Things Will Never Be the Same

Ed. note: The following essay appears in this month’s Desert Companion magazine. Click here to read it in its original format.

We seemed invincible once, didn’t we? Thirty years of ever-expanding prosperity will do that to you. Having survived Gulf wars, dot-com busts, recessions, mass shootings and depressions, it was a cinch the public’s appetite for all things Las Vegas was insatiable. Since 1994, we had seen one restaurant boom after another: celebrity chefs, the French Revolution of the early aughts, Chinatown’s twenty year expansion, Downtown’s resurgence — all of it  gave us rabid restaurant revelers a false sense of security. A cocky confidence that the crowds would flock and the champagne would always flow.

And then we were floored by a Covid left hook no one saw coming. Poleaxed, cold-cocked, out on our feet.  In an instant, literally, thirty years of progress hit the mat. To keep the metaphor going, we’ve now lifted ourselves to the ropes for a standing eight count. The question remains whether we can recover and still go the distance, or take one more punch and suffer a brutal TKO.

There was an eeriness to everything in those early months, as if a relative had died, or we were living in a bad dream. A sense of loss and apology filled the air. Like someone knocked unconscious (or awakening from a nightmare), our first instincts were to reassure ourselves. Restaurants were there to feed and help us back to our feet and the feelings were mutual. Reassurances and gratitude were the watchwords whenever you picked up a pizza or grabbed take-out from a chef struggling to make sense of it all.

Then, as quick as an unseen uppercut, the mood turned surly and defensive. The moment restaurants were given the go-ahead to start seating people again, the battle lines were drawn. It took some weeks to build the trenches, but by July, what began as a “we’re all in this together” fight for survival devolved into a multi-front war pitting survivalists on all sides against each other.  Mutual support evaporated as tensions arose between those needing to make a living and those who saw epidemic death around every corner.  Caught in the middle were the patrons: people who just wanted to go out, take advantage of our incredible restaurant scene and have a good time. Suddenly, everyone felt uncomfortable, and in a matter of a few calamitous weeks, dining out in America went from “we’re here to have a good time” to “let’s all struggle to get through this’ — not exactly a recipe for a good time, which is, after all, the whole point of eating out.

Reduced hours and crowds meant shorter menus, since every restaurant in town was forced to narrow its food options. No one seemed to mind, since anyone taking the time to dine out was simply happy the place was open. But if you sum it all up — the rules, the emptiness, the fear, the feeling of everyone being on guard — it’s a wonder anyone bothered going out at all. But going out to eat is what we do, because it is fun, convenient and delicious, and because we are human.

As Las Vegas’s most intrepid gastronaut, I’ve had to curb my voracious appetite more than anyone. Overnight my routine went from visiting ten restaurants a week to a mere few. Even in places where I’m on a first-name basis with the staff, the experience is as suppressed as the voices of the waiters. Instead of concentrating on hospitality, the singular focus is now on following all the rules. All of which makes you appreciate how the charm of restaurants stems from the sincerity of those serving you — something hard to notice when you can’t see their face.

Nowhere are these feelings more acute than on the Strip. “Las Vegas needs conventions to survive,” says Gino Ferraro, facing the simplest of facts. “If the hotels suffer, we suffer.” He’s owned Ferraro’s Italian Restaurant and Wine Bar since 1985 and will be the first to tell you how thin the margins are for success in the business. Restaurants are in your blood more than your bank account, and micromanaging, cutting costs, and (hopefully) another year of government assistance are what he sees as keys to their survival. “Good restaurants will survive, but there’s no doubt there will be less of them.”

Unlike the free-standing Ferraro’s, the Strip is different. There, the restaurants are amenities — like stores in a mall if you will — and from Sunday-Thursday (when the conventions arrived) they used to thrive. These days, like Ferraro’s, they still pack ’em in on weekends, but almost all are closed Monday-Wednesday. This doesn’t mean the food or the service has suffered, far from it, only that everyone is hanging on by their fingernails, and this anxiety is palpable when you walk through the doors. The staffs are almost too welcoming, which is nice, but you can sense the fear and it’s not pretty, and it is not going away for many months to come.

