. One of our exes could pound a doppio espresso at 10:00 pm and sleep like a baby.

But like a lot of beautifully simple things, coffee has also jumped the the shark in multiple ways. The whole barista thing is pathetically ridiculous. As is obsessing over your beans’ origins and attending coffee “cuppings.” Whatever you might think about comparative tastings (and sure, they can be fun no matter what the beverage), giving “awards” to people for pouring a cup of joe is as dumb as competing for who is the best lasagna layer.

In other words: we care not a whit about fancy-dancy ornamentation or exotic concoctions. They are the quintessential Millennial pursuit: creating a cult of obsession  over something that should be elementally satisfying on its own terms, without parsing the details to death.

Image(Dueling espressos at PublicUs)

When it comes to all things Arabica, it is about the warm, brownish glow of these beans and the soul-soothing broth they bring forth. To us, it’s about the ritual, the taste and the deeply-satisfying buzz you get from a good cup.

If you’re expecting a dissertation on free-trade fermentation, you’ve come to the wrong place.

But know this: there isn’t a coffee house in Las Vegas who can make a proper espresso to save their life. None of them gets the viscous, syrupy mouthfeel right, and the primary flavor component is always sour, as opposed to the sweet-bitter release of a great Italian cup.

So bad are local espressos, we’ve given up entirely. If you want a good one, go to Cipriani at the Wynn. It’s the only one we’ve had recently that truly tastes of Italy.

But I’ve sampled the wares at all of our newest coffee hound hangouts, and here are my conclusions. For ease of reference, we’ve broken each coffee shop into five components: Coffee, Comfort, Comestibles, Crew and Crowd.

PUBLICUS

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PublicUs kickstarted downtown’s coffee renaissance  five years ago in a big way. It’s always busy, despite being on a forlorn corner of east Fremont Street. Until Vesta came along a couple of years later, it had the upscale coffee market all to itself.

Coffee – the espressos here range from unforgivably sour to lightly bitter and acidic, depending on the beans they are made with. The cappuccino is wonderful, as are the pour-overs (what, back in the day we called good old Chemex drip). The cappuccino is the closest you’ll get to Rome in the High Mojave Desert.

Comfort – everything from two-tops to communal tables, in a modern, naturally-lit room that screams “urban hipster hangout.” Nice bathrooms. In fact bathrooms so nice they make you want to go to the bathroom.

Comestibles – all made in-house. Excellent pastries; good savories, avocado toast, waffles, and even a killer corned beef hash on polenta. If you’re hungry for a big breakfast or lunch with a nice range of menu choices, this is where you want to come.

Crew – young, attractive, lots of crazy haircuts, tatts and such. Invariably friendly and fast. The baristas know their beans.

Crowd – an odd assortment of hipsters, youngsters, ‘grammers and tourists….with tables of actual grownups thrown in the mix occasionally. (Amazingly, a lot of cops love it here too.) Probably the artsiest crowd of the coffee bars downtown. This is where you’re also most likely to see some poseur walk in with one of their filthy dogs.

VESTA COFFEE ROASTERS

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Mr. Curtas has a confession to make: he is secretly in love with all of the female baristas here. (Please do not tell Mrs. Curtas.) Because of this, he cannot be fully objective about Vesta Coffee Roasters, although he will try.

Coffee – strong. Really strong. The most lethal of any coffees downtown. All roasting is done on premises and you can taste the freshness. You can also taste a cappuccino that, compared to other brews, hits you like 151 rum after a light beer. The Food Gal® (aka the Mrs. Curtas referred to above) also swears by something called “Golden Milk” here, which isn’t coffee per se, but which she claims has health-giving properties. In the summer, we’re also partial to their “Espresso Tonic” which is just what it sounds like: cold espresso mixed with tonic and lemon. Remarkably refreshing. The cold brew here is also our favorite, but the espresso was given up on long ago. That doesn’t keep us for ordering it occasionally (for the caffeine kick), but it always tastes of acerbic blueberries, rather than the elusive, dense, haunting pungent holy grail of which we seek.

Comfort – seating can be problematic at peak times, simply because all of the tables are always taken with by Millennials furiously pecking away, pretending to be doing something important. Wait a few minutes though, and something always opens up.

Image(Egg-cellence at Vesta)

Comestibles – very limited, especially compared to PublicUs. No great pastries, a few lunch items (sandwiches and such), good soups made in-house, but that’s about it. Wonderful egg sandwich though (above).

Crew as we said above, not something we can be completely objective about. Let’s just say they’re mostly female and work their tails off at peak times. There may be some dudes who also work here, and we believe the owner is also a person of the male persuasion, but to be honest, we’ve never really noticed.

Crowd – eclectic to say the least. A mixture of business types, tourists, lawyers, smelly hippies, tatted-up hipsters, hairdressers, chefs and crowd-following Yelpers. Also big with the alphabet soup sexuality crowd.

