The Covid Diaries – Vol. 9 – The List

Image(Puck’s peeps knock it out of the park)

Day 50, May 5 – Where We Ate

The Great Cessation is winding down. What began in a fit of panic will end in a cloud of failure and despair.

Lives have been ruined, businesses crushed, hopes dashed….but the media and government did its job: whipping everyone into a frenzy so they would buy into the ham-fisted, blunt instrument approach to public health — one akin to “we have to destroy the village in order to save it.”

Both (media and government) are better at getting into messes than getting out of them, so picking up the pieces will be left to the citizens.

And there will be pieces aplenty: 30 million unemployed; an economy in shambles; poverty, disease, murder hornets, you name it.

Las Vegas will be hit hardest of all, just like it was by the Great Recession. (If you don’t believe in Karma, you might consider these double-whammies, twelve years apart, have followed 20 years of unprecedented growth. Yup, Vegas will end up paying double for all the unbridled prosperity it enjoyed between 1989-2009.)

But enough depressive pontification, We are here to celebrate the places that have fed us so well over the past six weeks.

As you might guess, we didn’t let some little old Covid-19 shutdown interfere too much with our gustatory gallivanting. The biggest issue on a daily basis was lunch. Only a few places are open for takeout, so most days it was homemade sandwiches, fruit and cheese brought to work. (I’ve actually lost a couple pounds.)

Dinner found more places open, but even then, we ordered out far less than our habit. (In peak season, The Food Gal® and I easily hit 10+ restaurants a week.)

When we went out, more often than not, we brought our own table and chairs and ate on the sidewalk outside the restaurant with our friends, Deanna and Greg. (They got stranded here, from their Boise, Idaho base, on March 15 and have been toughing it out by working at home and helping us relieve the boredom.)

Occasionally, a restaurant would wave us inside and serve us like the old days — this helped everyone feel as if a little sanity had been restored to a world turned upside down. (These restaurants will not be named for fear the Covid Gestapo is only too eager to hate-shame (or worse) anyone who doesn’t share their misery.)

Dinner was confined to far fewer options than you might expect (good pizza, amazingly was not in abundance throughout this crisis), but if you wanted to drive, lots of quality is/was out there. Very little of it compared to what those same restaurants could turn out at full throttle, but at least you knew a real chef was busting her/his ass to feed you.

We are listing the restaurants in the order in which their takeout menu most closely approximated the quality of what they do when firing on all cylinders. But there are no losers here. Even the most mediocre meal was savored with the appreciation of Lucius Beebe contemplating the nesting habits of a recently-devoured woodcock.

At the end of The List, we’ll have a few choice words for people who continue to accuse us of criticizing the shutdown only because we only want to get back to eating in fancy restaurants.

The List:

Raku

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Both The Food Gal and I forgot our anniversary (on April 29). That is how soul-deadening this has been. Endo-san and Haruko-san bailed me(us?) out big time by bringing their “A” game — from bento boxes to grilled Japanese wagyu — for a meal that, if you closed your eyes, was a dead ringer for any other of the dozens we’ve had there.

Kaiseki Yuzu

Image(Katsu-preme chicken)

Las Vegas’s most beautiful bento — because, if you need to be reminded, the Japanese perfected takeout food when Americans were still living in log cabins.

Player’s Locker by Wolfgang Puck

Image(Chinois Chicken Salad never goes out of style)

All hail to the Wolfgang Puck Restaurant Group! It has the horsepower to do what few restaurateurs anywhere could: bring a murderer’s row (at top of page) of its local chefs together (at its Summerlin location) to produce an ever-changing menu of Puck classics (above), as well as dishes from each of its six local restaurants. Stars like Matthew Hurley, Kamel Guechida and Nicole Erle, the are producing food, bread, and desserts as eye-popping and fork-dropping as any restaurant in America over these past six weeks. With all that talent at the stoves, how could they not?

Tres Cazuelas

We ate on the sidewalk, but the food would suffer very little if taken home. Braised dished always travel well.

