What’s New In Vegas

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What’s new on our restaurant scene?

Quite a lot, actually.

No other city in America can say the same, but Las Vegas, my dear foodie friends, is no ordinary city. We are the quintessential tourist town, with huge rumbling, cacophonous casino/hotels bestriding Nevada’s economy like so many Brobdingnagian towers — casting long shadows, quaking the earth, dominating the landscape.

Until now.

Now, like every other city in America our economic engine is moribund, comatose, on life support. Visitation numbers fell off a cliff in 2020, down to 19 million souls from a 2019 high of 42.5. And those coming are not the free-wheeling, high-spending conventioneers, whooping it up on someone else’s dime. No, these are the bargain hunters, the coupon-clippers, the escapees from California looking for something fun to do on the cheap. During the week, casinos are deader than Moe Dalitz. Even on weekends, the big hotels can feel like ghost towns. Shows are closed, shops are empty, and eatery options have been eviscerated.

Sounds depressing, doesn’t it? Well, it is and it isn’t. Because it is there (on the Strip)but isn’t here — in the actual town where 2.3 million Las Vegans live.

It seems the Strip’s loss has been the neighborhoods’ gain. New restaurants on Las Vegas Boulevard South might be harder to find than toilet paper in a pandemic, but the local scene is flat-out jumping. Downtown is leading the way, with a spanking new hotel (Circa), which opened late last year — the first new one on Fremont Street since 1980. It boasts five excellent restaurants, and seems to be busier every weekend. (We’ll deeply dive into its dining scene next week.)

A mile to the south, in the Arts District on Main Street, new joints are popping up like porcinis after a downpour. Can any other town in America say this?

Pretty doubtful. New York and California — the epicenters of American food/restaurant culture — are doing their best to crush the life out of the restaurant industry. Thankfully, little old Las Vegas has kept the foodie flame burning. albeit at bare BTU levels. But at least we’re open, and feeding people, and human beings are socializing and breaking bread together like humans were meant to.

While it might take those giant hotels another year to start humming again, locally, Las Vegas appears to be entering a new age of local dining — a resurgence led by a neighborhood that didn’t even exist four years ago, but now is one everyone is talking about.

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YU-OR-MI SUSHI BAR

The Arts District in downtown Las Vegas is fast becoming one of the coolest neighborhoods in America. While it still has a ways to go residential-ly, food-wise the options are expanding geometrically. A micro-climate of good eats has sprung to life on South Main Street, boasting a dozen bars, four brewpubs, and three new restaurants within a stone’s throw of each other. All are much much better than they have any right to be.

Image(The usual suspects)

Yu-Or-Mi (the name comes from a Jackie Chan movie) exists across the street from Esther’s Kitchen, a half-block from the Garagiste Wine Bar, and in a world of its own when it comes to Japanese-fusion food.

All the usual sushi suspects are here, but it’s in the small plates and rolls where the kitchen puts out an array of twenty appetizers that show a hand both refined and restrained.

Image(Yu So Shellfish)

Everyone does crispy Brussels sprouts these days, but the sweet-sour kurozu reduction on these keeps you reflexively reaching for another bite. Other standards like yakiniku (“grilled”) beef gyoza, rock shrimp tempura, tuna takaki, and chicken karaage rise above the cliches to remind you why they became famous in the first place.

The Yu So Shellfish roll (above) bundles lobster tempura with lobster salad in bite-sized packages of tofu skin which announce a textural, salty-sweet-seafood contrasts with every bite. The purist in me is horrified, but I can live with cutesy names like “Oh Snap” when the Japanese red snapper is this fresh, and the ginger-chili ponzu is this bracing:

Image(Two snaps up!)

Even non-ramen fans will have to admire the broth here — as rich as any you’ll find on Spring Mountain Road — and the yakisoba noodles and garlic fried rice are full of both subtlety and amplitude, no mean feat that.

