You Can’t Beat This Meat – MABEL’S and SIN CITY SMOKERS

(A man and his rib)

Las Vegas is where barbecue goes to die.

If I’ve said these words once, I’ve said them a thousand times.

Great ‘cue has come and gone over the years. From Struttin’ Gates to Paul Kirk’s R.U.B. to Salt Lick to Little Joe’s at Plant World (remember him?), all the good ones barely make it two years in Vegas before picking up stakes and heading back where they came from. (Kansas City, Kansas City, and Driftwood, Texas if you’re interested.) As far as we know, Little Joe departed for that great red neck smoker in the sky years ago.

Because of the failures of actual, pit-cooked, smokehouse barbecue, the real, smokey deal has been harder to find around here than a pork chop in an ashram.

And because mediocrity in all forms sells in these here parts (Guy Fieri, Giada, Donny and Marie…) set-it-and-forget-it has become the watchword of all of our barbecue restaurants. Why bother trying to do something good, the thinking goes, if your customers can’t tell the difference?

But things they be a’changin’. First out Green Valley way with Sin City Smokers, and more recently with Michael Symon’s Mabel’s.

Steve Overlay’s Sin City Smokers has been around for a while, and the only thing I can find wrong with it is that it’s too far from my house. His ultra-long smoke times produce a beautiful bark, and spoon-tender brisket ($9) that is dense and moist — whether you’re biting into a lean or fatty cut. No mean feat that.

Speaking of brisket, Valley Cheese and Wine proprietor Bob Howald sprinkled the finishing salt you see on the cuts above. He told me he always does it with brisket and he was right: the little flakes of sodium chloride really bring out the beefiness (and smoke) in the meat. Try it sometime.

Symon (pictured at the top of the page) is a well-known celebrity chef from Cleveland. (Full disclosure: I once judged him on an episode of Iron Chef America. He won, if memory serves.) As a Greek-Sicilian, you might presume that he has as much business doing barbecue as dim sum, but like all accomplished chefs (and Overlay, for that matter, who also did some serious work in professional kitchens), when he sets his mind to cooking something, he does it right.

And I’m here to tell you: Mabel’s has got it right.

The brisket is straight outta Austin. More particularly, I’d hold it up to the stuff being done around Lexington, Texas like Snow’s or Louis Mueller). As good as the brisket is, it is the brontosaurian beef rib — straight from Black’s in Lockhart — that will get your attention.

Keeping the Texas vernacular going, Symon’s hot links have that snap, bite and serious heat you rarely find outside of the Lone Star State.

More Carolina-like is his spicy pulled pork sandwich ($14), a thing of beauty in its own right:

(Spicy pulled pork)

And then there is that beef rib ($50). Coated with “pastrami spices”, it is 2+ pounds of pure, unadulterated beefy bliss. According to the menu, it’s enough for 2+ hungry adults. Realistically, it’ll feed four.

Of course, the disclaimer didn’t dissuade yours truly from tearing into one all by his lonesome:

(I enjoy eating things as big as my head)

When I got done with it, there was plenty more on the platter to tackle, including some righteous ribs, truly sour kraut, house made pickles, and cheddar-jalapeno hot links that take no prisoners.

Put it all together and you have the most complete barbecue restaurant to come to town since Salt Lick threw in the towel ten years ago at the Red Rock Resort.

About the only thing I’m not wild about at Mabel’s are the sauces. Three are offered: Cleveland Mustard, Sweet and Sour, and Green Chile. They’re plenty tasty (especially the mustard), but have a guar gum-my thick stickiness to them which imparts a cheap mouthfeel and  impedes their flow from the bottle. Better, if less complex, are the house-made sweet, or sweetly-spicy stuff Overlay is pouring at Sin City:

(Why are these pigs smiling?)

As for sides, I barely pay attention when the meat is this good, but Mabel’s does a killer poppyseed slaw and Sin City does a super-filling “Five cheese smack-a-roni” of uncommon cheesiness.

Desserts at both are minimal and forgettable, but who cares when things are this smokin’?

For years, I’ve told anyone who’ll listen to avoid the beef in our barbecue joints. (I’ve eaten so much lousy, tough, dry, stringy ‘cue in this town, I’ve taken to making my own a few times a year.)

Sin City and Mabel’s are the first places in a long time where I can firmly and happily advise to park the pork and bring on the brisket.

Just like they do in Texas.

SIN CITY SMOKERS

2861 N. Green Valley Pkwy

Henderson, NV 89014

702.823.5606

http://www.sincitysmokers.com/restaurant

MABEL’S BBQ

Palms Casino and Resort

702.944.5931

http://palms.com/mabels-bbq.html

 

 

 

Enough Already 2018

It’s that time of the year, food fans: when the winter solstice descends and our mood grows dark and our prophesies portend.