Lamaii

Image(Tangy Thai needs terrific Riesling)

Another sidewalk dinner — straight out of Styrofoam — but one that knocked our socks off.

Café Breizh

Image(Napoleon would be proud)

A lifesaver each week, turning out French pastries and breads worthy of Pierre Gatel’s “Pastry Chef of the Year 2019” award.

The Black Sheep

Image(No table? No problem. We bring our own!)

Jamie Tran now owns the restaurant herself, and herself and a helper are staying strong and producing a truncated menu of her standards that are as tasty as she is adorable.

DE Thai Kitchen

Thai restaurants seem to be weathering the storm better than pizza joints. DE Thai hasn’t missed a beat.

Saga Pastry + Sandwich

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I love this place — even if they can’t get those beautiful tiny, sweet, Scandinavian shrimp for their smorgasbord sandwich right now. It’s one of only two reasons that can get me to the restaurant black hole that is Henderson/Green Valley. I love it, but I also fear for its future.

Ohlala French Bistro

Richard Terzaghi is doing it all himself, and what he’s doing is doing his French tradition proud.

Sin City Smokers

Ribs and a pork sammie blew me away the other day on an episode of Las Vegas Food To Go.

L & L Hawaiian Barbecue

Image(The Burly Boyz take on Hawaiian ‘cue)

Best Kaluha pig I’ve had in Vegas. My comments on Spam Musubi are best left for a time when I’m not struggling to say only nice things.

China Mama

I dream about their xiao long bao and Dan Dan noodles. All of the proteins here — from boiled fish to lamb with cumin — are stellar as well. The fish dishes do not travel well, however.

PublicUs

Another lifesaver. Has become our morning go-to for coffee. The tips we leave often exceed the size of the bill…and they’re worth it.

Locale Italian Kitchen

Nicole Brisson has left the building. Before she left, she cooked us one helluva meal.

Rooster Boy Cafe

We would frequent here more often if Sonia El-Nawal didn’t have her hands full servicing customers who can’t get enough of her catered dinners and superb pastries.

Delices Gourmands French Bakery & Cafe

Image(Palm tree perfection)

I like Pierre Gatel’s baguettes better at Cafe Breizh (by the width of a mille-feuille layer), but the bread selection (and pastries) here is a close second on all other fronts, and I would walk three miles for one of their palmiers…and have!

Kung Fu Thai & Chinese

Any place that’s been in business since 1974 is doing a lot of things right. Just the spot when you’re craving some cashew chicken or Yen Ta Fo soup.

7th and Carson

Still one of Vegas’s most boffo burgers. So good we were fighting over the last bite.

Yummy Rice

Simple little rice bowls studded with veggies or proteins. Normally, they serve these in super-heated clay pots – Hong Kong style. Now, the rice caramelizes on the bottom of cheap, to-go aluminum.  Something is lost but the bowls are still damn tasty. A Food Gal® favorite.

Weiss Deli & Bakery

Image(Righteous pastrami on rye)

Jewish food and Las Vegas go together like craps and born-again Christians. Our best bagels are made by an Italian. Go Figure. Weiss is the closest we have to real, big city deli. Bagels, lox, pastrami, rugelach, the works — they have it all and all of it is worth traveling to Sunset and Sunset for.

Valley Cheese and Wine

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Three weeks in a row we’ve headed to the far corners of Horizon Ridge to grab some cheese and wine here. We never fail to blow at least a couple of Benjamins, and we’ll spend twice as much if means keeping this little gem in business.

Ocha Thai 

Always a fave. Always there when we need a Thai fix.

Now, some final thoughts.

Many times over the last six weeks we’ve been accused (by self-righteous supporters of the shutdown) of being opposed to it solely because it prevents us from eating in fancy restaurants.

Here’s a typical (but by no means uncommon) barb tossed my way by those who, over the past month or so, have decided to really, really care about old, sick people dying in hospitals thousands of miles away:

So, just to be clear, if you’ve had COVID -19, have it, or lost somebody to it, John wants you to know that you’re nothing more than an inconvenience to his dining agenda. [B}efore they died, did you tell them to their face that you were glad they were dying, because it meant you could dine out sooner?

