Major Awards – 2021

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“It’s a major award!”

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:

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Pizza of the YearRebellion Pizza’s New York slice (above). Like a taste of lower Manhattan in goddamn Henderson. Go figure.

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Get ya Coney Island (pizza?) right here!

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 HouseMain Street Provisions

Restaurant I’m Glad Is NOT Closer to My House Burgundy French Bakery & Cafe. Otherwise, I’d be here every day.

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Did somebody say BURGERS?

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Main Street’s chopped champ
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Smashed succulence from Nevada Brew Works

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.

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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.

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Requiem for a seafood dream….

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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.

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Ocean trout with ponzu at Garlic Yuzu

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.

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L.A. excellence….

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Divine dining in LA
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Michael Cirmarusti blew Babs and me away

Fancy-Dancy Dinner of the YearProvidence, Los Angeles. With Barbara “Call Me Babs” Fairchild. ;-)

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May I introduce you to The Proper Lunch Bunch…?

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I’m in the back, drunk again
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My usual at Cipriani
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Lunch(es) of the YearCiprianigrazie 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?

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Bagels and other beauties…

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Bagels of the YearLife’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)

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Take Note: Dylan knows you can Bank on these wines

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.

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WTF?

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.

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Ya gotta love….

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Hot diggity Danish

Hot Dog of the Year – nothing beats the Danish dogs at Saga Pastry + Sandwich.

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Chinese Banquet of the YearRainbow 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.

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Even uber-food blogger So-Chan-san agrees on this Greek

Greek of the YearSaavas Georgiadis

Sticking the Landing Award Steve Young, who jumped from Edge Steakhouse to top toque at Al Solito Posto.

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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

Yawning GIFs | Tenor

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

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Delicious doings at Resorts World

Most Funnest Opening – Resorts World

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Shameless Plug No. 1:

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Who was that tan man?

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).

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Miscellaneous Meals of Mixed Emotions…

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Compelling Thai in a curious casino corner

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.

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Risotto Milanese with marrow at Aromi

Ole Sole Mio Unsung Italians AwardAromi, Matteo’s, Brera. Other ristorante get more pub, but this trio can go pappardelle to pappardelle with any of them.

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The Crown Jewel Box of Vegas restaurants

Jury Is Still Out AwardLe 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.

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Need a drink?

https://twitter.com/i/status/1440862108619460614

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.

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Make It Stop Power Rangers GIF - Make It Stop Stop Power Rangers - Discover  & Share GIFs
I’m begging you

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.”

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In the best of taste…

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Nobody beat this meat in ’21

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

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Crystal pork-spinach dumplings at Rainbow Kitchen

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:

Xiao Long Dumpling

ShangHai Taste

China Poblano

Rainbow KItchen

China Mama

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We were Korean tears of joy over this beef

Korean Beef of the YearPark BBQ, Los Angeles (above)

Cholesterolfest of the Year – Totoraku, Los Angeles

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Sushi of the YearSushi Hiroyoshi (above)

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Desserts of the YearSweets Raku (pictured); SW Steakhouse (not pictured because our lousy, poorly-lighted pics didn’t do them justice).

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Tacos, tacos y mas tacos…and more!

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Carnitas tacos at Sin Fronteras

Tacos of the Year, Las Vegas Division: Braeswood Tex-Mex BBQ, Birria El Compa La Cruda, Sin Fronteras Tacos

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Ditroit chicken tacos
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Taco crawl, LA-style. Eating street tacos the LA way

Tacos of the Year, California Division:

Carnitas El Momo

Ditroit Taqueria

Mariscos Jaliscos

Sonoratown (above, feeding our friend GT off the hood of an SUV)

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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.

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Best Addition to the Vegas Food Scene Featherblade English Craft Butchery. Need proof? Here ya go:

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Finally, a veally veally good butcher in my ‘hood

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And this little piggy….

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We went whole hog in 2021

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.