MOTHERSHIP COFFEE
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Mothership Coffee is an offshoot of the teeny tiny operation in Henderson that became a coffee nerd favorite a few years ago. It is as renowned for its small selection of exquisite pastries as it is for its Guatemalan Feminino.

Coffee – “Can I get a single espresso?”

“We only pour doubles.”

“Can I get it made with more water –  what the Italians call lungo?”

“We only pour doubles.”

“Okaaaaay….”

Moving on: gorgeous, nutty, beautifully balanced cappuccino. The espresso was beautiful one time, thin and acrid the second, undrinkable the third. A younger, Millennial cousin of ours (who is a major coffee hound) claims that what we call sour is actually the fruitiness of African beans coming through, as opposed to the milder, less acidic nature of South American coffee. What we call impermissibly sour, he refers to as too sweet. We love the kid, but think he has rocks in his head….or a gueule de bois (wooden mouth). Be that as it may, despite this worthwhile newcomer, a good espresso remains harder to find downtown than a hooker with teeth.

Comfort – open and airy. Kind of a pain in the neck to get to, located as it is in the back of the Ferguson’s Motel complex (at what was once the bottom of its swimming pool, see above), but very nicely appointed inside. Not a lot of seating, although you can also sit on the terraced lawn outside. Because of the location, you won’t be fighting many crowds (like Vesta and PublicUs) but you will be surrounded by self-serious Millennials furiously attached to their laptops.

Image(You’ll love getting sconed at Mothership)

Comestibles – Mothership is known for their pastries (above) and all are top notch. A limited selection of savories and sandwiches, which are invariably fresh and well-crafted. More of a place for a light snack than a full meal. If forced to bestow awards, we’d give the sweet pastries here a slight nod over PublicUs, while the latter wins the savory battle by a landslide.

Crew – Nice, but as green as an Arabica bean.

Crowd – lots of Tony Hsieh acolytes and other youngsters who keep their heads buried in their laptops for hours on end. In many ways this joint feels like a clubhouse for the Downtown Project crowd….which is probably the whole idea.

WRITER’S BLOCK COFFEE SHOP

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Rock and roll journalism was once described as people who can’t talk being interviewed by people who can’t write for people who can’t read. In this same vein, putting an erudite, interesting bookstore (Writer’s Block) in downtown Las Vegas is the clueless trying to sell the thoughtful to the thoughtless. The good news is even if the Paris Review and LBGTQWXYZ Quarterly are not your cup of tea, the coffee and pastries will capture your (short) attention span.

Coffee – they use Mothership’s beans here to create the mildest brews of the bunch. This is a compliment to the cappuccino, as it reaches peak coffee perfection with its balance of sweetness, nuttiness, bitterness and acidity. Not a lot of folderol going on with the foam, but the proportions are just right. The espresso, though, is gawdawful — weak, bland, thin, and as sour as a parson’s smile.

Comfort – nothing more than a few tables, a counter and some high-tops located in the entrance foyer. The outdoor seating on the patio is a real plus. You’re also inside a groovy bookstore, which is also a real plus. Parking is a breeze and free along Bonneville.

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Comestibles – extremely limited. Almond croissants (above), cookies, a cinnamon roll and a couple of other items provided by Sonia El-Awal at Rooster Boy Café.  The good news is they are wonderful. The bad news is they run out early.

Crew – also limited, as the place is tiny. One of our favorite barista/bartenders Michelle, moved over here from Velveteen Rabbit/Vesta, making us feel right at home. I’m secretly in love with her too (Jeebus, Curtas, what’s with you!?), so that means this place is now on our steady rotation.

Crowd – here ya go:

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As this post grinds to a halt, and comes to its bitter end, we almost afforgato to tell you something. So, let us not procaffeinate any further, and espresso some final thoughts.

Unbeanknownst to Las Vegas, a hot beverage revolution has been going on around the world for some time now. It’s a brewtiful thing to watch Vegas finally perk up and smell the…

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…. because we couldn’t au lait for it any longer. Now we’re as frappé as can be, and we’re going to cup up, plunge in, and milk this trend for all its worth. We hope you do too.

THE END

 

Downtown Dining is Now a Destination

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Downtown has become a gastronomic destination in its own right.

Five years ago I would’ve called you crazy if you uttered those words. But things have been booming, as drinking and dining options continue to expand, and everything from wine bars to wood-fired pizzas are on the horizon.

Main Street (aka the 18b Arts District) and East Fremont Street are the epicenters of this epicurean revolution, and though bleak some surroundings may be, once you duck inside any of these eateries, you will find delightful meals, and hand-tooled food aplenty.

I eat out in downtown Las Vegas more than anyone. Ever. (No brag just fact.) Morning, noon and night I patrol these concrete canyons scouting the best places to sooth my savage hunger, and seeking to send you serenely to the most satisfying sustenance. Here’s where you should be supping and slurping right now, but be advised, more superior comestibles are soon to surface.

