The Covid Diaries – Vol. 9 – The List

Image(Puck’s peeps knock it out of the park)

Day 50, May 5 – Where We Ate

The Great Cessation is winding down. What began in a fit of panic will end in a cloud of failure and despair.

Lives have been ruined, businesses crushed, hopes dashed….but the media and government did its job: whipping everyone into a frenzy so they would buy into the ham-fisted, blunt instrument approach to public health — one akin to “we have to destroy the village in order to save it.”

Both (media and government) are better at getting into messes than getting out of them, so picking up the pieces will be left to the citizens.

And there will be pieces aplenty: 30 million unemployed; an economy in shambles; poverty, disease, murder hornets, you name it.

Las Vegas will be hit hardest of all, just like it was by the Great Recession. (If you don’t believe in Karma, you might consider these double-whammies, twelve years apart, have followed 20 years of unprecedented growth. Yup, Vegas will end up paying double for all the unbridled prosperity it enjoyed between 1989-2009.)

But enough depressive pontification, We are here to celebrate the places that have fed us so well over the past six weeks.

As you might guess, we didn’t let some little old Covid-19 shutdown interfere too much with our gustatory gallivanting. The biggest issue on a daily basis was lunch. Only a few places are open for takeout, so most days it was homemade sandwiches, fruit and cheese brought to work. (I’ve actually lost a couple pounds.)

Dinner found more places open, but even then, we ordered out far less than our habit. (In peak season, The Food Gal® and I easily hit 10+ restaurants a week.)

When we went out, more often than not, we brought our own table and chairs and ate on the sidewalk outside the restaurant with our friends, Deanna and Greg. (They got stranded here, from their Boise, Idaho base, on March 15 and have been toughing it out by working at home and helping us relieve the boredom.)

Occasionally, a restaurant would wave us inside and serve us like the old days — this helped everyone feel as if a little sanity had been restored to a world turned upside down. (These restaurants will not be named for fear the Covid Gestapo is only too eager to hate-shame (or worse) anyone who doesn’t share their misery.)

Dinner was confined to far fewer options than you might expect (good pizza, amazingly was not in abundance throughout this crisis), but if you wanted to drive, lots of quality is/was out there. Very little of it compared to what those same restaurants could turn out at full throttle, but at least you knew a real chef was busting her/his ass to feed you.

We are listing the restaurants in the order in which their takeout menu most closely approximated the quality of what they do when firing on all cylinders. But there are no losers here. Even the most mediocre meal was savored with the appreciation of Lucius Beebe contemplating the nesting habits of a recently-devoured woodcock.

At the end of The List, we’ll have a few choice words for people who continue to accuse us of criticizing the shutdown only because we only want to get back to eating in fancy restaurants.

The List:



Both The Food Gal and I forgot our anniversary (on April 29). That is how soul-deadening this has been. Endo-san and Haruko-san bailed me(us?) out big time by bringing their “A” game — from bento boxes to grilled Japanese wagyu — for a meal that, if you closed your eyes, was a dead ringer for any other of the dozens we’ve had there.

Kaiseki Yuzu

Image(Katsu-preme chicken)

Las Vegas’s most beautiful bento — because, if you need to be reminded, the Japanese perfected takeout food when Americans were still living in log cabins.

Player’s Locker by Wolfgang Puck

Image(Chinois Chicken Salad never goes out of style)

All hail to the Wolfgang Puck Restaurant Group! It has the horsepower to do what few restaurateurs anywhere could: bring a murderer’s row (at top of page) of its local chefs together (at its Summerlin location) to produce an ever-changing menu of Puck classics (above), as well as dishes from each of its six local restaurants. Stars like Matthew Hurley, Kamel Guechida and Nicole Erle, the are producing food, bread, and desserts as eye-popping and fork-dropping as any restaurant in America over these past six weeks. With all that talent at the stoves, how could they not?

Tres Cazuelas

We ate on the sidewalk, but the food would suffer very little if taken home. Braised dished always travel well.


Image(Tangy Thai needs terrific Riesling)

Another sidewalk dinner — straight out of Styrofoam — but one that knocked our socks off.

Café Breizh

Image(Napoleon would be proud)

A lifesaver each week, turning out French pastries and breads worthy of Pierre Gatel’s “Pastry Chef of the Year 2019” award.

The Black Sheep

Image(No table? No problem. We bring our own!)

Jamie Tran now owns the restaurant herself, and herself and a helper are staying strong and producing a truncated menu of her standards that are as tasty as she is adorable.

DE Thai Kitchen

Thai restaurants seem to be weathering the storm better than pizza joints. DE Thai hasn’t missed a beat.

