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 as to whether I could keep it up for a while (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 natural light 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 when the martinis will be ready.

Image(If hot tubs could talk…)

My Neighborhood:

Smack dab in the middle of town. 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 out 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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Las Vegas Battles Lethargy

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Nobody knows anything. – William Goldman

Trying to take the temperature of where we are and where we’re going is a fruitless exercise. No one knows the answers; everyone has their fingers crossed.

During a recent conversation with a local magazine editor, I was at a loss when asked what I wanted to write about. The “new normal” is anything but. Hotels and restaurants have opened seeking to reestablish themselves, but no one knows how sustainable these operations can be over the long haul, especially when seating is restricted and probably a quarter of your (former) customers are too scared to dine out.

The Strip has rolled the dice and opened its doors: chugging along at a quarter speed with no conventions in the foreseeable future and the slowest time of the year staring it in the face. People are showing up, but nowhere near in the numbers for which these places were designed.

No one has any idea what the demand for Las Vegas is going to be. Nobody knows anything. Everyone’s in the dark. Demand for beds, booze, or breakfast — it’s anyone’s guess what it’ll be: next week, next month, or in November for that matter..

Because we’re all flying blind, no one can plan anything. Everyone is in survival mode, on and off the Strip. Restaurants designed to turn hundreds of covers a night are making do with a fraction of their capacity — like a Formula One racer puttering around and conserving fuel on a go-kart track. Tiny 40 seat Japanese gems like Hiroyoshi and Yui Edomae Sushi are confined to twelve diners at a time.

If you thought we had a tedious, interminable Spring, the next eight weeks are going to be brutal.

Image(ELIO es magnifico!)

Even in places that are open, something very key to every restaurant’s survival is missing. The key to everyone’s survival — un-quantifiable but essential nonetheless. We’re not talking tables, turnover or customers. We’re not even speaking of service, aliments or alcohol.

No, we’re talking about energy. The Big E, the thing every business needs to succeed. It doesn’t matter what business, if you don’t bring energy to what you do, you won’t be doing it for long.

Restaurants derive energy from two places: their patrons and their staff. Both feed off of each other, literally and figuratively.

Small places like ShangHai Taste exude energy (or at least they did) from the moment you enter. It comes from customers eagerly awaiting their seats, and from the chefs furiously rolling, pinching and steaming your xiao long bao for scores of hungry stomachs.

When it’s firing on all cylinders, a huge restaurant like Mott 32 crackles from the minute you hit the gangplank. Bazaar Meat and Cut smell of beef, testosterone, and money; Restaurant Guy Savoy of French perfection.

Even a homey neighborhood joint like Jamie Tran’s Black Sheep has (or used to have) an electricity about it when you walked in the door — a palpable sense of people enjoying themselves. Energy, conviviality, and excitement are what made Esther’s Kitchen a hit from the get-go.

Now, they’ve lost it. All of them. Vitality has been replaced by defensiveness — an almost apologetic feeling in the air permeating these rooms and everyone in them.

The feeling is the same from the our most expensive to our most modest eateries, and it isn’t a pretty sight, even if the food remains as tasty as ever.

Diners are on the defensive. They are out and about at great risk, they are told, and they’re being policed by self-righteous, finger-waggers — emboldened by media, government, and public health officials — who’ve deputized them (they think) to tell the rest of us how to behave. The restaurants themselves live in fear of being outed for the smallest health infraction; their customers are less fearful, but ever vigilant, lest they be thought of as not properly protecting themselves or those around them.

Needless to say, none of this is a recipe for success.

But undaunted, we persevere. Eating out more than anyone, trying to gauge the temperature of our hospitality industry every week. Since good lunches are problematic downtown, and the hotels have reduced options and hours, we’re picking our spots

The following are the places I’ve eaten since the the quarantine was lifted in early June. As usual, all places come highly recommended.

The (short) List:

Restaurant Guy Savoy

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Against all odds, Caesars Palace decided to reopen one of America’s fanciest and most expensive restaurants. Like most higher-end joints, it’s only serving four nights a week (Wed.-Sat.), and multiple compromises have been made in the way they serve things. The bread cart is now for show only, silverware comes wrapped in paper, and the (smaller) cheese selection is one step removed from a Tupperware party.

