Late-Stage Las Vegas + The List

Image(Changing the game at 1228 Main)

Writers take their muses wherever they find them. The inspiration for this post came from James Reza — longtime Las Vegan, once my editor; now a thoughtful observer of all things Vegas — in a tweet about the possibility of the Oakland Athletics moving to town:

Which got me to thinking about “late-stage” culinary Las Vegas.

Just where are we now? And what do we have to look forward to?

The Strip — long the economic and creative engine of all things gastronomic in town — has faded into a hangout for Martha Stewart fans and Voltaggio Brothers cash grabs. (For what is a “one-year year culinary residency” but a way to monetize an  unusable space (the two-story vacated Aureole cavern) with the unimaginative (“Retro”) from the unimpressive (who?). We couldn’t be less interested if they were serving spaghetti Os and fake Parmesan, which, of course, they will be.

These places will make money of course, but they won’t leave a mark. Swapping an Old Navy for a Gap in a tired old mall is not the same as bringing Neiman-Marcus and Nordstrom’s to town in the first place.

“I am so done with the Strip,” exclaimed another muse for this article. The speaker of those words wasn’t some local jamoke who hates being charged for parking. He has been a fixture on Las Vegas Boulevard South for decades — opening multiple restaurants in hotels going back to the Nineties. Now he envisions a future for his company opening smaller venues for locals who appreciate them — something unthinkable a decade ago.

Strip-quality food coming to neighborhoods is nothing new: You can trace its roots from Other Mama’s premium seafood to our upscale sushi parlors and to the prime cuts now available at 138 Degrees (Henderson) and Harlo (Summerlin). With this quality comes Strip-level pricing, but from where we’re sitting, no one in the carriage trade seems to be balking at $100/pp check minimums.

Chinatown (where a 75 seat restaurant is considered huge) continues to explode, while the southwest seems to be attracting chefs and concepts like eggs to Bearnaise.

All of which bodes well for locals, and marginalizes whatever is happening on the Strip, at least for those of us who used to be in awe of the restaurant revolution that took place there for twenty years.

Will we trundle up to Caesars to see the new Peter Luger when it opens? Sure, if only to compare it to the New York original. (If things run true to form, the menu will be laughably short, the wine list absurdly brief, and the staff comically rude.)

But Luger and the Voltaggios and even Martha Stewart — the octogenarian queen of brand-whoring — pretty much signal that the celebrity chef restaurant has run its course. And if they weren’t enough to convince me, then septuagenarian Martin Yan’s bad joke of a licensing deal should do the trick…and demonstrates how deeply we are scraping the bottom of the celebrity chef barrel.

Image(Note to self: Yan can’t cook)

You probably have to be over fifty to remember Yan from his  “Yan Can Cook” PBS days. Perhaps once he could, but no longer. Now he’s prostituting his brand like a pint-sized Martha Stewart, keeping accountants happy and his rice bowl full at our expense. I doubt any of the low-rollers in this charm-free dining space even know who Yan was, except in a “this guy used to be famous” kind of way. Regardless, he’s been reduced to going through the motions to cash in on a faded name and the cynicism behind the whole enterprise is palpable.

Here is my Instagram rant on the matter and we’ll leave it at that.

As an official old-timer, it is easy to get depressed about the direction in which Vegas is heading. F1! NFL! Super Bowls and Baseball! Late-stage Vegas has morphed before our eyes from a town of gambling, food, and music into the mega-event capital of America. Las Vegas used to be about wicked fun and excess….then it was food and shopping. Its future will be all about advertising.

The idea of a big hotel opening with a lounge and a showroom and six good restaurants now seems as quaint as a flip phone.  Old time casino table games don’t count anymore, anymore than washed up brands still trying to cash in.

Perhaps the Fountainebleau will kick start a new dawn in Vegas dining. Hope springs eternal. And there are still many, many legacy restaurants occupying a special place in our hearts (Milos, Jaleo, Robuchon, Delmonico, Savoy, Bazaar Meat…) plus a few new ones which rate a return (Balla, Viva!, Brezza….)…but lord help me if I ever step foot in The Horseshoe again. (True fact: You can put lipstick on a pig and it will always be Bally’s.)

