John Curtas is …


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Solipsism, The Strip, and GOOD PIE

First of all, thanks to everyone for the kind words and comments. It’s hard to express how much they mean to me. While we may not get the number of page views we had 7-8 years ago, it’s gratifying to know that what we write still resonates with a certain level of intrepid foodie and discriminating gastronaut….like you.

Second of all, as promised, we’re going to end this incarnation of EATING LAS VEGAS with some short, to-the-point recommendations based upon where we’ve been chowing down since the first of the year, and where you’ll be finding us in the coming months.

As you will notice, most of these are off the Strip. Try as we might, it has been almost impossible to work up any enthusiasm for dining on Las Vegas Boulevard for months now. The greed, the stupidity, the same-old sameness, and the insanity of its pricing has finally gotten to us. After twenty five years of being their biggest cheerleader, we can no longer summon the energy to drag our ass down to one of the huge hotels, pay for parking, and endure the slack-jawed hordes who are being subjected to metronomic service at stratospheric prices.

Need more reasons for our disaffection? Then how about:

> Bavette’s is charging $74 dollars for a steak you can barely see.

> Big Casino now tacks “resort fees” onto bills for things (like the gym and landline phones) that most people don’t use.

> Drink and wine prices continue to be obscene. Getting a drink at a Vegas casino is like fighting with the peasants for a sliver of soylent green.…and paying $22 for the privilege.

> Paying for parking is a non-starter for us (as with most locals) — another reason to continue to patronize the Venetian/Palazzo, at least until they capitulate to their accountants and start nickel and dime-ing everything like everyone else.

> The Las Vegas “food press” (note the air quotes) trips over their dick praising Hell’s Kitchen, and whatever licensing deal Giada struck this week to slap her name on some pathetic piece of plagiarism. My compliant, credulous colleagues continue to write about these places like they are actually a Gordon Ramsay, Morimoto, or Giada Di Laurentiis operation, when in actuality they are branding exercises for hotel-run restaurants. Most of these aren’t even management deals — like the one Wolfgang Puck struck with Bellagio for the upcoming Spago re-launch. Instead, they stand as a cynical testament to the continuous soaking of yokels that has become Vegas’s stock in trade.

> Mario Batali is now persona-non-grata in his own restaurants (which his {former} company actually does run) — restaurants that are only famous because his name is attached to them. Yes, we know he’s a pig and has behaved deplorably around many women on many occasions, but what are we to make of his Las Vegas presence? Can his restaurants stand on their own? Even with the talented Nicole Brisson at the helm? Three years ago I would’ve cared, now I can barely manage a shrug.

> The Strip may be dying the slow death of a million paper cuts, but the re-branding/down-sizing of the Batali-Bastianich empire — a bastion of serious foodie cred in our humble burg for almost a decade — is an immediate casualty from which there may be no recovery. Because there are no more celebrity chefs on the horizon, and because the ones here (with a few exceptions, mostly French) are either played out or washed up.

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One final story before I rest my case, stop my navel-gazing, and make a recommendation.

I went to lunch not long ago with some very well-known, affluent types who live in those Happy Trails/Heartbreak Ridges-type neighborhoods in the fancy part of town. These folks have known me for a long time and are fully aware of my writing, my persona, my palate, and my prejudices.

They spend their days tooling around in expensive automobiles, playing golf and planning their vacations. They travel the world. They profess to love good food and wine. As far as I know they can all read and write. It was for that reason that I had given them copies of my book in the past. They asked me where I wanted to go (up around Summerlin), but I got overruled.

Where we ended up was one of those inexplicably popular restaurants that pretends to be about wine, but really isn’t, and acts like it’s putting out great food, but doesn’t.

As I sat there pushing my food around on my plate and trying to find a drinkable wine for under a hundy, it struck me: “You’re never going to reach these people, John.” 23 years of preaching and proselytizing hasn’t made a dent….not with this crowd. They can buy and sell me a dozen times over, and talk about flying here and renting a yacht there, but they wouldn’t know a good cacio e pepe if it bit them on their Asti spumante. And they don’t care to know. Like most folks when it comes to food (and wine) they are blissful in their ignorance. (Did I mention that Santa Margherita pinot grigio was the preferred libation? And that the place was thick with lawyers? And that two of them proudly told me that Michael’s at the South Coast was “the best restaurant in town”?)

As I sat there, it occurred to me that I’ve been no different all these years than a music or movie critic who is always suggesting that people learn to appreciate a higher, more advanced form of the entertainment they enjoy. Month after month and year after year these critics recommend more complex, better music, better movies, and more elevated examples of these art forms. And what do they get for their troubles? People asking them how they like a stupid Star Wars re-boot, or taking them to a Miley Cyrus concert.

