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.
ELV note: Rather than attempt a comprehensive look at Las Vegas restaurants (for that, you’ll have to buy my book) we at ELV thought it better to let you know where you’re likely to find us dining in the coming months. As we said in our last post, we are done exploring every nook and cranny of the local food scene. We’re not going to ignore the shiny and the new, but more likely you’ll find us patronizing the well-worn and comfortable. And nothing fits our comfort zone more these days than Chinatown.
The Food Gal® once asked me what I would miss most about Las Vegas were we to move to another town. The things I would miss most about Vegas, would be, in order:
- The weather
- My house
- My swimming pool in summer
- My barbecue/smoker
- Having half a dozen great French restaurants within 15 minutes of my front door
- Ditto: a dozen great steakhouses
Las Vegas’s Mexicans restaurants don’t compare with SoCal, Phoenix, Tucson and Albuquerque, but all it takes is a quick trip to any Mexicali eatery in Atlanta or St. Louis to see how good we’ve got it.
And when it comes to Asian food, there are very few cities in America that compare with the offerings up and down Spring Mountain Road.
As with Mexican food, I can hear the aficionados braying: “Nothing you have compares with the San Gabriel Valley, or Garden Grove, or Richmond (outside of Vancouver) Canada!”
True dat, but for a town our size, the quality and variety of our Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and Korean restaurants is pretty darn impressive, and beats anything Miami, Chicago, Minneapolis, Denver or Philadelphia can throw at you.
Best of all, our Chinatown (which really should be called Asiatown) is mostly compressed into one, three mile stretch of road. (As tasty as it is, traipsing all over Alhambra, San Gabriel and the Valley Boulevard Corridor can be a slog for all but the most intrepid gastronaut.)
Chinatown really rings our chimes, again and again. It’s the one food address in town that we never tire of exploring. When Thai tedium ensues, there’s always some copious Korean. Should we be sated by sushi, there’s always some restorative ramen at hand. Upscale Vietnamese? Verily, it is so. Interesting izakaya? Indubitably.
Plus, all of this bounty seems to be increasing. As we type these words, a huge condominium complex is under construction near Valley View Boulevard, along with a giant new shopping mall (dubbed “Shanghai Plaza”) a half mile up the street.
Something tells us the quantity and quality of Chinatown eats is about to grow exponentially. In the meantime, here’s where we’ll frequenting in the coming year:
(We have purposely included a few non-Chinatown addresses here, but lumped them in this section in the interest of pan-Pacific consistency.)
Noodles, Noodles, Noodles
No one does cheap eats better than Asians. Ten years ago there was nary a noodle to be found in Chinatown that wasn’t in a pot of Vietnamese pho. Now, nourishing noodle nibbling necessitates numerous navigations. Put another way, the number of choices is notable. And without a whole lot of negotiating, you can become a noodle-noshing nerd.
For ramen, we prefer an old reliable — Ramen Sora — along with an interesting upstart: Ramen Hashi, a mile or so up the road. Ramen Sora satisfies our cravings for miso-based noodles (often with everything but the kitchen sink thrown on top), while Ramen Hashi has blown us away recently with its lighter, shio (salt) and shoyu (soy) based chicken broths. We have nothing against Monta, and give it all the props in the world for pioneering our ramen revolution, but Hashi and Sora are just as good, and never quite as crowded.
For unctuous udon, Marugame Monzo fills the bill with its thick, chewy strands of cotton-white udon (and killer karaage). And for the best of Szechuan, nothing beats Mian Taste (or Mian Sichuan Noodle, depending on how literal you want to be) and the fiery, lip numbing intensity of the Szechuan peppercorns that infuse each dish.
If it’s all-around noodle-liciouness you seek,nothing beats the hand-pulled beauties at Shang Artisan Noodle….or its pocket beef pancake:
Life is too short to eat cheap fish. It sounds elitist (and it is!) but you should have to pay through the nose for your seafood. Nasty, shit-fed, farm raised fish doesn’t do anyone any good, and ocean trawling for cheap tuna is destroying our eco-systems.
My solution: Ban cheap fish altogether and make people shell out a car payment for their sushi. It’s going to come to this eventually, so we might as well start now.
If you want cheap protein, eat a chicken.
If you want wonderful seafood treated right, try this on for size:
If you want the best sushi in town, go to Yui Edomae Sushi. Or Kabuto. If you want the best sushi in the suburbs go to Kaiseki Yuzu or Hiroyoshi. I don’t eat sushi anywhere else in this town and neither should you.
Why do I have to keep telling you these things?
More Meals of the Rising Sun
The Japanese revolution began in January, 2008 with the opening of Raku. We hear an expansion is planned and we hope that means it will be easier to get into. (Don’t bet on it; it’s still one tough ticket.) Raku’s excellence and popularity shows no signs of abating, as it has continues to elevate our dining scene, and set a standard for all of Spring Mountain Road to emulate. In the ten years hence, it has begat such tasty options as Japanese Curry Zen and Raku Sweets. Curry Zen is a must for lovers of Japanese curry. Its spinach curry rice shows up at my house at least once a month (the Food Ga® is a big fan of their takeout), and it might be the healthiest cheap eats in Vegas. Raku Sweets remains a marvel. We can never get in for dessert (always a wait) but weekend lunch is definitely on the horizon.
Gawd I wish I could parse the fine differences between this pho parlor and that pho parlor. They all have the same menu and they’re all alike to this haolie. All I know is this: When I get a hankerin’ for pho or spring rolls downtown, I head straight to Le Pho. When I want more interesting, out-of-the-box Vietnamese, I head straight to District One. I really don’t give a shit about any other Vietnamese restaurant in town, because I’ve been to ’em all, and they all taste the same.
Korean ‘Cue Quest
We don’t give a flying frijole that Kkulmat has only 2 TripAdvisor reviews. It’s really really good, and the people are really really nice. At Mother’s, they barely seem to tolerate round-eyes, but the banchan and dolsot bibimbap make up for the cursory service.
That is all.
Don’t Leave Your Chinese To Chance
Chinese restaurants still outnumber all others on Spring Mountain, and mediocre Chinese restaurants are more the rule than the exception. The Chinatown Plaza pictured at the top of the page – the place that started our Asian revolution in 1995 – is chock full of mediocrity, and every strip mall seems to have at least one forgettable boba tea or Taiwanese street food joint. But there is fascinating food to be found. You just have to be smart, read this blog, follow me on Instagram, and buy my book. (That’s two shameless plugs in one post if you’re counting.)
For dim sum, and many other classic Chinese favorites, head straight to Ping Pang Pong. For sophisticated Mandarin-worthy fare at a fraction of what you’ll pay on the Strip, nobody beats what Jimmy Li cooks up every night at the unassuming Niu-Gu Noodle House. (P.s. the tea service is spectacular as well.)
Chengdu Taste is where we head when we’ve got a hankerin’ for dan dan mian, green sauce chicken, or boiled fish in chili sauce. It is a restaurant that brooks no compromise and lays on the tongue-numbing heat the way they do in southwestern China. J & J Szechuan is older, less flashy, and not as of-the-moment as chef Tony Xu’s Alhambra offshoot — but it’s almost as good, even cheaper, and usually easier to get into.
Thai One On
We group our Thai restaurants into 3 categories:
1) Rustic and authentic
2) Upscale and authentic
3) Everyone else
When it comes to rustic and authentic, nothing beats what the adorable little ladies of Ocha Thai are turning out. A little more polished are the operations at Weera Thai (which features quite a few Laotian dishes) and the incendiary stylings of Chuchote Thai. If you want to know what it feels like to have a flame thrower stuck up your fundament, ask for anything “Bangkok hot” at any of them, and then hold on for dear life the next morning.
Thai comes in more sophisticated form (and with better wines) at Chada Street and Chada Thai as well as at that old reliable: Lotus of Siam. We’ve twice tried to get into Lotus at their new location on West Flamingo, and have been thwarted by long lines every time. At this rate, we may have to wait for their old location to reopen for our yearly fix of Koong Char Num Pla (raw shrimp) and Nam Kao Tod (crispy rice), or to get another chance to waltz around America’s best German Riesling list.
What do we always say: When you want a good dessert in an Asian restaurant, go to a French one.
That said, there’s no denying the gorgeousness of Bank Atcharawan’s milkshakes (above) at The Patio Desserts and Drinks, or his Thai toast:
….or just about any other thing he’s serving to satiate your sweet (or tea) tooth.
Other than that, and the gorgeous creations of Mio-san at Raku Sweets:
…there’s not a whole lot we can recommend from our Asian brethren in the dessert department.
Boba tea is a bad joke (it all comes from over-sugared mixes), Korean pastries are pale, spongy copies of French ones, and the wallpaper paste that the Japanese and Chinese make out of red beans might appeal to them, but we find its best usage is holding down roof tiles. And those slushies that some upscale Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese joints throw at you at the end of the meal are just odd, chunky imitations of something the Greeks perfected 2,500 years ago.
Face it: Asians don’t get sugar. Not like the French do. Or the Italians. Or the Germans. They don’t really have a sweet tooth. But we don’t hold that against them. In fact, it’s one of the many reasons we crawl up and down Spring Mountain Road every week — we always know that wherever we chow down on this most chow-downable of streets, we’ll save ourselves a thousand calories by skipping dessert every time.
In Part 3 of Where I’ll Dine in 2018 we will explore what’s left of Strip dining that still gets us excited. In the meantime, we’ll leave you with some thoughtful words from George Orwell about critical writing and the abandonment of standards. (He was writing about book critics, but the regression to the mean (and mediocrity) holds true for restaurants and restaurant writing as well.):
It is almost impossible to mention restaurants in bulk without grossly overpraising the great majority of them. Until one has some kind of professional relationship with restaurants, one does not discover how bad the majority of them are. In much more than nine cases out of ten the only objectively truthful criticism would be “This restaurant is worthless”, while the truth about the reviewer’s own reaction would probably be “This restaurant does not interest me in any way, and I would not write about it unless I were paid to.” But the public will not pay to read that kind of thing. Why should they? They want some kind of guide to the restaurants they are asked to visit, and they want some kind of evaluation. But as soon as values are mentioned, standards collapse. – with apologies to George Orwell
It is done.
Not the writing, but the eating.
The writing and researching are in their final stages.
Sometime in the next 10 days all of the reviews will be completed.
Sometime in September, all the editing and re-writing will be finished.
Even my porn star stamina has been tested; at some point, even my resolve and passion weakened.
Dozens of restaurants (actually, close to 90) have been eaten in, some for the first time, many for the tenth. All have been scoured over the past 6 months for what’s current and delicious (or not so) in them these days.
The new title will be EATING LAS VEGAS – The 52 Essential Restaurants. Many of these will get their own pages in the book; most will not. Some are being kicked to the curb because they’ve failed to sustain whatever excellence they might’ve once had; others are newcomers so good they’ve knocked established brands off their perch at the top of the Las Vegas dining scene.
A few are so terrible that the only mention they will ever get from me is on this list.
To find out which is which, and where these all rank in our pantheon of palate pleasing purveyors, you’ll have to buy the book.
But you already knew that.
Restaurant Guy Savoy
Andre’s Bistro & Bar
Meraki Greek Grill (I like this place, and admire its owners, but I wish they didn’t serve that cheap-ass gyro meat.)
Yui Edomae Sushi
SW Steakhouse (The most expensive steak you’ll ever not enjoy.)
JinJu Chocolate (Weird location, good chocolate. How do they stay in business?)
Italian-American Club (For blue hairs only; don’t bother.)
Delices Gourmands French Bakery & Cafe
The Kitchen at Atomic Liquors
Americana (Jinxed location; don’t hold your breath waiting for this place to be a success.)
Yuxiang Korean Chinese Cuisine
Niu-Gu Chinese Noodles
Twist by Pierre Gagnaire
Lawry’s The Prime Rib
Andiron Steak & Sea
Two Bald Brothers (Should be re-named “Two Bland Brothers.”)
Ferraro’s Italian Restaurant & Wine Bar
Rosallie Le French Cafe
Khoury’s Mediterranean Cuisine
Cornish Pasty Co. (Our advice: split a pasty with a friend, unless you’re an NFL tackle.)
Sparrow + Wolf
Sin City Smokers
Momofuku (David Chang hates me; this is a good thing.)
L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon
Salud Mexican Bistro
Elia Authentic Greek Taverna
Jean Georges Steakhouse
India Curry House
Kkulmat Korean Kitchen
Huevos Tacos (Who thought this concept would work here? Whoever they are, they’re seriously mistaken.)
8 Oz Korean Steakhouse
Anna Marie’s Italian Cuisine (Proceed at your own risk.)
Komex Kitchen (I’ve never understood the popularity of this place, but the service is fast and friendly.)
B&B Burgers & Beer (Closing soon; get that “drive-thru burger” while you still can.)
McCormick & Schmick’s
Shang Artisan Noodle
Lotus of Siam
Piero’s (Doesn’t give a fuck what I think about it, and what I think is that it’s the worst, most overpriced Italian in town.)
There you have it: four solid months of intense eating, digesting, note-taking, fretting and analyzing. Not sure how many more of these books I have in me, but my heart and soul is going into the 6th edition. The only person I’m arguing with these days is myself, and for this version, there’s no one I’d rather joust with.
* You find someone who eats in as many restaurants as I do, and I’ll show you a fat man, a fool, or both. Wait, what?