Saga Pastry + Sandwich


I love this place — even if they can’t get those beautiful tiny, sweet, Scandinavian shrimp for their smorgasbord sandwich right now. It’s one of only two reasons that can get me to the restaurant black hole that is Henderson/Green Valley. I love it, but I also fear for its future.

Ohlala French Bistro

Richard Terzaghi is doing it all himself, and what he’s doing is doing his French tradition proud.

Sin City Smokers

Ribs and a pork sammie blew me away the other day on an episode of Las Vegas Food To Go.

L & L Hawaiian Barbecue

Image(The Burly Boyz take on Hawaiian ‘cue)

Best Kaluha pig I’ve had in Vegas. My comments on Spam Musubi are best left for a time when I’m not struggling to say only nice things.

China Mama

I dream about their xiao long bao and Dan Dan noodles. All of the proteins here — from boiled fish to lamb with cumin — are stellar as well. The fish dishes do not travel well, however.


Another lifesaver. Has become our morning go-to for coffee. The tips we leave often exceed the size of the bill…and they’re worth it.

Locale Italian Kitchen

Nicole Brisson has left the building. Before she left, she cooked us one helluva meal.

Rooster Boy Cafe

We would frequent here more often if Sonia El-Nawal didn’t have her hands full servicing customers who can’t get enough of her catered dinners and superb pastries.

Delices Gourmands French Bakery & Cafe

Image(Palm tree perfection)

I like Pierre Gatel’s baguettes better at Cafe Breizh (by the width of a mille-feuille layer), but the bread selection (and pastries) here is a close second on all other fronts, and I would walk three miles for one of their palmiers…and have!

Kung Fu Thai & Chinese

Any place that’s been in business since 1974 is doing a lot of things right. Just the spot when you’re craving some cashew chicken or Yen Ta Fo soup.

7th and Carson

Still one of Vegas’s most boffo burgers. So good we were fighting over the last bite.

Yummy Rice

Simple little rice bowls studded with veggies or proteins. Normally, they serve these in super-heated clay pots – Hong Kong style. Now, the rice caramelizes on the bottom of cheap, to-go aluminum.  Something is lost but the bowls are still damn tasty. A Food Gal® favorite.

Weiss Deli & Bakery

Image(Righteous pastrami on rye)

Jewish food and Las Vegas go together like craps and born-again Christians. Our best bagels are made by an Italian. Go Figure. Weiss is the closest we have to real, big city deli. Bagels, lox, pastrami, rugelach, the works — they have it all and all of it is worth traveling to Sunset and Sunset for.

Valley Cheese and Wine


Three weeks in a row we’ve headed to the far corners of Horizon Ridge to grab some cheese and wine here. We never fail to blow at least a couple of Benjamins, and we’ll spend twice as much if means keeping this little gem in business.

Ocha Thai 

Always a fave. Always there when we need a Thai fix.

Now, some final thoughts.

Many times over the last six weeks we’ve been accused (by self-righteous supporters of the shutdown) of being opposed to it solely because it prevents us from eating in fancy restaurants.

Here’s a typical (but by no means uncommon) barb tossed my way by those who, over the past month or so, have decided to really, really care about old, sick people dying in hospitals thousands of miles away:

So, just to be clear, if you’ve had COVID -19, have it, or lost somebody to it, John wants you to know that you’re nothing more than an inconvenience to his dining agenda. [B}efore they died, did you tell them to their face that you were glad they were dying, because it meant you could dine out sooner?

My response on Facebook was a little blunt: I told the writer (politely) to go fuck himself.

A more nuanced response would have been as follows:

The only thing I’ve obsessed about during this debacle has been how brutal it has been on working people in the hospitality business. Whether I ever eat another foie gras torchon has been the furthest thing from my mind.

I eat out now because I love restaurants and restaurant people — love supporting them, love watching them thrive. My devotion is like someone who loves a sports team — it is unconditional. But it is also different. Because every day I evince my passion with my time, my appetite, my prose and my paycheck. My life has been a full one; I will eat well no matter what happens.

What I’ve also realized from fifty years of obsessing about food is how important restaurants are to the soul of a community. We are social beings. Gathering to eat and drink has been inculcated into our DNA since time immemorial. You can no more prevent people from talking, rubbing elbows, sharing food, or passing the platter than you can keep the sun from shining.

The idea that you should take a society and shut it down to keep people from breathing on each other is the dumbest thing since the Vietnam War. Unlike the war, however, this policy will ruin tens of millions of lives across the globe.  It is those lives who deserve our sympathy, not people you don’t know — people you’re only pretending to care about because it makes it easier to disguise your fear and makes you feel better about yourself.