When the hoi polloi does this, it doesn’t bother me. When wealthy friends and acquaintances do, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

But for you, dear reader, I have nothing but respect.

You have braved the wilds of the inter webs to find me, and have suffered through enough of my kvetching.

You, my friend, are here to learn about the good stuff — the best food and drink this town has to offer. So I say: fuck the knuckle draggers; screw the affluent….AND GET THEE TO GOOD PIE!

Why Good Pie? Because it’s the best New York-style pizza in town. It’s a slice joint no wider than a pepperoni, but the deck oven stuff being put out by Vincent Rotolo puts other pretenders to shame.

Good Pie gives me hope. It stands for the proposition that passionate individuals are still out there trying to bring good taste, and better pizza, to Las Vegas.

Good Pie is everything Tivoli Village and Downtown Summerlin (which is neither down, nor a town, nor downtown of anything) are not.

Good Pie is as real as the dough Rotolo is proofing (every two days) and rolling out to order.  Good Pie is excellent ingredients, house-made sauce (from a combination of California and Italian tomatoes), and the best pizza cheese you’re ever going to find in a take-out joint.

Those pizzas are something to behold, but his garlic knots:

…are going to be what makes him famous.

Yours truly is not a calzone lover (too bready and cheesy — even for this carb-lovin’ turophile), but if you insist on one of these belly-bombs, this is the place to get one:

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And if vegan pizza is your thing, look no further than this bad boy:

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….or what these bad boyz are up to:

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My rich friends won’t come here, because, on a fundamental food and wine level, they’re content to remain in a culture-free cocoon of their own making.

But you, my friend, should, because, like me, you’re always searching for something better, whether in a pizza or a cacio e pepe.

If I wasn’t fat and old and being hounded by my wife and cardiologist, I’d be here every day.


725 Las Vegas Boulevard South #140

Las Vegas, NV 89101



Oy Vey!

(Jews met, and protested ELV)

Hell hath no fury like a deli lover scorned.

And scorned they were. And furious did they become.

And so it came to pass that they attempted to strike down upon me with great vengeance and furious anger.

And therein lies the tale.

Before we begin, let’s get two things straight: I love Jews, and their food. Especially their Ashkenazi-American-Jewish-deli food.

Even before I knew a rugelach from a gefilte, I was a lover of the Jewish culture.  I consider the Jewish faith to be the best, most sensible and loving of all religions.

If I were a religious man, I would be Jewish.

But some Jews have a problem: they wouldn’t know a great piece of pastrami if it bit them on their bialy.

And even if they don’t know their kashrut from their kreplach, boy do they have opinions.

And when you start splitting Talmudic hairs with them, you better gird your loins for a fight.

First some background. I’m an old deli aficionado, as my father (a Greek) was before me. I was practically raised in Ronnie’s in Orlando, Florida — which was a direct copy of Rascal’s and Wolfie’s in Miami Beach. And if you don’t think they knew from delis in Miami Beach back then, you’re a putz. Or at least a schlemiel.

From the 1970s through the 1990s whenever I was in New York, a stop at the Stage, 2nd Avenue, Carnegie or Katz’s was mandatory. When I was out west, you’d find me at Canter’s or Langer’s. In Chicago, it was Kaufman’s and in Montreal, Schwartz’s. I even remember at stellar experience at the Gotham Deli on 47th Street, in the heart of the Diamond District, back in the Eighties that might’ve been the best bagel I ever tasted….next to Barney Greengrass’s….which was second only to Schwartz’s…none of which held a candle to the sweet-sour little pumpernickel rolls (wrapped around tiny bits of melted onions) at the Ronnie’s of my youth.

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Most of those mentioned are now closed. In New York, Katz’s continues to hang on, but the the rest of them are history. On the west coast, the famous ones persevere against all odds. (There’s even been an infusion of new Jewish deli blood in L.A. with the opening of Wexler’s.) But in Miami Beach, where my deli education began, good Jewish food is harder to find these days than a heterosexual.

All of which is by way of establishing my bona fides for this type of food. I love it the way only a person raised with something can. The deep, rich, mahogany red of great pastrami pulses through my blood every bit as much as my matching hemoglobin. At various times of my life, if you had opened a vein, I’m sure it would’ve smelled like corned beef on rye.

Which is why I was excited when Canter’s decided to come back to Vegas and open a store in Tivoli Village. (Some may remember they had an outlet in the Treasure Island hotel that skedaddled some years ago.)  The original Canter’s on Fairfax Avenue in L.A. is an institution. Although I’ve always found its sandwiches a notch below Langer’s, I vastly preferred them to the so-so stuff at the celebrity-studded Nate ‘n Al. (Further proof, if any is needed, of the inverse relationship between great food and famous people.)

