Introduction – EATING LAS VEGAS 2020

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(Ed. note: As we are up to our armpits in writing the 2020 Edition of EATING LAS VEGAS – The 52 Essential Restaurants, our staff thought a little teaser from this year’s edition might be in order. If all goes according to plan (and it never does), this year’s book should be published some time in November.)

What does “essential” mean? Does it mean “the best”? Yes, but it signifies something more. The best will always be essential, but what is essential may not always be the best. When it comes to restaurants — more specifically the restaurants of Las Vegas — “essential” stands for those places that stand out and are setting a standard. The first places I would take a visiting gourmet, or a fellow food writer. They are the ones my mind always wanders to when I’m hungry, and the ones doing the most intriguing work in the kitchen. They tend to be passion projects, not money projects — eateries reflecting the particular sensibilities of their chefs and owners, not the calculations of a casino corporation. When I list a restaurant as “essential” it means I would take you there, my friend, if you dialed me up and asked, “John, what’s a place I have to go to in Vegas right now?”

This is the eighth edition of Eating Las Vegas; I’m not sure there will be a ninth. For ten years this little guidebook has consumed my summers, expanded my waistline, lightened my wallet, and kept me patrolling the streets and hotels of Sin City for the best places to eat. I like to brag that no one has ever “eaten Las Vegas” as much as I have, because it’s true, and because we look for strokes wherever we can find them, even when they’re self-applied.

In the beginning all I wanted was to write a book called “The Restaurants of Las Vegas.” My fantasy (way back in 1995 when my food writing career began in earnest), was to publish a guide similar to the ones I saw coming out of New York: gourmet tours-de-force by writers like Bryan Miller and Seymour Britchky which explored the culinary canyons of the Big Apple. If you will allow me another self-congratulatory morsel, I think I recognized before anyone that Las Vegas was destined to become a world-class restaurant city, and it would need someone to chart its rise to preeminence, and lead a certain type of discriminating consumer through the green felt jungle to oases of dining pleasure worth their time and money.

By the time the first edition of this book was launched in the fall of 2010, fifteen years of hard labor had been put into covering the Vegas restaurant scene. Now, a decade later, more calories have been consumed than I can count, and the landscape has changed so much that those days feel like a gauzy dream. The early editions featured only a handful of local restaurants as “essential” — this year, almost half the book celebrates off-Strip eateries.

Image(Is Hatsumi essential? You’ll have to buy a book to find out.)

Local dining options have expanded (and improved) so much recently that the world has taken notice of what we Las Vegans have known since the early aughts: Vegas hotels contain a wealth of kitchen talent  — young folks itching to strut their stuff for residents, not just fill the bellies of distracted tourists. True, the Great Recession hastened this migration for many chefs. But as with wine, stressed vines make for better juice, and the rigors of that depression (yes, in Vegas it was a depression) gave bloom to vibrant neighborhood dining cultures, especially downtown and in Chinatown, where cash-strapped Gen Xrs and Millennials demanded a better supply of quality grub at affordable prices.

In some ways, it seems like 2020 should be the natural end to this obsession of mine. Where once I was the only voice in the wilderness, beseeching people to patronize better restaurants, now the internet is crawling with opinions on where you should eat. I’ve become a dinosaur and I know it. Never again will Las Vegas see someone as foolish as me — someone compelled to eat everywhere and try everything. Someone who spends a mountain of their own cash to promote restaurants he thinks are worthy. A person who sacrificed success in one career (law) for notoriety in a much less lucrative one. In essence, what I’ve always been is an unpaid press agent for the best restaurants of Las Vegas.

But don’t feel sorry for me. I’ve been paid, and I’ve been paid well — in great food, great friends and wonderful experiences, stretching back for half of my adult life. And you paid for this book, and for that, and for all of this, I am grateful.

The List – Summer 2019 Edition

 

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We are elbow-deep in writing the 2020 edition of EATING LAS VEGAS – The 52 Essential Restaurants, so postings on this site have been slim this month.

While we’re in the process of gleaning and vetting and grooming and culling the herd of worthy restaurants down to manageable size (as well as re-writing the intro and other chapters), we thought we’d give you a little sumpin sumpin to chew on….

…and by “chew on” we mean a list of all the worthy places we’ve dined over the past several months, as well as a few unworthy ones.

As always, if you find anyone who eats out in Las Vegas even half as much as we do, lunch is on me.