Soooo….long story short, after the Yan disaster, I needed a series of superb experiences to inspire me to post yet another promiscuous purview of my palate pursuits….so here it is, for the umpteenth time in a row, THE LIST: the places in Las Vegas you should be eating in and why. Put another way: the places I’ve been eating and why they give me hope for the future of Las Vegas.

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

1228 Main

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Image(One banana-mint blueberry martini comin’ up!)

How can we be so jazzed about a restaurant before it opens? Easy peasy when it has the pedigree of this one. The folks who brought you Spago, CUT, Lupo, et al are about to change the downtown game in ways unimaginable a half-decade ago: three meals a day; an on premise bakery; world-class desserts; Cal-Ital-French menu (like the one that made Wolfgang Puck famous); remarkable coffee; casual lunches and serious dinners — this will be like nothing Main Street has ever seen.

To be clear: This is not a Wolfgang Puck restaurant, but he is an investor, and his major league kitchen talent is behind the project. We expect this rising tide to raise all boats, and finally turn Main Street into the dining destination it was destined to become. (East Fremont must be watching and weeping.)

Opening at the end of the month. Now if we could only remember the address…

Further good news arrived in the form of Bradley Ogden’s ongoing overhaul of Marché Bacchus‘s kitchen, and a single bite of his steakburger gave me hope for the future:

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Bouchon is still the place to go for vichyssoise, boudin blanc and Le Cirque-worthy crème brûlée:

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…not to mention sweetbreads. Bouchon is also the only place we know of in Vegas, with the cojones to serve them. You know these glands gotta be good if we head there directly after spending two weeks in France. In business almost twenty years now, Bouchon has endured because its food is….wait for it…thymus:

Image(Sweet puns are what I was bred for)

Caveat: As much as we love the Big B, its ‘ersters were unimpressive, in size and selection. We’ve always called them best in town, but that crown has been usurped by another slurper — Water Grill — where even late in the season, the bivalves were clearly bigger, better, and fresher:

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Since we’re in a seafood mood, when the hankerin’ for fish and chips arises, the malt-battered ones at 7th & Carson are coronation-worthy:

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And don’t sleep on the incroyable desserts at Osteria Fiorella:

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As long as we’re remembering superior succulence over the past three monts, this “Secreto Pork” at Edo Gastro Tapas & Wine stands out:

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…as do the life-affirming/health-giving properties of Khoury’s Mediterranean practically perfect puffy pita:

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Naxos Taverna restored my faith in off-Strip casino eating …by bringing Milos-quality seafood to the ‘burbs. Gorgeous swimmers, pretty room, beautiful apps, and finally, a restaurant with a chef (Mark Andelbradt) who knows how to cook a f**king artichoke:

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The restorative powers of Szechuan cuisine are well known, but be advised: at Chengdu Taste , they must be sampled with a fire hose in tow:

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When it comes to breakfast, The Daily Bread stands apart. It’s fresh-baked goods are shockingly good, and this banana cream croissant was the definition of scrumptious:

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Did someone say “Conchinita Pibil?”After three weeks in France, the one thing we craved was the spark of good Mexican, and Leticia’s Cocina & Cantina always fills the bill.

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Speaking of sparks, the contrast of rich and sharp is the elemental appeal of good Thai, and Lamoon had us over the moon with its comfy build-out (in an old Dairy Queen!) and a luscious duck khao soi:

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Everything we tried was a head-turner, both in presentation and taste. Just the palate resuscitator we needed after weeks of organ meats and stinky cheeses. Nice wine list, too, as befits the Bank and Bon Atcharawan brand.

In a more traditional vein, we returned to Cipriani for the pasta, but stayed for the gelato:

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One of the ways we keep our girlish figure is by walking to Cipriani for lunch on Fridays. This is not an option at  Hola Mexican Cocina+Cantina  which serves these fabulous blue corn grilled fish tacos at the far reaches of the southwest valley:

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Truth be truth, Hola is so far from the palatial Curtas abode:

(Landscaping is my passion)

…that it took a Sherpa guide, Two Conestoga wagons, and a degree in dead reckoning to find it. But the payoff was in those tortillas and even the spicy fideo — which got our attention more than any Mexican side dish in recent memory.

Closer to home is Patrick Munster’s brilliant steak tartare at Main Street Provisions:

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Anything and everything at Anima by Edo:

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Yes, that’s two mentions of Oscar Amador Edo’s food…which, as our hottest local chef running two of our hottest restaurants, he deserves.