All of these are conceived and executed by Chef Virakone Vongphachanh (he goes by “V” out of sympathy), a Laotian by birth and an inspired Japanese chef by temperament.

The sake list is not one you can get lost in, but the small selection is well-chosen and well-priced, and, for our yen, the only thing to drink with this food.

What YOM is doing is straddling a line between high-toned raw fish and crowd-pleasing concoctions — compelling creations that do its Nobu ancestry proud. Shopping mall sushi this is not. But the prices are fair and the setting is cozy and the downtown crowd has taken to it like barnacles to a boat.

Yu-Or-Mi Sushi Bar

100 E. California Ave.

Las Vegas, NV 89104

702.473.7200

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GOOD PIE

Like its neighbor Main Street Provisions (above), Good Pie opened late last year when starting a restaurant was dicier than drawing to an inside straight. It survived serving pizzas to-go and by-the-slice, and with a recent opening of both inside and outdoor tables, chef/owner Vincent Rotolo is poised to re-set Las Vegas’s pizza paradigm.

Rotolo is a classicist in the vein of every family-run Italian joint up and down the East Coast pizza belt. The dark bar, white tile and comfy booths (along with the “Grandma Wall” of family pictures), puts you in mind of the type of place where you’ll hear, “Ma, who gets the scungilli?” or Faackin’ Yankees did it to us again” over the thrum of dough being slung.

Image(To parm or not to parm? That is the question.)

And what dough it is. Quality flour, long-fermented, in a variety of styles, one bite tells you you’re in the midst of a higher-level of deck oven craftsmanship. The doughier, rectangular (Sicilian, Detroit) crusts have the complexity of great bread, while the thinner Brooklyn, and “Grandma” styles, display the crackle and char of their big-city forebears.

Ingredients matter is the mantra here, and from those crusts to the olive oil to the house-made tomato sauce to the ricotta and toppings, everything hits home. To my mind, there are almost too many choices, and the dizzying menu array can sometimes make ordering feel like a jigsaw puzzle. But amazingly, the pieces always fit no matter how you arrange them.

Beginners should tuck into a simple “Grandma” square, or Brooklyn round to acquaint themselves with the Good Pie oeuvre, while fressers should throw caution to the wind with a spongy Sicilian the size of a small desk, a Detroit-caramelized cheese crust carb-fest, or a “Quality Meat” 3-protein lollapalooza.  They offer something called “Mike’s Hot Honey” here to dribble on your pies, and, also amazingly, this little sweet-hot condiment adds quite the pleasant kick to counter the queso overload.

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Those not in a pizza mood will be happy with Italian-American standards like chicken parm, “Sunday lasagna,” garlic knots, superb fried ravioli (above), great meatballs, and a decent Caesar salad.

Prices start in the high teens to $34 for the Grandma Supreme, but the round pies come in small and large, and the big boys will satisfy 6 hungry adults. I’m no fan of gluten-free pizza, but if you insist on eating yours on top of cardboard, Rotolo’s are probably the best in town.

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Can a new school/old school pizzeria, which looks like it belongs on Wooster Street in New Haven, and acts like a modern restaurant (complete with upscale cocktail bar), come out of this pandemic smelling like a tomato rose? The crowds seem to be saying that it can. Pent-up demand for great pizza is real, people. Long may Good Pie’s red sauce flag fly!

Good Pie

1212 S. Main Street

Las Vegas, NV 89104

702.844.2700

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MAIN STREET PROVISIONS

You can throw a stone and hit all three restaurants mentioned here. All were on the drawing board, and scheduled to open downtown in mid-2020. Covid put an expensive dent in everyone’s plans, and none more so than Main Street Provisions. Owner Kim Owens and Executive Chef Justin Kingsley Hall spent the entire year cooling their heels until finally, in early December, the doors swung open to….25% maximum capacity.

