A Hamburger and a Hot Dog

People have lots of opinions about hamburgers and hot dogs.

Only about pizza are they more passionate.

This is understandable because all three are among the most widely-consumed foods in America.

Rich or poor, everyone’s been chowing down on burgers and frankfurters for their whole lives.

Even my 94 year old mother — a committed vegetarian for half a century — admits to a hankerin’ for a hot dog occasionally.

The whole elevated-burger-thing started with Daniel Boulud’s DB Burger back in 2001. By putting braised short ribs and foie gras inside a patty of deluxe ground beef, Boulud created a sensation, and also cleared the way for restaurants large and small to upgrade their burger game, and figure out how to charge $27 for one.

For a while, the the burger wars escalated beyond all reason. Few restaurants wanted to pursue the haute cuisine route pioneered by Boulud, but everyone wanted to get in on the game of making a better burger that would have diners beating a path to their door.

These burger wars begat monstrosities more renowned for their verticality than their taste.

Image result for giant burgers

Thankfully, the past several years have seen a retreat from these belly busters to creations more in line with what a hamburger is supposed to be: a simple, juicy, fresh, hot meat sandwich between two pieces of easy-to-handle bread.

A hamburger doesn’t have to be gourmet to be great. All the perfect burger requires is two things: proportion and taste. Gargantuan burgers — no matter how fabulous the ingredients — whiff on the first part of the equation, rendering the second half a nullity. (Fabulous flavor gets lost when you’re wrestling with something to get it into your mouth.) Don’t get me wrong, the taste of any burger from a great steakhouse (great steakhouses always make a terrific burger) trumps anything Shake Shack or In-N-Out can throw at you, but cheaper cuts of meat — well-handled, seasoned and cooked — can make for a very satisfying burger experience.

But let’s be honest here: when a great chef sets his mind to making a superb burger, the nominations close pretty quickly. I’m not talking about gourmet burgers as a social status signifier of omnivorousness, but rather, the simple fact that great chefs make food taste better than anyone else can.

And when Daniel Humm — the man some consider the best chef in America these days — puts his mind behind a beef patty, you can bet your bippy it will be memorable.

The cheeseburger at the top of the page is more than memorable; it is extraordinary beyond all beefy belief. It may be the best burger you’ve ever tasted.

It is made with dry-aged beef, in-house ground, and displays a dense, beefy funk on the palate like your average upscale burger can only dream of. You take a bite and immediately you recognize something is different with this ground meat. It haunts you as you chew, filling your olfactories with extreme beefiness, beckoning for another bite, a feat only the best dry-aged steaks achieve. This is not a burger for the masses; this is the ultimate connoisseur burger. Bradley Ogden used to make one (at Caesars Palace) that made you dream about it, days after you were done chewing, but this one tops it.

That it is of modest size is to its credit. Plenty for one, probably too small for two, it attains the longed-for sweet spot of being the perfectly-proportioned beef sandwich — just enough insanely fresh, sesame-studded bun, dribbled and dripping with cheese and dabbled just so with (thousand island-style ) special sauce.  Quantity-over-quality ‘Muricans might blanch at its dimensions, but feinschmeckers will be licking their lips in satisfaction.

Then there is the Humm Dog:

…what might well be the apotheosis of the tube steak.

There’s not a lot we can say about it that hasn’t been said before.

All beef, and (again) of modest girth, it claims its fame from being deep-fried with a bacon overcoat, and served with truffle mayo, melted Gruyère, and a tart, mustard seed/celery root relish. It is an impressive feat of food architecture, made more stunning by its elevation of the mundane to the magnificent. (Eating it can be a bit of a chore, as the balancing act of the sausage on that split bun must be overcome (or mushed down) before organoleptic bliss can be achieved.)

Both of these modest sandwiches represent a culinary transcendence of the ordinary into a realm they were never meant to approach. They are to be praised and damned for this. Praised for what they represent; damned for spoiling you for anything else.

I often tell people that in food and wine, you can never go back. Once you’ve tasted a certain level of quality — be it in a taco or a tempranillo — your mind and your mouth buckles at the thought of retreat. Neither my body or soul allows me to drink cheap chardonnay anymore. And now that I’ve tasted this hamburger and this hot dog, going back to what I used to be satisfied with will be difficult indeed.

The cheeseburger is $17 and the hot dog is $15.


