EATING LAS VEGAS – The 50 Essential Restaurants
A friend of mine recently accused me of going easy on a chef because I was “friends” with him. (The friendly argument concerned a social media post of mine, praising a dish that my foodie ami had found lacking.)
Leaping to my own defense (something I’m quite good at, given my amount of practice), I reminded my paisan that I am actually “friends” with but a handful of professional chefs. I am “friend-LY” with dozens, perhaps a couple of hundred professional cooks…but I’m not close enough to any of them to alter my opinion of their food.
Or am I? Maybe I’m fooling myself. Maybe being on a first name basis with a chef does alter how I judge him and his work.
Perhaps knowing something about someone’s career, and meeting their spouse, and following them on Facebook, for example, gives you a certain rooting interest in how well they do. You’d have to be a heartless asshole to argue otherwise.
No one thinks much about this stuff anymore, since the days of the anonymous critic are as dead as Craig Claiborne. Truth be told, Claiborne, James Beard, Mimi Sheraton, Jay Jacobs, and all the critics I grew up reading were probably well known to the restaurants they frequented. It wasn’t until the 1990s rolled around that a big deal started to be made about critics dining anonymously. The best of them all — Seymour Britchky — was probably under-the-radar when he was at his most acerbic, but after years on the beat, I’m sure he was spotted all over Manhattan as well. From what I know about the man, he didn’t make a whole lot of friends with anyone — almost no chefs attended his funeral, despite his writing about New York restaurants for 20 years.
Once Ruth Reichl wrote her 1993 take-down of Le Cirque — where she, the New York Times critic was treated differently when she was in disguise then when she was spotted by the restaurant — every reader wanted to know if the writer was known to the restaurant when they walked in, as if being identified as a critic by the restaurant invalidates the review. Even today I get asked by people if “they (the restaurants) know me” when I eat somewhere, and my answer is always the same:
Yes, I’m known to almost all the best Strip restaurants, but in Chinatown, I could be on the cover of the New York Times and they wouldn’t give a shit. (For what it’s worth, I was on the cover of the New York Times Food Section once (June 24, 2012), and none of them gave a shit. POINT PROVEN!)
But am I friends with a lot of chefs? Not really.
A friend is someone you hang out with.
A friend is someone who has been to your house.
A friend is someone who invites you to their house.
A friend is someone who calls you for no reason just to see how you’re doing.
By any measure, I am not friends with many chefs….or restaurateurs.
Don’t get me wrong: I love hanging out with them, but I always suspect that they’re hanging with me more out of professional obligation than anything else. But whether we’re close or just acquaintances, you can always learn something by getting to know what makes someone tick. Great food makes me tick, and it’s what motivates the people I write about, so having that in common has always made the conversation fun.
And yes, that means I’m probably pulling for them to succeed…but not so much that I won’t give them an earful if I don’t like something. Just ask Gio Mauro, Steven Kalt, Justin Kingsley Hall, James Trees, Rick Moonen, or Paul Bartolotta about how prickly I get if I think they’re under-performing.
When you get right down to it, rooting for chefs to succeed has motivated me all along. I was never selling anything except my opinions. All I wanted was for those opinions to count for something — to improve the way we all eat, and to encourage chefs and owners to do a better job.
We have that in common — me and all my chef “friends” — even if we have almost nothing else in common. And that has always brought a smile to my face.
The following (in no particular order) are where I’ve been eating and why. Obviously, they all come highly recommended.
7th & Carson – catty corner to EAT on Carson St., this little American bistro makes due with half the customers of its competition. Probably the best pure french fries in Vegas….and the fish and chips ain’t far behind.
EAT – those pancakes, the pozole, that hash! If it’s on this menu, it’s great.
The Kitchen at Atomic – I’m rooting hard for this place, but it needs to find its own way and stop trying to be Sparrow & Wolf Downtown. Some of the dishes sing, like these Buffalo chicken hearts:
…while others fall flat (some large proteins are examples of how addition-by-subtraction might benefit a recipe). Still, a great space with a very cool vibe and plenty of well-chosen libations to keep boozehounds, ale-heads, brewmeisters and winos happy. There’s a lot of talent working here, and when it all comes together, this place could become a culinary force to be reckoned with.
Esther’s Kitchen – hotter than hot right now, deservedly so. Get the pastas and the salads and the pizzas. Some of the sandwiches look better than they taste (there’s never enough sauce for this pilgrim), but there’s no way you will ever leave hungry.
Kaiseki Yuzu – for when I miss my Yokohama mama. Go for a quick bite; go for the full kaiseki — either way you’ll be blown away.
Hiroyoshi – another unlikely success story, in a nondescript mall, serving drop-your-chopsticks great Japanese.