Putting the best face forward she could, Owens has said that the restrictions allowed her to dispense with the usual friends and family shakedown cruise, and let her staff get used to customers without dealing with overload at either the front or back of the house. Now that things are starting to relax, they’re going to have to get used to being in the weeds.

Hall’s menu can best be described as smokey and southern — as in Utah and the Deep South. To those descriptions add the word gutsy: frou frou bistro food this is not.

Right off the bat the Scotch Egg will catch your eye — a soft boiled and wrapped with smoked Riverence trout crusted with potato chips, sitting in a shallow pool of lemon cream. Nothing says “don’t try this at home” like a smoked trout Scotch egg in verbena cream, and it takes a chef with Hall’s chops to pull it off — cloaking the prosaic egg in a sophisticated wrap which enhances both of them.

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(Don’t try this at home)

Beyond that, you’ll find a unique butcher plate of smoked meats, pates and rillettes made in-house, accompanied by fry bread that is pretty much the last word in Native American carbohydrates:

Image(Fit to be fried)

The same bread sits alongside an herb-flecked hominy hummus studded with preserved lemon, which turns something with usually all the interest of drywall spackle into a compelling starter. I wish I could celebrate the use of barely-seared venison in a tataki of whiskey-shoyu dressing, but the venison doesn’t come through and the whole dish feels like the chef is trying too hard. Likewise, the deep-fried, breaded Sole Kiev (wrapped around herb) butter feels forced and out-of-place on a menu brimming with interesting edibles.

Once you get past those misses the hits abound: rosy red Heritage Ham Steak blanketed with a sour-sweet pepper-tomato sauce, charcoal roasted quail gumbo with smoked andouille sausage stuffing, a serious New York strip dubbed “Utah Woman’s Steak” (after Hall’s wife) that comes with a one-two punch of aggressive, charred scallion chimichurri sauce and a soothing “funeral potato” croquette.

The burger is good, if a bit overloaded (with pickles, smoked cheddar and fried onions), but all sins are forgiven once the poached rabbit sausage with potato dumplings shows up. It is flat-out great, and for our money, should be the restaurant’s signature dish:

Image(This is some bunny I used to know)

Any restaurant bold enough to serve rabbit sausage, quail, hominy, and ham steaks is clearly trying to set a trend, not follow one, and the feeling one gets when sitting down here is of a chef who is cooking the kind of food with which he and his friends like to impress each other — gussied-up for restaurant customers of course, but substantial, rib-sticking stuff done with a chef’s flair and an eye for detail. It may not be the lightest meal you’ll have in Las Vegas, but it will be one of the most original, and there is no more interesting cooking going on right now than down on Main Street.

Whenever something threatens to feel a tad overwrought (the fish, that venison), Hall pulls you back to the simple reality of exquisite ingredients being allowed to shine, as with his harissa carrots (roasted, of course), oat milk grits, cattlemen’s bbq pea beans, and Louisiana popcorn rice (served plain or with schmaltz). These side dishes are frame-worthy on the menu (and would make a great meal all their own). The one salad we tried — For Ernie’s Birds — was a tantalizing tumble of local greens and seeds, dressed just-right in an herbaceous chimichurri vinaigrette.

Desserts are few in number but pack a wallop, especially the butter cake: another homage to the caloric glories of the South and southern Utah.

Like its neighbors, MSP has feng shui in spades. It is long and narrow with welcoming bar to one side, and colorful, comfortable seating pointing to an open kitchen in the back. The effect is to pull you in and make you feel like you belong there.

Whether by design or happenstance, all three of these restaurants have an inviting familiarity about them. Each reminds you of small, personal restaurants shoehorned into intimate spaces in large, impersonal cities. Restaurants like these give metropolitan spaces their warmth and livability. They are human scale, not profit-scaled by real estate developers. There are no anchor tenants to block out the sun, nor soul-killing ginormous parking lots to traverse. Cars drive by at civilized speeds, they don’t whiz by in a hurry to get to the secluded glory of living in the isolated splendor of a stucco farm.