As usual, all restaurants come highly recommended unless otherwise noted:

Image(Trés cazuelas at Trés Cazuelas)

Trés Cazuelas – Fab food in a funny location. And when I say “fab” I mean our most interesting, pan-Latin cooking, in a tiny, 40 seat space that is quite inviting once you get inside. Ignore the shitty building and dive in. You can thank me later.

Le Cirque – Ivo Angelov has left after 11 years of handling the front of the house like a maestro. As great as he was, no doubt the old pros running things will keep it humming along smoothly. Alan Mardonovich’s food fits the setting like pearls in a gorgeous oyster.

Joël Robuchon Christophe de Lillis keeps this place at or near the top of America’s (and the world’s) best restaurants.

Esther’s Kitchen that place is so crowded no one goes there anymore.

Flock & Fowl I don’t know what’s going on here, but two mediocre meals in a row tell me this place has lost its mojo.

Image(This soup won’t leave you wonton)

Nuro Bistro – our best Hainanese chicken. Don’t argue with me about this. Killer wonton soups, too.

Bazaar Meat – 1-2 with CUT for Vegas’s best steaks.

Jammyland – come for the drinks; stay for the Jamaican meat pies.

Image(Two terrific Thais, less than a half-mile apart)

Lamaii – Las Vegas is Thai’ing one on these days, haven’t you heard?

Weera Thai Kitchen – already a tough ticket at peak hours. Worth the wait.

Cipriani – my Friday fave.

Vesta Coffee – our hangout.

PublicUs – our hangout with good pastries and great bread.

Water Grill a chain seafood place for those who miss McCormick & Schmicks.

Image(Duck panang curry at Lotus)

Lotus of Siam – our greatest Asian has gotten even better.

88 Noodle Papa – brand new, and a solid second place in the Hainanese chicken sweepstakes.

Ocha Thai – always solid, if unspectacular, Thai favorites.

Orchid Vietnamese by-the-numbers Vietnamese.

Good Pie – others get more pub, GP makes the best pizza pies.

Pop-Up Pizza – another unsung hero in our pizza revolution. The stromboli is out of this world.

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Sin Fronteras Tacos – way up on Tenaya. Frightfully good Mexican food, not out of a can, made with real passion. Quite a find.

District One – best pho broth in Vegas….says noted pho expert The Food Gal® (honest to Christ, she’s tried them all).

Jaleo – we love the D.C. original, but the paella here is nonpareil.

Maker’s & Finders – the charms of this place never cease to escape me.

DE Thai Kitchen the best Jerry, the BEST! (Thai street food)

Santos Tacos – the best tacos within a 5 mile radius of downtown. Fight me.

Image(We’re secretly in love with Mio-san. Please don’t tell The Food Gal®)

Raku Sweets – Mio-san (above) makes our best sweets, and the sweetest weekend lunch in town.

Hatsumi – get skewered and sake’d in downtown’s hottest new joint.

Mabel’s BBQ – our best barbecue. Something else you shouldn’t argue with me about.

The Kitchen at Atomic – casual vibe, serious food. Not sure if downtown realizes exactly how good it is.

Image(Righto, Guv-nah!)

The Smashed Pig I’m not going out on a limb and recommend the whole menu, but the fish and chips (above) are worthy. A pleasant surprise on East Fremont Street when I was famished one weekday.

Gauchos Sacred Flavors – This place will be a lot nicer when it’s not 105 degrees outside (the only place to sit).

Pamplona – 5 years ago I would’ve been at Pamplona every week. Now, there’s too many good restaurants to choose from. #firstworldproblems

Locale – been once, liked it. Too fucking far to rush back….especially with downtown and Chinatown practically in my backyard. 

La Strega – been twice, want to like it more than I did. Cookie-cutter Italian menus just don’t tingle my nethers anymore. That said, the ingredients are top-drawer, the cooking is precise and the wine list is great.

Daigu Rice Noodle another in a tsunami of Asian chains (Korean, mainly) threatening to swamp Chinatown. This one advertises for you to buy your own Daigu Rice Noodle franchise….right on the menu! The food isn’t worth investing in.

Image(José Andrés would be proud)

Valencian Gold – $10 bowls of paella never tasted so good. Neither did patatas con bravas (above).

Vetri – the polar opposite of cookie-cutter Italian. Not for everyone, but the food is as awesome as the view.