Pizzeria Monzú – do we need another great pizzeria in town? Oh yes we do, especially when the sides, the spritzers and the wine list are this good.
The Goodwich – every so often I go a month or two without eating here. This is a mistake I always regret.
Mother’s Korean Barbecue – not the best Korean by a long shot, but good enough when you don’t want all the folderol of one of our better K-pop ‘cue joints.
Good Pie – Vincent Rotolo is da man! Don’t even think of getting a slice anywhere else.
Pho So 1 – our best Vietnamese has facelifted its decor, its menu and its food (like the mouth-water wings above). Better than ever.
Gelato di Milano – Best. Gelato. In. Town. Period. Puts all the others to shame.
Yobo Shabu Shabu – Chef Xingkai Deng – the man who put China Mama on the map, is back! And he’s brought superior shabu-shabu (and noodles) with him.
Cafe Berlin – I know a little German.…he’s eating (these sausages) right over here.
Wing Lei – gorgeous as ever, wonderful Mandarin cooking. One of only two places at the Wynn that still interests me. (Allegro is the other.)
Twist by Pierre Gagnaire – it is impossible to get bored with Pierre Gagnaire’s food.
El Menudazo – listen up, gringo. Hitch up the Bronco, put your fears of North Las Vegas aside (come for lunch), and get the pozole, muchacho.
Mon Ami Gabi – I only go at an odd hour (usually mid-afternoon) and sit on the terrace with a bottle of wine, drinking it and drinking in all the despair walking by.
Ferraro’s Italian Restaurant & Wine Bar – why eat Italian anywhere else? There’s certainly no reason to drink Italian anywhere else.
The Real Crepe – Brittany comes to the ‘burbs! Crepes, crepes and more crepes (see above)….and galettes too! Sweet or savory, they’re all great.
Canter’s Delicatessen – face it: it’s the best deli in town and Bagel Cafe isn’t.
Delices Gourmands French Bakery – as I’ve stated a hundred times: there ought to be a line out the door for these pastries.
Ohlala French Bistro – just what a French bistro should be: small, solid, and personal. Nice wine list, too.
Flock & Fowl – I didn’t think Sheridan Su’s Hainanese chicken could get any better. It has! Bigger menu, more seats, and devilishly good deviled eggs (as you can see above).
Ocha Thai – coming soon: a new bar with small Thai bites!
Sweets Raku – the weekend lunch (and desserts like the one above) is a must-stop on any foodie tour of Las Vegas.
Chuchote Thai Bistro & Desserts – get the southern Thai specialties and bring a fire hose….or your own six-pack of beer.
Cafe Breizh – the best, Jerry. The best! Five years ago, you had to go to Bouchon for pastries this good:
…now, all you have to do is drive to south Fort Apache.
So there you have it. My final roundup.
These are the places I have been eating in, and the places that I imagine will hold my attention for the next year. I’m enthused about the Raku expansion, Khai Vu’s new wine bar on Spring Mountain Road, and whatever Jamaican specialties they might (eventually) cook up at Jammyland downtown, but two fucks I have ceased to give about whatever Gordon Ramsay is up to.
I fear for the fate of Bazaar Meat, and I suppose I’ll trundle over to Caesars or the Bellagio sometime to see what Guy Savoy or Le Cirque is cooking up, but on the whole, going to the Strip just isn’t doing it for me anymore. Which is kind of funny since I find myself with more money and spare time than ever these days.
I’ll still hit Las Vegas Boulevard whenever I’m hankerin’ for a great steak (nothing in the neighborhoods, except maybe Japaneiro, even comes close to the steaks at our premium beef emporiums), but there’s no need to put up with all that aggravation, and the crowds, and the paid-for parking, and the nickel-and-dimeing of the big hotels when there’s so much cool stuff happening on Spring Mountain Road, and downtown — walking distance from where I work.
I’ll be back on April 1st for a few last words and my final sign-off. Until then, bon appetit et à votre santé to all.
We’re in the home stretch food fans.
The final innings.
The last quarter.
Time is running out.
Minutes are slipping away.
And the end is almost in sight.
Our loyal readers know what we’re talking about.
Our staff is girding its loins for the final push.
And we at ELV know that the time is nigh.
What we’re talking about is the conclusion. The climax. The finale.
The denouement, if you will, of this web site in its current incarnation.
Come April 1, 2018, on the exact, 10th year anniversary of its birth, EATING LAS VEGAS (www.eatinglv.com) will cease to exist in its present form.
What will succeed it is anyone’s guess.
One thing we do know is that we’re not going away completely.
