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The Dirt on Dirty Dining

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People love to be grossed out. People also love to think that dark-skinned and strange-talking mom-and-pop restaurateurs are the only ones doing the grossing-out.

For those who live in fear of being served the unspeakable by the unsanitary, KNTV’s Darcy Spears and her weekly “Dirty Dining” feature are there to exploit those fears in the form of lazy racism disguised as consumer reporting.

It doesn’t take a sociologist to decipher what Spears and her shameless producers are up to. “Worms at Tacos El Gordo” the headline announces. “Roaches at Thai Street Cafe!” “Rat Droppings at Honey Pig!” “Raw Meat Issues at Korean Garden!” A quick look at the KNTV Home Page demonstrates that this “investigative reporter” makes a living from reading Southern Nevada Health District reports and then trolling Asian and Mexican restaurants in hopes of ambushing and embarrassing them.

More often than not that person is an Asian- or Mexican-American who looks like a deer caught in the headlights when Spears shows up at their front door.

“You know you have to be clean even when you’re really busy?” she asks with all the hard hitting chops of a weather girl wannabe.

Because of course, she proclaims with grave inflection, “…the onions themselves were not being washed.”

“That’s the head of a chicken…” she exclaims as if she didn’t know they ever had one. Then comes, “Tyler says they use them to cook broth,” her voice fading in quiet disbelief. Finally, dripping with false sincerity and classic intonations of self-seriousness, there’s: “…cut lettuce that was kept at room temperature.”  Quelle horreur!

She then proceeds to walk through the place, with the haughtiness of a third grade teacher, pointing out various things that she thinks need to be cleaned up.

It’s all pretty craven and embarrassing (for the restaurant, for the viewer and for her – even if she’s clueless), but where she and her station really show their innate bigotry is a few minutes later in the same report.

The last minute of the February 15th segment is devoted to a raw sewage spill in Applebee’s. Seems like a toilet backed up and Applebee’s employees were walking through human waste in the restaurant. What is notable about this “reporting” is what it does not contain. There’s no ambush, no interview, no attempt to contact Mr. Applebee to inquire about the company policy for having cooks and waitresses walking through human shit. No attempt to ask customers what they think. No manager in the headlights. Just a few shots of a soap-sudded floor and the statement that it was eventually cleaned up.

And we’re talking human feces here folks, not a small splatter of chicken blood on the side of a refrigerator.*

So Applebee’s gets a pass and a family pho parlor gets the third degree. So it goes every week with this whole enterprise — a segment that’s selling sensationalism and stereotypes, not news you can use. (I don’t recall her ambushing anyone at Firefly after it poisoned hundreds of patrons four years ago, or more recently when it hosted a cockroach convention.)

To prove my thesis, I looked through 746 pages of Southern Nevada Health District restaurant reports, involving 14,778 inspections to see just how many larger operations Darcy “Chief Investigator” Spears actually “investigated.”

Aside from the casual mention that Appelbee’s got, the answer is bupkus. I could find no mention on the KNTV website of places like the California Hotel, Klondike Casino, or Emerald Island (all of whom, this year, received over 30 demerits from SNHD in its inspections). Even if Spears did call attention to these places, it’s dollars to doughnuts she didn’t show up on the hotel floor with her camera and a list of questions for the CEO.

No, she reserves that treatment for people who don’t push back. Look no further than the October, 13, 2016 report on Korean Garden BBQ. A raw onion sitting on a shelf appalls her. A food stain on stainless steel is cause for alarm.

“Not a sanitary condition to be defrosting meat,” she says like she knows anything about the subject. A few flies in the place (because the front door was open), also gives her much cause for faking some concern.

None of these are isolated incidents, all of them are business as usual when you’re in the business of harassing non-white people.