It all started with this opening salvo on my Facebook page: “There ought to be a line out the door at Canter’s Las Vegas. But I bet there’s a 20 minute wait for a table at Mimi’s and the Bagel Cafe – where everything comes out of a bag or a box.” (It was a poor choice of words, since deleted, as I’m sure everything at the Bagel Cafe does not come out of a box — it just tastes like it.)

It started out as a mild controversy, as one of my Facebook friends weighed in a statement,”The owner claims they make all of their food from scratch.”

To which I replied:

Really? They do their own baking? (It never smells or tastes like it.) Cure their own meat? Make their own bagels? (possible….then why do they look and taste like the bagels at dozens of places around town?) Do they slave over salmon? Nourish the nova from the time they fillet the fish? Roll out their own rye? Do they have a cadre of cooks in the back making everything from the tuna salad to the shredding potatoes for the latkes? Color me skeptical….Or perhaps we just have different definitions of what “making things from scratch” means…

Then it was on.

What started as a tickle of tendentiousness swelled into a raging river of retorts, ripostes and rejoinders.

The comments ranged from the thoughtful:

[Canter’s] is like a pop-up deli missing many of our major top food items.

Desserts and pastries better at Bagel Cafe; pastrami and corned beef better at Canter’s.

To the underwhelmed:

Service was excellent, pancakes were heavy and chewy….pastrami a bit dry to my liking.

To the absurdly hyperbolic:

The matzoh ball soup at Bagel Cafe is ten times better than that at Canter’s.

To complete disagreement:

I enjoy Bagel Cafe very much and didn’t agree with John Curtas.

To the totally disagreeable:

Canter’s is disgusting. (ELV note: Canter’s is not disgusting, and the person making the comment thinks the best Jewish deli in America is in Texas — because we all know how high the deli bar is set in Texas.)

Then I got a little arrogant and pushy (I know, quite a surprise) when responding to those trashing Canter’s:

Canter’s has the best bagels I’ve tasted in town. It doesn’t duplicate the magic of the original, but in Vegas — where we haven’t had a decent deli in 30 years — it’s as good as you’re going to get. And BTW: your friends (who say otherwise) probably don’t know anything about Jewish food.

Finally, after dozens of comments, I weighed in with what I thought would be the end of it:

Here’s the bottom line: Canter’s actually cooks and prepares all its own food. Bagel Cafe (where I had eaten many times over the years, and seen the Sysco trucks and viewed the purchased meats in the counter) tastes pre-made. To those of you who say, “[Canter’s] is not as good as….” – I leave you to your pre-packaged mediocrity.

Then it was really on. There were comments upon comments and threads within threads and it all became exhausting after a while. (In all, I think there were well over 200 comments — which is amazing considering that this web site (and my FB page) is lucky these days to a dozen people commenting about one of my reviews.

Many agreed with me that the Bagel Cafe is a mediocre deli experience at best. The real fressers in the threads pointed to how well steamed and hand-sliced Canter’s meat is. (Those busy defending their BC turf hardly ever articulated why anything there was superior in any way.)

For the record, I did give props to the chicken noodle soup at the Bagel Cafe. It’s about the only thing I’ve ever had there that impressed me.

My favorite comment was:

I’m ashamed to see some of my fellow Yidden don’t know from great pastrami and corned beef. We finally get a world-class place and people just kvetch. This is why we can’t have nice things. (This comment even included a link to David Sax’s “Save The Deli” – a book I doubt anyone associated with the Bagel Cafe has ever read.)

But then, a day later, things got really interesting when the Bagel Cafe itself started weighing in:

I am the owner of The Bagel Cafe. You must immediately take down your slanderous comments….we do, in fact make our food, in house, fresh daily. Shame on you.

To which I replied:

Please explain “make our own food fresh daily” – I’ve asked questions and I’m skeptical. If you actually: 1) do ALL your own baking; 2) cure your own meat and fish; 3) smoke your own pastrami; and 4) make all of your salads and soups from scratch; etc…I will not only apologize, I’ll come eat there.

His response:

Sir, you are not welcome at the Bagel Cafe…I will not continue to engage with you.

I also heard from the general manager of the BC who gave me the usual “We’ve been in business forever, everyone loves us, how dare you say anything bad about us blah blah blah…” — to which I responded with the same questions I posed to the owner. I even requested he send me pictures of all of the curing, smoking, and baking going on there, with my assurance that I would retract any comments that turned out to be untrue.