My response on Facebook was a little blunt: I told the writer (politely) to go fuck himself.

A more nuanced response would have been as follows:

The only thing I’ve obsessed about during this debacle has been how brutal it has been on working people in the hospitality business. Whether I ever eat another foie gras torchon has been the furthest thing from my mind.

I eat out now because I love restaurants and restaurant people — love supporting them, love watching them thrive. My devotion is like someone who loves a sports team — it is unconditional. But it is also different. Because every day I evince my passion with my time, my appetite, my prose and my paycheck. My life has been a full one; I will eat well no matter what happens.

What I’ve also realized from fifty years of obsessing about food is how important restaurants are to the soul of a community. We are social beings. Gathering to eat and drink has been inculcated into our DNA since time immemorial. You can no more prevent people from talking, rubbing elbows, sharing food, or passing the platter than you can keep the sun from shining.

The idea that you should take a society and shut it down to keep people from breathing on each other is the dumbest thing since the Vietnam War. Unlike the war, however, this policy will ruin tens of millions of lives across the globe.  It is those lives who deserve our sympathy, not people you don’t know — people you’re only pretending to care about because it makes it easier to disguise your fear and makes you feel better about yourself.

You’re right about one thing, though. Because of your irrational fear(s), the Golden Age of American Restaurants is over. The way has been cleared for soulless, antiseptic, corporate eateries to dominate our landscape for years to come. But for as long as I can still chew, I going to fight you and your fright, and put my money where my mouth is to keep places like those above alive.

Image(Big eye tuna from Player’s Locker)

The Best New Restaurants of 2017

ELV note: It’s that time of the year, food fans. The time when every half-baked web site offers up “best of” lists of places they’ve never visited, and hardly know anything about. Some will no doubt regurgitate whatever they’re being paid to advertise….er…uh….I mean post, but for the serious connoisseur, this is the place to find the good stuff — the worthwhile places that rang our chimes in the past year. A few of these opened in late 2016, but we didn’t get to them until the past 12 months, and since we’re the only critic that counts (ARROGANT? YOU BET!), that’s good enough for us.  Of all the eateries that showed up in 2017, these are the ones that matter.

Final note: Only time will tell if ’17 was the watershed year in local restaurants we hope it was. But there’s no denying a lot of serious cooking made it to the neighborhoods, and if this portends a trend, it bodes well for the future of good eating in Las Vegas.

Without further ado, and in no particular order (except the last one) here are the Best New Restaurants of 2017 (click on the name to link with the restaurant’s web site or Facebook page):

Ping Pang Pong

I know PPP is not new, but it might as well be.  It’s fresh digs in the Gold Coast Hotel (at top of page) make it seem like a whole new restaurant. Actually, it is a whole new joint when you consider the upgraded surroundings, the expanded (and easier-to-navigate) menu, and the alacrity with which classic Mandarin and Cantonese dishes are brought to your table, only seconds after being wok-tossed, steamed or deep-fried. Our best, classic Chinese restaurant (and dim sum) got a whole lot better in 2017, and for that it rates a wave.

Tony Xu (the chef behind the über-Sichuan Chengdu Taste), quietly opened this Chongqing-style noodle house on Spring Mountain Road a few months ago, and seemingly like magic, every Szechuan-loving fellow traveler for 250 miles knew it was there. Tongue-numbing soups and chewy noodles (above) that take no prisoners, but you won’t find any better soups this side of the San Gabriel Valley. Since it’s the only restaurant on this list without a web page, a Facebook page, or a listing (beyond an Instagram page, for its namesake restaurant in California), we will tell you it’s located at 4355 Spring Mountain Road, #107.

https://www.reviewjournal.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/8215010_web1_chica_lorenagarcia1_030817.jpg(Why is this woman smiling? Because she’s never in the kitchen.)