When our thoughts turn not to festive merriment or seasonal meetings, but to over-baked puddings and gristly greetings.

Yes, it is when we are duty-bound to scream to the heavens,  for the world to hear, no matter how it  might frighten some timid reindeer.

These are the trends we hope soon to end…so that the New Year we pray…can finally make amends.

So without further ado, although some are not new, I hereby say to you:

ENOUGH ALREADY…

Smoked anything

Unless your name is Sonny and you’re tending a hickory pit, lose the smoke. Please.

Wood-fired everything

Yeah yeah yeah….you saw that dude on that Netflix series and he looked like some kind of god chopping his own wood and cooking everything but his profiteroles over it…but the whole idea only works if you’re, you know, like living out in the fucking forest or something. You’re not Paul Bunyan and most of that smoke gets sucked out the oven (thanks, health department!) before it even comes close to flavoring the vittles.

Craft IPAs

We get it: IPAs are cooler than lagers and you can hop them higher than a smack addict in the South Bronx (circa1971), but that doesn’t mean they taste good.

Sour beers

Leave them to the Belgians, please

Steakflation

The aged strip steak at Bavette’s was priced at a whopping $73 when it opened over the summer. Within three months they raised the price to $78. The original price was about 10% higher than the cost of the same steak in Chicago. The new price bumped that to a 20% premium. In Vegas, which is a much smaller town than Chicago, with (supposedly) a much cheaper cost of living (and labor force). Don’t let anyone ever tell you that Las Vegas isn’t the most expensive restaurant town in the country. It is also not a place to chow down on giant steaks anymore, unless you like taking your serious steaks where the sun don’t shine.

Pizza fetishization

With apologies to good friends John Arena, Mike Vakeen, Scott Wiener, Vincent Rotolo, Gio Mauro, Chris Decker, and a dozen others…the whole artisanal pizza thing has jumped the shark. As Steve Cuozzo says in the New York Post, the humble pie has been warped by the whole ‘”authenticity” thing…or cruel mutation.

Brussels sprouts and Beets

Chefs: we know you are duty bound to put edible plants out there, but can’t you find something else to round out your proteins?

Crazily-flavored ice creams

(This is what ice cream is supposed to look like)

Was the world begging for broccoli ice cream? Were orphans crying out for tuna fish gelato? What began as a novelty 4-5 years ago is now a tsunami of bad taste. Only the Instagram generation could ruin something as un-ruin-able as ice cream.

Caviar on everything

Caviar used to be a luxury food. Now it’s more ubiquitous than a Kardashian ass. There’s a reason chefs put it on things: to give the illusion of grandeur….when all they’re really doing is spooning some not-very-expensive farmed fish eggs from China, Brazil, Spain, etc. onto some dish that, 80% of the time, would be better without it. Duping the credulous hordes? You bet! Padding the bill? Absolutely! Worth it? Hardly ever. If I want fish eggs, I’ll eat them off a mother of pearl spoon all by themselves.

Liquor/Food matches

It’s gotten beyond ridiculous: Come to our four-course dinner paired with….Johnny Walker Scotch! Have you ever tried aged rum with rigatoni? Brandy with sea bass? Here we are, a restaurant on a slow night (usually a Tuesday), and some liquor distributor has talked our chef into preparing a wonderful multi-course extravaganza all based around….MEZCAL! Trying to drum up enthusiasm for a high-proof spirit by (ill) matching it with food is the worst idea since the canned cheeseburger.

Short ribs/beef cheeks

Both are the cupcakes of the savory world. Victims of endless permutations that rarely make sense, and so filling they rarely inspire a second bite. Beef cheek ravioli is the ultimate belt-and-suspenders combination that does an injustice to both.

Things in bowls

Here’s the short list of things you should eat in a ginormous bowl: Vietnamese pho, Chinese noodles, and weird Korean soups.

Eating in the dark

I actually liked the two meals I had at Bavette’s. I couldn’t see them, but I liked them.

Eating when you can’t hear

I know, I know: you want your restaurant to have a “party” vibe. Because everyone knows adults go out to eat not to put finely-cooked food in their mouths, but rather to “party”….just like the kids do…at Chuck E. Cheese. Everyone knows the drill now: you’ve got the restaurant pumped to ear-splitting levels to turn tables and sell more booze. You’re not fooling anyone anymore. Let’s all grow up a bit, shall we? It’s 2019, not 2010.

Chefs’ groovy “playlists”

If there’s been one benefit to the downfall of Mario Batali, it’s been that a chef imposing his musical tastes on his guests has finally lost whatever “cool” factor it once had.

