Tapas, Tapas, Tapas….and Paella! (Part 2)

Edo Tapas & Wine is half as big as Pamplona with twice the ambition. Its matchbox size belies an attempt to expand the flavors of Spain beyond all boundaries.  By and large it succeeds, in a forty seat space that announces from the get-go you’re in for a wild ride in tapas territory.

It may look unassuming from the front but it has quite a pedigree. Exec Chef Oscar Edo is a Strip veteran (and a survivor of the food truck craze of 8 years ago), while partner Roberto Liendo (late of Bazaar Meat) runs the front of the house. Between them, they have a strong sense of the food and service a place like this needs to appeal to gastronauts who demands the new over the tried and true. And while the whole small plates/tapas thing may seem like old hat by now, they freshen the genre by blending the traditional with more than just a wink and a nod to their Asian surroundings.

The small, narrow space gets a big lift from a bright mural taking up an entire wall (above). The reference to Spain is dramatic, and sets the stage for a production that punches way above its weight. It presents the requisite specialty cocktails, along with a rolling gin and tonic cart, a small-but-mighty wine list (with nothing over a hundy), and those three sherries by the glass I was complaining about Pamplona not having. There’s also eight nice craft beers on hand, a variety of vermut (vermouths) and cordials, and dessert wines (all by the glass or bottle).

If you think that’s a lot going on in this teeny space (formerly home to Chada Thai), then wait until you see the menu.

Four different dressed oysters are offered — depending upon what sort of bath you like your bivalves to take. Personally, I went nuts over the tamarind mole with pickled cucumber (above), although you might prefer yours to be swimming in kiwi leche de tigre or braised melon, lemon and mint. Bottom line: they’re all fabulous.

The obligatory Spanish cheese and ham selections, and they’re perfectly fine, if totally in line with what you’ll find all over town. (This is not to damn Spanish jamon with faint praise — it is the tastiest cured pork leg in the world — but only to point out that these folks get their stuff from the same distributors as everyone else, so if you’ve chowed down on one lomo, you’ve probably tasted them all. The really expensive hams are too muy caro for our ‘burbs, and you’ll have to head to Bazaar Meat (and pay through the snout) for them.

As satisfying as these starters are, it is in the cold and hot tapas where Edo hits his stride.  His fermented tomatoes with burrata and basil air was probably the most summery summer dish I had this summer; it both sparkled and soothed the palate the way only super-sweet tomates can — making like an overripe Caprese at half the weight. While his tuna tostada was a little bland for these buds, nice big and chunky Maine lobster comes “salpicón-style — dressed with more of that “tiger’s milk” — which nicely lightens the richness of the crustacean.

On the “hot tapas” side of things, the hits just keep coming: croquetas with kimchi pisto; pulpo viajero (octopus with tamarind mole), buñelos de bacalao (salt cod fritters with squid ink and lime); and something called “Bikini” — a wahfer theen, crispy compression of sobrasada and Mahon cheese — which might be the last word in tiny toast:

One is tempted to wax poetic about these bikinis, so packed with flavor are these two inch envelopes. So much soft crunch, so much sausage punch, my guess you’ll want to order a bunch is more than a hunch.  I overplay calling certain foodstuffs “addictive” at times, but the moniker fits here like the best cheese between bread you’ve ever eaten.

You really can’t go wrong with any of the plates here — some are just more spectacular than others — but there’s not a clinker in the bunch. One of the more eye-popping ones is Huevos Estrellados:

…a toothsome concoction of olive-oil fried eggs, piquillo peppers sitting atop a melange of mushrooms and fried potatoes. You can’t see the ‘shrooms underneath, but that collection of maitake, shitake, enoki, and king-oysters is crave-able in its own right. Top it all off with some garlic-parsley oil and you have a classic of Spain tweaked in all the right ways.

Of course, some purists might disagree. My friend Gerry Dawes — who probably knows as much about Spanish food and wine as any American — went apoplectic (on Facebook over it not being a proper estrellados, but he misses the point. Edo is using this menu to riff on the cuisine of Spain.  There will be hits and misses with some of his creations, but he’s putting it out there, and when the results are this lip-smacking, what’s to argue about?

The menu is nicely balanced between meat and seafood offerings, but, given that this is Spanish food we’re talking about, even the seafood can have a certain dense, rich sensibility, such as these Manila clams — which get the full arroz meloso de pescadores (rice seafood stew) treatment:

And when it comes to a certain famous Spanish rice dish, let’s just say that we are now blessed with a plethora of palate pleasing paella. If I had to grade the different ones in town, I’d put both Edo’s and Pamplona’s a notch below Jaleo’s, if only because there’s no substitute for the open fire smokiness imparted by José Andrés’ paella pit.