You’re right about one thing, though. Because of your irrational fear(s), the Golden Age of American Restaurants is over. The way has been cleared for soulless, antiseptic, corporate eateries to dominate our landscape for years to come. But for as long as I can still chew, I going to fight you and your fright, and put my money where my mouth is to keep places like those above alive.

Image(Big eye tuna from Player’s Locker)

The Covid Diaries – Vol. 6 – Saluting Caesar


Day 21, Saturday, April 4 – Salad Sanity

You’re going to need a Caesar salad sometime during this shutdown, so you might as well learn how to make a proper one.

Like all things simple and exquisite, the difference between passable and preeminent is in the particulars.

This will not be your typical recipe. It will be an essay on salad excellence. Read carefully; go slowly. Forget everything you know or think you know about Caesar salads.

This is the only recipe you need. It hews closely to the original but is not note-for-note. When you’re done you will have a thing of beauty that can honestly said to be a real Caesar salad, not the lame imitations you get in 95% of the restaurants in America.

Step 1: Tear two heads of well-washed and dried Romaine lettuce leaves into a large wooden bowl

Image(It’s the wood that makes it good)

The leaves should be torn into large pieces. Anal retentive cooks remove the greens from the ribs, but the crunch of the ribs is really essential. The original Caesar was probably made from the smaller, firmer ribs in the center of the Romaine head. This is what Julia Child used in her “original” recipe in one of her early cookbooks. More recent video from Caesars Hotel in Tijuana show big-ass long flat leaves being used. (The salad in the video looks horrid, btw. More on this later.)

The problems with long flat leaves are too numerous to count. To begin with, they’re a bitch to eat. You have to cut them; dressing flies everywhere; you need a bib to enjoy yourself. Secondly, they eliminate all visual appeal —  it looks like is someone just threw long-ass lettuce leaves on your plate.

Many claim the original salad was made to be eaten with the fingers, hence the huge flat leaves being served today. This assertion doesn’t pass the smell test…unless you’re a lazy restaurateur trying to justify why you’re not bothering to tear lettuce leaves into edible sizes.

42 years of research have led to two conclusions: the “original” may have used much smaller, inner Romaine ribs, but by the 1950s, Alex Cardini (the inventor who named it after his brother Caesar), was telling people to tear the Romaine into large, bite-size pieces — the better to hold the dressing and thus, the piquancy which made the salad famous. Whatever they’re doing at Caesar’s restaurant looks more like cost-cutting than anything else.

The wooden bowl is essential. Don’t even think of using anything else.

If you don’t have a wooden salad bowl, any large one will do. Better too large than too small.

Step 2: Correct Croutons

Image(What does a great salad rest on? A crouton!)

Good croutons are as essential to a good Caesar as a toga or being knifed to death by sixty of your best friends.

There are several ways to make garlic croutons — dip already toasted cubes in garlic oil, fry the bread in garlic oil, or smear the bread with garlic paste, then toast it in the oven — but the horse’s mouth (Alex Cardini) was quoted in a 1976 cookbook (Entertaining With Wine – Ruth Ellen Church), as advocating toasting the large cubes of the bread, then dipping them in garlic oil, then spreading them with either anchovy paste or chopped anchovies. (Note: this is the only time in the “original” Caesar recipe that garlic and anchovies are mentioned.)

This same recipe mentions the croutons should be large, and about 4 per salad serving. It says nothing about just plopping a large slice of French bread on top of awkward-ass lettuce leaves.

To begin: slice some slightly-less-than-fresh French bread. (Good white sandwich bread can also be used.) You want your croutons crispy on the outside, with the barest hint of give and softness within. Hard-as-rock croutons are the sign of an amateur, or worse, store-bought. (Guilty admission: the person typing these words has used store-bought croutons on occasion. For this he is deeply ashamed.)

The croutons should be inch-to-inch-and-a-half rectangles, but don’t despair if they are irregular in shape. The main thing is, they shouldn’t be too small or big thick slices of lame-ass bread thrown on top of the salad.

Finely mince two fat garlic cloves. You do this by first smashing the cloves, then mincing them. Put them in the best, freshest olive oil you can afford (heated on low heat in a pan) for a couple of minutes, but be careful not to let them brown. Here’s where things get tricky. You can now lightly fry the bread in the garlic olive oil over low-moderate heat, but you have to watch it very carefully to make sure the garlic never gets past the barely-brown stage. This takes time and patience. An alternative method is to remove the garlic after it’s done its work perfuming the oil, and then fry the bread over higher heat without fear of burning the garlic. Or you can simply dip your toasted croutons in garlic oil (as noted above) and leave it at that.