Time will eventually credit these pioneers for changing the way Las Vegas looked at restaurants — for tapping into a market hungry for the real thing, not pre-packaged template dreamed up by a corporation in Dallas or Tampa.

The world is coming out of this pandemic, and the pent-up demand for authenticity will be real. It will be for community, and for togetherness and for gathering around food and drink prepared by people who care about these things as much as you do.

Main Street Provisions

1214 S. Main Street

Las Vegas, NV 89104

702.457.0111

This is Part One of a two-part article.

The Best of the Worst. Year. Ever.

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There were no winners this year, only survivors.

“Best of” awards seem frivolous now. They may have always been so, but it feels unseemly to play favorites when everyone is adrift in a sea of uncertainty, clinging to leaky life rafts being periodically punctured by clueless bureaucrats.

But good times were had, and excellence deserves recognition.

Even amidst all the despair, the restaurants of Las Vegas — especially off the Strip — surprised us, day after day, dinner after dinner, with their recuperative powers. Three month shutdown – 50% occupancy – 25% occupancy – Reservations Required – Table spacing – No parties of more than four – Closed bars – Ridiculous rules (at Circa bars, they make you put your mask on between sips of your cocktail) – none of which deterred hundreds of intrepid restaurants (and thousands of service workers) from soldiering on.

Any other businesses put through this ringer would’ve folded their tents long ago. (Can you imagine an insurance agency, bank, or plumber being told they could only service 25% of their customers and keeping their doors open?)

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None of them have thrived, but survive they did. And a remarkable number of them opened in the midst of all this — all serving food and drinks that astounded us with its consistent awesomeness. It is a testament to the depth of Vegas’s kitchen talent that so many restaurants — on and off the Strip — have maintained their excellence throughout this year of trials and tribulations.

So, as a final recap, we at Being John Curtas thought we’d entertain you with some highlights of our year in dining. As you may have seen from the previous post, we were busy, even during the pandemic. Probably a third less busy than we would be normally in covering the Las Vegas culinary scene, but still pounding the pavement every week, looking for a noteworthy nosh.

And pound we did. One hundred restaurants were visited at last count (up a few since we pegged the number at 97 two weeks ago), and most of them were more than worthy of attention. Of course, being who we are, we can’t leave this kidney stone of a year without a few pointed barbs at some less-worthy venues, but we will try (as we have all year) to keep the snark to a minimum.

So, here they are food fans: The Best of the Worst. Year. Ever.

Image(Smiling Siamese eyes foretell fantastic Lotus Thai revival)

Audacity Award(s) For Gallantry Under Fire:

Against All Odds Award(s) (Hi Falutin’ Division) –

Chowhound Award (for feeding us the most (and the most exquisite) meals in 2020) – Cipriani

You Can’t Beat This Meat Award – CUT

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Image(My usual at CUT)

Titanic Award – Palms Hotel

110 Unsinkable "Titanic" GIFs | Titanic ship, Titanic, Titanic sinking(Actual footage of Palms on July 1, 2020)

Rising Sun Award/Hidden Gem AwardKaiseki Yuzu

Best Restaurant That’s Closest to My House – Esther’s Kitchen

Biggest (Tastiest) Surprise(s) –

Image(Crab roll at 8East)

Newcomer of the Year Award – ELIO guac’d our world in 2020. Unfortunately, it is “temporarily closed” until further notice (sigh).

Biggest Regret – not getting to Saga Pastries + Sandwich more often.

Wet Dream AwardCosta di Mare – which simultaneously takes home the coveted Go Fish Award, for feeding us the best seafood in the most romantic setting in Las Vegas.

Outdoor Restaurants in Las Vegas(Gentlemen: if you can’t score after a dinner here it’s time to retire the hardware)

Closed Strip Restaurant We Missed The Least – Eiffel Tower Restaurant

Lifesaver Award (for keeping us well fed during the Spring Shutdown): 7th & Carson/Capital Grille

Bacchus/Dionysus Award – Garagiste

Zorba AwardElia Authentic Greek Taverna

Image(You don’t eat meat? That’s okay, we’ll have lamb!)