His response was to block me from any further conversation.

And so it continued…for days.

At one point, BC acolytes were purposefully posting bad reviews of Canter’s on Yelp to (I guess) try to enhance their reputation by besmirching another’s. Classy.

People went nuts accusing me of all sorts of things, but I never did get my questions answered to my satisfaction, and my satisfaction demands more than the owner and his relatives telling me, “We cook all our own food.”


Bottom line: My three meals at Canter’s have been really really good. It has demonstrably better sandwiches, meat, cheesecake, bagels and fish than Bagel Cafe. (The coffee is also great, too.) If people don’t want to believe it, that’s their business.

Bottom line #2: Just because you like a place doesn’t mean it’s any good, and just because you’re born into a culture doesn’t mean you have a clue about quality. There are Italians all over America who swear by shitty Italian food, and Americans who wouldn’t know a good cheeseburger if it bit them on the bun.

The next time I want a corned beef sandwich, I’m heading to Canter’s. The rest of you, I leave to your mediocrity and this message:

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330 S. Rampart Blvd. Suite 160

Las Vegas, NV 89145



American Cuisine: Fused and Confused with tagliatelle?)

The problem is there aren’t any rules anymore.

Not in politics, and not in restaurants.

Rules are what give us comfort. They provide context and boundaries to how we’re supposed to act and how we’re supposed to eat.

By nature, I’m not a rule follower. Laws are just suggestions, I’m fond of saying, but I don’t really mean it, especially when social intercourse is involved, and especially when dining pleasure is at stake.

Civility, decorum, manners, tradition — they’ve all taken a beating over the last decade, a beating that shows no signs of abating.

In that same vein, upscale eating has become a no-holds-barred, free-for-all.

Fish sauce in meatloaf. Clam toast. Uni shooters. Baby back ribs mingle with roasted cauliflower — in a supposed Italian restaurant. (Boy, do American chefs LOVE roasted veggies.) Soffrito this and lamb burger that.

Mocha oatmeal stout mole with beef cheek, brown butter, and a masa dumpling?

Misho kosho polenta? With duck katsuboshi? Bloody Marys that take 20 minutes to make. ENOUGH ALREADY!

Stoner food. Comfort food. Everything has to be cravable. Nothing is tethered to anything but the chef’s imagination — imaginations that are running wild from coast to coast because everyone is copying everyone else’s Instagrammable dishes.

On and on it goes from Grant Achatz to chefs from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon.

I don’t want to eat Iberian-inspired cuisine, I want to eat the real thing…or at least an American restaurant’s close approximation of the real thing. Simply tossing some pata negra ham on something does as much for me as putting pesto on peanut butter.

“Their food aesthetic is hard to define.”is what wins you national publicity these days, but who in the hell wants to eat something they don’t understand?  Grownups want definition;  teenagers need it, and young adults are searching for it. The only people who don’t want definition are children too stupid to know how essential structure is for things to make sense.

American restaurants, I’m here to tell you, and especially new American restaurants, have stopped making sense.

I get it: chefs are in the business of making food that people want to eat. If the crowd wants eclecticism, then pile French foie gras alongside Peruvian tiradito topped with a lamb necks and Millennials will beat a path to your door.

But there’s a big problem with this kind of eating: it’s exhausting.

Thematic restaurants are comforting. Whether it’s a Umberto’s Clam House, Joël Robuchon or In-N-Out Burger, you know what you’re getting when you walk in. You know (or hope) you’re going there to be fed something recognizable, and relax while you’re eating it.

When you have to figure out what’s good, something has been lost. When you have to constantly strain to parse what the chef is up to, then you’ve lost a big battle with my stomach before the war has barely begun.

I’ve been to Europe a lot in the past two years. Even as I type these words I am pining for the beef bourguignon in Beaune, or that pork shank in Munich. I find myself dreaming about Japanese fish restaurants and orgies of Roman pasta. What I don’t dream about is some Japanese-Mexican chef trying to make “Iberian-inspired” cuisine with a Nipponese twist. The worst foreign restaurants I’ve ever eaten in were “eclectic” in their cooking. The worst American restaurants I’ve eaten in were jacks of all trades and masters of none. Just because we live in a melting pot doesn’t mean our restaurant food has to reflect that.

There’s nothing new in food, despite what some chefs will try to tell you. There’s a reason you put ground up pork and not turkey meat in dumplings — because turkey meat brings nothing to the party. All those ingredients you see in Korean stews? Each one is there for a reason. Red wine with meat; white wine butter sauce with fish? The French figured this out a thousand years ago.

Why does no one put pasta in clam chowder? Because potatoes lend better starch and texture to the broth.