Chica

Within months of opening in the Spring, Chica lost its executive chef (Mike Minor), who returned to his former gig at Border Grill. Vagabond chefs drive our staff crazy, but all we can hope for is that Lorena Garcia’s operation is tight enough to keep up the quality cooking. (She, of course, will show up once or twice a year to get her picture taken and pick up the cash.) Regardless of those concerns, the food here is a refreshing blend of the familiar (guacamole, classic ceviche) with the fascinating (asado negro arepas, porchetta with crispy yuca hash). Sara Steele’s desserts are not to missed, so get all of them.

Sparrow + Wolf

As with Boteco and The Black Sheep, we’re sometimes tempted to call out Brian Howard on how over-complicated his food can be. But there’s no denying how tasty his udon Bolognese or Campfire Duck is, so we bite our tongue. When, like his colleagues, he hits his marks, the results are thrilling. If you’re over 40, you’ll be the oldest person in the joint. No matter what your age, if you love belt-and-suspenders cooking, you’ll be in hog heaven.

8oz Korean Steakhouse

Several new Korean steakhouse chains landed(?) on our shores in 2016. This one arrived three months ago and is locally-owned, not a franchise, and the best of the bunch. Superb sides (called banchan), and beef that’s a cut above. Nice bar, too.

Ramen Hashi

Ramen excites me about as much as Vietnamese pho, which is to say not at all. But the Food Gal® swears Ramen Hashi could finally unseat Monta for tonkotsu hegemony, and we’ll take her word for it.

Boteco

The only thing I hate about Boteco is how far it is from my house. Located on the loathsome south Eastern corridor, it is small, personal, wine-focused, and everything a locally-owned joint should be. At dinner, there are only twelve things on the menu, but the sliders, avocado crunch salad and Singapore Chilli Crab dip are a delight, and the kind of food that’s usually unknown this far from the Strip.  There’s even a poutine on the menu for the calorie-challenged. Fabulous Spanish ham, good oysters, and escargot croquetas, and braised beef with Piedmontese rice are also there for ectomorphs in need of a good rib-sticking. This is a mix and match menu that’s made for fun. Boteco means “meeting place” for friends and family, and if you and yours are looking for a place to congregate, you won’t find any better in this neck of the culinary desert.

7th & Carson

Gregg Fortunato is one of the few chefs in town confident enough to serve us a plate of simple, perfect tomatoes seasoned only with a little salt. His menu is full of the same confidence, and doesn’t have a clinker on it. His chicken wings deserve to be in the poultry hall of fame.

The Black Sheep

People keep calling Jamie Tran’s new joint “Vietnamese-American” because that’s how it describes itself, but there’s nothing remotely Vietnamese about braised short ribs, tuna tartare (above), and smoky beet salad. Hers is a unique, personal cuisine with influences befitting a classically trained chef who wants to infuse European techniques with Asian sensibilities. (Or is it the other way around?) Unlike any other place in town, and a foodie favorite because of it.

Café Breizh

Our best French pastries, period. With coffee, crepes, and a few, house-baked breads to match. Lots of people extol the virtues of other pastry shops, but this is the real, artisanal deal. We’d walk five miles for a bite of that crepe (pictured above), and have! Merci beaucoup, Pierre Gatel!

 

https://i0.wp.com/www.novusarchitecture.com/cms/wp-content/uploads/Zuma-Entrance_Web.jpg (About as intimate as Wal-Mart)

Zuma

Big box Japanese restaurants are sooo 2oo7, but if you insist, this is the one to go to.

Prosecco Fresh Italian Kitchen

Good restaurants in the southwest part of town are harder to find than a sous chef without tattoos. Daniele Dotto’s menu is full of pleasant surprises, not the least of which are his seafood offerings – like the shrimp and squid ink pasta seen above — as tasty as you’ll find five miles west of Las Vegas Boulevard, at much gentler prices.

Image may contain: food(Slurpable on Spring Mountain Road)

Marugame Monzo

Another noodle joint? Yep, and just the ticket for lovers of those thick chewy Japanese udon noodles (and killer chicken karrage) that taste just like they do in Shibuya.