There will be a re-boot; there will be an outlet for our deathless prose, our incisive wit, our impeccable palate, and our call-it-like-it-is ruminations on Las Vegas: its people, places, and eating parlors.
We have been thinking long and hard about these things over the past few months, and we’ve come to a few conclusions about what we don’t want to do, but the path ahead is still a bit foggy. Therefore, in the spirit of honesty, respect, gratefulness, and camaraderie with you, a follower who has been faithful enough to still be reading our words, it is only right that we share some of these thoughts.
One thing is clear, and has been clear to us for over five years now: the time of the blogs is over. Facebook killed the whole idea of someone blogging some blog that their blog-appreciating fans submitted their own blogviations to about whatever bloggings were being blogged.
Blogs were once a beautiful thing. From around 2002-2012 they were a way for people with common interests to communicate. Whether your passion was petit fours or Parcheesi, you could set up a blog and people who were interested would google and find it and they’d all create a small community of readers who shared knowledge, comments, arguments, witticisms, about whatever obsession was held dear to their hearts. Back in the day, there were blogs about Mullets Galore, Hot Chicks with Douchebags, and, my personal favorite: MenWhoLookLikeKennyRogers.com.
As gone as the hope that the interwebs would spawn a new way, highly informed and dexterous way of communicating with each other.
What began so hopefully morphed into trolls, clickbait and cat videos.
What killed this hope was that great bugaboo: advertising. More specifically, the lust of Facebook to aggregate all of its fans into mind-staggering numbers that it could then sell to its advertisers — companies that have paid it a fortune to access all those eyeballs.
If you’re like me (i.e. most grownups) you started with Facebook around 2008-2009. Back then, it seemed like a groovy way to connect with friends and share pictures. Little did anyone suspect that it would become the primary way people would start interacting with each other on the internet. Little did we know that those advertisers would mine all that Facebook data about us and turn it into a privacy-compromised, marketing juggernaut.
By opting to communicate very loudly and very publicly on Facebook on just about every topic, the public was basically turning its back on those little communities of quilters or sailors or Female Lego Academics and announcing that if it didn’t happen on Facebook, it didn’t really happen.
This phenomenon, along with the improvement of phone cameras and Instagram, effectively killed food blogs.
Of course, the rise of Yelp, TripAdvisor et al had a lot to do with it too. Once you could dial up a crowd-sourced opinion of everything from a hole-in-the-wall taco joint to a haute cuisine palace, there was little reason to endure the bloviations of some gasbag “expert” before deciding where to eat.
In the good old days, those gasbags were the only ones out there telling you where to eat. Today, everyone is telling you.
Back in the day, people had to read to get information. My early restaurant years were soaked with the prose of Seymour Britchky, Craig Claiborne and Jay Jacobs. Decades before everyone was posting pictures of their shrimp salad, you had to wade through hundreds of words describing every dish in detail in order to get a mental picture of a meal. Those words were dense with descriptors and sometimes the sledding was heavy, but it pulled you in, made you commit. And with that commitment came accomplishment — the sense that you actually knew something after you finished reading a food article or a review.
Epicures no longer have to put in the work to call themselves such. All they have to do is look at pictures and pay attention to whatever Thrillist, or 50 Best list, or award list is in the news this week. In 2018, galloping gourmets simply notch their belts, post photos, and call themselves connoisseurs.
But there’s a big difference between helicoptering to the top of Mount Everest and actually climbing there. Unfortunately, in the food world — and especially in the world of social media as it pertains to food — these distinctions have all been wiped out. No one really gives a shit if the editor of Eater or Thrillist or Travel + Leisure actually knows anything about their topic, or has eaten in the restaurants they write about. All that matters is that they’ve distilled a very little amount of information into an easily digestible form, so it can be swallowed whole by the gullible public.
Like I said: marketing eventually ruins everything.
So, with these things in mind, where is this food blog to go? (BTW and FWIW: we’ve always hated calling this a “blog.” Blogs are for weird people who love posting pictures of ugly Renaissance babies and hungover owls. To us, Eating Las Vegas always been our website.)
A few things have become clearer to us in the last year:
Item: We’ve had it with the Strip. The nickel-and-diming of resort fees, paid parking, and such have stuck in our craw, but what has really cinches it for us is the stagnancy of ideas and the milking of old cows going on there. Wynn/Encore spent five years trumpeting its restaurants. Now, with a couple of exceptions, it’s manned by a bunch of itinerant chefs. Perhaps Elaine Wynn can restore its F&B program to some of its former glory. (Hope springs eternal!) As for the rest of the bean-counting casinos: there hasn’t been an original idea in any of them in a decade. I’m not saying I won’t go to the Strip to dine, but I’m through writing about it on this web site. If you want to know what I think about its big hitter eateries, BUY MY BOOK! Given the lack of imagination going on up and down Las Vegas Boulevard, everything I wrote for the 2018 edition should be good for at least the next three years. I’ll still post pictures of my dinners at Guy Savoy, Bazaar Meat or Wing Lei (see above, for example) on social media, but my days of praising them to the heavens on this site are over.
