It was a weird year to say the least. Many local places came roaring back from Covid, but the Strip remains stuck in neutral. Only the opening of Resorts World breathed some new life into what is rapidly becoming a very stale hospitality industry. But let us not dwell on the pathetic and the plebeian; let us now consider the “Major Awards” of 2021 — kudos conveyed completely at random, without rhyme but with righteousness and reason — the only infallible, incisive, inviolable and (sometimes) inhospitable trophies we can impart off the top of our head:
Pizza of the Year – Rebellion Pizza’s New York slice (above). Like a taste of lower Manhattan in goddamn Henderson. Go figure.
Weirdest Pizza – Some oddball concoction called the “Coney Pie” at Guerilla Pizza in the Hard Hat Lounge. Think a Nathan’s chili dog on a Detroit-style pie (see above). Stoner food to be sure, but tons o’ fun when you’re more baked than a brownie factory.
Best Restaurant That’s Closest to My House – Main Street Provisions
Restaurant I’m Glad Is NOT Closer to My House – Burgundy French Bakery & Cafe. Otherwise, I’d be here every day.
Did somebody say BURGERS?
Burger(s) of the Year, Las Vegas Division (4-way tie) – Soulbelly BBQ, Oscar’s Steakhouse, Nevada Brew Works (the thinner single cheeseburger above), Main Street Provisions (above, top with sesame seeds). Fat or smashed, double or single, downtown’s burger scene has got you covered.
Burger of the Year, International Division – this green chile champion (above) from Dr. Field Goods at the Sawmill Market in ABQ was so good it stopped me in my tracks.
Worst Burger of the Year – Victory Burger in downtown’s Circa hotel. Let’s take it as a given that if you’re going to call yourself a burger restaurant, you should know how to cook one. Two visits produced a grey, overdone, mealy patty that could’ve come from a cheapo buffet. Both tasted like defeat.
Requiem for a seafood dream….
The Food Gal was happy/sad this last night
Saddest Closing – Costa di Mare. Let us know when a restaurant prettier than the one above opens up. I won’t hold my breath. The Food Gal is still holding back her tears.
Worst Meal of the Year – (toss up) Mint Indian Cafe – terrible service, dirty interior, and food that tasted like it’d been in a steamer tray for a week. On the plus side: at least it was cheap. And then there was Hugo’s Cellar – where the menu, the attitude and the carpet haven’t changed since 1983. It definitely takes the stale cake. On the plus side: at least it’s insanely expensive.
Pleasant Surprises of the Year – Braeswood Tex-Mex BBQ, Wally’s, Milano, Aromi, Mt. Everest India’s Cuisine. Garlic Yuzu (above)
Never Again Award – Delilah
Destined to Fail Award – Superfrico
Gotta to hand it to Delilah and Superfrico — both convinced me that whatever lies ahead on the Las Vegas Strip will hold little of my interest. My glory days ran out around 2015 (about when the Strip’s did), and I don’t see anything compelling on the horizon. Don’t cry for me, Argentina, it was a twenty-year run with the best seat in the house for the greatest restaurant revolution America has ever seen. But watching the old cows get milked, and restaurants become raucous nightclubs (more concerned with distraction than food) holds as much interest for me as waiting in line for Chick-Fil-A. Las Vegas is about to pivot hard into tour bus/cruise ship territory and yours truly plans to be dining in Europe when it does.
Strangest City Visited – Minneapolis. Vibrant, locavore-driven food scene. Great steakhouses. Thriving warehouse district. Desolate downtown. One giant schizoid metropolis that’s so far from the town Mary Tyler Moore made famous it makes Los Angeles’s wasteland feel like Times Square.
Fancy-Dancy Dinner of the Year – Providence, Los Angeles. With Barbara “Call Me Babs” Fairchild. ;-)
May I introduce you to The Proper Lunch Bunch…?
Lunch(es) of the Year – Cipriani – grazie to the Proper Lunch Bunch (above), for making my Fridays the best in the business.
Question from a dozen chefs: “Why do you eat at Cipriani so much?”