(At Bavette’s, photoshop is the only way to see anything)

Bavette’s Steakhouse

Darker than Kevin Spacey’s sex life, and not for the faint of wallet or dim of eyesight. But if you can find your food (on the menu or on the plate) you’ll enjoy some magnificent meat at some magnificent prices. The $73 dry-aged strip announces itself as a major player in our rootin’ tootin’ high steaks rodeo.

https://cdn1.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/8804929/MB_Steak_3.jpg(Here, at least, you can see your food)

MB Steak

More modern, more inventive, and better lit than Bavette’s…and in the Hard Rock Hotel. Well, three out of four ain’t bad. The steaks are top shelf, but it’s the burger, the appetizers, and the veal chop that will get your attention.

Contento Pizzeria & Bar

Pulchritudinous pies, excellent pastas, and a reasonable wine list (that can be purchased retail) have suddenly made Jerry’s Nugget (in North Las Vegas!), a must go for intrepid seekers of great pizzas and Strip-worthy Italian food.

(Fiery food that ‘s fit to be Thai’d)

Chuchote Thai Bistro & Desserts

Korean isn’t the only Asian country to see a marked improvement in its Vegas restaurants. No longer is Thai food consigned to the sloppy, sweet-sour appeasement of American palates. Southern Thai specialties are what to get here, and the brothers and sister who run the place will joyfully guide you through their artistic interpretations of classic Siamese dishes.

Image may contain: people sitting, food and indoor(Rib-stickin’ ribs at Blue Ribbon)

Blue Ribbon

Another vastly improved re-boot — substantially different and so much better than its forerunner. The Bromberg Brothers got back to basics, and in doing so, brought the best of their Big Apple icon to our humble burg. There is no better American food anywhere in Las Vegas. This new BR reminds us of the old BR in lower Manhattan — the one that put the BB boys on the map.

Elia Authentic Greek Taverna

One word: galaktoboureko (pictured below). The world’s greatest dessert. (TRUE!) Every lunch and dinner. Made on premises, just like everything here — unlike many a Greek joint that couldn’t exist without cheap, nasty Sysco gyro meat.  This is Greek food like it tastes in Greece. Very little pita bread, a mountain of mezze (dips and such) and seafood done right. (The owners are Estiatorio Milos veterans.) One of the many reasons we consider 2017 to be a watershed year for fabulous new food in the ‘burbs.

 Dishonorable Mention: Momofuku. David Chang’s one-note cooking swept Millennials off their feet a decade ago. Now he’s drowning them in a tsunami of umami. Like all “celebrity chefs,” (save the French), expect him in Vegas about as often as you see me at Applebee’s. If/when he shows up, he will no doubt opine on everything from Anthony Bourdain’s love life to the state of soba noodles on Spring Mountain Road — all to the rapt attention of his adoring followers — the same people who love overpaying for the privilege of eating food done much better two miles away.

ELV at the Crossroads

 http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-ZtWho7S4tzQ/UmB0NB_R56I/AAAAAAAAA1k/2yI6alD9exw/s1600/The_Thinker__by_a_love_unrequited.jpg

What’s that old joke? If you see the fork in the road, take it.

Well, loyal readers, Eating Las Vegas is at a crossroad.

Writing about restaurants seems more than a bit trivial in these troubled times.

On the other hand, there’s a lot of cool new stuff going on.

And a lot of old stuff continues to shine  — like the sides and steak yours truly had at CUT the other night:

One part of me wants to dive in and tell you all about the great meals I’ve had recently at:

Allegro

Chuchote Thai Bistro

Le Cirque

Cafe Breizh

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7th & Carson

The Black Sheep

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Hofbräuhaus (yes, the Hofbräuhaus)

Bazaar Meat

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The aforementioned CUT

Oscar’s Beef, Booze and Broads (yes, Oscar’s Beef, Booze and Broads)

Prosecco

Bardot Brasserie

MB Steak

Ferraro’s

Casa Don Juan (yes, that Casa Don Juan)

Chada Street…and…

Morel’s Steakhouse

…just to name a few.