NoMad Hotel

3772 Las Vegas Blvd. South



My Legal Life in Las Vegas – Part II – Lessons Learned

Image result for Oliver Wendell Douglas(Oliver Wendell Douglas: the patron saint of burned-out lawyers)

(Ed note: The following was written for the Clark County Bar Journal — a magazine for Las Vegas attorneys. Whether you’re a lawyer or not, you might find some of its life lessons interesting.)

Every day it seems, my respect for my chosen profession sinks a little lower.

I picked up the State Bar Journal yesterday and was disheartened to find, yet again, another three seasoned attorneys getting either disbarred or suspended from the practice of law. This is no longer a surprise to me, as it seems every month I see a familiar name of a practitioner being disciplined by the State Bar of Nevada.

These aren’t rogue lawyers or “bad boys” who got in over their heads (e.g., Nancy Quon, Rob Graham, et al), but experienced attorneys, with decades of practice under their belt — folks who get caught siphoning funds and taking advantage of clients. They aren’t wet-behind-the-ears newbies, but long standing members of good firms, or practitioners of (formerly) high repute who get caught up with either a difficult client, personal issues, or tough financial circumstances (usually a surf and turf platter of all three).  Then, they start dipping into money that doesn’t belong to them, and their downward spiral becomes uncontrollable.

For these practitioners (and those who might learn from them), I offer a few words of wisdom.

1) Never, ever get sideways with a client. And when you do (it’s inevitable) cut your losses and run. So many bar complaints happen when a practitioner is owed money from a difficult client, pushes to get paid, and then gets a bar complaint thrown at him by a jerk who will say anything to get out of the debt. Many times their complaints are groundless, or perhaps there was something you should have done, but either way, the last thing you want is a team of lawyers dissecting every move you made to see if you breached some ethical tenet, or forgot some legal maneuver. The money isn’t worth it – either negotiate with the client and deeply compromise the bill, or walk away and say good riddance.

2) Quit trying to be rich. Lawyers are one of only three classical professions — the clergy and doctors are the other — and the point of all three is that we are granted a privileged license and are supposed to serve a higher power other than just making money. As with the ministry and doctors, our livelihood is supposed to be secondary, even tertiary, to the protection of the interests of our clients. Doctors and lawyers and ministers are supposed to be comfortable (so they are free to attend to the needs of those who need them), but we were never intended, as a profession, to be rich. So many attorneys lose sight of this as they scramble up the practice ladder — seeking ever bigger salaries and payouts — all the while ignoring the fundamental calling of our job. Show me a lawyer who got disbarred for money mismanagement (or worse), and I’ll show you someone who wanted to be wealthy.

3) Get help. Whether it’s with your personal life or being in over your head with cases and clients, every bar association in America has a myriad of ways to help a struggling practitioner. This is the hardest one of all, because lawyers, by temperament, don’t like being told what to do. And most of our egos are so big, we always think we can figure it out, and work our way out. Many of us can (I know I did, but it took years of struggle and a little luck), but the problem just gets worse as you get older — making an admission of weakness all the harder. When you combine a big ego with substance abuse, large debt, and sloppy business practices, you have a recipe for disaster…especially if you think you have to make $300,000 a year.

4) Don’t be shy. Pay attention. Be a friend to your fellow attorneys. Look for signs of distress and don’t be shy about intervening if you think someone needs help. Many times you will be rebuffed, sometimes you may even lose a friend, but make the offer. I’ve personally known eleven lawyers who have committed suicide (including the man who gave me my first job as a public defender, and one of my former partners), and there was probably nothing I could’ve done to prevent any of them. But for a few, I kept my distance (out of respect, embarrassment, timidity, who knows?), and I deeply regret it to this day. Lawyers are also very good at hiding things like drug abuse and financial troubles, so the signs are often not there until it’s too late. But if you see something, or sense something, speak up….either to the person themselves or someone close to them.

5) Get a mentor.  I never really had a mentor. I think my personality makes me mentor-averse. Wise old mentor types probably looked at me through the years and thought I was too much trouble, or not pliable enough for their wisdom. Or maybe I just didn’t fully appreciate what others had to teach me until it was too late. Either way, most of what I’ve learned as an attorney I picked up with my own wits, not because any senior attorney took me by the hand and showed me how to do something. I am both proud of this fact and wistful for what might’ve been had someone taken the time to show me the ropes. By not having the safety net of a more seasoned attorney around, I was pretty much on needles and pins every day of my life for three straight decades. “Is this the right way to do this?” “Is there a better one?” “Am I missing something” “Making a fool of myself?” These were nagging at me almost daily…and at times drove me to drink, drug, or womanize myself into oblivion. (Two divorces in the 90s didn’t help matters.) What I needed was a steadying influence; what I got was a lot of cheap thrills that kept me on my back foot for most of my career. I don’t care if you’re twenty-five or fifty, find someone you can talk to, about your cases, clients, and yourself.