Me: “You put out a product this good at lunch, with this atmosphere and level of service, and I’ll eat at your restaurant every week, too.” How do you say “feng shui” in Italian?
Bagels and other beauties…
Bagels of the Year – Life’s a Bagel. Don’t even think of arguing with me (or Kathy Kelly, above) about this.
Breakfast of the Year – “The Irish” at 7th and Carson (sorry, no tasty snap)
Wino of the Year – Bank Atcharawan at The Patio Wine Garden. Better wine bars (Garagiste, Ada’s, French Cellar by Partage) have now become part of our culinary landscape, but this Bank takes the bubbly with his terrific Thai menu and prices that can’t be beat.
Washed Up, Recycled, Past-His-Prime, Against All Odds Lazarus Award – Todd English. I’d like to meet the business brain who said to himself: “Self, you know what Las Vegas really needs? MORE Todd English!” That said, we are rooting hard for his downtown boutique hotel/restaurant to be a YUGE success. To be perfectly candid, we’d be cheering for him if he served nothing but a rehash of the 1990s food that made him famous…which he will.
Restaurant I Won’t Touch With a Ten-Foot Pole…or a three-foot Czechoslovakian – JING. The year I start paying attention to restaurants crawling with MILFS and middle-managers on the make is the year you can hook my big toe to a shotgun and make me eat the ammunition.
Ya gotta love….
Hot Dog of the Year – nothing beats the Danish dogs at Saga Pastry + Sandwich.
Chinese Banquet of the Year – Rainbow Kitchen. The most elemental and sophisticated Cantonese food in being cooked these days in the mini-Chinatown that’s sprung up on South Rainbow Blvd. The above was a special banquet, but the daily dim sum and fresh catch offerings are unbeatable.
Greek of the Year – Saavas Georgiadis
Sticking the Landing Award– Steve Young, who jumped from Edge Steakhouse to top toque at Al Solito Posto.
And now for some negativity….
I’m Mad as Hell and Not Going to Take It Anymore Award – All MGM properties (Bellagio, MGM, etc.).
Between the parking fees, resort fees, closed restaurants, limited hours, $25 valet charges, corporate bullshit heaped upon more corporate bullshit, etc….we have a hard time getting excited about pulling into any MGM hotel. There’s a reason we mostly hang out at Wynn, Venetian/Palazzo and Resorts World these days, and the reason is the Wall Street ruination of our hotel/casino industry…which explains…
Restaurant(s) I Wish I had Visited More Often…or Even Once – Joel Robuchon, Michael Mina, L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, Bardot Brasserie, Carbone, Yui Edomae Sushi, Raku.
To be fair (to myself), the year started under the shroud of limited seating and slogged through months of abbreviated hours from which it still hasn’t rebounded. Monday-Thursday were always my prime eating out/putting in the legwork days, and Covid restrictions pretty much chopped that time in half. (Friday is for three-hour lunches, Saturday is amateur hour, and Sunday is for resting the liver.) Despite Vegas’s somewhat “return to normalcy”, it is still harder to find a good Strip restaurant open on Monday-Tuesday than a T-bone at Tacotarian (sigh).
Yawn of the Year – Casa Playa
Hotel No One Ever Talks About Anymore Award – Mandalay Bay. Remember when it had the beautiful Shanghai Lilly? Hubert Keller’s equally gorgeous Fleur de Lys? Burger Bar? The awesome Aureole? TWO Rick Moonen restaurants? Most are gone, some are hanging on, but food-wise, this place is a sad shell of its former self.
Opening Most Ignored By Everyone But “Influencers” Who Still Think It’s A Big Deal To Be Invited (“Hosted”) To A Second-Rate Hotel Being Revamped For the Fourth Time So They Can Sell Their Souls For a Free Crab Cake – Virgin Hotel
Worst Reboot of a Second-Rate Retread – Virgin Hotel. Nothing says, “We’re out of ideas,” like sticking a Todd English joint in your joint.