Image(Pretty cheesy if you ask me)

That said, Exec Chef Nicolas Costagliola continues to execute the Guy Savoy canon with delicious precision, the service never misses a beat, and you won’t find any better duck, veal, fish, vegetables, and desserts anywhere. With its already limited competition being laid low on both coasts, there is no better big deal meal in America right now. In fact, it may be the only big deal meal in America right now.

ELIO

Image(You won’t turnip your nose at these)

Another surprise. Straight from Mexico City by way of New York City. On every gastronaut’s radar, even though it’s only open Thurs.-Sun.. Wonderful bar, mescal tasting room, molés out the wazoo, and modern Mexican food like Vegas has never seen before. Most of the food gobsmacked us, but we want/need a second round before letting our opinions gel. Be advised though: they take no prisoners with strong flavors and it is pricey — some of the vegetable dishes are priced from in the mid-twenties….for turnips (above).

Costa di Mare

Image(John Dory at Costa di Mare)

Dramatic setting, dramatic seafood. We wrote this place off several years ago after two mediocre meals. But to the Wynn’s credit (as well as Chef Mark LoRusso and GM Ivo Angelov), it has arisen from the quarantine ashes and recaptured some of the old Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare mojo. The Food Gal® (aka my wife) can’t wait to go back. Neither can I.

Bazaar Meat by José Andrés

At this point, I don’t think it’s possible to have a bad meal at Bazaar Meat, or even a bad bite. Totally hit the ground running and tastes as wonderful as ever. The only thing that feels strange are the socially-distanced empty tables. As a steakhouse, however, it remains a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside the enigma which is the new-old Sahara hotel.

ShangHai Taste

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One of those mom and pop places struggling with reduced seating. Acclaim-worthy xiao long bao, noodles and spareribs were a hit from day one….the Covid hit. Now, the once-mobbed, spanking-new Shanghai Plaza is a shadow of its once-bustling self. All Chef Jimmy Li can do is hang on and hope.

Oodle Noodle

Oodles of udon. Healthy bowls of Japanese goodness and super-foods like seaweed salad. If you’re looking for a tasty, economical lunch with wellness-giving properties, look no further.

DE Thai

We had one of our best meals ever here for lunch the other day. Small but mighty terrific Thai.

Other Notables — Where you should be eating now:

8oz Korean Steakhouse

Lotus of Siam

Pho So 1

Yui Edomae Sushi

Lamaii

Cucina by Wolfgang Puck

Carson Kitchen

7th & Carson

Kaiseki Yuzu

Player’s Locker by Wolfgang Puck

Monzú Italian Oven + Bar

Esther’s Kitchen

The Black Sheep

PublicUs

EDO Gastro Tapas & Wine

Marche Bacchus

Saga Pastry + Sandwich

Oscar’s Steakhouse

Allegro at Wynn

Image(Keep calm and carrot on at ELIO)

 

The Covid Diaries – Vol. 9 – The List

Image(Puck’s peeps knock it out of the park)

Day 50, May 5 – Where We Ate

The Great Cessation is winding down. What began in a fit of panic will end in a cloud of failure and despair.

Lives have been ruined, businesses crushed, hopes dashed….but the media and government did its job: whipping everyone into a frenzy so they would buy into the ham-fisted, blunt instrument approach to public health — one akin to “we have to destroy the village in order to save it.”

Both (media and government) are better at getting into messes than getting out of them, so picking up the pieces will be left to the citizens.

And there will be pieces aplenty: 30 million unemployed; an economy in shambles; poverty, disease, murder hornets, you name it.

Las Vegas will be hit hardest of all, just like it was by the Great Recession. (If you don’t believe in Karma, you might consider these double-whammies, twelve years apart, have followed 20 years of unprecedented growth. Yup, Vegas will end up paying double for all the unbridled prosperity it enjoyed between 1989-2009.)

But enough depressive pontification, We are here to celebrate the places that have fed us so well over the past six weeks.

As you might guess, we didn’t let some little old Covid-19 shutdown interfere too much with our gustatory gallivanting. The biggest issue on a daily basis was lunch. Only a few places are open for takeout, so most days it was homemade sandwiches, fruit and cheese brought to work. (I’ve actually lost a couple pounds.)