900 bottles of booze on the wall

I love what they did to Scotch 80 Prime. I really like that gorgeous wall of 1,000 bottles behind the bar. I love the same thing at Sage and the hundreds of terrific tequilas at La Comida. But we’ve gotten into an arms race here both with the makers of strong booze and the restaurants that sell them. And it’s ridiculous. The world doesn’t need a thousand brands of tequila, and it got along just fine with a hundred quality scotches and a few dozen good bourbons. I don’t know what’s worse: the hyper-specificity (“aged in 37 year old fino sherry casks, consisting of re-toasted Andalusian birch bark bathed in the sweat of Rob Roy’s old peat marsh and only released by the light of a full moon in August”), or the con job promoted by the makers of “extremely rare” whiskys. I’d bet dollars to doughnuts that grown men (some of whom may be reading these words), couldn’t tell Pappy Van Winkle 20 year old from a dozen other premium brands. Hell, I bet the distiller himself couldn’t tell. That doesn’t keep them from perpetuating the myth of its “special-ness” when all it is is another fucking aged 90 proof whisky. Double yeesh.

Cannabis in your comestibles

If I want to get stoned, I’ll smoke a joint, thank you.

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A curmudgeon we may be, but a light we yonder see.

Some good things have returned, and for these we must no longer yearn.

And lest we be thought of as too persnickety, by jove we’re all excited about each of these most lickity.

Welcome back:

Grown-up dining

NoMad, Cipriani, Partage, and Vetri (above) are places for people with worldly palates, or aspirations to same. They are not for the party-as-a-verb crowd. Eataly is for those who either know about real Italian food, or want to learn about it. Uncomfortable chairs and small plates are not part of these equations.

Reasonable, thoughtful wine lists

As I’ve said before: the Las Vegas Strip is no place to find wine bargains, but the newbies on the block —   NoMad, Cipriani, and Vetri — all boast lists with plenty of drinkable bottles for under a hundy.  Mordeo, Partage, Sparrow + Wolf, and most of all, Esther’s Kitchen , all have bottles galore that are priced to sell, not show off.

Simple, elegant cocktails

Thank you, Jammyland, and continued thanks to the simple, elegant cocktails at NoMad, Scotch 80 Prime, Esther’s Kitchen and Vetri for continuing to stress simple sophistication over the complex and contrived..

Guéridons

Because who doesn’t love a rolling cart full of tasty delights?

Tableside pyrotechnics

Because who doesn’t love a performance with their food?

Dessert carts

Partage!!

Dressed up waiters

Cipriani!!

Real Italian food

(Casoncelli alla bergamasca at Vetri)

Has come roaring back into town. (see above)

Roast Chicken

Merci beaucoup, Daniel Humm.

Cheese

Molto grazie, Marc Vetri for including a cheese course with your nonpareil cuisine.

Good Barbecue

Sin City Smokers (above) sets the standard in the ‘burbs, Mabel’s brings a slice of authentic Austin to the Strip. Smoked meats are back with a vengeance. Everything else in town isn’t worth your time or the heartburn.

(Platter at Mabel’s)
HAPPY NEW YEAR from the staff at Being John Curtas:
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First Bites – BOTECO, ELIA, MERAKI, SALUD et al

We at ELV don’t wish to alarm you, but there’s a mini-restaurant boom a’ happenin’ in our humble burg. And we’ve been a busy beaver checking them all out lately.

For every closure (Standard & Pour, Zydeco, Glutton) there seems to be several new kids on the block springing up.

Thus have we recently seen everything from Korean Chinese (Yu Xiang) to Israeli (2 Bald Guys) to barbecue (Sin City Smokers) to Mexican (Salud) to Greek (Meraki, Elia) to Spanish (Boteco) to badly-named, half-baked concepts (7th & Carson) become major blips on our radar. Don’t forget, the hit-from-the-get-go Sparrow + Wolf is only a month old, and try to wrap your head around the fact that two of our best new eateries are….wait for it….GREEK!

The one that has blown us away is Elia Authentic Greek Taverna.

The one that has intrigued us is Salud Mexican Bistro and Tequileria.

The two that are packing them in are Meraki Greek Grill and Sparrow.

The rest of them have major uphill battles ahead.

For now, though, let’s accentuate the positive.