As Vegas slowly re-opens, one thing you can no longer take for granted is that each hotel will have a full compliment of dining options, from the most modest to world famous. If I had to make a prediction, it would be that a year from now, some hotels may field a smaller team of culinary superstars, and their bench will not be as deep, and those stars will have another season of wear and tear on them without any talented rookies to come along and take their place.

Long before the shutdown, there were signs we had reached peak Vegas and things were starting to wane. Some fancy French venues were showing their age, the Venetian/Palazzo (with its panoply of dining options), seemed overstuffed, and rumblings were heard that even the indefatigable David Chang had lost his fastball. The same could be said for the whole celebrity-chef-thing, which was starting to feel very end-of-last-century by the end of last year. The Palms’ murderer’s row of newly-minted sluggers was mired in a slump, and our gleaming, big box, pan-Asian eye-candy (Tao, Hakkasan) were not shining as bright as they once did.

The stakes are much higher when you consider the reputation of Las Vegas as a whole. Survey the landscape these days and all you can ask is, how much of this damage is permanent? It took from 1989-2019 to take Las Vegas from “The Town That Taste Forgot” to a world class, destination dining capital — a claim to fame like no other — where an entire planet of gastronomic delights, cooked by some of the best chefs in the business, was concentrated among a dozen swanky, closely-packed hotels. Now, what are we? A convention city with no conventions? A tourist mecca three days a week? Can we recapture this lost ground, or is some of it gone forever? Everyone is asking but no one has the answers.

Perhaps a culling of the herd was already in the works and all Covid did was accelerate the process. Are the big money restaurant days over? Certainly until those conventions return, and no one is predicting that until next year, at the earliest. If that’s the case, it will be a leaner/meaner gastronomic world that awaits us down the road — not the cornucopia of choices laid before you every night, no matter what style of food struck your fancy. The fallout will include the casinos playing it safe; not throwing money at chefs like they once did, and sticking with the tried a true for awhile.  Less ambitious restaurant choices? Absolutely. It is impossible to imagine a single European concept making a splash like Joël Robuchon did in 2005, or any Food Network star getting the red carpet treatment just for slapping their name on a door. The era of Flay, Ramsay, Andrés and others is over, and the “next big thing” in Las Vegas dining won’t be a thing for a long time.

If the Strip’s prospects look bleak (at least in the short term), locally the resilience has been astounding. Neighborhood venues hunkered down like everyone else, but now seem poised for a resurgence at a much faster rate than anything happening in the hotels.  If the Strip resembles a pod of beached whales, struggling to get back in the water, then local restaurants are the more nimble pilot fish, darting about, servicing smaller crowds wherever they find them. Four new worthwhile venues are popping up downtown: upscale tacos at Letty’s, Yu-Or-Mi Sushi and Sake, Good Pie and the American gastro-pub Main Street Provisions, all in the Arts District. Off the Strip Mitsuo Endo has debuted his high-toned yakitori bar — Raku Toridokoro — to much acclaim, and brew pubs are multiplying everywhere faster than peanut butter stouts.

Chinatown — with its indomitable Asians at the helm — seems the least fazed by any of this, and Circa will spring to life before year’s end on Fremont Street, hoping to capture some of the hotel mojo sadly absent a few miles south. Going forward, some of these imposed restrictions will remain in place to ensure survival (more take-out, smaller menus, fewer staff), but the bottom line is look to the neighborhoods if you wish to recapture that rarest of sensations these days, a sense of normalcy.