The other thing all the world’s cuisines figured out is how to eat. And by “how to eat” I mean the progress of a meal.

Light to heavy, climbing the food chain, all of it makes sense in the context of every country’s cuisine. Even the Ethiopians will tell you in what order to attack your injera. Simply throwing a bunch of small plates on the table confuses both the mind and the palate, to say nothing of lessening our sense of civility.

Thus have America chefs taken the whole cross-cultural thing too far.

Who wants to spend time deciphering whether to get the Bento box and Scotch egg or the fried calamari with some riff on ramen? Or how about salmon with forbidden rice and tomatillo sauce? In a Vietnamese-American restaurant?

The best restaurants in Las Vegas know what they are and what they’re trying to emulate. Carnevino is an Italian steakhouse in the best sense of the word. Twist is French to its core, and Yui Edomae Sushi is a direct copycat of a hidden Ginza sushi joint. They are “foreign” restaurants (and they are essentially theme restaurants), but like all great orchestras they stick to the music and leave improvisation to the fools.

American restaurants have no idea what they are, and spend too much time concocting wild variations of dishes done better somewhere else by cooks who specialize in that kind of cooking. (I get it; chefs get bored. But thinking up oddball combinations to combat boredom is an insult to gastronomy.)

Here’s where I give kudos to James Trees for knowing what he wants to be and what he’s good at. Esther’s Kitchen may not sound like a modern Italian restaurant but that’s what it is.

James Trees knows the rules. He’s not afraid to tweak things here and there, but he sticks to the catechism of Italian cooking pretty closely.

I wish his competition was so inclined.

There are many things to like about Carson Kitchen, 7th & Carson, The Black Sheep, Sparrow + Wolf, Boteco, and The Kitchen at Atomic, but thematic consistency isn’t one of them.

To their core, they are new American restaurants that are all over the map with their (relatively short) menus. And to be blunt about it: this kind of cooking is rarely transporting. It may be picture-worthy and just fine for sitting in deafening rooms with screaming 35 year olds raving about how “amazing” everything is, but at the end of the day, it fills your belly but rarely your soul.

No matter how talented a hotshot young chef is, they’re never going to make a mole as well as a Mexican mamacita who’s been doing it all her life. Ditto raw fish. There’s a lot more to it than just putting some raw slices on a plate and throwing some lime dressing on top. Deep frying is an art, too, as is roasting. But restaurants that are trying to all of these things will excel at none of them.

Fusion food has had an interesting ride over the forty years I’ve been paying attention to restaurants. What started in the early 1980s with Wolfgang Puck’s Cal-Ital-French menus took a sharp turn east when Jean-Georges Vongerichten took New York by storm a few years later with his Thai-inflecked French. By the 1990s, Nobu Matsuhisha and Roy Yamaguchi had everyone talking about pan-Pacific flavors. But by the early 2000s, every food writer in America was over all of it. “Fusion-confusion” was how we mocked it back then.

Then, instead of going away, it took over. The recession had something to do with it. Fancy dining was dead (at least we thought so at the time), and restaurateurs, searching for an audience, had to find something casual and hip and, god help us, picture-worthy, to drive business in the door.

Enter restaurants with more moving parts than a Game of Thrones episode. All of it helped along by the molecular craze — which may have jumped the shark a decade ago, but which gave casual eateries license to try all kinds of wacky combinations.

The foam-thing may have died, but the “anything goes”legacy remains. And what we’re left with is wood-fired grills throwing Bento boxes at us…and udon carbonara.

I’m not necessarily against combining the world’s flavors into interesting combinations, but I am against it when it makes no sense….and when that’s all you’ve got. What I’m looking for is focus — on the menu and in the recipes — focus that seems to be lacking when all of these cultural lines get blurred.

Which leads me to ask: Do they teach this kind of cooking in culinary schools these days? I think not. I think it’s all a direct result of social media creating a “can you top this?” attitude among young chefs. Which deceives them into thinking they’re doing something fresh, when in reality, they’re all posing for the same selfies.

The mission statement of any chef in any restaurant is to satisfy his or her customers. And when all you’re doing is trying to dazzle someone, you don’t allow them to get comfortable enough to be satisfied.

Creativity is a great. The world can’t run without it. But creativity is a slippery slope when it comes to food — a slope that too many chefs are sliding down these days.

I think we’re slowly evolving past the small plates thing, and the something-for-everyone-thing, and the let’s-throw-Asian-accents-on-everything-thing.

This is a good thing, I think. Or maybe I’m just hoping.

It’s time to get back to basics — food that makes people feel good, not impress them for all of the wrong reasons.


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