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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EATING LAS VEGAS Book Signing Event Tomorrow Night

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This is your last warning.

You can’t claim ignorance any longer.

Don’t say you weren’t informed.

Don’t gripe if you miss it.

Tomorrow night, February 27, at 6:00-7:00 in downtown Las Vegas, we will be having a book signing/book selling event at The Writer’s Block, 519 S. 6th St., LV, NV 89101, 702.550.6399.

A lively discussion will also be held at 6:30 (on “The Future of Las Vegas Dining”)  with a panel of local experts — including: Kim Foster, Eric Gladstone and James Trees — as well as a host of other food and beverage professionals who will have plenty of opinions of their own.

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Refreshments will be served.

And by “refreshments will be served” we mean great pizza from Good Pie (above) and some top shelf sparkling wine from Garagiste. (I’ll also be supplementing the wine selection with a few bottles from my private stock.)

Admission (and refreshments) are free…but we’ll appreciate it if you buy a book….or at least bring one you’ve bought for autographing.

Free wine. Free pizza. Thought provoking discussion. Hobnobbing with passionate foodies.

All for the price of one, measly book.

WHAT MORE DO YOU WANT?

See you there.  ;-)

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Wine is Hard, GARAGISTE Makes It Easy

Image(I’ll have what she’s having)

It used to be so simple. Learn a few grapes, a couple of countries, carry a vintage chart around with you, and sound like an expert.

Back in the Stone Age, that’s all you needed to do.

And by “Stone Age” I mean about 15-20 years ago.

40 years ago (about the time I started getting into wine), it was all about France….with a little California thrown in. Remember the Judgment of Paris? I do; I even remember the original Time magazine article about it. The whole episode rated about 300 words on a back page of the ‘zine — barely a blurb about some California upstarts (Chateau Montelena and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars) beating the Frogs at their own game.

Up until then, if you wanted to “know” wine as a consumer, you needed to know Bordeaux. Memorizing the 1855 Classification was essential, and woe to the poseur who couldn’t tell his troisieme cru from a Premier Grand Cru Classé.

There were sub-parts and sub-parts to the sub-parts of these classifications, but by and large, it was all about France. California started flexing its muscles in the early 1980s (bolstered in part by the growing legend of that 1976 Paris competition), but California was always easy: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and that was it.

Back then, Italy was atlas esoterica; Spain, the undiscovered country. Germany, Australia and Portugal? Strictly for the nerdiest of wine nerds. Chile, Greece, Hungary, Argentina, Mexico, Canada, China? Fuggidabadit.

Big, fruity Cabs were what counted in Cali, along with massive, over-oaked Chards. All you had to do was know your producers — few wineries were trumpeting their specific vineyards  — and after a couple of trips to Napa, you could strut around like some imperious Brit, expounding on the merits of the Rutherford Bench, or the superiority of Sonoma fruit.

Was it all bullshit? Of course it was all bullshit. Practically everything about wine is bullshit. Getting past the bullshit (so you can enjoy what’s in the glass) is half the fun.

These days it’s less about antiquated, overblown French marketing ploys and more about the beverage. Like the internet, the world of wine has expanded our horizons while shrinking the earth. Good wine is everywhere, and now being made from grapes no one had ever heard of in the last half of the 20th Century.

Wine is hard now. Very hard. As in, having to learn a dozen languages (plus topography) hard.

The trick is making sense of it. The secret is you don’t have to. All you have to do is know your wine bar.

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GARAGISTE opened late last year and almost immediately became an industry hangout — a place where the cool kids, not the rich kids, drink wine. It eschews the easy pickings of “name brand” wines (famous Burgundies, big hitter cabs, overpriced Bordeaux) for an ever-changing selection of new-fangled bottles from producers you’ve probably never heard of.  (For those unfamiliar with the term, “garagiste” refers to small, Right Bank producers who became known in the 1990s for making cult wines that aren’t worth the prices people pay for them.)

To be sure, you can still pick up some hefty Barolos, big Burgundies, or righteous Rhones here, but the specialties of the house are lip-smacking wines at reasonable prices that are so good you don’t care about their snob appeal.