St. Jude Lost Cause Award –  the Green Valley/Henderson food scene

Honest to Christ, it is a mystery how anyone who lives among these stucco farms (ringed by franchised dreck) weighs more than 140 pounds. My advice if you want to lose weight: move to Hendertucky.

José Can You See Award Sin Fronteras Tacos

WTF AwardEstiatorio Milos closes at Cosmo, moves to Venetian….where now it will compete with 47 other restaurants at a location where many have fallen flatter than a fold of phyllo.

Καλή τύχη
Kalí týchi ("good luck" in Greek - they'll need it)

Cassandra Award – to us for forlornly forecasting the future fatalities facing our fanciful frog ponds.

The Raw and the Cooked Award Yui Edomae Sushi/Kabuto

Image(Uni won’t believe the urchin at Yui)

Hotel If We Never Set Foot In Again Will Be Too Soon – Paris Hotel and Casino

Al Yankovic Award for Weirdest Meal of the Year – the “before” lunch at Cafe No Fur for a future episode of “Restaurant Impossible”— vegan food so bad it could make a meat eater out of you.

Rudy Giuliani Lifetime Achievement Award for Biggest Slinger of Bullshit – Eater Vegas

  • Honorable Mention – the R-J’s “Best of Vegas” awards

Phoenix “Rising From The Ashes” Award –  Osteria Fiorella  

  • Honorable Mention – Letty’s

En Fuego Asian Award Toridokoro Raku

Image(Endo-san is one bad mother clucker; we suspect fowl play)

En Fuego Neighborhood Award The Arts District in downtown Las Vegas

Life Support Award – Sahara Hotel (What’s keeping this joint open is anyone’s guess…)

Frank Lloyd Wright Medal for Architectural IngenuityEsther’s Kitchen

Image(Nowhere are flavors more intents than at Esther’s)

Best Intentions (Sorry We Didn’t Get There This Year) Awards

Wine(s) of the Year – 4 days wallowing in Walla Walla, Washington wines

Trip of the Year4 days in Mexico City to restore our sanity

Dessert of the Year – “banana cream pie” at CUT by Nicole Erle and Kamel Guechida:

Banana, caramel in elegant Las Vegas dessert | Las Vegas Review-Journal

Dish of the Year – “duck carnitas” at ELIO:

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Rigor-Mortis Award – to food writing, which already had its one good foot on a banana peel before Covid hit. The pandemic has effectively ended food writing from any perspective other than that of a public relations lapdog, and turned what few media outlets are left into sniveling seekers of approbation (see “Rudy Giuliani Award” above). When the typist at this keypad retires (and it is not far off), you will be left to your idiots, sycophants, and influencers to guide you where to eat. As the Greeks would say: Kalí týchi with that.

Chef(s) of the Year – All of them

Waiter(s) of the Year – Anyone who served us so much as a cupcake in 2020

Restaurateur of the Year – God bless them everyone

….and let’s leave it at that.

Good Riddance, 2020.

Image(….and Happy New Year 2021 from The Food Gal® and Thurston Howell III)

 

Tastes Like Chicken

Image(Try it, you’ll like it)

Remember all the things you used to take for granted? Your health? A job? Walking around without looking ridiculous? Shopping? Going out to eat whenever you felt like it? Overpaying for food on the Las Vegas Strip?

Almost nothing is as it was four months ago, but some degree of normalcy has returned, once you get a table inside a good restaurant.

Yes, the staff will be speaking in muffled tones (and this will infuriate the both of you), and yes, the seating has been re-jiggered in many places at  awkward angles, but by and large, once the grub start showing up, you won’t be disappointed. The restaurants that were good-to-great before the Panic of 2020 hit are still putting out delicious meals, and surprisingly, there are openings planned which have us excited (one of which happens this week – see below).