Watching my favorites absorb these body blows has been like nursing a sick child who did nothing to deserve such a cruel fate. In a way it’s made me realize that’s what these restaurants have become to me over decades: a community of fledgling businesses I’ve supported and watched grow in a place no one thought possible. As social experiments go, the great public health shutdown of 2020 will be debated for years, but this much is true: Las Vegas restaurants were at their peak on March 15, 2020, and reaching that pinnacle is a mountain many of them will never again climb.

 

The Mexicans

Image(Elio)

For years, Mexican food in Las Vegas has gotten a bad rap. I should know, I was one of those doing the rapping.

All you had to do is travel to SoCal, Arizona, or Denver to see our Mexicans fell woefully short when it came to bringing the bounty of Mexico to the High Mojave. Like Greek and Indian restaurants, Mexican eateries seemed mired in identical menus, ignoring regional differences in search of a one-size-fits-all formula. In place of Yucatan seafood specialties or Oaxacan moles we got fajitas fajitas fajitas! When we weren’t getting nachos, enchiladas and tacos!

With plenty of kitchen talent surrounding us, the question always was: Why was Vegas Mexican food so bad for so long? Part of it had to do with the early Vegas pioneers — the Ricardo’s, Macayo’s, Chapala’s and their ilk — which were all hamstrung by the lack of good groceries. Back in the 70s and 80s, those jalapenos and beans probably came from a can, the meat was cheap, and the seafood came from who knows where. Whatever scratch cooking was done was reserved for the proteins, and you might find a fresh tortilla at a place like Lindo Michoacan, but woe be the diner who expected the tomatoes to be fresh or the salsa to be house-made.

Things have changed a lot recently, and three new places are leading the way.

Image(José can you see these salsas)

José Aleman’s Sin Fronteras Tacos y Mas  isn’t exactly new. He’s been tucked into a strip mall in the northwest part of town for three years, turning out remarkable food made all the more special by how surprising it is in such an unlikely location.

Usually, Mexican restaurants parked in these forgettable strip malls serve food on par with the surroundings. Not so, José. Here you’ll find all the usual suspects (fajitas, fundidos and the like), but if you look a little more closely you’ll notice everything is a cut or three above your usual one-size-fits-all Mex menu.

Aleman’s menu is full of surprises, starting with the salsas. Six are offered (above, including guacamole and queso), all made daily, in house. They cost a buck a piece, and you should treat yourself (at least on your first visit) to one of each. The “Diablo” (made with arbol chiles), and smokey habanero/chipotle “Morita,” will give a chilehead all they can handle, while the milder ones (including a gorgeous tomatillo-based “Verde”) will have you reflexively dipping into them until all that’s left is your finger scraping the bowl.

Aleman calls his restaurant a “no Tapatio zone” with good reason: it would be a sin at Sin Fronteras to ruin this food with a bottled sauce.

Image(Relleno gets real)

Hidden among the same old Mexican standards are gems of careful cooking made with  — ranging from terrific tacos to more cheffy stuff which would be right at home at the Border Grill or one of Rick Bayless’s outposts. The chile relleno, oozing Oaxacan cheese (above), is in a class by itself, and his fried pork “Michoacan-style” (below) is worth a trip all by itself.

Image(They had us at “deep-fried pork ribs”)

One dip into the queso fundido laced with house-made chorizo tells you you aren’t in Ricardo’s land anymore, and showstoppers like the enchiladas “aguascalientes style” (named after Aleman’s Mexican birthplace – topped with roasted potatoes, crema, and cotija cheese) are as far from mediocre Mexican as Cabo San Lucas is from Lake Mead.

Image(Aguascaliente means either “hot water” or festooned with taters)

All aquas frescas are made in house, as are the desserts. To a flavor, each will stop you in your tracks. Sin Fronteras means “without borders,” and refers as much to Aleman’s culinary odyssey as it does to the boundaries he is pushing with his refined cooking.

What began with dish washing at haute cuisine palaces in Chicago brought him to cooking at top Vegas spots (Eiffel Tower, Boa Steakhouse, Marché Bacchus), and now to a place where his passion for his homeland’s food can flourish.