But my heart is heavy, and the blogosphere ain’t what it used to be.

Tens of thousands of people used to want to read these restaurant reviews, now but a few thousand do. Facebook and Instagram turned everyone into a food blogger (this is not a bad thing), and in so doing, created a world where the audience is small for anything but mindless listicles, gossip and food porn.

My personal theory is that once camera phones got better, around 5 years ago, everyone could see decent pictures of what a restaurant’s food looked like. When that happened, reading about it became a chore for all but the most ardent foodies. In other words, blogs like this had a mass appeal right up until the masses could look at purty pictures to hit their low information threshold. Thus did clickbait like “Top 5 Tacos in Town!” and “David Chang’s Favorite Pizzas!” supplant actually learning about food.

Simple-mindedness is the rule these days, no matter the issue, no matter what the topic. The dumbing down of America extends to subjects as diverse as climate change to politics to sports. No one is diving deep; everything is visceral or the Cliff Notes version. Even the President of the United States.

Speaking of mindlessness, people are being murdered wholesale in our country, and not enough people care enough about that, either. Because you know, freedom. If that’s not enough to sober me right out of restaurant writing, nothing is.

No matter how you slice it, there’s nothing deep about food writing. Food writers, critics, journalists, nutritionists, etc., are all doing different forms of the same thing: imparting information (and opinion) to the public to help it eat better, tastier, healthier food. No rocket science in that. Precious little politics, too. But if you want to learn something, you have to pay attention. Just like in elementary school. And just like elementary school, most students would rather be told the right answer than figure it out for themselves.

Loyal readers, I have grown weary of helping you figure it out for yourselves.

About the only thing that keeps me writing these days is contemplating what is left of the Vegas food writing community should I retire. Years ago, I hoped that the free weeklies would morph into a true voice for our food and restaurant scene. All they’ve morphed into is a platform for b-list bars and restaurants, cocktail features, and barely-written “reviews.” I don’t blame the writers, I blame the editors. They know their audience can hardly read (or barely wants to), so on one level, you can’t blame them.

My previous co-author, Al Mancini, professes not to want to write about restaurants anymore, so the worthless rag he works for has him covering hot topics like “What blue cocktails are made without blue curaçao?” and other such drivel. (Memo to Al Mancini: the world isn’t interested in “cocktails of the week,” only the people pushing them are.)

Max Jacobson, god bless him, will never re-join the food writing ranks, and my other former co-authors (Greg Thilmont and Mitchell Wilburn) talented though they are, have neither the coin nor the time to immerse themselves in our foodie scene. Eater Las Vegas is a joke (it’s run by a pathetic woman who, when she’s sober, remembers that she lives in Des Moines, Iowa), and no other local blog is worth a shit. So bleak the landscape is.

And bleak I feel about it. I love writing, and I love going to great restaurants. Combining those two passions in this blog, six books, and 23 years of reviews for radio, TV, guidebooks, ‘zines, and  dozens of periodicals has been a match made in heaven for me. No one has ever covered the restaurants of Las Vegas like I have over the past two decades. No one else is even close. All the food writers in town put together aren’t even close. On average, I eat out more in a week than all of them do in a month.

Am I bragging? Sure I am, but it’s also true, and it’ll be a long time before any food writer comes close to what I’ve done. And I’m proud of it.

But while the body might be willing, the spirit is weak. Sometime next month the sixth edition of EATING LAS VEGAS The 52 Essential Restaurants will be published. Those 52 restaurants (yes, two more this year!) are all mine this time. No co-authors, no dueling reviews. You will get my complete, unvarnished look at the best this town has to offer, plus a snapshot or two about where we fail as a food and restaurant town.

These are the same things I’ve been trying to do on this web site since April 1, 2008, and in various forms since October 15, 1995, when I debuted on Nevada Public Radio. I don’t know if the book will continue after this edition, but I’m fairly certain this web site will post its last toothsome pick, or eviscerating pan, on its tenth anniversary, April 1, 2018.

Until then, bon appétit!

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