These openings aren’t happening on the Strip as much as off it….as the Strip now resembles nothing so much as a giant, three mile long aircraft carrier that has been bombed and strafed into submission. No one knows the extent of the damage done, and they’re getting underway without a clue as to how seaworthy the old rustbuckets are.

Some encouraging notes:

High altitude eating got a boost this past week with the opening of Restaurant Guy Savoy in Caesars Palace. No need for much social distancing at its elegant, well-spaced tables, but the champagne bar is usually where you’ll find us, noshing on nibbles and perusing one of America’s greatest wine lists. Going there tonight, actually. (Ed. note: went last night, dropped a bundle, had a whale of a time. ;-))

Elio has opened in the Wynn. We have a res later this week and are totally jazzed about its take on modern Mexican gastronomy. Our meal last summer at Cosme in NYC was one of the highlights of 2019. As with most big deal meals in town, it will only be open on Thursday-Saturday for dinner.

Speaking of big deals: three very different restaurants had us jumpin’ for joy in the last week. One of them will open to the public this Friday and was a dinner most fowl:

This is No Yolk: Raku Toridokoro Opens Friday

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Yes, we’re talking about an entire meal comprised (mostly) of chicken parts. But the star of the show was….wait for it…chicken sashimi!

Peck-uliar I must admit, but also, flocking amazing. A flight of fancy, if you will. A notable chef’s beak performance no doubt.

So without feather ado, I’ll give you a hent….and a bird’s eye view.

We’re talking conspicuous chicken here. Like nothing Vegas has seen before. No one is more fanatical about their fowl than the Japanese, and their chefs usually have a bag of chicks up their sleeve….which makes for eggcellent dining.

Image(Around here, they call me the gizzard king)

Yep, raw chicken. eaten by the slice, like sushi. Not a lot of it, a couple tender slices (of breast, gizzard and liver) will do ya.

It exists, in Japan, and, like fugu, is quite safe if the chef/restaurant knows what it’s doing. In this instance, the chef in question is Mitsuo Endo — the chef/owner of Raku and Raku Sweets. You can take it on faith that he knows what he’s doing.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that Americans won’t freak the fuck out over it. Because freaking the fuck out over foreign foods is what Americans do.

Let’s get to the details, shall we?

The restaurant in which you will be sampling your chicken sashimi will open on July 3. It is called Raku Toridokoro (toridokoro = poultry house). It is not just a simple yakitori parlor, although lightly seared chicken skewers will be a substantial part of your meal.

The restaurant occupies the space formerly occupied by Tatsujin X — one of our 52 Essential restaurants for EATING LAS VEGAS 2020 — which closed within weeks of the book being published late last year. This incarnation promises to be more crowd-friendly and compelling, capturing more the izakaya-vibe of its namesake, as well as serving things unheard of in Las Vegas before…like raw chicken parts.

Image(Liver a little…try it raw)

The raw poultry parts you will eat will not be slimy or old or taken from the outer flesh of the bird. They will be quickly poached (as you will see on the exterior) to kill some outside bacteria and firm up the meat.

Don’t worry, if you chicken out (sorry, that pun wrote itself), the restaurant provides a very hot rock (above) for you to quickly sear/cook the meat thoroughly. Texture-wise it’ll remind you of lean blue fin or Big Eye tuna. Taste-wise it is almost sweet, but very, very mild. With your eyes closed you wouldn’t peg it as poultry until the merest hint of fresh, raw chicken taken from the refrigerator surprises your back palate.

This rarest of rare treats (and a Vegas first) is only one small course in a multi-plate production spanning the entire length of the bird. Skin, gizzards, liver, heart, you name it, almost everything except the pecker.

Image(Our love for this food is a bit skewed)

You will start with an appetizer platter served in a basket, and end with what might be the richest chicken soup you’ve ever tasted without cream in it.