Dumbest Restaurant Names – Superfrico, Night + Market, Boom Bang
Most Funnest Opening – Resorts World
Shameless Plug No. 1:
Funnest Lunch (other than my usual Cipriani Friday-fest) – Giving a speech to the Las Vegas Rotary Club about Vegas’s food/restaurant history over the past 30 years (see above).
Miscellaneous Meals of Mixed Emotions…
Greatest Asian Least Likely to Succeed – Night + Market. Part of me wants to applaud the Virgin Hotel for this move, as it was the best Thai food we had this year. But I’ve looked around this sad place and think the Raiders have a better chance of winning the Super Bowl than a cutting-edge Southeast Asian restaurant (specializing in “orange” and “natural” wines) has of wooing a bargain-hunting clientele who wouldn’t know an orange wine from Tang.
Ole Sole Mio Unsung Italians Award – Aromi, Matteo’s, Brera. Other ristorante get more pub, but this trio can go pappardelle to pappardelle with any of them.
Jury Is Still Out Award – Le Cirque. Like many, we were totally jazzed about its re-opening…until we learned it was now a $388/pp all-tasting menu format ($288 for the “plant-based” option). Whether they pull it off will say a lot about the future of upscale dining on the Strip, but our first impression is they are turning this Maccioni masterpiece into another Michael’s, i.e., a comp room strictly for rubes and high-rollers. We shall see, but in the meantime, Sirio is rolling over in his grave.
Need a drink?
Bartender of the Year – Justine at Yu-Or-Mi Sushi Bar (above). With or without her mask on, she wowed us with her impromptu cocktail creations.
Make It Stop – Tasting menus, wagyu, octopus, scallops, foam, craft beers, local distilleries, branzino, salmon, “plant-based,” hot chicken, Italian restaurants, kale, weird-ass grains, smoke, “cannabis-infused,” caviar on everything, female chef empowerment, white people making sushi, “woke” restaurant writers, ridiculously long podcasts, in-feasibly large cuts of meat, crudo, chefs with mission statements, knowing way too much (or even anything) about a chef’s sexual identity, gooey food videos, influencers, thinly-disguised promotional events pretending to be about “charity.”
In the best of taste…
Steak of the Year – Nothing got our heart beating faster than this hunk o’ hunk o’ aged, charbroiled steer muscle from Manny’s Steakhouse’s private herd in Minneapolis. No bull.
That Place Is So Crowded No One Goes There Anymore Award – Esther’s Kitchen
Noodlelicious Award – Big Dan Shanxi Taste
Humpty Dumpling/Dat Sum Dim Sum Award – these dumplings never get a bad wrap, don’t gyoza too far, bao to no ones, and have a wonton disregard for the competition:
Korean Beef of the Year – Park BBQ, Los Angeles (above)
Cholesterolfest of the Year – Totoraku, Los Angeles
Sushi of the Year – Sushi Hiroyoshi (above)
Desserts of the Year – Sweets Raku (pictured); SW Steakhouse (not pictured because our lousy, poorly-lighted pics didn’t do them justice).
Tacos, tacos y mas tacos…and more!
Tacos of the Year, Las Vegas Division: Braeswood Tex-Mex BBQ, Birria El Compa La Cruda, Sin Fronteras Tacos
Tacos of the Year, California Division:
Sonoratown (above, feeding our friend GT off the hood of an SUV)
Best Reason For Going To Henderson: Rebellion Pizza (above)
Best Neighborhood to Eat In – Chinatown
Worst Neighborhood(s) to Eat In – North Las Vegas, where gringos fear to tread. Runner-up: Southern Highlands – filled with folks with more money than taste. At least NLV has an excuse: its residents aren’t 1/100th as wealthy as the corporate bigwigs counting their bitcoins on the SH golf course.
Best Addition to the Vegas Food Scene – Featherblade English Craft Butchery. Need proof? Here ya go:
And this little piggy….
