Circus Circus Buffet Memories

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There is hardly anything in the world that someone cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price alone are that person’s lawful prey. … – John Ruskin

I remember a time, probably around 1994, when my dad and I were cruising the Strip with young Alex Curtas.

It was late-afternoon and our hungry 4th grader was starting to squawk. Suddenly, out the car window, the Circus Circus in all its tackiness loomed before us.

“Let’s go in a try the buffet,” Dad suggested. “How bad can it be?” he added, half-apologetically, as he saw my eyes narrow at the very thought.
“Alright,” I sighed….”Anything to feed the little shaver and hey, they’ve got to have something good, right?”
It was probably around 5:00 when the early birds started to stake out the bunkers from which they would launch their assault on good taste. We got there ahead of the fannypackers, but soon enough were standing cheek to gut with them at the cornucopia of steamer trays before us.
Rows and rows of food there were. More sheet cake than you’ve ever seen. Enough to feed a Mormon Tabernacle wedding 100 times over. Black, white, pink — football fields of baked rectangles. The frosting was thick…and crunchy…in colors unknown in nature, and in flavors unconnected to their hue.
Salad greens were military issue – surplus trucks of limp lettuce emptied into plastic tubs. Something called “Italian dressing” was offered, along with something called “French” — so thick and sweet it could’ve doubled as frosting on one of those great swaths of Sara Lee.
But the biggest bucket of dressing was reserved for ranch. Of course it was. 3 times I saw the hapless steward refill the ranch, while Italy and something called Roquefort went begging. (Side note: there was no “Roquefort” in the Roquefort; in fact, there was no cheese of any kind. With your eyes closed, you would’ve guessed it was watered-down sour cream.) The cheese came in perfect shingles — thin squares of white, yellow, and orange processed curds that had lost their whey (sorry).
And then there were the meats: great green-yellow streaks of staleness glistening off boiled gray-brown steer. Great haunches of it, steamed to death, two, three, four times before someone would put it out of its misery and into their gaping maw. “Rainbow beef” we called it — laid end-to-end in tray after tray — with a petri-dish sheen of preternatural colors adorning each slice.
As bad as it was, it was nothing compared to the boiled, artificially-pink pressed ham with lumpy pieces of congealed fat stuck all over it.
After two or three passes my father managed a slice of meatloaf with something that looked like a giant matzoh ball, but tasted vaguely of potatoes. Despite looking like it had been in the steamer tray for hours, it was cool to the touch. Who knows what was on my plate, but I looked at Alex’s and noticed a dinner roll, a cupcake, and a slab of lasagna so stale it could’ve been leftover from Hunter Thompson’s room service.
As he was pushing the noodles around on his plate, trying to summon the courage to take a bite, Alex looked up at me and said, “This food isn’t very good, is it dad?”
Apple, meet your trees. With that, we all had a good laugh, dumped our plates of untouched food into the garbage, and left.
You know food is terrible when not even a starving 9 year old will touch a cupcake.
If Covid19 accomplished nothing else, at least it put this place out of its misery.

My Worst Meals of 2019

Image(Yeah that’s me, dunking on bad food)

Sick of “Best Of” lists?

Tired of “Top 10” torpor?

Had it with holiday hype?

Then Being John Curtas has a refreshing intermezzo for you….

Sorry if these ruffle a few feathers, but since real food writing is fast becoming non-existent in Las Vegas, we thought we’d supply you with some information that flies against the all the bought-and-paid-for drivel.

For the record, none of these meals was truly terrible; all of them are good restaurants; most diners would enjoy them without batting an eye. But each fed me one or two or three things that had me shaking my head throughout the meal, and grumbling to myself that there was no reason to return.

In a small way this breaks my heart. In my world, I want every meal to be transforming, life-affirming, jaw-dropping, and transcendent. I’m rooting for the restaurant every time I walk through the door. Leaving a restaurant mumbling about a dish puts me in a bad mood for hours, sometimes days. The Food Gal has been known to consult everyone from therapists to divorce lawyers whenever darkness descends upon my countenance after a dining disaster.

And sad to say, it only takes one misfire to sometimes ruin an entire meal for me. Especially in a place I know and love.

In fact, the way I feel about my favorite restaurants is a lot like love…or at least lust. As with the latter, sometimes it doesn’t take much to cool your ardor. With sex, the line between “I want to kiss you all over” to “Ewww” can be pretty thin. With food, all it takes is a pseudo-Caesar with some caperberries in it.

Image(Not even a 9 year old would eat some of this stuff)

My Worst Meals of 2019.

Bavette’s

I had a pretty good steak dinner here. Two of them, actually. But I couldn’t see what I was eating. At these prices, you ought to be able to see what you’re paying for.

Burnt Offerings

We so wanted to love this place. I so wanted to be able to crow to my Jewish friends how I’m now “keeping Kosher” (at least for one or two meals a year) and actually admit to enjoying it. But the tough meat (at a place that brags about its smoking skills) was a sin that Yahweh himself could not forgive.