In between will be skewer after skewer of different parts, each of them challenging your preconceptions about this (heretofore) bland bird. Endo-san can be credited with jump-starting our Asian food revolution in 2008, when he opened Raku. With it he took Japanese food to another level. People were ewwwing and ahhhing then over such exotica as beef liver sashimi, dried sardine salad, monkfish livers, and uni custard back then. Now they’re as common as California rolls. Well, almost.

Life is short, pilgrim. It’s time to enjoy it to the fullest. Eating dangerously is the best revenge (even though it is not that dangerous). But don’t dispel your friends’ fears, exploit them!  Dive in and take the accolades. It’s really not a big deal, but don’t tell them that. Eating chicken sashimi will give you bragging rights among your gastronautic comrades for years to come. They’ll look at you as the Tenzing Norgay of poultry, the Sir Edmund Hillary of farm-to-table conquests.

See for yourself and eat here soon, before a reservation is harder to get than a martini at a Mormon wedding.

Tacos, Tacos y mas Tacos!

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When you walk into a Mexican restaurant, and the chips and salsas blow you away from the first bite, you know you’re on solid ground.

Chef Jose Aleman calls Sin Fronteras a “no Tapatio zone” and a splash of any of his five, “grandma sauces” will convince you never to hit that bottle again. He charges a buck apiece for them and they’re worth twice that much. We’re partial to the Verde and Roja (both on the mild side), but there’s not a loser in the bunch, and the Morita (habanero chipotle), and the arbol-based Diablo will light you up and set you free from the tyranny of Mexican tepidness which infects what so many think of as true south-of-the-border flavor.

Image(These are nacho average salsas)

These are salsas where the fruit and piquancy and smoke of the base ingredients come through — as far from bottled or canned Mexican salsas as a fresh corn tortilla is from a bag of Doritos. But the salsas and the house-made, addictive chips are just the beginning. You won’t find better nachos (above) anywhere this far north of Piedras Negras, and the chile relleno (stuffed with melted Oaxacan cheese and swimming in roasted tomato salsa) is a thing of beauty:

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And we haven’t even gotten to the tacos yet.

Suffice it to say they are great across the board, using meat, veggies, cheese and those sauces which put them light years beyond what you find in your standard neighborhood, straight-from-Sysco taco assembly line. Spoon-tender carnitas, smoky carne asada, crisp, non-greasy chorizo — these tacos are given a proper chef’s touch, befitting Aleman’s former stints in top-flight restaurants on and off the Strip.

At this point we’re tempted to say you won’t find any better tacos anywhere in Vegas. You certainly won’t find better salsas. It may be in an odd location — sort of a restaurant no man’s land at Tenaya and Alexander in the northwest — but wherever you’re coming from, you’ll find the trip was worth it. The churros alone are worth the trip.

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Something for Everyone…in a Sports Bar…Go Figure

I generally hate something-for-everyone restaurants and sports bars, but if I had to choose between the lesser of two evil meals, I’d pick the latter every time. Sports bars may not be known for great food, but within a narrow range, they can fill the bill. Salt and fat rule. Paltry pizza, afterthought burgers, frozen wings, and flabby fries. all of it soaked in ranch dressing. (Yuck!) Expectations are always low and usually exceeded, at least if you’ve parked five beers, your team is winning, and the waitress has a nice rack.

A postcard displaying a Howard Johnson's restaurant location in Bedford, Pa., featuring the chain's traditional Georgian-inspired style.(When quality reigned over quantity)

Something-for-everyone eateries are the enemy of good cooking. The specter of the dreaded “family restaurant” looms over all of them. The HoJo’s of my youth (above) were, in fact, family restaurants, but they didn’t call themselves that.

Howard Johnson’s was all about feeding families, but it gets a pass because it was divine — 28 flavors, fried clams, twin, butter-grilled hot dogs (called “Frankforts”) in those cradle buns, chicken pot pies with flaky crusts  — food overseen in later years by chefs like Pierre Franey and Jacques Pépin. (True!) It was, as far as I’m concerned, the last family restaurant in America worth a split-top.

