Introduction – EATING LAS VEGAS 2020

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(Ed. note: As we are up to our armpits in writing the 2020 Edition of EATING LAS VEGAS – The 52 Essential Restaurants, our staff thought a little teaser from this year’s edition might be in order. If all goes according to plan (and it never does), this year’s book should be published some time in November.)

What does “essential” mean? Does it mean “the best”? Yes, but it signifies something more. The best will always be essential, but what is essential may not always be the best. When it comes to restaurants — more specifically the restaurants of Las Vegas — “essential” stands for those places that stand out and are setting a standard. The first places I would take a visiting gourmet, or a fellow food writer. They are the ones my mind always wanders to when I’m hungry, and the ones doing the most intriguing work in the kitchen. They tend to be passion projects, not money projects — eateries reflecting the particular sensibilities of their chefs and owners, not the calculations of a casino corporation. When I list a restaurant as “essential” it means I would take you there, my friend, if you dialed me up and asked, “John, what’s a place I have to go to in Vegas right now?”

This is the eighth edition of Eating Las Vegas; I’m not sure there will be a ninth. For ten years this little guidebook has consumed my summers, expanded my waistline, lightened my wallet, and kept me patrolling the streets and hotels of Sin City for the best places to eat. I like to brag that no one has ever “eaten Las Vegas” as much as I have, because it’s true, and because we look for strokes wherever we can find them, even when they’re self-applied.

In the beginning all I wanted was to write a book called “The Restaurants of Las Vegas.” My fantasy (way back in 1995 when my food writing career began in earnest), was to publish a guide similar to the ones I saw coming out of New York: gourmet tours-de-force by writers like Bryan Miller and Seymour Britchky which explored the culinary canyons of the Big Apple. If you will allow me another self-congratulatory morsel, I think I recognized before anyone that Las Vegas was destined to become a world-class restaurant city, and it would need someone to chart its rise to preeminence, and lead a certain type of discriminating consumer through the green felt jungle to oases of dining pleasure worth their time and money.

By the time the first edition of this book was launched in the fall of 2010, fifteen years of hard labor had been put into covering the Vegas restaurant scene. Now, a decade later, more calories have been consumed than I can count, and the landscape has changed so much that those days feel like a gauzy dream. The early editions featured only a handful of local restaurants as “essential” — this year, almost half the book celebrates off-Strip eateries.

Image(Is Hatsumi essential? You’ll have to buy a book to find out.)

Local dining options have expanded (and improved) so much recently that the world has taken notice of what we Las Vegans have known since the early aughts: Vegas hotels contain a wealth of kitchen talent  — young folks itching to strut their stuff for residents, not just fill the bellies of distracted tourists. True, the Great Recession hastened this migration for many chefs. But as with wine, stressed vines make for better juice, and the rigors of that depression (yes, in Vegas it was a depression) gave bloom to vibrant neighborhood dining cultures, especially downtown and in Chinatown, where cash-strapped Gen Xrs and Millennials demanded a better supply of quality grub at affordable prices.

In some ways, it seems like 2020 should be the natural end to this obsession of mine. Where once I was the only voice in the wilderness, beseeching people to patronize better restaurants, now the internet is crawling with opinions on where you should eat. I’ve become a dinosaur and I know it. Never again will Las Vegas see someone as foolish as me — someone compelled to eat everywhere and try everything. Someone who spends a mountain of their own cash to promote restaurants he thinks are worthy. A person who sacrificed success in one career (law) for notoriety in a much less lucrative one. In essence, what I’ve always been is an unpaid press agent for the best restaurants of Las Vegas.

But don’t feel sorry for me. I’ve been paid, and I’ve been paid well — in great food, great friends and wonderful experiences, stretching back for half of my adult life. And you paid for this book, and for that, and for all of this, I am grateful.

The List – Summer 2019 Edition

 

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We are elbow-deep in writing the 2020 edition of EATING LAS VEGAS – The 52 Essential Restaurants, so postings on this site have been slim this month.

While we’re in the process of gleaning and vetting and grooming and culling the herd of worthy restaurants down to manageable size (as well as re-writing the intro and other chapters), we thought we’d give you a little sumpin sumpin to chew on….