Low and Slow Award(s):
I love smoked meat like Oscar Goodman loves a martini. This year we traveled back East three times to sample pork shoulder (aka Boston butt) and whole hog in the Carolinas and Georgia, the way it was meant to be. Once pigs cross the Rockies, something seems to happen to them: they all end up tasting like a cross-over country song – the bland leading the bland into Taylor Swift land. Getting that ethereally sweet, moist, tender, finely-grained, fluffy, slightly smokey delicacy on a bun is an art, and like sushi, the gradations are subtle but important. And, as with the best raw fish, once you’ve tasted the real thing, ham-handed attempts hold no currency for aficionados. Many thanks to Brandon and Mary Coleman Smith for giving us the Carolina ‘cue tour of a lifetime.
Speaking of pork…
Pork Chop of the Year – the above piece of pulchritudinous porcine perfection at Osteria Fiorella
Dive Bar of the Year – Chez Jay, Santa Monica, CA
Muffin/Scone/Cookie Award – Whatever this chewy blueberry-infused beauty is at PublicUs (above), we couldn’t get enough them.
Food Vlogger of the Year – So-Chan-san, whose So-Channel on YouTube and Instagram covers our Asian food scene in more depth than I ever thought possible. Looking for insights on the inscrutable? He’s your man. Is it all in Japanese? You bet your sweet yen it is! But it comes with subtitles, of course. That’s why it’s so interesting! If you don’t get hungry after watching one of his videos, you need to check your pulse.
Fabulous Faces of 2021:
Spaniard of the Year – Rafael Salines-Catala (above), whose Jamon Jamon is a hidden gem so good it reminds us why god gave us taste buds.
Celebrity Chef of the Year (coincidentally, also a Spaniard) – Jose Andres, because he still shows up and talks to everyone like an old friend when he does.
Hit the Ground Running Award – Nicole Brisson. Opening one Brezza or Bar Zazu at Resorts World would be extraordinary. Two is practically unthinkable. Along with Caviar Bar, Wally’s, and Carversteak, her two new venues have given this hotel a murderer’s row lineup not seen since the Cosmo came online over a decade ago.
The best, Jerry, the BEST!
Best New Restaurants of 2021 –
Al Solito Posto
The Legends Oyster Bar & Grill
States visited – 8 -Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, New Mexico, Minnesota, California
Foreign countries visited -0- for the first time in 10 years. ;-(
Restaurants visited – 380
Cheapest sit-down meal (not including fast food burgers and tacos eaten off the hood of a car) – Waffle House (somewhere in Georgia), where twenty bucks smothered and covered us in southern-fried goodness.
Most expensive meal – n/naka, Los Angeles, where we dropped a cool $1,100 for two on a Japanese kaiseki dinner.
Meal of the Year – Spoon & Stable, Minneapolis. Sorry Las Vegas, despite all the self-aggrandizing, mutual back-slapping going on around here, none of you put out a product as jaw-dropping as Gavin Kaysen in the great white north. Even his simple squash soup (above) gave us a woody. Note to chefs: When’s the last time you took the time to put out a superior soup? Kaysen is a chef’s chef who is in his restaurant every night, content to live where he works, and leave the empire-building to glory-seekers. His was also the best wine list I saw this year — hefty (but not too), eclectic, fascinating, and fairly-priced. Our dinner there reminded me of one we had in Toronto a few years back at a tiny, unassuming place called Edulis. The food was simple and stunning, riven with technique and flavors that penetrated your rib cage. And it was casual and a la carte, and half the price of the equally spectacular (if much more formal) Providence. Not fer nuthin’, but all of my exceptional meals in 2021 took place out of town. Las Vegas still has a lot of growing up to do.
And finally, let’s get to the really important stuff…..
Shameless Plug #2:
Podcast (shameless plug) of the Year – What’s Right Sam with Sam & Ash – Perhaps I’m slightly biased, but this is the only podcast in Vegas that actually gives you good info on where to eat (every Friday when a certain aging boomer grabs the microphone).
Eat at the restaurants featured above and you will eat very well, indeed. So tune in every Friday, and have a happy holiday from all of us in the #BeingJohnCurtas orbit!