The Goodwich – I have dreams about the Reuben-ish and The Patty.

Saga Pastry + Sandwich – Gert’s sandwiches and pastries could make a new Nordic lover out of me.

Image(James Trees puts the putta in the puttanesca)

Ada’s – I like Ada, but I like her big sister Esther better.

Rooster Boy Cafe – Las Vegas’s best breakfast.

Serrano’s Mexican Food – a hole-in-the-wall worth seeking out.

Old Soul – Outstanding food in a less-than-outstanding location. If it makes it, it’ll be a miracle, but I’m rooting for the miracle.

Café Breizh – our best French pastries. I’m glad they’re so far from my house.

The Black Sheep – fantastic fusion food. Jamie Tran is a treasure.

Image(In heaven, all cookies are warm and chocolate chip)

Spago – our best old reliable. The people-watching isn’t as good as it was at the Forum Shops (how could it be?), but the place feels cozier and the food never misses a beat. And the chocolate chip cookies (above) might be the best on the planet.

New York Bagel and Bakery the best bagels in town. I’m tired of telling you this. Go see for yourself. Loser.

CUT – a meat lover’s fantasy come true. Not sure any steakhouse in America has a better selection of top grade beef.

China Mama – soup dumplings, crispy shrimp, cumin lamb and pepper beef…what more does a man need?

Not bad for one summer, considering we took two week’s vacation and visited a number of them more than once.

With a little luck, and a lot of hard work at Huntington Press, the 2020 edition of ELV should be released in November….and boy will there be some surprises…

Image(Chilaquiles at Rooster Boy Cafe)

 

 

A Tale of Two Thais

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Las Vegas has had a robust Thai restaurant scene for decades. Even before Saipin and Bill Chutima put us on the Siamese gastro-map with Lotus of Siam in 1999, there were dozens of family-run Thai joints serving crab sticks, papaya salads and tom kah kai to a fare-thee-well.

My introduction to this cuisine occurred in the early 1980s at a free-standing white building on Las Vegas Boulevard (across from where the Federal Courthouse now sits). I don’t think it even had a name, just the words “Thai Food” in big red letters on the side of the building. Even then, it was one of three Thai places downtown, and there were a couple more in Commercial Center off east Sahara.

You could get a decent larb or mint chicken in any of these, but they pretty much stuck to a greatest hits catechism of deep-fried wings, beef salad, pad Thai, and those hot pot soups that made Thai food famous. When anything had to be sauced, though, “sweet and gloppy” always took precedence over sour and pungent. This was also the era of “How hot do you want your food on a scale of 1-10?” — as if a heat level of “7” would be all that different from a “6.”

As similar as these menus may have been, they provided just the right introduction to this country’s food, and they paved the way for our Thai 2.0 revolution. These new players (including the small-but-mighty DE Thai downtown, and Chuchote Thai on west Sahara) are expanding our horizons, in nicer surroundings, and using better groceries to boot.

The first thing you’ll notice about Weera Thai Kitchen is the decor. Located in the spanking new Shanghai Plaza, it is quite the upgrade from its older sibling, Weera Thai on west Sahara. Cool, conical lamps descend from the open ceiling and illuminate a yet-to-open bar, while oversized flower murals dominate a brightly-lit room with well-spaced tables.

The eye-popping picture menu will next appear, and you’ll immediately wonder if everything tastes as good as it looks. It does. So much so, the only problem you’ll have is trying to reign in eyes growing bigger than your stomach with every luscious item. With the move to Chinatown, the Weera Thai clan (including the lovely Sasi, pictured above) is broadcasting its intent to compete with the big boys, and bask in the black belt foodie cred Spring Mountain Road now represents.

Image(Khao yum means yummy)

Every Thai meal starts with appetizers, but somewhat confusingly, these don’t appear until page four of the multi-paged menu. This is no doubt calculated, since the fish cakes, crab sticks and curry puffs are supporting players to the upscale’d street food — the real stars of the show.

Top billing on pages 1-2 is given such jaw-droppers as khao yum (above – blue-tinted butterfly pea rice with toasted coconut and all sorts of crunchy veggies), khoa kluk kapi (another rice dish given special pungency by fermented shrimp paste, and depth from chunks of pork belly, and giant river prawns (goong maenam pao (below) or goong pao cheese – with mozzarella cheese, which is apparently a thing in Thailand. Dipping sauces are to Thai cuisine what melted butter is to French, and these house-made beauties always seem to hit the right balance of tart to sweet to hot.

