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.

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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)

Las Vegas Battles Lethargy

Image(Costa di Mare)

Nobody knows anything. – William Goldman

Trying to take the temperature of where we are and where we’re going is a fruitless exercise. No one knows the answers; everyone has their fingers crossed.

During a recent conversation with a local magazine editor, I was at a loss when asked what I wanted to write about. The “new normal” is anything but. Hotels and restaurants have opened seeking to reestablish themselves, but no one knows how sustainable these operations can be over the long haul, especially when seating is restricted and probably a quarter of your (former) customers are too scared to dine out.

The Strip has rolled the dice and opened its doors: chugging along at a quarter speed with no conventions in the foreseeable future and the slowest time of the year staring it in the face. People are showing up, but nowhere near in the numbers for which these places were designed.

No one has any idea what the demand for Las Vegas is going to be. Nobody knows anything. Everyone’s in the dark. Demand for beds, booze, or breakfast — it’s anyone’s guess what it’ll be: next week, next month, or in November for that matter..

Because we’re all flying blind, no one can plan anything. Everyone is in survival mode, on and off the Strip. Restaurants designed to turn hundreds of covers a night are making do with a fraction of their capacity — like a Formula One racer puttering around and conserving fuel on a go-kart track. Tiny 40 seat Japanese gems like Hiroyoshi and Yui Edomae Sushi are confined to twelve diners at a time.

If you thought we had a tedious, interminable Spring, the next eight weeks are going to be brutal.

Image(ELIO es magnifico!)

Even in places that are open, something very key to every restaurant’s survival is missing. The key to everyone’s survival — un-quantifiable but essential nonetheless. We’re not talking tables, turnover or customers. We’re not even speaking of service, aliments or alcohol.

No, we’re talking about energy. The Big E, the thing every business needs to succeed. It doesn’t matter what business, if you don’t bring energy to what you do, you won’t be doing it for long.

Restaurants derive energy from two places: their patrons and their staff. Both feed off of each other, literally and figuratively.

Small places like ShangHai Taste exude energy (or at least they did) from the moment you enter. It comes from customers eagerly awaiting their seats, and from the chefs furiously rolling, pinching and steaming your xiao long bao for scores of hungry stomachs.

When it’s firing on all cylinders, a huge restaurant like Mott 32 crackles from the minute you hit the gangplank. Bazaar Meat and Cut smell of beef, testosterone, and money; Restaurant Guy Savoy of French perfection.

Even a homey neighborhood joint like Jamie Tran’s Black Sheep has (or used to have) an electricity about it when you walked in the door — a palpable sense of people enjoying themselves. Energy, conviviality, and excitement are what made Esther’s Kitchen a hit from the get-go.

Now, they’ve lost it. All of them. Vitality has been replaced by defensiveness — an almost apologetic feeling in the air permeating these rooms and everyone in them.

The feeling is the same from the our most expensive to our most modest eateries, and it isn’t a pretty sight, even if the food remains as tasty as ever.

Diners are on the defensive. They are out and about at great risk, they are told, and they’re being policed by self-righteous, finger-waggers — emboldened by media, government, and public health officials — who’ve deputized them (they think) to tell the rest of us how to behave. The restaurants themselves live in fear of being outed for the smallest health infraction; their customers are less fearful, but ever vigilant, lest they be thought of as not properly protecting themselves or those around them.

Needless to say, none of this is a recipe for success.

But undaunted, we persevere. Eating out more than anyone, trying to gauge the temperature of our hospitality industry every week. Since good lunches are problematic downtown, and the hotels have reduced options and hours, we’re picking our spots

The following are the places I’ve eaten since the the quarantine was lifted in early June. As usual, all places come highly recommended.

The (short) List:

Restaurant Guy Savoy

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Against all odds, Caesars Palace decided to reopen one of America’s fanciest and most expensive restaurants. Like most higher-end joints, it’s only serving four nights a week (Wed.-Sat.), and multiple compromises have been made in the way they serve things. The bread cart is now for show only, silverware comes wrapped in paper, and the (smaller) cheese selection is one step removed from a Tupperware party.

Image(Pretty cheesy if you ask me)

That said, Exec Chef Nicolas Costagliola continues to execute the Guy Savoy canon with delicious precision, the service never misses a beat, and you won’t find any better duck, veal, fish, vegetables, and desserts anywhere. With its already limited competition being laid low on both coasts, there is no better big deal meal in America right now. In fact, it may be the only big deal meal in America right now.

ELIO

Image(You won’t turnip your nose at these)

Another surprise. Straight from Mexico City by way of New York City. On every gastronaut’s radar, even though it’s only open Thurs.-Sun.. Wonderful bar, mescal tasting room, molés out the wazoo, and modern Mexican food like Vegas has never seen before. Most of the food gobsmacked us, but we want/need a second round before letting our opinions gel. Be advised though: they take no prisoners with strong flavors and it is pricey — some of the vegetable dishes are priced from in the mid-twenties….for turnips (above).

Costa di Mare

Image(John Dory at Costa di Mare)

Dramatic setting, dramatic seafood. We wrote this place off several years ago after two mediocre meals. But to the Wynn’s credit (as well as Chef Mark LoRusso and GM Ivo Angelov), it has arisen from the quarantine ashes and recaptured some of the old Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare mojo. The Food Gal® (aka my wife) can’t wait to go back. Neither can I.

Bazaar Meat by José Andrés

At this point, I don’t think it’s possible to have a bad meal at Bazaar Meat, or even a bad bite. Totally hit the ground running and tastes as wonderful as ever. The only thing that feels strange are the socially-distanced empty tables. As a steakhouse, however, it remains a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside the enigma which is the new-old Sahara hotel.

ShangHai Taste

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One of those mom and pop places struggling with reduced seating. Acclaim-worthy xiao long bao, noodles and spareribs were a hit from day one….the Covid hit. Now, the once-mobbed, spanking-new Shanghai Plaza is a shadow of its once-bustling self. All Chef Jimmy Li can do is hang on and hope.

Oodle Noodle

Oodles of udon. Healthy bowls of Japanese goodness and super-foods like seaweed salad. If you’re looking for a tasty, economical lunch with wellness-giving properties, look no further.

DE Thai

We had one of our best meals ever here for lunch the other day. Small but mighty terrific Thai.

Other Notables — Where you should be eating now:

8oz Korean Steakhouse

Lotus of Siam

Pho So 1

Yui Edomae Sushi

Lamaii

Cucina by Wolfgang Puck

Carson Kitchen

7th & Carson

Kaiseki Yuzu

Player’s Locker by Wolfgang Puck

Monzú Italian Oven + Bar

Esther’s Kitchen

The Black Sheep

PublicUs

EDO Gastro Tapas & Wine

Marche Bacchus

Saga Pastry + Sandwich

Oscar’s Steakhouse

Allegro at Wynn

Image(Keep calm and carrot on at ELIO)