Image may contain: food(Edo’s pulchritudinous jamon paella)

None of these new places goes overboard on desserts, and this is a good thing. After bombarding your senses with oysters, clams, eggs, hams and octopus, what you’re looking for is something simple and soothing. The flan here pushes all the right buttons and the olive oil dark chocolate fudge does the same while adding an inch to your waistline. If you’re looking to go lighter, you’ll love the intensity of this strawberry granita with popcorn mousse:

….and if you’re looking for the most interesting Spanish food ever to come to off-Strip Las Vegas, you’ve come to the right place.

(Drinks are $14-$16 – and worth every penny. Tapas are priced from $7-$18, with most at the upper end of that. Paellas and stews run $25 for four modest servings. Two people can eat like royalty here for less than $100, excluding tip. )

EDO TAPAS & WINE

3400 South Jones Blvd. Suite 11A

Las Vegas, NV 89146

702. 641.1345

https://edotapas.com/

 

Tapas, Tapas, Tapas…and Paella!

Viva España!

Remember when Spanish food was going to be the next big thing in America? We’re talking about 25 years ago when Jaleo first opened in Washington D.C..

Or maybe it was when Ferran Adrià made such a big splash with El Bulli around the turn of the century. Everyone couldn’t wait to get on that deconstructed bandwagon, could they?

Or how about Cafe BaBaReba? It was damn tasty (in the Fashion Show Mall, if you’ll recall), but came in the early aughts and left after five years.

Or perhaps you remember the excitement when José Andrés opened The Bazaar in Los Angeles in 2008? Back when his molecular cuisine was going to take America by storm? How did that work out?

Or how about when the opening of our very own Jaleo (in The Cosmopolitan) signaled an expansion of all things España in 2011? (Once again, the food was great; but the forecast fizzled.)

All of these (accompanied by breathless food writer prose) presaged a Spanish revolution in American eats. In hindsight they amounted to more false starts than at a track meet for the deaf.

But 25 years after one, 10 years after, another and 7 years after the last prediction, Spanish food is finally sweeping Las Vegas off its feet.

And by “sweeping off its feet” I mean Las Vegas now has more tapas than you can shake a pinxtos at.

Overnight (and by “overnight” I mean the last two months), we have seen three (count ’em 3!) Spanish-style joints open up in the neighborhoods — and they’re all very different from one another. And they’re all great.

So let’s count the ways Spain is finally conquering our food scene, beginning with the most traditional of the armada.

The first thing you notice about Pamplona Tapas & Wine is how nice it looks. Tucked into one of those generic strip malls  on west Sahara, it occupies a space that has housed several failed food operations — all of them done on the cheap and none of them lasting for more than a year or two. Owner Marisol Crespo also owns the shopping center in which it is located, and her attention to detail informs the comfortable surroundings, and the intimate cocktail bar, each of which beckons you as soon as you leave the commercial environs of the street behind. She also had the good sense to put Errol LeBlanc behind the stoves, and his decision to hew closely to the classic flavors of Spain makes PT&W your essential first stop on any tapas tour.

You’ll want to grab a cocktail from the small-but-mighty list, or a sangria that takes a back seat to no one’s. Then you’ll move over to a table with proper linens on it, and dive into a menu that would be right at home in Madrid.

(Shameless book plug/ELV approved tortilla)

Start your meal with whatever they suggest, but don’t miss the jamon serrano on crusty bread, or the spicy sobrasada sausage spread. (I also like the Spanish cheeses they serve, which are pretty much the same cheeses they serve at every Spanish restaurant, but I don’t like them so much I want to fill up on them.) Move on from there to some Peruano snapper ceviche with piquillo peppers, and then buckle your seatbelt for the most authentic versions of aceitunas (olives), patatas bravas (baby potatoes), setas al ajillo (mixed mushrooms with lots of garlic), and piquillo relleno de queso de cabra (roasted, stuffed peppers), and a tortilla Español (pictured above)that Las Vegas has ever seen. Not to take anything away from Julian Serrano (the chef or the restaurant) or José A., but once you’ve tasted these versions, there’s no reason to endure the indignities of the Aria or Cosmopolitan hotels again to get your bite of Spain.

As you move through the menu, the hits keep coming: croquetas de pollo that are as good as Jaleo’s; paella Valenciana (with rabbit and quail) that’s better than the one at Julian Serrano (the restaurant), and gambas al ajillo that is guaranteed to drive away all vampires:

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Garlic is to Spanish food what butter is to French, so gird your loins for some of the most pungent dishes you’ve ever experienced. This is not to say the dishes are bereft of subtlety (LeBlanc knows how to balance his flavors), but only to give fair warning that sharing is essential unless you want to knock your partner over with your breath later in the evening. They also do a fine job with all of their plancha’d, grilled and skewered meats here — with the honey-glazed pork belly and finger-licking-good lamb chops the ones not to miss.