Sin Fronteras Tacos y Mas is much much more than just another taco shop. Its surroundings might be uninspiring and the decor modest, but if there’s a better neighborhood Mexican restaurant in Vegas right now, cooking food this finely tuned, I have yet to find it.

José never lets me pay, but I always try to leave a tip equal to what I think the meal would’ve cost…which includes a couple of tacos at $2.50 (a flat out steal), $15 for those rellenos, and ten bucks for enchiladas. In other words, $40 will give two folks all the food they can handle here. He could boost prices by 50% and they would still be a bargain.

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Letty’s De Leticia’s Cocina (aka Letty’s) is an entirely different animal. Where Sin Fronteras punches way above its weight, Leticia Mitchell is swinging at pitches she knows she can hit. (Mix. That. Metaphor!) Her wheelhouse in this case is downtown’s insatiable appetite for tacos.

Opening Letty’s a quarter mile from Casa Don Juan, Dona Maria’s, and Tacotarian would seem to be risky business, but when the food is this good, we can certify it as a home run, only a month into its opening.

Letty’s is tiny (the old El Sombrero building), the menu is small, you order at the register, and they run the food out to one of eight tables inside, with a few more on the sidewalk. Mitchell has made some smart decisions in taking over an iconic space — turning the old freestanding building (the oldest restaurant building in Las Vegas) into sign by itself — in the form of an eye-popping mural which wraps around the structure. The effect is festive and eye-catching, and puts you in the mood for her sparkling cuisine.

Image(Guisado my cochinita, por favor)

Before going any further, I should state that Leticia and I have a history. For years I considered her full-service restaurant in Centennial Hills to be one of our best Mexicans. It was a classic old-school south-of-the-border joint —  colorful decor, lots of seating, lively crowd, full bar, beer and tequila ads everywhere — that felt like a cliche until the food arrived and blew your mind. The fresh tortillas alone were worth the trip, and some of her moles and sauces were extraordinary.

And then, something happened. A few years ago, we suffered two terrible meals in a row which made me question my sanity. It was pretty obvious the “C” team had been put in charge, and soon enough, I started hearing rumors she was closing her doors. Landlord troubles ensued (or so we heard) and soon enough, she did.

Image(Two hot tamales)

All that is water under the bridge now, because Centennial Hills’ loss has been downtown’s gain. Leticia has recovered her taco mojo, and, like Aleman, has gotten better by going smaller,

No longer facing the challenge of serving hundreds (and employing dozens), she’s free to downscale and make handmade food that feels more personal. Tacos and tortas are the focus, stuffed with all your favorite proteins — the difference being each bite brings a level of quality lacking in many of its competitors.

The nominations are closed as far as tamales (above) are concerned: you won’t find better outside of an abuela’s house. We don’t remember anything like her tamarind-sauced, carnitas enchilada in town, either — a tangy take on tradition which managed to be both wonderfully familiar and hauntingly strange.

Image(Sweet heat: carnitas tamarindo)

The sauce starts out tart-sweet and ends with the mellow glow of chile heat filling your throat and back palate — by turns exciting and soothing, and extraordinary by any measure.

Image(Holy fatback, Batman!)

Chicharrones? You only think you know chicharrones….especially if you equate them with crispy fried pork rinds. Letty’s version is more like deep-fried pork belly (more meat than rind, see above) and they are outrageously good by any measure. A big basket shows up, too much for two, you’ll think to yourself, before devouring the whole thing. She also does something called  “quesotacos” which wraps your protein of choice inside a layer of melted, caramelized Oaxaca cheese, wrapped inside a tortilla. A cheese blanket inside a taco may sound a bit Taco Town-ish, but the result is damn tasty.

And while we’re at it, don’t sleep on the Ensenada tacos or the cochinita pibil seared tortillas either. The former are small but pack a punch — whether your seafood is grilled or battered — and the latter are two rolled little rolled corn tortillas of pure adobo pork goodness.

Lest I be seen as overpraising Letty’s, keep in mind this is a modest operation, very much concentrating on tacos, tortas, and snacks. But its delights are in the details, and even the simplest of items — like her black beans with crema — signals a great leap forward in downtown dining options. Bayless once told me the reason Mexican food in America was so lousy was because most of it came out of a can. Nothing here tastes like it came out of a can.

Finally, save room for dessert, but be forewarned: the flan is so dense, light bends around it.

The tacos cost around $4 each (and you’ll want to get two). Everything else on the menu hovers in the $7-$14 range (and you’ll want to try one of each).

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ELIO is in another league entirely. It comes to us straight from Mexico City by way of New York. One look at the place tells you that things are serious here, as in lobster salpicón serious, green mole-tokyo turnip serious, and duck carnitas serious.

The menu is heavy on herbs, veggies, and various non-meaty items, although there are plenty of those around to keep the trenchermen happy.

‘Vegetales” get the super-serious treatment here, enough to justify $19 for a “Gem” lettuce salad (below), and $26 for a single turnip served with green mole. But don’t let these prices dissuade you: whether it’s a deceptively simple salad or a sweet potato served with pumpkin seed salsa, this kitchen has such a way with things that sprout from the earth, you might consider foregoing eating animals altogether.

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Of course, man does not live by pristine salads and “Mole verde (broccoli with hoja santa) alone, so there’s plenty of non-traditional dishes to nosh on, with raw seafood taking center stage, along with such beauties as these marvelously tangy mussels, served “in escabeche”:

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…and it’s doubtful you’ll ever pay more for a carrot dish than these roasted “al pastor” beauties:

Image(Shriveled yet succulent)

….all of it served with various sauces (e.g. guacachile, salsa macha, salsa roja) from deep in the Mexican catechism.

The deepest dives of all are reserved for seafood — rather remarkable from a restaurant having migrated to the high desert from a landlocked, volcanic valley. Regardless, the “crudo” is given top billing on the menu for good reason. Whether it’s striped bass in corn aguachile, scallop ceviche or tuna tartare, there’s not a clinker in the bunch. Soaking seafood in citrus comes as naturally to this cuisine as nixtamalization, and the chefs here are masters of the art.

Image(Duck carnitas with fixins)

Unlike many restaurants these days, things don’t get less interesting once you step up to the main courses. Everything from the lamb barbacoa to the “Branzino a la talla” (served atop a pool of guajillo chile adobo) is meant to be tucked into a taco, but you’ll be excused if you alternate between wrapping ingredients in one of the excellent corn tortillas, or just nibbling away directly from the dish.

The two signature “must have” items are the “Mole de la casa” (a softball of fresh mozzarella cheese plopped into a mole sauce days in the making), and the “Duck carnitas” (above), almost two pounds of spoon-tender duck breast, with crackling skin, begging to be devoured by everyone at the table. The carnitas are pricey ($90) but more than enough for four, and there better be at least that many of you present if you want to take down this big boy. (The picture above is a half portion, and gave The Food Gal® and I all we could handle, with plenty left over for lunch the next day.)

Prices may seem high, but everything is easily shared between 2-4 diners. The Bocados (snacks) section are a good way to dip your toe into the Olvera oeuvre with a minimum of sticker shock, and mix and matching them is half the fun. There, you’ll find a Pan de Elote that might be the last word in corn bread; fat little shrimp tostadas sharpened by grated horseradish and soothed by guacamole (below); and a minced lobster salpicón — all better than anything you’ve ever had in a Mexican restaurant.

Image(Shrimply fabulous)

That’s because you haven’t. Mexican food, especially in the States, has never been treated with such respect, by the cooks or the customers. Here, like a lot of “ethnic” cuisines, it has suffered from a reputation for being cheap and easy, inelegant, informal, and inexpensive. No more.  Enrique Olvera started turning those premises on their head twenty years ago — when Pujol first made a splash in Mexico City — and in the two decades since, Mexican food has taken its rightful place as a world gastronomic treasure. As Feran Adrià has said: “There was Mexican food before Enrique Olvera and Mexican food after Enrique Olvera.”

Like Aleman, Olvera trained at Jean Joho’s Everest in Chicago before embarking on his solo career path, but unlike José, he’s now an empire builder. Multiple venues in Mexico, New York, Los Angeles (and now Vegas) are threatening to turn him into a chilango Vongerichten.

Cornhusk Meringues with Corn Mousse | Recipe | Mexican food recipes, Desserts, Wine recipes

I’ll give him his business aspirations, as long as he keeps giving us desserts like his corn husk mousse (an entire Mesoamerican metaphor in one meringue), and the best churros north of CDMX.

Unlike many globe-trotting chefs, though, Olvera has his proselytizing work cut out for him. He doesn’t just have to make fabulous, inventive, flavorful food, utilizing the cornucopia of edible treasures from his homeland, he also has to convince people to take Mexican food seriously — not as high-falutin’ as fussy French, mind you, but certainly miles beyond the smothered burritos and Mariachi merriment standard template for this food in America.

How he’s doing it is with the most compelling, ambitious Mexican food Las Vegas has ever seen. Aided by his number one — Daniela Soto-Innes –– Olvera is taking our taste buds to places they’ve never been. I don’t care if Elio is a spin-off, or a copy of a copy, right now we have the gustatory glory of Cuidad de México right on our doorstep, the way it was meant to be displayed, on level we have never seen before. All deliciously packaged in a first class room with top flight service. This is a whole other culinary world, muchachos, and it is beckoning all intrepid gastronomes as we speak.

Is it expensive? Si, señor, but the best of anything always is.

Snacks start at around $15, and are meant for two; the raw fish dishes hover in the twenties. Mains cover more territory than the Sonoran Desert — starting at $30 for the Mole de la casa and topping out at $110 (Whole fish) to $165 (a Flintstonean Tomahawk steak) — and easily feed four. The wine list reads like someone actually thought about matching modern wines with Mexican food (rather than some standardized snoozer) and markups are (relatively) reasonable. Tequila and mezcal hounds will think they died and went to heaven.

<<<<<<<<<>>>>>>>>>>>

SIN FRONTERAS TACOS Y MAS

4016 N. Tenaya Way

Las Vegas, NV 89129

702-866-0080

LETTY’S DE LETICIA’S COCINA

807 S. Main Street

Las Vegas, NV 89101

702-476-9477

ELIO

Wynn/Encore Hotel and Casino

3131 Las Vegas Blvd. South

Las Vegas, NV 89109

702.770-5342

Image(José)

 

Image(Letty)

Why I Live Where I Live

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My House:

It was never supposed to last this long.

What started as a mild flirtation with Vegas has turned out to be the longest commitment of my life.

What brought me here was a woman (the second Mrs. Curtas), what’s kept me here has been my house.

Before buying this property, my transience was legendary.

Between 1970 (the year I left my parent’s domicile) and 1995 (when I settled here), I estimate I changed residences 22 times. College, law school, children, divorces, moving cross-country three times — things were pretty hectic for 25 years. The longest stretch in a single abode was four years; the shortest were nights spent couch surfing at the houses of sympathetic friends.

Then, one day in June, 1995, my then wife-to-be (the third Mrs. Curtas) stumbled upon an unprepossessing bungalow, smack dab in the middle of town (in old but not really old Las Vegas), and we fell in love at first sight.

With the house at least. Four years later we were splitting the sheets. She moved; I stayed.

It was a bachelor pad/party house for a few years and served all the functions necessary to those pursuits (nothing gets a woman out of her clothes faster than a hot tub), but it fell into disrepair as those exploits faded and the Great Recession took hold. It was nip and tuck for a while whether I could keep it up (insert dirty joke here), but through bailing wire and financial duct tape, things held together.

Now, the final Mrs. C (the long-suffering Food Gal®), has restored its former glory, and I wouldn’t live anywhere else in Las Vegas if you gave me a McMansion on a golf course with a butler.

Image(Feng shui 100, Curb Appeal 0)

As much as I love it, my house has zero curb appeal. There’s barely even a front. All you see from the street is a three-car garage with an iron gate beside it. But as anyone in real estate can tell you, fancy frontage frequently foretells edificial falsity. Or something like that.

The best thing about the place is its shape. Feng shui they call it, and you can’t help but notice the feel-good quality as soon as you walk in the iron gate. That shape is a “U” which wraps around a small rectangular swimming pool — exuding coziness from the get-go.

Most houses have walls; mine has windows. Big ones. Lots of them, some with giant sliding glass doors and some without. More natural light streams in than the Bellagio Conservatory; so much radiance the warmth of the sun is almost all we need to heat the place in winter.

One side of the U is the garage, the other two sides are the “L”-shaped living structure — nothing fancy but laid out for maximum comfort. You feel good when you walk through that iron gate and suddenly see the pool wrapped on three sides by the house. Everyone does. I’ve never had a person come over who didn’t remark how charming the layout is — even at the height of my bachelor revelries when dirty ashtrays, empty bottles, and womens’ underwear strewn about.

Somewhere around 2000 one of those parties ended with my couch — a fully functional living room couch — sitting at the bottom of the pool. Another soirée found some drunken lass spewing chunks all over my master bathroom, after I begged her….BEGGED HER…to stay outside on the lawn if she wasn’t feeling well. Took me three hours and a gallon of Clorox to clean up. Still remember going to court that morning stinking of bleach, no sleep, and middle-aged bachelor despair. Good times.

My house is more masculine than feminine, more Palm Springs than Palm Beach. It feels like it should’ve belonged to someone in the Rat Pack — not Frank or Dino or Sammy, but a minor hanger-on like Joey Bishop. It practically screams for men in Sansabelt slacks and cigarettes to be strolling around, asking the missus (in a beehive of course) when the martinis will be ready.

Image(If hot tubs could talk…)

My Neighborhood:

Like I said, smack dab in the middle of town. Practically its geographic center. Two miles from downtown; 3 miles from the Strip. Five minutes by car to the Sahara Hotel, ten to the Bellagio. Twelve to Chinatown. The only places too far for me to get to are areas (Summerlin, Green Valley) I don’t want to go to anyway.

Being one of Vegas’s older precincts, there are trees aplenty, walk-able streets are right outside my gate, and the neighborhoods don’t look like a stucco farm. I know my neighbors well-enough to knock on their doors and ask for help in an emergency, but not so well that we’re always in each other’s business….which to my mind is exactly how well you should know your neighbors. I’m sure they all think of me as slightly anti-social, which is just fine with me.

Mine is the shittiest house in a fancy neighborhood — surrounded on two sides by two-story structures too big for their lots (very Vegas that), and sheltered on two others by the circular street containing the other eight houses. (“Always buy the lousiest house in a good neighborhood,” my dad used to intone, and that’s exactly what I ended up doing.) Between the unassuming front, and being tucked among more impressive digs, we are sheltered from attention and the wind and that’s just the way I like it.

A Starbucks, and a supermarket and the best bagels in Vegas are only a five minute walk from our front door. There’s also a serviceable pizza parlor in the same center, and the UMC emergency room a quarter mile away, if things get out of hand — like they did in 2008 — when some bad oysters had me retching, fainting, and breaking my face (nose and eye socket) twice in one long night. Never was any man happier to be within walking distance of a hospital.

My neighborhood isn’t perfect, but it’s closer to the things I love (good food and wine, downtown, my office, the Strip) and far enough from what I hate (soulless suburban sprawl), to make it as perfect as you can get in Las Vegas.

My City:

Calling my relationship with Vegas “love/hate” is an understatement. You have to make your peace with Las Vegas, I’ve told people hundreds of times over the years. If you don’t, it will eat you up.

Everything Las Vegas doesn’t have — taste, neighborhoods, culture, museums, art, music (show tunes don’t count, neither does whatever the fuck this is), intellectuals, education, people who give a shit, residents who care about something other than money — will drive you crazy if you let it.

What it does have — weather, convenience, friendliness, good jobs, a great airport, proximity to California, some of the greatest restaurants on earth, a burgeoning local food scene, great Asian food out the wazoo — makes living bearable. (The awesome assortment of Asian eats is what we’d miss most if we left town.)

Let’s face it, though, in terms of community, Vegas ranks somewhere between a prison colony and a dormitory — our miles and miles of strip malls and stucco (made possible by politicians who sold their souls to real estate developers decades ago), have sapped and stifled all community spirit from the place. It’s why our schools are so crummy and no one ever feels connected to the place. Heck, even The Food Gal® (born and raised here) doesn’t feel connected to the place.

In Vegas, you co-exist with your neighbors, you don’t really share anything with them. Go to any neighborhood in any season — the number of people who are out walking, sharing, feeling connected to their environs you can count on one hand. Las Vegas is a place to make a good living (until recently) and that’s what it’s always been, and what it remains, 40 years after I moved here.

Image(We heart French bakeries)

So why do I stay? Well, I love my job, and my wife and my house. I love my swimming pool in summer, and walking to work anytime it’s not summer. I love our coffee culture and and the young chefs who DO give a shit and want to make this place a better place to live.

I’m nuts for all the good bread and the few French bakeries you can find around town, and I love going to Chinatown every Sunday — something I’ve been doing since 1995.

I love our Thai restaurants (one of which is the most famous Thai restaurant in America). I love big, fancy, expensive restaurants that are better than any big, fancy restaurants anywhere that isn’t New York or Paris.

As nice as these amenities are, I’ve always hated the fact that there’s nothing organic about our town — it exists solely because of tourist money. The only thing that’s ever grown here are monuments to human greed and stupidity: casinos.

But things have grown better over thirty years. Downtown may have a long way to go but it’s now live-able and walk-able — something unthinkable twenty years ago. There are good bars and great coffee and a dozen good restaurants to choose from. I walk to my haircuts these days, and I buy wine from the a store that would be right at home in a much bigger city.

But our supermarkets are shit, and there’s only two independent bookstores in the entire county, and our movie theaters don’t show anything that isn’t a tent-pole blockbuster.

And we’re still saddled with a single cheese store, no seasons, and a terrible newspaper.

Image(Summer bounty at Intuitive Farmers Market)

God bless the scattering of “farmers markets” around town, but they are so small as to be a drop in the bucket — and you’d better fill your bucket early and fast if you want to get the good stuff.

You have to face facts about Las Vegas: it is, and always will be a tourist town, populated by folks who make a living off of others who come here to solely to drop sizeable amounts of disposable income in our buckets. Gambling is the greatest business in the world, my father used to say, a commercial transaction without a product. We don’t make anything; the only thing we sell is hope.

And hope is in short supply these days.

As gambling has receded as Vegas’s primary source of income, the livability of the town has increased. And it’s become a nicer place to live not because of its parks, or sports or music. We’ve done it with food and drink, like I predicted we would twenty years ago. That’s the good news.

The bad news is figuring out whether we have truly reached peak Vegas, and if our economy is going to remain mired in muck for years to come. Put another way: Is a boom town worth living in if it is no longer booming?

It’s all so exhausting these days. But when I get tired of these contemplations, I can always retire to my humble abode, and thank my lucky stars for a cool pool and the house surrounding it. In Las Vegas, in summer, sometimes that’s all you need.

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