Image(Holy Ensendada, Batman! We’re in Baja!)

Bajamar Seafood & Tacos

Good Mexican food used to be harder to find downtown than a slot junkie with good credit. These straight-from-Baja tacos (above) immediately changed that. Ignore the surroundings and dive in.

Casa Don Juan

An old reliable with a large menu and a huge following. The tortillas and the carnitas and the great service keep us coming back.

Carson Kitchen

CK started the downtown dining revolution five years ago and is still going strong. Those veal meatballs, oxtail risotto, and glazed donut bread pudding never get old.

DE Thai Kitchen

Forget the regular menu and order off the (not so) secret menu on the chalk board. If there’s a better Kua Gling (spicy ground pork) or soft shell crabs in town, I haven’t found them.

18bin

Brand spanking new, still finding its sea legs, but early experiences with its limited menu have been positive.

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Esther’s Kitchen

I eat here so often they ought to name a booth after me.

EAT

Wonderful breakfast and lunch; to-die-for flapjacks; heavenly hash.

Evel Pie

Downtown is blessed with four good pizza joints, and it all started with Evel Pie. As good as it is, I prefer the dense, chewy slices at….

Image(One of each please)

Good Pie

Nothing more than a counter, some deck ovens, and an assortment of the best slices in Vegas (above). Soon to open a full-service pizza restaurant in the Arts District, much to the rejoicing of pizza mavens everywhere. The pepperoni slice (above) absolutely slays the competition.

Image(Sake to me Hatsumi)

Hatsumi

Robotayaki on East Fremont? Yep, and it’s great. Fine sake list, too.

Jammyland

The drinks here are so good they make me wish I was an alcoholic. A booze-absorbing menu of (mostly) Jamaican food is just the thing after a few of them.

La Monja (The Nun)

This is one fun nun. An indoor-outdoor vibe (at the top of the page) that threatens to do for East Fremont Street what Esther’s did for the Arts District: bring a modern twist to a hoary formula. In this case, by giving ceviches, taquitos, and fish tacos the upgrade they deserve. Everything is under twenty bucks, and the patio has “destination drinking” written all over it.

Ocha Thai

A family-run oasis of good Thai cooking for decades.

Image(Comfort me with meatloaf)

Old Soul

The odds are against Old Soul, but Natalie Young’s food — like the meatloaf above — is so good we don’t care. Take the time to find it and you’ll fall in love.

Oscar’s Steakhouse

Oscar Goodman is an iconic figure in Las Vegas. His steakhouse doesn’t quite match his out-sized reputation, but new chef Ben Jenkins is on a mission to change that.

Image(PublicUs is always packed)

PublicUs

We constantly debate the relative merits of PublicUs v. Vesta like a man who can’t decide between his wife and his mistress. We resolve this argument by alternating between them… just like we did in 1999.

7th and Carson

Elevated pub grub (below) at a location we can never quite remember.  ;-)

Image(Once in a blue moon, we eat healthy)

The Kitchen at Atomic

Jackson Stamper’s food might be too hip for the room, but it suits us just fine. One of the best steaks (and rum-brined pork chops) in town, too.

Image(Blimey, mate; takes me straight back to the Cliffs of Dover, it does.)

The Smashed Pig

Ignore the Fremont Street fanny-packers and duck in for a black & tan and the fish and chips (above).

VegeNation

If you insist, there’s a vegan restaurant downtown – the best vegan restaurant in town, in fact. In fact, we have actually eaten here more than once and sorta enjoyed it (hangs head in shame).

Vesta Coffee Roasters

See comment to PublicUs above. And please don’t mention anything to our current wife.

Image(Sweet sammie dreams are made of these)

The Goodwich

We have dreams about the Rueben-ish (above) and the Patty. How good do sandwiches have to be for you to dream about them?

Image(Comes with a “highly addictive” warning label)

Pop Up Pizza

The only thing wrong with Pop Up Pizza is its customers. Most of them take a gander at these superior pies and wonder where the Domino’s is. The stromboli (above) is so good it ought to be illegal.

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Santos Guisados Tacos & Beer

These guisados (braised meat) tacos are in a class by themselves. Good beers and a full bar in a postage stamp place about the size of studio apartment (above).

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As tasty as things have gotten downtown, it bears mentioning that this entire renaissance has occurred because restaurant owners, chefs and developers finally decided to ignore Fremont Street altogether.

Those of us of a certain age remember all the teeth-gnashing in the 90s and early aughts about how to “revive” Fremont Street….as if that collection of sad, shitty hotels and their slacker/slob customers were the key to downtown’s revival. They weren’t and aren’t. Leave them to their lame-ass beers and souvenirs.

No one under that atrocious canopy gives a crap about spending money. All they want is Vegas on the cheap. Gawking at those stupid light shows and naked street performers is the Las Vegas they deserve.

The good stuff is for the rest of us. All you have to do is walk a few blocks east, or a half a mile south to taste it.

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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)