Step 3: The Anchovy Question

Alex Cardini said each crouton should be spread with a schmear of anchovy paste. So does his granddaughter. Although she defaults to that big slice nonsense for croutons, and he is quoted as saying they should be smaller cubes or rectangles. However you like your bread-y salad accoutrements, we now agree they should have some anchovy paste on them. Or can we?

John Mariani, in his American Dictionary of Food and Drink says “no anchovies in the original” because Caesar Cardini disliked them (“argued against the inclusion of anchovies”), but that they “evolved” into the salad over time.

James Beard was such an anchovy aficionado he put 24(!) of them chopped into the dressing for a salad for six. Mexican food maven Diana Kennedy interviewed Alex Cardini Sr. (the brother who claimed he invented it) shortly before he died, and adds six of the little suckers to a garlic-anchovy paste to spread on the croutons.

These disputations have all the elements of a long-simmering family feud (akin to who was the Original Famous Ray?) to which you should brook no attempts to sway you to one camp or the other. Anchovies have indeed evolved into the recipe and are part of the salad today, no matter what history seems to argue.

When it comes to your salad, you will want to either do the schmear thing, or mash up a few of them in the bottom of the salad bowl, or do both. Some people like to strew a few on top of the salad. These persons are called enlightened, impeccable epicureans of the highest moral order.


Step #4 – Grate Expectations

Your cheese should be grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese — the most expensive you can afford. You should grate it fresh on a box grater, on the smallest setting. (No microplaning! A Microplane cheese grater is great for some purposes — like grating cheese for melting —  but its wispy strands make cheese taste like air, denuding it of all pungency. If you microplane your cheese, you might as well go get a chicken Caesar at Applebee’s. Okay, not really, but there IS a taste difference, so get a good, old-fashioned box grater.)

Image(All dressed up and ready to dance on your tongue)

For variety and a little flair, you can also grate your cheese into shards or shingles to dress the top of the salad…because no one, ever, has complained that there was too much Parmesan cheese in a Caesar salad.

Step 5: Dressing Up


Limes not lemons. But lemons are fine. Great Caesars have pungency and citric bite. Do not skimp on the juice but don’t overdo it. Two juicy fruits should do for a salad for four, but have one in reserve just in case.

Mustard may be used at Caesar’s in Tijuana, but it’s another restaurant shortcut and a no-no . No recipe claiming to be the “original” lists it; it ruins the delicate balance of cheese, oil, acid and pepper, so don’t even think of it. Restaurants use it to ease the emulsion. The same ones who don’t like to tear their lettuce leaves.

Coddle two eggs. Some pugnacious purists claim they should be raw, but any home cook worth their salt knows a short, hot bath makes the yolks stickier, and stickier is what you seek.

Have a bottle of good old Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce at hand. A good healthy tablespoon-full adds immensely to the umami.

Be ready to grind on a butt-load of black pepper. And a few sprinkles of salt.

Step 6: Getting Your Salad Tossed

Image(Old Parm is the best Parm, but precious)

Now the fun starts. It’s easier than you think, but attention must be paid.

None of that bottom-of-the-bowl mixing shit here. What you seek is a layering of oil, eggs, juice, cheese and Worcestershire into an ethereal emulsion on the leaves themselves.

Making a big show of creating the dressing in the bottom of the bowl misses the whole point. Only through careful tossing of first the olive oil (to coat the leaves), then the egg (which thickens on the leaves with the oil), followed by the tang of citrus mixing with both of them, the Worcestershire adding a lagniappe of sweet-sour, topped off with top-shelf cheese and pepper sticking to the whole shebang.

It all comes together as you toss each individual ingredient upon the other. And toss you will for a full 30 seconds or so after each addition. The croutons can be thrown in before, during or after all the mixing starts, according to taste. When the cheese hits the thickly coated leaves, something magical takes place….and you can take a bow.

Once these techniques are mastered, never again will you be satisfied with a sub-par Caesar. For all but your salad, you will come to bury not to praise them. For, bear with me, this is an honorable Caesar; you all did love it once, not without cause, and my heart is in the coffin there with what restaurants have done to poor Caesar, and I must make my own till they come back to me.

Here is the recipe that started our Caesar salad quest 43 years ago. It’s a bit heavy on the garlic and the eggs (4 eggs for two heads of Romaine is absurd), and a bit light on the croutons, but the bones of a great one are in there: