(Walla Walla, Washington)
(Walla Walla, Washington)
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?)
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.
(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
(My usual at CUT)
Titanic Award – Palms Hotel
Rising Sun Award/Hidden Gem Award – Kaiseki Yuzu
Best Restaurant That’s Closest to My House – Esther’s Kitchen
Biggest (Tastiest) Surprise(s) –
(Crab roll at 8East)
Biggest Regret – not getting to Saga Pastries + Sandwich more often.
Wet Dream Award – Costa 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.
Closed Strip Restaurant We Missed The Least – Eiffel Tower Restaurant
Bacchus/Dionysus Award – Garagiste
Zorba Award – Elia Authentic Greek Taverna
(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 Award – Estiatorio 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.
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.
(Uni won’t believe the urchin at Yui)
Hotel If We Never Set Foot In Again Will Be Too Soon – Paris Hotel and Casino
Rudy Giuliani Lifetime Achievement Award for Biggest Slinger of Bullshit – Eater Vegas
Phoenix “Rising From The Ashes” Award – Osteria Fiorella
En Fuego Asian Award – Toridokoro Raku
(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 Ingenuity – Esther’s Kitchen
(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 Year – 4 days in Mexico City to restore our sanity
Dessert of the Year – “banana cream pie” at CUT by Nicole Erle and Kamel Guechida:
Dish of the Year – “duck carnitas” at ELIO:
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.
(….and Happy New Year 2021 from The Food Gal® and Thurston Howell III)
(This isn’t even the half of it, or the quarter of it)
Ed. note: We recently returned from a short vacay to Mexico. We went to escape the craziness that is America, and because it is the only country on earth that is accepting American tourists these days. As usual, when we have a great time in a foreign land, we like to share.
Mexico City is so big it makes Vegas look like Boulder City.
They used to call Mexico City D.F. (Distrito Federale), but that’s now as dated as the Frito Bandito.
Trying to see Mexico City in a week is like trying to tour the Louvre in an hour.
If all you know of Mexico are its border and beach towns, then you’re missing the real deal. Diving in to where it all started is a cultural eye-opener.
Mexicans eat better and cheaper than we do.
They are more vigilant than Americans about Covid protocols as well.
CDMX (Ciudad de Mexico, aka City of Mexico) is a walk-able city, but the distances are vast.
As with Tokyo (and most huge, international capitals), it is best to pick a neighborhood (Centro, Reforma, Polanco, Roma, etc.) and spend a day getting to know it.
Roma is tree-lined, peaceful, and filled with places eat — a nice antidote to the crazy cacophony of the city surrounding it.
There are more museums in one park (Bosque de Chapultepec) than in the entire state of Nevada.
(The Polanco at 2:00 am)
The air there is so lousy you can’t see the stars at night, none of them. (That little dot in the picture above is a helicopter.)
The air may be terrible, but I didn’t notice. The Food Gal®, however, was starting to complain of an irritated nose and throat by Day 4.
Uber is über-cheap – there is no reason to take any other form of transportation.
Speaking of cheap, food and drink are a serious bargain: from superb street tacos to modernist cuisine meccas, prices are laughably low.
Service with a smile is also the universal rule. The language barrier is also no big deal. To figure out the price in dollars, divide everything by 20.
Modernist cuisine — as exemplified by hyper-local, multi-course, fixed priced menus — is alive and well. We hit the two biggest names (Pujol and Quintonil) and both were jammed with Rico Suaves and their lovely ladies. As I’ve said many times, the whole tasting menu thing has run its course, but as long as the World’s 50 Best nonsense is around, there will always be gastro-tourists (with more money than taste) keeping these things afloat. For this reason, the next time we’re here, I expect to be at the Taco Omakase at Pujol, or ordering a la carte from Quintonil.
You don’t see/hear many American accents (we counted three); this is a good thing.
You don’t see many fat people either (even among the mobs at Mercado de Merced).
People have asked me if it’s “clean.” Yes, cleaner than the human toilet that is downtown Los Angeles; more pristine than San Francisco. In many ways, CDMX reminded us of an Hispanic Chicago: spotless streets, wide boulevards, nice people and a remarkable lack of trash.
It is also safe. There is, literally, a cop car on every corner.
Crossing the street can be take-your-life-in-your-own-hands endeavor, however.
Beggars are a nuisance, but not an issue. Sit or stand anywhere for more than ten seconds and someone will approach either asking for a handout or to sell you some junk. You learn the words “no, gracias” very quickly, and will say them about fifty times a day.
(Anyone for an Orthopteran?)
They take their insects seriously here, at lunch and dinner.
As impressive as Pujol and Quintonil were, the first meal I’d revisit would be Guzina Oaxaca — a chic, casual spot in the Polanco specializing in Oaxacan cuisine in all its glories.
Mexican wines were also a nice surprise. They use a lot of European varietals, to varying degrees of success. Pro tip: this is uncharted territory for even serious oenophiles, so let your sommelier guide you. No matter what you buy, it will probably be under $50. Pro tip #2: They’re doing better with their reds than their whites, but this is only based on a very limited sample.
La Merced is a zoo, a labyrinth, a maze of shops: a tangle of warren after slithering warren of alleyways and side streets selling miles and miles of junk. There’s also a food section (our real reason for going), but we never found it. Pro tip: Don’t go on a Saturday morning. Pro tip #2: Don’t let your Uber driver drop you off blocks from the main market — you’ll never find it, no matter how much you look at Google maps. Pro tip #3: Sign up for a tour, unless you enjoy being swallowed up by a sea of humanity seemingly enthralled with miles and miles of plastic junk. One of our companions remarked how ubiquitous and similar these “street markets” are around the globe — selling cheap clothes and toys to tens of thousands every day. “The one in Istanbul is even worse,” he sighed as we struggled to find an exit ramp from the human highway that enveloped us. It was almost enough to make us miss Walmart.
Mercado Roma was as disappointing as Mercado de Merced was frustrating — it being little more than a glorified food court.
(Cochinita pibil tacos at Turix)
The tacos are insane, but I already knew that.
Even the bad tacos in Mexico City are good tacos. The tacos at El Turix (a hole in the wall in Polanco) are some of the best of all.
(Sensational seafood at Contramar)
Mexican seafood is its own thing, treating fish in ways that would have a Frenchman crying sacre bleu! Like most of the country’s cuisine, it emphasizes strong flavors over delicate technique (see above).
That said, the better restaurants know how to treat fish right. Contramar (in the Roma neighborhood) is such a restaurant (reservations essential).
There is no such thing as a bad trés leches cake.
Muchas gracias to foodie friends Greg and Deanna, and JB and Kathy, for setting up so many fabulous meals and acting as interpreters for the trip. All of us can’t wait to return, because….