…and by “chew on” we mean a list of all the worthy places we’ve dined over the past several months, as well as a few unworthy ones.

As always, if you find anyone who eats out in Las Vegas even half as much as we do, lunch is on me.

As usual, all restaurants come highly recommended unless otherwise noted:

Image(Trés cazuelas at Trés Cazuelas)

Trés Cazuelas – Fab food in a funny location. And when I say “fab” I mean our most interesting, pan-Latin cooking, in a tiny, 40 seat space that is quite inviting once you get inside. Ignore the shitty building and dive in. You can thank me later.

Le Cirque – Ivo Angelov has left after 11 years of handling the front of the house like a maestro. As great as he was, no doubt the old pros running things will keep it humming along smoothly. Alan Mardonovich’s food fits the setting like pearls in a gorgeous oyster.

Joël Robuchon Christophe de Lillis keeps this place at or near the top of America’s (and the world’s) best restaurants.

Esther’s Kitchen that place is so crowded no one goes there anymore.

Flock & Fowl I don’t know what’s going on here, but two mediocre meals in a row tell me this place has lost its mojo.

Image(This soup won’t leave you wonton)

Nuro Bistro – our best Hainanese chicken. Don’t argue with me about this. Killer wonton soups, too.

Bazaar Meat – 1-2 with CUT for Vegas’s best steaks.

Jammyland – come for the drinks; stay for the Jamaican meat pies.

Image(Two terrific Thais, less than a half-mile apart)

Lamaii – Las Vegas is Thai’ing one on these days, haven’t you heard?

Weera Thai Kitchen – already a tough ticket at peak hours. Worth the wait.

Cipriani – my Friday fave.

Vesta Coffee – our hangout.

PublicUs – our hangout with good pastries and great bread.

Water Grill a chain seafood place for those who miss McCormick & Schmicks.

Image(Duck panang curry at Lotus)

Lotus of Siam – our greatest Asian has gotten even better.

88 Noodle Papa – brand new, and a solid second place in the Hainanese chicken sweepstakes.

Ocha Thai – always solid, if unspectacular, Thai favorites.

Orchid Vietnamese by-the-numbers Vietnamese.

Good Pie – others get more pub, GP makes the best pizza pies.

Pop-Up Pizza – another unsung hero in our pizza revolution. The stromboli is out of this world.

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Sin Fronteras Tacos – way up on Tenaya. Frightfully good Mexican food, not out of a can, made with real passion. Quite a find.

District One – best pho broth in Vegas….says noted pho expert The Food Gal® (honest to Christ, she’s tried them all).

Jaleo – we love the D.C. original, but the paella here is nonpareil.

Maker’s & Finders – the charms of this place never cease to escape me.

DE Thai Kitchen the best Jerry, the BEST! (Thai street food)

Santos Tacos – the best tacos within a 5 mile radius of downtown. Fight me.

Image(We’re secretly in love with Mio-san. Please don’t tell The Food Gal®)

Raku Sweets – Mio-san (above) makes our best sweets, and the sweetest weekend lunch in town.

Hatsumi – get skewered and sake’d in downtown’s hottest new joint.

Mabel’s BBQ – our best barbecue. Something else you shouldn’t argue with me about.

The Kitchen at Atomic – casual vibe, serious food. Not sure if downtown realizes exactly how good it is.

Image(Righto, Guv-nah!)

The Smashed Pig I’m not going out on a limb and recommend the whole menu, but the fish and chips (above) are worthy. A pleasant surprise on East Fremont Street when I was famished one weekday.

Gauchos Sacred Flavors – This place will be a lot nicer when it’s not 105 degrees outside (the only place to sit).

Pamplona – 5 years ago I would’ve been at Pamplona every week. Now, there’s too many good restaurants to choose from. #firstworldproblems

Locale – been once, liked it. Too fucking far to rush back….especially with downtown and Chinatown practically in my backyard. 

La Strega – been twice, want to like it more than I did. Cookie-cutter Italian menus just don’t tingle my nethers anymore. That said, the ingredients are top-drawer, the cooking is precise and the wine list is great.

Daigu Rice Noodle another in a tsunami of Asian chains (Korean, mainly) threatening to swamp Chinatown. This one advertises for you to buy your own Daigu Rice Noodle franchise….right on the menu! The food isn’t worth investing in.

Image(José Andrés would be proud)

Valencian Gold – $10 bowls of paella never tasted so good. Neither did patatas con bravas (above).

Vetri – the polar opposite of cookie-cutter Italian. Not for everyone, but the food is as awesome as the view.

The Goodwich – I have dreams about the Reuben-ish and The Patty.

Saga Pastry + Sandwich – Gert’s sandwiches and pastries could make a new Nordic lover out of me.

Image(James Trees puts the putta in the puttanesca)

Ada’s – I like Ada, but I like her big sister Esther better.

Rooster Boy Cafe – Las Vegas’s best breakfast.

Serrano’s Mexican Food – a hole-in-the-wall worth seeking out.

Old Soul – Outstanding food in a less-than-outstanding location. If it makes it, it’ll be a miracle, but I’m rooting for the miracle.

Café Breizh – our best French pastries. I’m glad they’re so far from my house.

The Black Sheep – fantastic fusion food. Jamie Tran is a treasure.

Image(In heaven, all cookies are warm and chocolate chip)

Spago – our best old reliable. The people-watching isn’t as good as it was at the Forum Shops (how could it be?), but the place feels cozier and the food never misses a beat. And the chocolate chip cookies (above) might be the best on the planet.

New York Bagel and Bakery the best bagels in town. I’m tired of telling you this. Go see for yourself. Loser.

CUT – a meat lover’s fantasy come true. Not sure any steakhouse in America has a better selection of top grade beef.

China Mama – soup dumplings, crispy shrimp, cumin lamb and pepper beef…what more does a man need?

Not bad for one summer, considering we took two week’s vacation and visited a number of them more than once.

With a little luck, and a lot of hard work at Huntington Press, the 2020 edition of ELV should be released in November….and boy will there be some surprises…

Image(Chilaquiles at Rooster Boy Cafe)

 

 

The Ten Commandments of Chinatown

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1. Thou shalt not revolve thy sushi.*

2. Thou shalt not eat all-thy-can-eat anything.*

3. Thou shalt not bear false ramen/pho/noodle witness.*

4. Thou shalt not boba.*

5. Thou shalt not worship any other culinary gods before me.*

6. Thou shalt not take the name of Asian cuisines in vain.*

7. Honor thy father and mother, but do not trust their Korean steakhouse recommendations.*

8. Like all good Jews, honor thy Sabbath by eating Chinese.*

9. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s plate, nor his wife, nor his manservant unless they appear to be ordering better than you.*

10. Thou shalt not commit adultery…unless she is on really good terms with a great sushi chef.*

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* 1 – Revolving sushi restaurants have taken over Chinatown faster than the Japanese captured Singapore. They are “loads of fun for the whole family!” — in other words, exactly the opposite of what sushi is about. If you enjoy whooping it up while eating robotic, franchised fish off a conveyor belt, have at it. Sushi should be serious business. As eating any raw food should be.

* 2 – It’s simple economics, pilgrim. One price anything (AYCE, standardized sushi, Korean BBQ, etc.) is incentivized to provide you with the most food at the lowest cost to the restaurant. Translation: You’re getting the absolute bottom of the barrel of ingredients, artfully repackaged, to convince your gullible self that you’re getting something good, when you’re not. When you don’t pay by the piece (for a steak, salad or sashimi) you’re playing the restaurant’s game, not your own.

* 3 – Asian noodles are cheap eats, and starchy shops are propagating faster than lamian strands. Every strip mall in Chinatown now has at least a couple.  The new Shanghai Plaza (top of the page) is going to end up with, like, six of them. Most are adequate, some are terrible. (Think of them like street tacos, if street tacos came with a half-gallon of steaming broth.)

If you see a noodle shop that’s taken over a noodle shop that replaced another noodle shop, chances are you’re getting a pre-packaged product being sold by some Asian restaurant gypsy who’s buying everything in a box.

* 4 – Boba is a bad joke — high-fructose corn syrup candy slushes masquerading as “tea.” All of it comes in powdered form, and now has as much to do with real tea as a double soy caramel whipped latte has to do with Colombian coffee.

Whatever its origins, boba now serves as a pacifier for out-of-control kids and surly Taiwanese teenagers. A grownup drinking boba looks as ridiculous as an adult licking a ginormous pinwheel lollipop at a county fair. Yes, you should be ashamed of yourself.

2019 Eating Las Vegas

* 5 – No other gwailo, gaijin or gringo covers Chinatown like I do. No one else is even close. I wrote the very first article about it for Las Vegas Life magazine back in 1997 (below), and I’ve been going there weekly since 1995. (My office used to be at Desert Inn and Jones, on the cusp of Chinatown, so I used to lunch there almost daily.)

If you have a Chinese friend who knows the cuisine backwards, then by all means, trust them. If you’re a sushi hound who’s sampled the real deal from Tokyo to Manhattan, then go with your gut. But if you’re a novice looking for guidance, climb aboard! Better yet, buy this book. It won’t steer you wrong. If you trust your Asian eats to Eater, or Thrillist, I feel sorry for you. At least Yelpers actually eat at the places they discuss.

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* 6 – Asian cuisines are some of the most sophisticated in the world. Chinese technique is revered by even the French; Japan’s ingredients rival Italy’s for their exquisiteness. No food culture on earth can match Thailand for its combination of sweet, sour, spicy and savory flavors. What Korean food lacks in subtlety it makes up for in fermented deliciousness.

Anyone who thinks eating Asian is “slumming it” has rocks in their head…and driftwood for a palate. Tell that friend of yours who wants to “eat cheap” in Chinatown to shut the fuck up…or get thyself to a conveyor belt.

* 7 – A corollary to my AYCE rant is not to trust anyone who recommends any place that’s a “good deal.” There are a dozen Korean BBQ/steakhouses around town that are “good deals.”  Hot and Juicy Crawfish is a “good deal”…because it fills you up with farm-raised, shit-fed Frankenfish bred in the bubbling warmth of brackish, southeast Asian sewage ponds. Yummmm.

Asian food is like anything else: you get what you pay for. 8 Oz Korean Steakhouse and Hobak have the best meat, not the most cheap meat you can eat. The proliferation of one-price Asian restaurants (mainly Korean and sushi) stands as an insult to the food cultures that popularized them. If you want the “best deals” in Chinatown, go to Yelp…and be sure to keep checking for tapeworms.

* 8 – Jews figured this out around the time they were wandering in the Sinai Desert: Sunday is the best day for Chinese food. The food is just as good as Saturday night and the atmosphere always seems more relaxed.

The two places we like best are China Mama and New Asian BBQ, but Mian, and Shang Artisan Noodle are close behind. That old reliable Orchids Garden has also made a comeback and is great for dim sum.

* 9 – There are only two ways to become an expert in Asian food: go to Asia and pay attention, or eat it all the time and ask questions. (Getting answers to your questions is actually easier over here than it is over there.) Don’t be shy. Asians certainly aren’t. If you see a plate pass by and it looks interesting, ask your server what it is. If the server’s English is marginal, ask the person who sat you (they’re usually the most multi-lingual person on the staff).

The language barrier has fallen considerably since I started covering Chinatown in the 90s. Picture menus are also much more common, making ordering a breeze. Covet those plates you see passing by, I say! Ask your neighbors what they’re having. You’ll be in for a world of pleasant surprises.

* 10 – Asian food is not for the timid. As with adultery, there are risks involved, the most common being: you might discover something you actually like better than what you’re used to. There is a world of textures and tastes from Asia springing from a refinement of raw materials (rice, salt, wheat, soybeans, poultry, fish, etc.) that took place a millennia before Europeans discovered the plow. So take the plunge…because as with a passionate mistress, you might find you can’t stay away.

And if you’re lucky enough to find someone who can say omakase and mean it, please let your spouse down gently.