Dinner found more places open, but even then, we ordered out far less than our habit. (In peak season, The Food Gal® and I easily hit 10+ restaurants a week.)

When we went out, more often than not, we brought our own table and chairs and ate on the sidewalk outside the restaurant with our friends, Deanna and Greg. (They got stranded here, from their Boise, Idaho base, on March 15 and have been toughing it out by working at home and helping us relieve the boredom.)

Occasionally, a restaurant would wave us inside and serve us like the old days — this helped everyone feel as if a little sanity had been restored to a world turned upside down. (These restaurants will not be named for fear the Covid Gestapo is only too eager to hate-shame (or worse) anyone who doesn’t share their misery.)

Dinner was confined to far fewer options than you might expect (good pizza, amazingly was not in abundance throughout this crisis), but if you wanted to drive, lots of quality is/was out there. Very little of it compared to what those same restaurants could turn out at full throttle, but at least you knew a real chef was busting her/his ass to feed you.

We are listing the restaurants in the order in which their takeout menu most closely approximated the quality of what they do when firing on all cylinders. But there are no losers here. Even the most mediocre meal was savored with the appreciation of Lucius Beebe contemplating the nesting habits of a recently-devoured woodcock.

At the end of The List, we’ll have a few choice words for people who continue to accuse us of criticizing the shutdown only because we only want to get back to eating in fancy restaurants.

The List:

Raku

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Both The Food Gal and I forgot our anniversary (on April 29). That is how soul-deadening this has been. Endo-san and Haruko-san bailed me(us?) out big time by bringing their “A” game — from bento boxes to grilled Japanese wagyu — for a meal that, if you closed your eyes, was a dead ringer for any other of the dozens we’ve had there.

Kaiseki Yuzu

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Las Vegas’s most beautiful bento — because, if you need to be reminded, the Japanese perfected takeout food when Americans were still living in log cabins.

Player’s Locker by Wolfgang Puck

Image(Chinois Chicken Salad never goes out of style)

All hail to the Wolfgang Puck Restaurant Group! It has the horsepower to do what few restaurateurs anywhere could: bring a murderer’s row (at top of page) of its local chefs together (at its Summerlin location) to produce an ever-changing menu of Puck classics (above), as well as dishes from each of its six local restaurants. Stars like Matthew Hurley, Kamel Guechida and Nicole Erle, the are producing food, bread, and desserts as eye-popping and fork-dropping as any restaurant in America over these past six weeks. With all that talent at the stoves, how could they not?

Tres Cazuelas

We ate on the sidewalk, but the food would suffer very little if taken home. Braised dished always travel well.

Lamaii

Image(Tangy Thai needs terrific Riesling)

Another sidewalk dinner — straight out of Styrofoam — but one that knocked our socks off.

Café Breizh

Image(Napoleon would be proud)

A lifesaver each week, turning out French pastries and breads worthy of Pierre Gatel’s “Pastry Chef of the Year 2019” award.

The Black Sheep

Image(No table? No problem. We bring our own!)

Jamie Tran now owns the restaurant herself, and herself and a helper are staying strong and producing a truncated menu of her standards that are as tasty as she is adorable.

DE Thai Kitchen

Thai restaurants seem to be weathering the storm better than pizza joints. DE Thai hasn’t missed a beat.

Saga Pastry + Sandwich

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I love this place — even if they can’t get those beautiful tiny, sweet, Scandinavian shrimp for their smorgasbord sandwich right now. It’s one of only two reasons that can get me to the restaurant black hole that is Henderson/Green Valley. I love it, but I also fear for its future.

Ohlala French Bistro

Richard Terzaghi is doing it all himself, and what he’s doing is doing his French tradition proud.

Sin City Smokers

Ribs and a pork sammie blew me away the other day on an episode of Las Vegas Food To Go.

L & L Hawaiian Barbecue

Image(The Burly Boyz take on Hawaiian ‘cue)

Best Kaluha pig I’ve had in Vegas. My comments on Spam Musubi are best left for a time when I’m not struggling to say only nice things.