Image(Nuthin’ shrimpy ’bout these shrimp)

These river prawns (above) might be common in Bangkok, but they’re new to this part of the world. As big as small lobster tails, they are perfect as an appetizer for four, or a meal for two.

Before you get to them, a platter of ma haw or ma hor (literally: galloping horses, below) might catch your eye. These balls of caramelized minced pork are served up on pineapple slices and are best described as meat candy. They are very sweet, but somehow beckoning bite after each teeth-aching bite. If nothing else, the sweet meat sets up your palate for the barrage of penetrating flavors yet to come.

Image(Galloping horses? Or meat candy?)

If there’s one way WTK distinguishes itself from the original restaurant, it is with the emphasis on both things that swim and street food. Beautiful shrimp get wrapped in thin rice noodles and deep-fried in kung sarong, yum hi-so sees slightly slimy, raw blue crab get lit up with chili and lime. That crab and the tender spicy squid salad will give you all the heat you can handle. And then there is the garlic shrimp (below)  — so loaded with melted slices and crispy chips you’ll think you’ve died and gone to Allium heaven.

Image(Garlic, garlic, and more garlic)

One of the tamer dishes is ka pow gai-kai dao – four bowls containing minced basil chicken, rice, onion and peppers and a fried egg — all ready to mix into an amalgam of a one-dish meal, but we’d rather spend our time with their sai oua (“stuffed intestine”) northern Thai sour sausage, or the nam khao tod which is right up there with Lotus’s.

They also do a nice dry version of yen ta fo, here called yen ta fo hang, which is much more palatable in the Vegas heat than the same ingredients served up in a giant steaming bowl of tomato-laced broth, and you shouldn’t miss their definitive pad see ewe pong (below) — broad flat noodles, with really tasty shrimp, in yellow curry.

Image(Pad see ewe = pad see perfect)

You won’t find any fault with the pinkish pad kee mow with chicken, either, but the whole pompano lard prik — deep fried topped with sweet-hot chili sauce — is a bit challenging for those used to eating fish in neat little fillet form.

Image(Deep-fried pompano makes you work for the tasty bits)

The crowds have taken to WTK from day one: it’s been open for barely a month and tables are already a precious commodity at peak hours. It’s as if they (the Thonguthaisiri family and its loyal customers) recognized a pent-up demand for a good Thai restaurant on Spring Mountain Road — one bringing forth the in-your-face flavors of the Thai street with better ingredients in a stylish atmosphere. As soon as they get their full liquor license, and start featuring cocktails and wines to go with all of this incredible food, it might become as hot as gaeng tai pla.

Image(Lamaii at twilight)

Lamaii is playing a different game — one rooted in the Thai street food vernacular but also seeking broader food/wine credibility. Chef/owner Bank Atcharawan has picked up where Chada Street (his previous Thai-meets-wine venue) left off. In this case, by taking an ice cream parlor at the far end of a strip mall (Sparrow + Wolf anchors the other end) and creating magical space of comfy booths and upscale furnishings that are as far a cry from a Bangkok street as a Thai fishing boat is from a cabin cruiser.

While you wouldn’t call Lamaii luxurious, it certainly wins the Chinatown design award for those booths, subdued colors, lots of wood, muted lighting, and huge, drop-down lamps. (Thai people apparently have a thing for light fixtures the size of hot tubs.)

As pretty as the decor is, it is also noisy — like gymnasium noisy — at peak hours. They also turn the lights too low at night, which is a problem since the joint is only open for dinner. Grab a table early (preferably in summer) if you want a good view of your food. What you’ll find on your plate (either by touch or flashlight) will blow your socks off, sometimes literally.

Image(I’ll take Zind-Humbrecht for 125, Alex)

Before you get to the food, you’ll have to negotiate the beverage selections. Atcharawan is an old F&B pro (he previously managed Lotus of Siam), so his lists are full of saison ales, obscure stouts, and (by now obligatory) creative cocktails — none of which go as well with this food as a Kabinett Riesling or cru Beaujolais. (In the interest of fairness, we will concede that certain chilled, malted beverages — pilsners, session beers and such — match this food just as well.)