Carson Kitchen

Calm down. Don’t get your panties in a bunch. My two lunches here this year were perfectly fine. But as game-changing as CK has been, it hasn’t followed its success with anything further on the local scene. Instead, it’s being used as a flagship for expansion in other cities. Bravo for them, but the menu and the concept here has gotten stale. There, I said it.

Image(Dumb Dish of the Year – bony fishy fish on burnt toast)

La Strega

People love La Strega, so who am I to argue? Well, I’m me, and for what that’s worth: the apps were more than a little disappointing (I almost broke a tooth on some stale, toasted baguette, the tartare tasted like hospital food, the Caesar has caperberries in it). Pizzas and pastas can impress though (if you go for overload, subtlety isn’t in this kitchen’s vocabulary), but the feeling I got on my two trips here was that La Strega is that all-too-common creature: a restaurant where everything sounds better than it tastes. The menu might be fine for restaurant-starved Summerliners, but at its core, it is safe and boring…which is just what its customers want.

Locale

Locale amused us more than La Strega, but is still flawed in fundamental, incurable ways. The menu is too big and actually the inverse of La Strega’s — too hip for the room, too complicated, trying too hard to separate itself from the pack. If it were downtown (or playing to a black-belt foodie audience) it would give Esther’s a run for its money. Out in the sticks, its prospects for success are questionable. The old saw: “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink,” ought to be rephrased here into: You can lead Las Vegas to interesting Italian food, but they’ll still want chicken parm.

Forte Tapas

What once seemed fascinating (kachapurri, Bulgarian mixed grill, pelmini, Stroganoff fries, etc.) tasted tired and rehashed. The verve of the room, the brightness of the recipes, snappiness of the staff, all had disappeared. It didn’t help that they served us one corked wine, and another at a nice, warm bath-like 80 degrees. I think I liked this place better when it was filled with Russian mobsters in track suits.

La Comida

For the last seven years or so, La Comida was on our regular downtown rotation. But we ate there twice at the beginning of the year and something was different. The menu read the same, but the management was different, the food had changed, and not for the better. These things can be subtle, but sometimes it’s just a matter of some under-seasoned meat, less vibrant guacamole, cold corn and stale tortillas that tells you they don’t care anymore. Haven’t been back since February. Don’t intend to go back.

The Nomad Restaurant

What Daniel Humm did with Eleven Madison Park in New York was phenomenal. What he and his investors are doing in Las Vegas is predictable. The Nomad is a chain restaurant pretending it’s a gourmet one. Worst service of the year too, by a country mile.

Image(Oh no, they’re serving us sardines on stale toast! Mr. Curtas is not amused.)

Oscar’s Steakhouse

God bless Oscar’s. It so terribly wants to be a top-tier steakhouse but it so consistently fails miserably at it. To paraphrase “A Christmas Story”: it’s not that bad…but it’s not that good either.

Pepe’s Tacos

The Food Gal® and I were starving at lunch one day and pressed for time while driving on N. Decatur. Suddenly, like a Mexican apparition it shimmered before us: a bright yellow awning beckoning, “Come hither, partake of our tacos poor pilgrim, enjoy our asada sopes, Help Wanted.” So in we trudged, seduced by hunger, the advert (and stomach pangs) having relieved us of our common sense. From now on we’re sticking with Del Taco.

Sara’s

They start you off here with some gargantuan, brontosaurus bone-in beef rib-thing they serve as an appetizer. Yes, an appetizer. This is supposed to impress you. Our Dover sole was the worst piece of fish I’ve had in a decade. Strictly for those wowed by dark rooms and hidden doors.

Image(Pearl can’t bear to look at our best of the worst)

The Kitchen at Atomic

We went in for a steak. We were told that they only had one, 48 oz. rib eye left. We settled on other meat: a hangar and something else. None of it was very good and the flatbread was a mess. I had four meals here in 2019 and loved 3 of them. We’ll leave it at that.

Tim Ho Wan

Don’t believe the hype. This is a copy of a copy of a copy of a famous dim sum house. You will not eat badly, but you will wait in line to eat food that’s done better (and cheaper) across the street at Ping Pang Pong.

Water Grill

I enjoyed my one meal here…in the same way I used to enjoy McCormick and Schmick’s….in 1998.

Image(Some of these meals deserved a good sabering…and needed more champagne)

Years ago you would’ve found me wallowing in a lot more mastication misery. These days, I am much more selective about where I eat — discrimination and an encyclopedic knowledge of the Vegas food scene keep my “worst meals” at a minimum.

In the past, I would go to the opening of an envelope, but time, taste and age have left me little interest in whatever “fast casual” concept some ambitious restaurateur is launching to take him/her to the promised land. This knowledge alone has saved me from a lot of indigestion, and further enhancement of my already dyspeptic personality.

I really don’t eat badly these days, even in the restaurants noted above. As you can see, my “worst meals” usually amount to a few dishes that missed the mark and put a damper on the overall experience. These failings shouldn’t be looked upon as a condemnation of the whole operation. At all of these places (save poor old Pepe), your average diner can have a most enjoyable meal.

But unfortunately for restaurants, I am not your average diner.