Now, for the home stretch, some old reliables and newcomers which rang our chimes over the past few months:

Yukon Pizza is simply fabulous no matter how you slice it:

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Sea Salt Live Sashimi …is delicious, but not as pristine as Japanese, and definitely not for the squeamish. Pro tip: bring your favorite Korean to help you navigate the menu which is not exactly limited:

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Any pie at Good Pie always floats our boat:

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Nobody fries chicken like the Koreans, and no Korean in Vegas fries it like Ssoju Korean Pub:

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Soulbelly BBQ’s beef brisket taco are life-affirming…for everyone but the steer:

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And let us not forsake the bread and dips at Esther’s Kitchen:

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All of these meals restored my faith in humanity….at least as it relates to my taste buds. They also got me to thinking…

What will late-stage Vegas be? I expect the Strip to get dumber and locals to get smarter. Chef-driven restaurants are so 2010. “Name” chefs are gradually being replaced with corporate restaurant concepts like the ones that brought Tao, RPM, and Mott 32 to our shores(?). Next up will be the LPM Restaurants bringing “music, art, people and bonhomie [and] outrageous harmony in the room” — when it takes over the old Milos space in The Cosmo. More and more, new joints will prioritize a party vibe over the food, and the sports-loving crowds will eat it up. The restaurant-cum-nightclub is here to stay, and will make me long for the days when I thought the music at B&B Ristorante was a little too loud.

The Strip hotels once aimed high and hit their target, and brought world renown to our restaurant scene in the process. But the visionaries who changed that game are long gone, replaced by executives who view Vegas as one gigantic advertising platform masquerading as a sports bar, shoveling $100 steaks into the gaping maws of fanboys and show-offs.

With this change went any hope that the Strip’s restaurant scene will ever again be taken seriously, at least in my lifetime. It’s no coincidence that we have three finalists for James Beard Award this year and each of them — Oscar Amador Edo, Kaoru Azuechi, and Garagiste Wine Bar — plies their trade miles from Las Vegas Boulevard.

And miles from LVBlvd is where, with a few exceptions, you’ll find me these days. Because if there’s one thing I don’t want with my meals, it’s “music, art and outrageous harmony.”

The List – February 2023

Image(When influencers attack!)

If you have an appetite for life, stay hungry.

Such has been my mantra for 50 years. Half a century of searching for the best things to shove down the ole pie hole.

And apparently, I’m not done yet. Our new podcast — Eat. Talk. Repeat.  (w/ Sam Mirejovsky and Ashley Watkins) — is keeping me busy most weeks, searching for good meals and food topics of interest. As long as someone is listening, I’ll still be flapping my gums.

Who am I kidding? I’d still be gasbagging away even if no one was around to hear me. At this point, I’m having fun eating what I want where I want when I want, and not being controlled by the dictates of putting out a guidebook (although that was a blast while it lasted), or paid-for writing gigs. Being on podcasts and not having to actually produce one is more fun than shooting monkeys in a barrel. Color me happy as a clam in linguine.

Along the same lines, I am determined to champion the great food of our Chinatown as long as I can pick up a chopstick. To that end, I’ve started an Asian Lunch Bunch with a few writers, influencers, and other Asian aficionados to figure out ways to help the best places along and around Spring Mountain Road, many of which do not have the savvy or wherewithal to do much marketing on their own. Suffice to say, when we invade, the food photogs are out in force (see pic at top of page).

It’s been nine years since I did a survey of every place along SMR. In 2014, there were 112 eateries up and down the three miles between Valley View and Rainbow. I’d venture the number has almost doubled since then. Shanghai Plaza alone has almost twenty restaurants in it, and several other strip malls have popped up in the past few years — each studded with eateries from all over the Pacific Rim.

If there’s a food scene for which Las Vegas should be famous in the 2020’s, it should be this one. The Strip (with a few exceptions) has become more boring than a Donny and Marie concert. It’ll be interesting to see what Fontainbleau brings to the party, but when Martha Stewart, Peter Luger (a 136 year old brand) and the Voltaggio Brothers (whoever they are) are the best you can do, you’re just milking the old cows for all they’re worth. And as much as we love Vetri Cucina, Balla, Cipriani, and Brezza (and have had nice experiences at Amalfi by Bobby Flay and RPM), if one more Italian opens to a bunch of forced fanfare, I’m gonna commit seppuku with a splintered chopstick.

As usual, every place listed has been visited by me recently (and by recently I mean the last six weeks), and all places come highly recommended unless otherwise noted.

THE LIST

Vetri Cucina

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Best Italian in town. Don’t even think about arguing with me about this.

Need proof? Here ya go:

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Osteria Fiorella

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Sorta like Vetri-lite, but still damn tasty at a friendlier price point, with outdoor seating and the same great cocktails and wine. The weird-looking pizza above (mortadella/capicola  with pistachios) raised an eyebrow when ordered but then sent a shiver down our spine when we tasted it. Marc Vetri’s food will do that to you.

Sparrow + Wolf

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Brian Howard’s food can astonish, and it can confuse, but it’s always damn tasty, vividly composed and never boring. Witness the gnocchi with sweetbreads above — garnished and sauced to a fare thee well.

The Daily Bread

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Go early. go often, for the best artisanal baked goods you’ll ever taste next to a fake lake.

Chengdu Taste

Image(Not-as-innocent-as-they-look lamb skewers)

The best of Szechuan, tucked away behind Spring Mountain Road and impossible to get into at dinner. Pro tip: Go early for lunch — like around 11:30.

Pro tip #2: Bring a crowd. This food is best enjoyed family-style with 3-6 folks at a table.

Pro tip #3: Bring a firehose (see below).

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Sen of Japan

Image(Oh, the salad days of ‘o7)

 

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A granddaddy among our sushi mainstays. Still brings the goods and always comforting, always welcoming, even if it doesn’t compete (or try to match) the higher end Japanese joints opening up everywhere these days. The $100 omakase is a steal.

Marché Bacchus

Image(Bradley O. has his work cut out for him)

Bradley Ogden has taken the helm of one of the toughest gigs in town. He’s not ready to retire and has a kitchen expansion (sorely needed) and menu upgrade in mind. Restaurants are like sharks: they have to constantly move forward or die. If Ogden can pull it off, he’ll have a Great White on his hands.

PublicUs

Image(Salmon-chanted breakfast toast)

First-class coffee; house-baked savories and sweets; incredible bread; never a misstep for nine straight years. And me and The Food Gal® come here, all. the. time. PublicUs is a downtown phenomenon: a major success in a location that defines the term “challenging.” But its customers know quality when they taste it and this place  never fails to deliver the goods.

Pro tip: Breakfast is faster than lunch, but both can be maddeningly slow at peak times (they make everything to order and slowness is the price you pay). Go early or go elsewhere if you’re in a hurry. Or show up Sunday mornings at 7:00 am like we do and be the first in line.

ShangHai Taste

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We don’t get into “Who has the best xiao long bao?” debates. Soup dumplings are like sex: the worst we ever had was still pretty good. (Funny how women never agree with this statement.) That said, these are the best, and Jimmy and Jeng Li are two of Chinatown’s treasures.

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We temporarily interrupt this food blog bloviation for a….Nusr-Et v. Yukon Pizza BURGER THROWDOWN! 

How do you take your burgers? Thick and juicy and dripping with onion jam:

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….or are you more of a griddled, smashburger kinda person?

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However you grind it, these two beauts will take your breath away. Nusr-et’s at $32 is a wonder of barely-held-together, fatty wagyu, slicked with fat and dripping with beefy intensity. Yukon’s double-burger ($14) took me straight back the Steak ‘N Shake steakburgers of my youth, and with its house-made pickles, American cheese,  grilled onions and sweet/tangy sauce is the last word in ground Maillard-reactive meat umami.

We’ve pitted these two meat patties against each other in our head for weeks, and can’t decide on a winner. Nusr-et is open for lunch and is always empty, so your burger will get special attention if you’re the only one in the joint. Yukon is open for service continu (as the Frogs say) every day but Monday and Tuesday, and has been a hit from the jump, so you’ll have to either call ahead or elbow your way in. Good luck solving this delicious connundrum.

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Yukon Pizza

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Best dim sum? Top burger? Pizza wars? Who cares? The only thing that counts is quality, and Yukon has it in spades. The tiny space (seating about a dozen, tops) has been crowded every moment since it opened with pizza hounds who know a properly blistered and charred cornicione when they taste one. Between the pies and the burger, I’m going to have trouble keeping The Food Gal® away from this place.

Those Guys Pies

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Come for the pizza; stay for the cheesesteak. Actually, there’s no staying at The Lakes location — it’s take-out only.

Consumer warning: the “Pizza Margherita” should renamed Pizza Garlicrita — best eaten alone or far away from any sentient human beings.

Manizza’s Pizza

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Ash Watkins said this pizza ranked 37th in the United States on Yelp’s list of “Best Pizzas in America” (#eyeroll), so we had to trek out to the southwest to taste for ourselves. Yelp rankings always smack of paid-for advertising, and this joint is obviously playing the game. It’s a decent facsimile of a deck oven New York slice and that’s about it. (#Yelpsucks)

Prime Steakhouse

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What doesn’t suck is this grand dame — still, after 25 years, the prettiest steakhouse in America. The menu’s barely changed in that time, and the tuna tartare is way too cold and the mixed “Greek” salad not that great and the crab cake too deep fried…but we still hold it dear to our hearts…mainly because the steaks and the sauces (and the Parmesan-crusted chicken) still tickle our fancy:

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Jamon Jamon Tapas

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We’re sad about Chef Rafael moving his hard-to-find ode to Spanish cuisine all the way to Henderson, but we’ll be happy for him if he finds a more appreciative audience out there. His food is an exquisite rendering of the best of Spain, with paellas like you won’t find anywhere not named Jaleo. He plans on moving at the end of April, so get your jamon Iberico fix in now before he disappears into the wilds of Boulder Highway.

Weera Thai (3 locations) –

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The new one on south Rainbow is stunning (above). The slightly older one in Chinatown is a smaller version and the perfect venue to tuck into some roast duck  pad Thai or pumpkin red curry. The original on west Sahara is no less popular, and between the three of them, you’re never too far from some incendiary Khua Kling, bone broth soup, or a ginormous pork shank:

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Balla

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If Vetri Cucina tops them all these days, Shawn McClain’s Balla is running a close second. It’s menu isn’t quite as adventurous and the setting is not as dramatic, but it’s easier to get to, the short wine list is a knockout, and everything from the artichokes to the bomboloni (above) tastes like they were imported from Rome. The wood-fired veal Milanese and lamb tartare are not to be missed. This old beet hater even found something to like for McClain’s beets — dripping with agrodolce (a sweet/sour dressing) and festooned with mint and hazelnuts.

After two visits, we can’t wait for a third.

Main Street Provisions –

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Patrick Munster is killing it with a gutsy menu that fits downtown like a hipster’s fedora.

Toscana Ristorante & Bar

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There are so many great Italians in town right now, hauling one’s ass to the far reaches of whatever they’re calling the Monte Carlo these days to eat makes about as much sense as putting your paycheck on double-aughts at roulette. Regardless, haul our sizeable arse we did to Eataly for a San Marzano tomato tasting that confirmed why I stopped going to press events ten years ago.

Homey-dont-play-that GIFs - Get the best GIF on GIPHY

For the record: the tomatoes were great (see the pappa al pomodoro above) and the restaurant perfectly fine, but putting out 100+ plates of the same, tepid food at the same time is no way to deliver pasta…or rice. Risotto waits for no one, and is almost impossible to serve at volume. Most of the crowd didn’t notice the gumminess though — they were just happy to be eating for free.

Raku

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For my money, Raku is Las Vegas’s greatest restaurant — a chopstick-dropping combination of precise cooking, authentic recipes, pristine ingredients, and unwavering  consistency…for fifteen years. Strictly for Japanese fanatics, though. Raku is not the place to ooh and aah over enormous slabs of A-5, or tuna the size of a canoe. Everything is about subtlety and precision here. If you don’t like your fish with eyeballs, look elsewhere. I’ve never had a bad meal at Raku; I’ve never even had a bad bite. If there is such a thing as an exquisite izakaya, this is it.

We broke the story on social media a couple of weeks ago about Mitsuo Endo taking over the convenience store fifty feet away from Raku’s front door, and turning it into a “members only” omakase restaurant with only eight seats. We intend to be a member.