The Howard Johnson's hot dog. Buttered, split top, and grilled ...

Simple Simon and the Pieman may be long gone, but their legacy lives on. From Olive Garden to Cheesecake Factory, chain restaurants serving standardized, all-over-the-map fare are HoJo’s progeny. They prove daily that it really is impossible to do cross-cultural cooking under one roof with any authority. But, if you downsize, and put your cooking in the hands of a real chef, there are exceptions to the rule that culinary genres should never mix on one menu.

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And by “exceptions” I mean the Wolfgang Puck organization — the only collection of chefs I know who seem to be able to toggle between cooking styles and genres without missing a bean sprout.

They kept the flame alive at Player’s Locker over the three-month lock-down, and now they’re seating customers like nothing ever happened. Of course the tables look strewn about willy nilly — but big comfy booths let you social distance without feeling like you’ve been sent to detention.

The menu includes a lot of “best hits” from the Puck oeuvre, but you won’t be disappointed with any of them. If you’re looking to feed a crowd (whether of picky eaters or picky epicureans). it’s probably your safest bet this side of Spago, which is no coincidence.

Image(I’m really piggy when it comes to a porcine of interest)

It’s hard to find fault with any of it: great breads, good pizza, serious sandwiches, a killer burger, garlic shrimp, meatloaf, pastas, superb roast chicken, the famous Chinese chicken salad… good god this place even had me (a noted hummus hater) eating hummus…. All of them co-exist easily on a menu full of confidence and bold flavors.

The ribs are KC-style and righteous — easily pulled from the bone, but not falling off it, served under a blanket of thick, dark, sweet sauce and with some honey-sweetened cornbread my Georgia relatives would recognize.

Image(Poultry in motion – Puck’s chicken enchilada)

Even the deeply-spiced chicken enchiladas got our attention, as did the house-made pickles, the onion rings, the apple pie, banana pudding, you name it…It’s hard enough to run a restaurant where they do a couple of these things well, but Chef Robert Rolla and his mentors have an attention to detail a lot of sloppier places (some within a few hundred feet of this one) could learn from.

Player’s Locker is basically a good restaurant masquerading as a sports bar.  You could also call it a family restaurant, or a something-for-everyone eatery, but spare it those insults. If indeed there is such thing as an American bistro, it captures the essence of whatever the term means, in all of its mashed-up mixed metaphorical glory.  It is the restaurant every Applebee’s, Chili’s or Cheesecake Factory wishes it could be. It is the best food you will ever find among oversized screens displaying over-hyped sports.

(Here’s how things work in the John Curtas universe these days: We go to a restaurant. We order modestly, then, 4Xs more food shows up at the table. We fight for a bill. Sometimes we get a bill, but it is usually for a fraction of what showed up on the table. We then leave a monster tip. Our meal at Raku Toridokoro was a special pre-opening tasting, so no charge, but our sake bill was $130 and left a $100 tip. When the restaurant opens, the set menu will be $80/pp and there will be a la carte options. At Sin Fronteras, we ordered 3 tacos ($8.25) and then had five more dishes hit the table. No bill, but we left $40. At Player’s Locker, the entire menu showed up (or so it seemed), but they only charged us for about $40/couple. To compensate, we bought an $80 bottle of champagne and left a combined $70 tip.)

RAKU TORIDOKORO

4439 West Flamingo Road

Las Vegas, NV 89103

702.337.6233

SIN FRONTERAS TACOS Y MAS

4016 N. Tenaya Way

Las Vegas, NV 89129

706.866.0080

PLAYER’S LOCKER BY WOLFGANG PUCK

10955 Oval Park Drive, Ste D3

Las Vegas, NV 89135

702.202.6300

Image(Because we knew you wanted another chick pic)