What Spears doesn’t tell you is that she is reading off preliminary health reports — most of which are followed up on within a matter of days to see if the operator has corrected the condition. Many, many restaurants get poor grades after random inspections. The Health District then follows up shortly thereafter to see if the corrections have been made. It is after THAT inspection that the restaurant gets a “final” grade.** Spears like to gloss over this fact by stating that she only goes after the places with the highest number of demerits — even when she knows they will soon be reevaluated with a second inspection. But, of course, that wouldn’t make good TV. Better by far to catch them with their pants down after that first score, play up all the disgusting things you can, and then casually mention at the end of the segment that the restaurant now has an “A.”

None of this would matter if there was any perspective being brought to bear. But in the Darcy Spears world, a dishtowel next to food is cause for the same alarm as expired spinach and cockroaches.

“Hopefully that knife tip didn’t come off in anyone’s food,” is said with a nervous giggle as she looks upon a stunted blade — just to give you something else to worry about.

Television “news” doesn’t get anymore craven than that. Not content with the information (and “gotcha” interview) she has at her disposal, she has to gin up another cause for alarm (all while pretending to be on the side of her subject), so you’ll keep paying attention.***

That’s where Dirty Dining really goes off the rails. Each segment elevates a bucket on the floor, or produce kept at an improper temperature, to the same sky-is-falling tragedy as rats in the rice bowl. Shaming the little guy is her mission statement, not educating the public.

There’s a public service to be offered here, but it’s too easy to pick the low hanging fruit and choose to intimidate our hard-working immigrant population and call it a day. The entire segment ought to be renamed “Fear and Loathing of Foreign Food.”

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* Spears is all over the guy at Thai Pepper about his overflowing toilet.

** No grades are ever “final,” the SNHD tells me; they always quickly reevaluate a place if they have a significant number of demerits. The grade you see see on the SNHD website is the one given after a follow-up inspection.

*** Which is why some people (and fans of certain restaurants) are starting to (literally) push back.

The Hottest Dish in Town

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 If you’re they type who thinks supermarket taco sauce is too spicy, read no further. If the mere mention of Mexican food makes you meek, or Korean makes you queasy, or southern Indian inspires thoughts of gastro-injuries, click elsewhere. Because we’re here to celebrate the bringing of the big heat. The pinnacle of pepper-dom. The capsaicin crown, if you will.

Yes, we think we’ve found the hottest dish in town. As shockingly, electrically, volcanically hot as anything we’ve ever put in our mouth. And pilgrim, we’ve stuffed a lot of hot peppers into this piehole in our day.

Before we get to our chili champ, a little pepper primer is in order. Capasicin is the active chemical component of chili peppers. It is an irritant to mammals and produces a burning sensation in whatever tissue it comes in contact with. Pepper plants probably produce this off-putting present as protection against predators, i.e., animals and fungi that might want to eat them. Capsaicin collects in quantity in the seeds and the placental tissue surrounding them. That is why you are told to “scrape the seeds” out of various peppers before you use them, as a way of muting the effect. Amazingly, no matter how much pain a pepper produces, there are no ill effects to the human body from eating them. (Except what you might experience the next day.)

The “Naked Shrimp” dish at Ocha Thai (Gung Che Num Pa) is made with freshly ground Thai birds eye chili peppers. The chefs do not scrape the seeds. Instead, they pound these devils into a paste with mint, garlic, fish sauce and onions, and festoon the raw crustaceans with the mixture. You pick up the shrimp by the tail and take it whole, as it drips with a dollop of chilies. The effect (that takes about 15 seconds to set in) is one of having an electric, hallucinogenic shock sent through your nervous system —  a jolt that gives way to a searing heat that threatens not to leave for a week. After a minute or so panic sets in — a fear that the entirety of your mouth has been irreversibly seared by an oily, unctuous flame that has permanently attached itself to the sides of your tongue.

Only the jolokia ghost pepper at Mint Indian Bistro comes close to this level of heat. The difference being, the jolokia (at over a million Scoville Units) obliterates all taste sensation, these birds eye bad boys (checking in at 350,000 Scoville Units), actually enhance what you’re eating. (By way of comparison, the jalapeno rates a mere 2,500-5,000 Scoville Units.)