Serrano’s Mexican Food

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Everyone should have a default Mexican hole-in-the-wall and this one is ours. Nothing super special, just solid renditions of chilaquiles and a nice Mexican pizza (above).

Mg Patisserie

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…where Michael Gillet runs the cutest little French pastry shop in all of Vegas — hand-crafting the best of France all by his lonesome in a spot which is too good for its location.

Yen Viet Kitchen

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Vietnamese food tastes maddeningly the same to us, no matter what the restaurant. Or so we thought, until we took one sip of the cleanest, clearest, most intensely rich broth in our Bún Bò Hué (above)  we’ve encountered up and down SMR. Shockingly good, and the perfect antidote to the same old same old pho parlor. P.S. the Banh xeo (a huge crispy turmeric rice flour pancake) was a show-stopper as well. As are the soups. All of them.

Carson Kitchen

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We hit CK at the very end of last year to give its new menu a spin. There wasn’t a clinker in the bunch as we plowed through grilled oysters (above), roasted cauliflower, wild boar tacos, and a crispy, deeply succulent sandwich most foul which we called “Kentucky Fried Duck.”  A new expansion has opened an outdoor patio in the back of the restaurant, but we think a seat at the six-person bar is still the way to go. CK has always been too industrial (and too loud) for our tastes, but there’s no denying the talent in the kitchen. This new menu reminds us of why it was love at first bite, almost nine years ago.

Esther’s Kitchen

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“That place is so crowded no one goes there anymore,” is our favorite saying about this place. Can you believe it’s been five years since James Trees started the Arts District culinary revolution? People who says it’s lost its fastball don’t know what they’re talking about. The can get slammed, putting both the kitchen and bar in the weeds, but when the drinks and dishes show up, all is forgiven.

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And now for something completely different. | Monty Python | Know Your Meme

For the umpteenth time in the past four decades, I tried to find something to like about Filipino food. Hungry as hell one day last month, I scurried over to some rando roach coach near City Hall and walked away with this pork belly sisig:

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…hoping against hope to find some appealingly porky rice with which to sate my hunger. What I found was some sour, off-tasting melange of chopped veg and protein bits which seriously detracted from a fine slice of crisp, fatty belly. The thick, dull lumpia didn’t help the cause, nor did waiting almost 20 minutes for my order…when I was the only one in line. At this point, I’ve concluded most food found in the Philippines was conceived on a dare, and the reason Filipinos are so skinny is they never overeat, for good reason. Or maybe to get the good stuff you have to go to someone’s home. Either way, include me out.

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Let’s end on a high note, shall we? Rather than dwell on Filipino food fails, let us celebrate the best service staff in Las Vegas, and some squid:

Cipriani

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Everyone knows the service at Cipriani is the tits….but we wouldn’t be there multiple times a month if it weren’t for dishes like this:

https://twitter.com/eatinglasvegas/status/1620236917131587590?s=20&t=bl5sbwFOZ7WH3Cafm1U65A

Squid ink risotto (Risotto al Nero di Seppia), may not be everyone’s cup of cephalopod, but it’s as faithful to the flavors of Venice as a gondola.

Latest Wait What GIFs | Gfycat

Regardless of mixed metaphors, the fact remains that the Big C puts out the best lunch in Vegas. You find me a better one and I’ll come to your restaurant three times a month, too.

At my age, I’m too old to eat in mediocre restaurants anymore, and at my age, can you blame me?

Cheers!

Image(Luxury looks good on me, even if I can’t afford it)

 

Summer Dish Review – Cumin Lamb Skewers at CHENGDU TASTE

Can lamb cum any cumin-i-er?

Does Szechuan get any spicier?

Does pungent, peppery, pulchritude present any prettier?

We doubt it.

We also doubt you’ve ever eaten this southwestern Chinese cuisine in more authentic form.

They take no prisoners at Chengdu Taste. They ask no quarter and they give none. You know you’re in a pain-pleasure battle from the first bite, and the only way to achieve victory (and a higher form of eating bliss) is to surrender to the savagery of these wonderful peppers, and let them overwhelm your palate’s defenses.

Trust us, you’ll be happy you did.

No draftees, though. This duty is for volunteers only.

CHENGDU TASTE

3950 Schiff Drive.

Las Vegas, NV 89103

702.437.7888