This poses a serious conundrum for, let’s say, 90% of the fine wine drinkers in the world, who only drink wines based upon reputation. Or even worse, buy bottles based on the “score” some hack writer in some advertising rag (read: most wine journals) gave it.

You’re not going to hear a lot of “The Spectator gave this a ’94′” at Garagiste; nor will you see a lot of label whores showing off their good taste. Instead, you’ll find people who like wine because it tastes good, not by how impressive they think it is.

Las Vegas is late to this party (no surprise there) as these kinds of wine bars have been all the rage in Paris for over a decade. Just last weekend we stumbled upon Mignon in downtown Los Angeles, and it fit the same mold: passionate owners, reasonable prices, exquisite, obscure wines in an unpretentious setting. Exactly the opposite of the snobbery so often (rightfully) attached to wine drinking.

No one is talking scores here. Owners Eric Prato and Mario Enriquez are more interested in describing to you what’s in the glass, and turning you on to unfamiliar bottles, producers, and grapes.

They also do the natural wine/biodynamic-thing, but aren’t obnoxious about it. Both will tell you that some natural wines have a funky, less-polished, rough-around-the-edges taste to them that may not be to some people’s liking. You will get fair warning and also a taste before you have to commit to a whole glass.

You will also be getting an education here unlike any available at any other wine bar in town. Having two gifted sommeliers on hand most evenings to guide you through the pours is something other wine-drinking locations (what few we have) can only dream about. (Some joints around town are “wine bars” in the same way that any restaurant with a steak on the menu is a steakhouse.)

To be sure, there are things I don’t like about Garagiste. The setting is a bit cold, more industrial than cozy. Noise levels are up there — perhaps not at military jet-afterburner levels, but conversation-impeding just the same. (Enhancing conversation should be a wine bar’s second main purpose.) Some cushy chairs and strategically-placed sound baffles would go a long way. The nibbles are little more than a single (good) cheese platter with excellent bread from Esther’s Kitchen across the street, and at busy times, the owners and staff can be over-matched. (I’m actually ecstatic when the place is packed, and some crunchy grissini at the bar would also go a long way when you can’t get the staff’s attention.)

The plus side is that you’re in a wine bar, so relax, pilgrim. You’re not there to see how fast you can catch a buzz.

Also, patrons have quickly embraced options to the limited food offerings…by bringing their own! Prato and Enriquez are totally fine with you inhaling a burrito from Casa Don Juan (down the street) next to a sexy syrah, or pairing some Pad See Eiw from DE Thai Kitchen (around the corner) with a sassy Juliénas. Want a big-ass steak with your Chateau Cantermele? No problem, just get one to-go from Esther’s and eat it on the premises.

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Being something of a cheesehead, I’ve taken to bringing my own platters of Fourme d’Ambert, Comté, Pecorino, and Cabot’s Cloth-Bound Cheddar to enjoy with whatever cheese-wine pairing suits my fancy that day.

Another issue (more like a curiosity) is the way the bottles for sale are priced. Garagiste is both a bar and a retail store. The list you’re given is also what’s available for sale. Bottles to take home are priced at half what they cost if you drink them there. This makes the prices seem like a steal if you take one to-go, and a bit pricey if you opt to pop a cork on the premises. Still, even with this in-house mark-up, everything is at least half of what you’d pay for the same juice on the Strip.

And what you’re paying for is unique indeed. Interesting bottles, ever-changing wines by the glass, low prices, knowledgeable patrons, friendly owners, and a feeling as if you’re at the epicenter of a Las Vegas wine renaissance.

I’ve been saying for years that the craft beer has become ridiculous, and Millennials will eventually age out of all the cocktail folderol. It looks like it’s happening and Garagiste is ground zero for how it’s happening in Las Vegas.

Being someone who has waited 30 F*CKING YEARS,  for a place to drink good wine downtown, it couldn’t have happened a moment too soon.

Skoal!

GARAGISTE WINE ROOM/MERCHANT

197 E. California Ave. #140

Las Vegas, NV 89104

702.954.3658

Image(Weird-ass spirits in a wine bar? Yes!)