About the only thing I can’t recommend about Pamplona is the wine list. It looks like an afterthought, or, even worse, the handiwork of some wine salesman who threw it together on his way to a bigger account. In this era of so much interesting wine coming out of Spain, Portugal and South America (at all price points) its meager selection does no justice to either the food or the atmosphere. And even though no one’s going to drink it but me, there should be several sherries offered by the glass.
But I’ll happily look past the Woodbridge chardonnay and the forgettable Cali cabs for another Juan Carlos Garcia cocktail or his sangria:
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(Tapas are priced between $5- $15, with the paellas for two (which can be nicely split four ways) running around $40.)
PAMPLONA COCKTAILS & TAPAS
5781 W. Sahara Ave. #100
Las Vegas, NV 89146
702.659.5781
(This is the first part of a three-part article. Here is a tasty snap to give you a preview of what’s to come.)

 

Downtown’s Hidden Hispanic Gems

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Everyone these days is talking about downtown’s chef-driven cuisine at Esther’s Kitchen, Flock & Fowl, The Kitchen at Atomic, Jammyland, 7th & Carson, eat. and Carson Kitchen.

Heck, they’re even talking about the resurgence of Pop Up Pizza in the Plaza….which does some superb deck oven work that rivals Good Pie for downtown pizza hegemony.

But there’s two under-the radar joints that don’t get a lot of buzz, but are not to be missed. (We call them “hidden” in the headline, but they’re really hiding in plain sight, right on Las Vegas Boulevard.)

We’re talking Puerto Rican food, folks. And fish tacos. Two versions of Latino-inspired cuisine that provide a whole lot of satisfaction for relatively little bucks.

Now, I know and you know that you probably don’t know shit about Puerto Rican food. But I am not here to mock your ignorance. Rather, I am here to dispel it. And the way to do that is to mofongo and maduro your way to a tostones good time. (In case you haven’t guessed, there’s nothing subtle about this food, but it’s damn tasty — if a bit starchy — and a blend of Caribbean cuisines with all sorts of edibles from Spain to Africa.)

The only drawback to your discovery is you’ll have to get your education while either eating in your car, or standing up, or sitting on one of four stools on the right side of the building. But those inconveniences are a small price to pay for a Cuban sandwich that beats any Cubano in town:

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….or the aforementioned boffo shrimp mofongo:

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Orrrrr these sweetly fried maduros:
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“Holy Clemente, Batman!” I said to myself after a few bites. “This place is cooking with real care in their (teeny tiny, food truck-ish) kitchen.”
(Yes, I say those sorts of things to myself whenever I’m pleasantly surprised by an unfamiliar morsel in an unknown place.)
You’ll notice those shrimp are sizeable and de-veined, and the plantains were fried to a fare-thee-well.
Even something as innocent looking as this yellow rice (arroz con gandules):
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….was packed with flavor and obviously turned out by someone with real pride in this cuisine.
The Food Gal® and I ordered way too much, (and spent around $50) but everything from the sandwich to the coconut flan was a treat — so good it’s even worth standing up to eat.
Literally right across the street from Puerto Rico Express is Bajamar Seafood & Tacos — another place so surprisingly good you’re going to kick yourself for not coming here sooner.
(This is where I confess that I drove past both of these places for the better part of a year before trying them — so convinced was I that neither would be worth my time or calories. How wrong I was.)
Having been burned by flaccid fish tacos for like….forever….I approached Bajamar feebly. It occupies a space previously occupied by one failed food operator after another, sits within the shadow of the shuttered Olympic Garden, and shares a parking lot with some forgettable slinger of Mexican mediocrity. In other words, you couldn’t have a less auspicious location for the real deal in fish tacos.
But the real deal they are, from the grilled simplicity of marlin tacos (with Monterey Jack cheese and salsa fresca) to this “Lucas” laden with grilled shrimp, peppers, and chipotle cream:
….to the deep-fried classic:
….these tacos announce themselves as the actual Ensenada enchilada — the best fish tacos Las Vegas has ever seen.
As good as they are, our favorite thing on the menu is the incendiary aguachile verde:
….that will light you up and turn you on like no ceviche, ever.
We even like the little, house-made cheesecake they do for dessert here, and people tell us the battered and deep-fried fish and octopus chunks (pulpo on the menu) are not to be missed, either.
Downtown dining has gone decidedly upscale in the past three years, but amidst all the porchetta and pasta, and the inundation of craft cocktails and bohemian beers,  it’s nice to know that some solid lower-end, food-centric joints have opened to satiate cravings at all price points.
Which is just what a legitimate urban food culture needs.
Arriba! Arriba! Indeed.
PUERTO RICO EXPRESS
1516 Las Vegas Blvd. South
Las Vegas, NV 89104
702.471.1000
BAJAMAR SEAFOOD & TACOS
1615 Las Vegas Blvd. South
Las Vegas, NV 89104
702.4331.4266