Skylight Inn BBQ

Smiley’s Lexington BBQ

Soulbelly BBQ

Speaking of pork…

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Pork Chop of the Year – the above piece of pulchritudinous porcine perfection at Osteria Fiorella

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Dive Bar of the Year Chez Jay, Santa Monica, CA

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We didn’t know what to call them, but boy did we eat a bunch of these this year…

Muffin/Scone/Cookie Award – Whatever this chewy blueberry-infused beauty is at PublicUs (above), we couldn’t get enough them.

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So-Chan-san’s English is far better than my Japanese

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.

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Fabulous Faces of 2021:

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Spaniard of the YearRafael Salines-Catala (above), whose Jamon Jamon is a hidden gem so good it reminds us why god gave us taste buds.

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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.

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One busy gal in 2021

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.

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The best, Jerry, the BEST!

Best New Restaurants of 2021 –

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Brezza

Caviar Bar

Wally’s Las Vegas

Jamon Jamon

Le Cafe Du Val

Aromi

Milano

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Mapo dofu at Chinglish

Chinglish Cantonese Wine Bar

Soulbelly BBQ

Ada’s

Al Solito Posto

The Legends Oyster Bar & Grill

Rainbow Kitchen

Win Kee HK BBQ & Noodle

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Legendary jambalaya

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 mealn/naka, Los Angeles, where we dropped a cool $1,100 for two on a Japanese kaiseki dinner.

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New York’s loss was Minnesota’s gain

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.

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And finally, let’s get to the really important stuff…..

Shameless Plug #2:

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After 27 years of writing about food, I’m officially something

Podcast (shameless plug) of the YearWhat’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).

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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!

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What’s New In Vegas – Part Deux

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You can’t talk about Las Vegas without mentioning Circa. A modern behemoth on the western end of Fremont Street, it is the first major hotel/casino to open downtown in forty years.

It sits at the far western terminus of Fremont, catty-corner to the Plaza Hotel, and across the street from the Golden Gate — Las Vegas’s oldest hotel. To say it brings a breath of fresh air to the run-down environs of downtown is like saying a Rolls Royce adds a touch of class to a drag race.

The resort has gone all-in on sports betting and pool-lounging, with Olympic-sized video screens indoors and out. The effect in the sports book is one of immersion: bringing the hi-def athletes so close to the viewer they appear larger than life.

The Legacy Club and rooftop pool have quickly become attractions in their own right, and on the second floor you’ll find two very different restaurants, side-by-side, which are two of the best of their kind anywhere in town. In the basement is the show pony — a new high-steaks entry in our beef emporium wars.

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Barry’s Downtown Prime

Could a new gilded age be upon us? One look at Barry’s and you’d think so. All brass, glass and sass, the decor echoes the 70s (a fern bar without ferns springs to mind) with its gleaming surfaces inset with oversized booths. It is a huge (300+ seats), underground space, but the muted lighting (and the way they’ve chopped it up), creates a certain clubby intimacy. What it has also created in a few short months is buzz — the sort of vibe that spreads like jello shots through a day club.

What Barry’s has in spades is the sort of steakhouse-as-nightclub atmosphere first perfected at N9NE in the Palms, and then carried forth by the STK Steakhouse chain (a meat market as concerned with beefcake and babes as it is with its beef).

Now, it’s a well-known fact that celebrities, short skirts and superior sustenance go together about as well as chocolate chips and shrimp. An inviolable alimentary axiom posits that the quality of the cuisine always is inversely proportional to the number of hot chicks at the bar. NO ONE DENIES THIS!

(Parenthetical digression: last month I went on a barbecue tour of Eastern North Caroline (the spiritual home of whole hog ‘cue), and there wasn’t a babe within 30 miles of the smokehouse. FACT. You won’t find any cleavage or clippy-cloppy stilettos at a New England lobster shack, either.)

The point is: the food at Barry’s is beside the point. It’s really just a placeholder for having a good time. Chef Barry Dakake made a name for himself (and perfected this template) at N9NE at the Palms. Now he’s gone underground to take his steak fame to another level.