Item: I’ve been traveling a lot in the past two years and intend to keep it up. Expect a lot more stuff about my edible adventures abroad.
Item: I’ve been cooking a lot lately as well. (Little known fact: before I started writing seriously about restaurants in 1995, I had been a serious home cook for twenty years.) Therefore, we may even turn this into a food/cooking/recipe site (occasionally).
Item: Wine is a passion of mine . Wine writing is usually a bore. Expect the occasional post about what I’m drinking and why. I’ll try to make it informative and not boring.
Item: Life in general is a passion of mine. Expect occasional blowhard observations about some obscure thing that interests me.
Item: Cocktails, spirits and whiskeys continue to fascinate me (beer less so), so expect an occasional dissertation about what and where you should be drinking.
Item: I promise you I will never, ever, subject you to my politics. There are more than enough political writers in the world. Not even I am interested in my political views. Politics is a boring little game played by small-minded little people, and the only reason we are inundated with it (in the press) is because it is one of the few human activities that is going on all the time.
Item: The one exception to the above rule will be gun control. I have felt strongly about gun control all of my adult life– because I believe we all have a moral obligation to prevent murder. If you’re one of those psycho-sexual, barrel-stroking gun-loving, 2nd Amendment freaks, don’t read me. For the rest of you, I will try to keep my outrage to a minimum.
Item: We’ve been reading a lot lately…and may even throw in an occasional book review.
Item: Asian food/Chinatown/Spring Mountain Road: I expect to be eating a lot more Asian food in the coming year and reporting on it more frequently on this site.
Item: My days of searching out cheap taco shops, food trucks and burger bars are over. I still enjoy a good sandwich (and great tacos), but it will have to be pretty awesome to get me to write about some bit of meat slapped between some bread.
Item: Downtown Las Vegas is booming and I’ll continue to be its biggest booster.
Item: The name of this site may be changing. It’s going to be more about other things than just “Eating Las Vegas.” More likely the title will be something along the lines of:
JOHN CURTAS is
Eating Las Vegas
Traveling the World
Drinking More Than He Should
Telling It Like It Is
….or something like that.
In the next few weeks (after we return from New Mexico this weekend), we will be highlighting a few of our favorite meals of the this (still young) year, and then shutting things down (on April 1) for a month or so.
When next we re-appear (sometime before Summer), you can expect a stripped down site, composed mainly of our prose, and, as always, a few tasty snaps to accompany the articles.
As always, bon appetit to all.
It’s here; it’s all mine; and it’s much more than just a restaurant guide.
Twenty-five years of my life have gone into this book, as have over twelve thousand restaurant meals in Las Vegas alone. Add another 10k or so of meals in the previous decades and you get way north of 20,000 when you start counting up how many times I’ve sat down in a restaurant. (ELV – the man, the myth, the inveterate epicure – scoffs when he hears other food writers brag about reviewing restaurants for “years” or through “thousands of meals.” Scoffs, I say.)
This book is a lot different than the previous five editions. All 52 “essential” joints were visited by me within the past year, sixteen worthy places leapt into our top 52, and two-thirds of all the reviews are either brand new or freshly re-written. All sorts of tasty tidbits are also peppered throughout the pages, for your edification, contemplation and delectation.
Six new chapters introduce the book, ranging from the pros and cons of the Las Vegas restaurant scene (pro: comfort, accessibility; con: how casino comps ruin everything), to the glories of dining alone, to our disgust with celebrity chefs and the people who worship them.
Along the way, you’ll also find a brand new Bottom 10 (example: “SW Steakhouse – Are you the sort that likes gargling with razor blades while electric shocks are applied to your genitals? Then you’ll probably enjoy perusing this wine list, then paying the straight-up-your-fundament tariff.”), as well as a host of hot new places to visit in Chinatown. For dessert, we feature an epilogue as well as a lengthy description of my perfect meal — because people are always asking me, and I thought it high time I put it on paper.
If you’re interested in eating out in Las Vegas, you should buy it. If you like to eat in restaurants generally, you probably should buy it too.
Now, here’s the important part: where to buy it.
Simple. Just click on the link below and you’ll get the best deal (52 delicious reviews, and more opinions than you can count for the price of a cocktail) and the fastest shipping. Bon appetit and Merry Christmas!