6) Calm the fuck down. Easy to say, hard to do….especially if you’re a trial lawyer. (Please note: I’m not talking about “litigators.” Litigators are a dime a dozen. Litigators move a lot of paper and take a lot of depositions, and make a lot of money, and don’t know shit about trying cases in front of judges and juries. I’m talking about real trial lawyers who have stresses litigators couldn’t handle if their lives depended on it.) I don’t try many cases anymore (I stopped counting my jury trials after doing 125 of them, 20 years ago), but I know my way around a courtroom as well as anyone. Back in the day, I approached every case like a gladiatorial fight to the death, and my insides roiled with the stresses and nervous energy needed to engage in such combat. If I were to do a jury trial now, I think I would be much more effective. I’d still want to win, but calm reflection — on my case, my opponent’s case, the witnesses, etc. — would replace me being a strutting peacock who had something to prove every minute. Once you remove your ego from any situation, you deal with it much more effectively. This is true whether you’re trying a case, making love, or frying a steak. It is really true when you’re knee-deep in acrimony with another human being in the midst of a trial. Calm the fuck down. You’ll be a much better lawyer. And if you can’t calm the fuck down, go buy a fucking farm. You’ll be much happier.

After 40 years of legal practice (33 in private practice), I feel like the ultimate, battle-scarred veteran. The profession has changed greatly since 1977, and like our politics, it’s become cruder, more polarized, and money grubbing. Civility and nuance no longer count for much. In the civil arena where I practice, it’s all about the process these days (endless rules and procedures and fighting over minutiae), and all of the incessant pettiness seems to exist for its own sake. I used to give a speech in seminars that began with “You are not in the litigation business, you’re in the problem solving business,” but that statement is belied by everything I now see, in and out of court. I talked my youngest son out of going to law school six years ago, and I don’t regret it one bit. There really are too many lawyers, and too many of us are paying the price.

John A. Curtas is a former President of the Clark County Bar Association, and has been practicing law in Nevada since 1981. He is currently a Deputy City Attorney for the City of Las Vegas.

My Legal Life in Las Vegas

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Ed. note: Nothing chaps my ass more than having some nimrod tell me to “stick to food” whenever I offer an opinion on something other than restaurants. Many people only know me as a food writer, since restaurant writing has defined my public persona for more than two decades. In fact, though, I have been a practicing attorney for much longer than that. Below is the first of two short essays to give you an idea about my other personal odyssey.
28 years ago last month, I moved back to Las Vegas from Danbury, Connecticut.
For 6 years I practiced law in this building with some very fine people.
I left that practice and those fine people for a larger firm which, I thought at the time, was more in line with my ambitions as a lawyer.
For almost 5 years, my new position was beneficial for all involved, but the relationship ended badly (along with my third marriage).
After I was shown the door, I ran unsuccessfully for judge, then started a solo law practice in January, 2003.

That solo practice was challenging, anxiety-provoking, and nerve-racking, but after another 5 years it was starting to gain traction and bear some fruit.

I was lured away from my one-man operation by another large firm, but almost to the day I started (January, 2008), the Great Recession blew into town with gale force winds, dooming whatever was left of my legal practice, and my prospects for a comfortable life with a big firm.

By late 2010, I was back at ground zero – just like I had been in 2003 — only this time there was no traction to be gained, and I spent the next 4 years hanging on by my fingernails. (As I told the Food Gal® at the time: “It’s like having a nervous breakdown once a month.”)

In the summer of 2014, the clouds parted and I became a Deputy City Attorney for the City of Las Vegas — a job full of challenges, but also something I can be proud of, without the pressures private practice.

If I’ve learned one thing from my 40 years of being a lawyer it’s that the only thing you can depend upon is change. Even if you stay in the same place your whole life, you are not the person (or the attorney) you were 10 years ago. Sometimes you progress, and sometimes you regress, but the entire journey makes you a better counselor in late middle age than you ever were when you considered yourself a hot shot litigator.

I’ve also learned that the key to life is continually having something to look forward to. Whether it’s this day, this week, or this year, there should always be a goal, or an activity, or a simple pleasure that motivates you to move ahead — to never be wholly content with where you are, to always be excited about what’s coming up.

By the same token, I’ve learned never to plan too far ahead, because curve balls come at you from all angles in life, and sometimes you throw them at yourself.