Through the pain, you can still taste the shrimp. And the mint. And the garlic. After two bites, you are entranced, spellbound, enveloped by pain and compelled to seek more eating pleasure. Such is the beauty of the dish. Such is the allure of Thai food.

Relax pilgrim, in five minutes your mouth will return to normal. After three or four Thai iced teas.

Serious chili heads owe it to themselves to check this dish out. The rest of you: bring a flamethrower, or just kick back and enjoy the rest of the very solid (and much less spicy) Thai menu.

OCHA THAI CUISINE

1201 Las Vegas Boulevard South

Las Vegas, NV 89104

702.386.8631

http://www.ochacuisine.com/

 

 

My Year of Dining Deliciously

2016 will go down as one of the most eventful years of my life. Getting married took the cake, of course, but publishing two editions of EATING LAS VEGAS The 50 Essential Restaurants (Huntington Press) was quite the undertaking as well. Factor in trips to Atlanta, Albuquerque/Santa Fe, Los Angeles, Napa Valley, San Francisco, Portland, Oregon, Washington D.C., Tokyo, Austin, Texas, and Rome (Italy, not Georgia) and you have one whale of a rotation around the sun. Through it all, I managed to eat over two hundred meals in local restaurants. Here are the best of the best that I tasted in the past twelve months:

Wine List of the YearAureole (see above). Not only is it the broadest and deepest list in town, it’s also back to being on the printed page, making it a joy to peruse. Would that all those damned, dastardly digital lists be consigned to the techie hell from whence they came. Digital wine lists tried to solve a problem that wasn’t there. And people ended up ordering less wine, because they’re so cumbersome to use. A pox, a pox I say, on all digital wine lists. End of rant.

Cocktail Bar of the YearLibertine Social

Pasta of the Year – (tie) Carbone; Carnevino; Ferraro’s

Burger of the YearLibertine Social; runner up – Gordon Ramsay Steak

Steak of the Year – (tie) porterhouse at CUT; aged rib eye at Bazaar Meat

Fish Dish of the Year – Scorpina (scorpion fish) at Estiatorio Milos

Sommelier of the YearChloe Helfand at Bazaar Meat

Pizza of the YearDue Forni; runner-up – Evel Pie

Downtown Restaurant of the YearLe Pho

Chinese Restaurant of the YearChengdu Taste

Thai Restaurant of the YearOcha Thai

Vietnamese Restaurant of the YearPho Annie

Korean Restaurant of the Year – Magal Korean BBQ

Japanese Restaurant of the Year – (tie) Yui Edomae Sushi, Hiroyoshi, Yuzu Japanese Kitchen

Fabulous Frenchies of the Year – Nothing can top the lip-smacking delights that Rosallie Le French Cafe, Delices Gourmands French Bakery and Eatt Healthy Food brought to the ‘burbs.

Dim Sum of the Year – No contest: Pearl Ocean at the brand new Lucky Dragon Hotel and Casino.

Coffee Bar of the Year – The just-opened Vesta Coffee Roasters is giving the term “fresh roasted” a whole new meaning.

Appetizer of the Year – “Ham ‘n Eggs” at ‘e’ by José Andrés

Entrée of the Year – Crispy Lamb Belly with Pomegranates and Peas at Sage
 Desserts of the Year – Whatever Mio Ogasawara is whipping up that night at Sweets Raku
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Meals of the YearYuzu Japanese Kitchen; Yui Edomae Sushi; Twist by Pierre Gagnaire; Delmonico; L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon; Bazaar Meat; CUT; Sage; ‘e’ by José Andrés; B&B Ristorante; Yonaka; Strip Steak; Ferraro’s; Carbone; Chengdu Taste; Raku.

Chef of the YearSteve Benjamin at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon. No one does it better, or has for as long, as Stevie B.

Restaurant of the YearBazaar Meat. Fork–droppingly delicious is how I often describe a dish (or a meal) that knocks me out with its intensity and perfection. I dropped my fork a lot this year at Bazaar Meat.

(Here’s to you José, and to the best damn steakhouse in America)
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