China Mama

I dream about their xiao long bao and Dan Dan noodles. All of the proteins here — from boiled fish to lamb with cumin — are stellar as well. The fish dishes do not travel well, however.

PublicUs

Another lifesaver. Has become our morning go-to for coffee. The tips we leave often exceed the size of the bill…and they’re worth it.

Locale Italian Kitchen

Nicole Brisson has left the building. Before she left, she cooked us one helluva meal.

Rooster Boy Cafe

We would frequent here more often if Sonia El-Nawal didn’t have her hands full servicing customers who can’t get enough of her catered dinners and superb pastries.

Delices Gourmands French Bakery & Cafe

Image(Palm tree perfection)

I like Pierre Gatel’s baguettes better at Cafe Breizh (by the width of a mille-feuille layer), but the bread selection (and pastries) here is a close second on all other fronts, and I would walk three miles for one of their palmiers…and have!

Kung Fu Thai & Chinese

Any place that’s been in business since 1974 is doing a lot of things right. Just the spot when you’re craving some cashew chicken or Yen Ta Fo soup.

7th and Carson

Still one of Vegas’s most boffo burgers. So good we were fighting over the last bite.

Yummy Rice

Simple little rice bowls studded with veggies or proteins. Normally, they serve these in super-heated clay pots – Hong Kong style. Now, the rice caramelizes on the bottom of cheap, to-go aluminum.  Something is lost but the bowls are still damn tasty. A Food Gal® favorite.

Weiss Deli & Bakery

Image(Righteous pastrami on rye)

Jewish food and Las Vegas go together like craps and born-again Christians. Our best bagels are made by an Italian. Go Figure. Weiss is the closest we have to real, big city deli. Bagels, lox, pastrami, rugelach, the works — they have it all and all of it is worth traveling to Sunset and Sunset for.

Valley Cheese and Wine

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Three weeks in a row we’ve headed to the far corners of Horizon Ridge to grab some cheese and wine here. We never fail to blow at least a couple of Benjamins, and we’ll spend twice as much if means keeping this little gem in business.

Ocha Thai 

Always a fave. Always there when we need a Thai fix.

Now, some final thoughts.

Many times over the last six weeks we’ve been accused (by self-righteous supporters of the shutdown) of being opposed to it solely because it prevents us from eating in fancy restaurants.

Here’s a typical (but by no means uncommon) barb tossed my way by those who, over the past month or so, have decided to really, really care about old, sick people dying in hospitals thousands of miles away:

So, just to be clear, if you’ve had COVID -19, have it, or lost somebody to it, John wants you to know that you’re nothing more than an inconvenience to his dining agenda. [B}efore they died, did you tell them to their face that you were glad they were dying, because it meant you could dine out sooner?

My response on Facebook was a little blunt: I told the writer (politely) to go fuck himself.

A more nuanced response would have been as follows:

The only thing I’ve obsessed about during this debacle has been how brutal it has been on working people in the hospitality business. Whether I ever eat another foie gras torchon has been the furthest thing from my mind.

I eat out now because I love restaurants and restaurant people — love supporting them, love watching them thrive. My devotion is like someone who loves a sports team — it is unconditional. But it is also different. Because every day I evince my passion with my time, my appetite, my prose and my paycheck. My life has been a full one; I will eat well no matter what happens.

What I’ve also realized from fifty years of obsessing about food is how important restaurants are to the soul of a community. We are social beings. Gathering to eat and drink has been inculcated into our DNA since time immemorial. You can no more prevent people from talking, rubbing elbows, sharing food, or passing the platter than you can keep the sun from shining.

The idea that you should take a society and shut it down to keep people from breathing on each other is the dumbest thing since the Vietnam War. Unlike the war, however, this policy will ruin tens of millions of lives across the globe.  It is those lives who deserve our sympathy, not people you don’t know — people you’re only pretending to care about because it makes it easier to disguise your fear and makes you feel better about yourself.

You’re right about one thing, though. Because of your irrational fear(s), the Golden Age of American Restaurants is over. The way has been cleared for soulless, antiseptic, corporate eateries to dominate our landscape for years to come. But for as long as I can still chew, I going to fight you and your fright, and put my money where my mouth is to keep places like those above alive.

Image(Big eye tuna from Player’s Locker)