Meraki is doing a land-office business based with a fast-casual concept that is being expertly executed by Nikos Georgousis (formerly of Milos) and Girair Goumroian. (Try saying those names after a few ouzos sometime.) It’s basically your best hits of Greek casual food — gyros, (pronounced HEE-roe, not GY-ro) souvlaki, salad, tzatziki, taramasalata, avgolemono soup, dolmades, etc. — and all of it done to a “t”. We’ve tried about half the menu and can highly recommend all of the mezze (appetizers) and the gorgeous lamb burger:

https://s3-media4.fl.yelpcdn.com/bphoto/K9wmPVpv-KXTXaYHtzXYxw/o.jpg

There are a dozen or so “Mediterranean” restaurants around town doing this food (many of them being run by Bulgarians and Russians, strangely), but Meraki is a cut above them all. As good as it is, though, it doesn’t quite hit the heights of its first cousin a few miles away, as you’ll read below.

The just-opened 2 Bald Guys did not impress, but we plan on giving it another whirl. The food (shawarma, tabouli) seems technically proficient but is woefully under-seasoned. It’s the first restaurant I can remember where I actively reached for the salt shaker multiple times during my meal. On the plus side, the house-made hot sauces are fantastic…and necessary. This place can fill a much-needed niche downtown if it ups the ante on its seasonings, but if the food remains this timid,  we fear people will stay away in droves.

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Boteco was a treat. It’s got a big city/small tapas bar vibe, and a small menu of innovative small bites like botequito sliders made with smoked Gouda and caramelized onions:

Dungeness- Singapore Chilli crab dip:

…and off-beat items like avocado crunch salad, escargot croquetas, and braised beef and Piedmontese rice — all dedicated to showing off the chops of Executive Chef Rachel LeGloahec, a veteran of Joël Robuchon’s kitchens and a girl with serious skills. Boteco is a sliver of a place in a monster of a strip mall in the middle of a town (Henderson) that treats chef-driven restaurants like leprosy colonies. Like we told Cory Harwell when he opened Standard & Pour: “Good luck (Rachel), you’ll need it.”

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 YuXiang is for fellow travelers (and adventuresome eaters) only — although the crispy beef (lower left in the picture above)  with sweet-sour sauce would make anyone happy.

Sin City Smokers (above) showed us the best brisket we’ve seen in Vegas (other than our own), along with some serious sides.

It’s not Central Texas quality, but it’s a durn sight better than a dozen other mediocre spots in town, and its house-made sauces (especially the pepper-vinegar) are a treat. We weren’t as keen on the chopped pork, but the ribs were first-rate and smoky — not the borderline-inedible, chewy ones passed off by some joints in these here parts. There is definitely a return visit to SSS sometime in our future.

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Salud is something of a mystery. It sprung up almost overnight in the old Rosemary’s space on west Sahara. We went in on a weekend night and it was mostly empty. Our hearts sank but our bellies were growling, so we took a seat, ordered some peppers stuffed with chorizo, ceviche, and guacamole, and expected some same old same old stuff. What arrived (above) showed the freshness and snap you don’t usually encounter in by-the-numbers, south of the border cantinas. “This is a lot better than I expected,” said the Food Gal®, and we had to agree with her. Time will tell if this place finds an audience in a ‘hood starving for good things to eat.

And then there’s Elia, which means olive in Greek.

One of my cousins told me I had to go. “It’s real Greek food,” he said. “No hummus, good bread, not pita (which Greeks consider Arabic bread), real pork souvlaki, out-of-this-world fish, amazing tyrokafteri (spicy whipped feta), great vegetables,” he continued,  “actual gigantes beans in fresh tomato sauce, just like my mother makes (ELV side note: his mother is a wonderful Greek cook), you’ve got to go!” He was so excited he drove me there. One bite in and I could see what he was talking about.

Those beans were a treat unto themselves:

 

The lamb as perfect as lamb can get:

 

Those potatoes beside the lamb were beyond wonderful; the french fries with the souvlaki as crispy and melting as fries can be. (Real Greeks, not Bulgarians-pretending-to-be-Greeks, have a thing about seasoning potatoes correctly – with salt, pepper, oregano and lemon.)

They even do a beets thing here, topping them with chunky, garlicky potatoes sprinkled with green onions that is so good (this from a beet hater) you will want the recipe:

 

The galaktoboureko is the best I’ve ever had (outside of my yia yia’s house):

 

..and the 40 seat restaurant is a charm to sit in, with a small selection of good Greek wines at soft prices.

Elia might be the most exciting new restaurant in town. (I’m not saying this because I’m part Greek.) It certainly is the best, most authentic, beautifully composed Greek food Las Vegas has ever seen. You might be tempted to drive right past it (on south Durango) thinking it’s just another souvlaki/gyro shop. Don’t. Stop your car. Park it and walk in and taste this cuisine the way it’s supposed to be.

Kali Orixi! (“bon appetit”  in Greek).