Regardless of your preferences, there’s no ignoring the wine list here. It is short, wrinkled, and superb. (see above) Prices run from the low $30s to the low 100s, and to a bottle, selections are priced at at least half of what you would pay on the Strip. The Gravner Breg (at $110) is less than I paid for the same bottle in Italy a year ago. There is a grand cru Chablis for $65….which has to be close to the wholesale price of this bottle to the restaurant. (Personally, I consider myself fortunate whenever I can score any Chablisienne grand cru for under a hundy, retail.)

In other words, this list is insane. A treasure trove of interesting bottles at ridiculous prices.

Image(Shrimp cakes with plum-blueberry sauce)

The only down side is, it’s a small restaurant with limited storage space, so what you want may not always be available, but if you’re a white wine lover (and let’s face it, who isn’t?), you owe it to yourself to dive in. Like almost every wine professional in town already has.

Atcharawan’s cuisine is designed to match with these top-shelf wines, and much of his menu dials back the heat in favor of more wine-friendly fare. Pork jowl gets grilled, belly gets deep-fried, chicken is satay’d, and fluffy shrimp cakes the size of ping pong balls float on a plum-blueberry sauce — all of them designed to be enhanced by a steely Riesling or herbaceous sauv blanc.

Image(Kua gling is not for the Thai timid)

Loui  suan wraps ground pork in lettuce and rice paper, and is designed to showcase the Thai herbs, not incendiary heat. When the staff does ask you how hot you want something, as in the kua gling ground pork with southern curry paste (above), or gang pu (spicy crab curry noodles) be forewarned, then strap in and hang on.

Image(What’s mu pu with you?)

No one will ask you how spicy you want your mu pu (crab fat) fried rice, but the silky richness of rice shot through with crab tomalley doesn’t need a pepper kick. Neither does a grilled 12 oz. rib eye  (sua rong hai on the menu, below) that might be the best $24 steak in town. The pad Thai here comes festooned with huge crispy prawns, and the surprisingly fresh, non-muddy-tasting catfish comes dressed with just the right tart chili-lime-mango dressing.

Image(The best 24 buck steak in town)

Even the curries are toned down here, but are none the lesser for it. Gang rawaeng, described as an ancient turmeric curry, has the creamy depth to play off fork-tender chunks of braised beef, and that old reliable, panang curry gives new life to crackling slices of duck breast. Atcharawan has always done a tongue-searing steak tartare, and the one here is for brave souls only.

Everyone gets the honey toast for dessert here, but the mango sticky rice, fried bananas, and coconut ice cream are just as exemplary.

Lamaii isn’t a standard Thai restaurant, but it challenges all your preconceptions about Thai food. Weera Thai Kitchen is like a old friend who’s decided to shape up with a nicer wardrobe, upscale attitude, and fresh new ambitions after moving into new digs. Between them, they signal a quiet but significant change in the way Vegas now appreciates the food of this country. It is spicy and soul-warming, but it is also one of the world’s great cuisines. Las Vegas is finally starting to appreciate it as such.

Nothing on any of these menus is over $24, and most dishes are priced in the $10-$15 range, meaning: it’s hard for two people to spend more than $50-$70 on food. Lamaii offers half price portions of some of its noodle dishes. I’ve been comped once at Lamaii and a couple of times at WTK.

Get this (Weera Thai Kitchen): Yum hi-so – raw blue crab salad; Thai fried rice with shrimp paste; yen ta fo hang – “pink noodle dry version”; “Galloping Horses” – minced pork on pineapple; jumbo river prawns; khao yum – butterfly pea rice with vegetables; ka pow gai-kai dao – ground chicken stir-fry with basil and egg; sai oui sausage; kung sarong – noodle wrapped fried shrimp; beef salad; spicy squid salad; fish cake; papaya salad; garlic shrimp; pad see ewe.

Get this (Lamaii): Garlic green beans; loui suan – ground pork wrapped in rice/lettuce; shrimp cakes with blueberry sauce; steak tartare; moo ma now – grilled pork jowl; gang rawaeng – ancient curry with braised beef; panang duck curry; pla crispy beef; kua gling – ground pork with southern curry paste; sua rong hai – grilled rib eye steak; mu pu fried rice; pad Thai with shrimp; mango crispy catfish; honey toast; mango sticky rice.

WEERA THAI KITCHEN

4276 Spring Mountain Road #105-106

Las Vegas, NV 89102

702.485.1688

LAMAII

4480 Spring Mountain Road #700

Las Vegas, NV 89102

702.238.0567