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Dakake knows how to make a steakhouse good but not too good. This is not to damn him with faint praise but to admire his tightrope walking/business acumen. Barry’s doesn’t want fussy gastronomes sniffing around; it wants big wallets and big egos prowling for hot trim. Eventually, it will turn into a Lavo, Tao (or the aforementioned STK), and it’s only a matter of time before it is crawling with hockey and football players. Until then, it is a worthy addition to the Vegas steak roster.

The aforementioned bar has plenty of top-shelf booze and expensive cocktails to whet your whistle. Pound down a couple for a cool forty bucks, and then check out the wine list.

To be fair, it was conceived in a pandemic and executed in a panic so you can forgive its lack of imagination. Prices are high (but not pre-Covid Strip high); interesting bottles are few and far between. To give you an idea: a $24 of Nozzole Chianti Classico will set you back $70. Nothing is under fifty bucks and good bottles for under a hundy are harder to find than a collared shirt in the casino. Settle for an Oregon Pinot Noir or some weak-ass Merlot, or bring your own if you don’t mind a fifty buck corkage.

With those preliminaries out of the way, it’ll be time to tuck into the menu. Prepare yourself for the shockingly bad (gummy-flabby lobster potstickers), the bizarrely bad (a “real” garbage salad, appropriately named), and the could-be better (a bland steak tartare)…as well as the usual steak suspects.

Venture too far from the herd and a mixed bag awaits. A braised short rib in an eye-opening harissa-mint sauce wins “best in class” no matter whose you compare it to. But then there’s a Mary’s Farm organic chicken both voluminous and sloppy. (Adorned with a prosciutto “crisp” of no consequence other than to impress the rubes.)

The $76 Dover sole is good….but not $76 good, and I can’t recommend the salmon. Not because I didn’t like it, but because ordering salmon in a steakhouse is like going to a bordello for a back rub. AMIRITE?

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Dakake doesn’t know how to make a bad steak, so you’re on solid turf if you decide to skip the surf. Everything is flawlessly charred, slightly smokey and seasoned so well that saucing them becomes an afterthought. All meat comes at a price and with a pedigree, but even the 8 oz., $56 filet (above) is a succulent slice of superior steer. I can’t remember the last time I praised a filet.

As good as the steaks are, it is a pasta dish which is destined to be a showstopper: the lobster mac ‘n cheese. Brimming with enough richness to induce an infarction, it has “signature side” written all over it:

Image(Lobster ‘n mac me, please)

For dessert you will get the baked Alaska, not because you love baked Alaska but because you’ll see it being flamed table-side all around you. I’ve never understood the appeal of too-hard, mediocre ice cream inside a charred meringue crust, but I’ve ordered it here, twice. This is because I’m a fool for fire, and an idiot for anything singed tableside.

If you don’t identify as a self-loathing pyromaniac, the carrot cake and campfire s’mores are worthy alternatives.

A meal for two here, exclusive of booze, gets to two hundred dollars faster than you can say “medium-rare.” One of our three meals was comped; one of them happened anonymously. The service was excellent each time.

BARRY’S DOWNTOWN PRIME

Circa Hotel and Casino

8 Fremont Street

Las Vegas, NV 89101

702.726.5504

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Saginaw’s

I hesitate to name Saginaw’s “The Best Deli in Town” because every time I bestow such benefaction, the recipient of my beneficence is out of business within a year. (Same thing happens with barbecue.)

But it is, and the proof is in the latkes. “Most of them in other restaurants look like a hockey puck,” Paul Saginaw (above) will tell you. “Ours take longer, and they have a good amount of schmaltz in them.”

That’s really all you need to know about this place. It’s full of schmaltz — Jewish olive oil — the kind of bred-to-the-bone Jewishness which is proud of its culinary heritage, not running away from it.

“When we first opened,” he continues, “our corned beef outsold turkey by this much (placing his right hand high above his left). Now, they’re about equal.”

“Nobody eats lox (cured salmon) anymore, even though it is cheaper,” Saginaw says. He then admits other smoked fishes, despite their keto-approved healthiness, are considered the domain of 80 year old Bubbees. These admissions come after I question whether the classic Jewish delicatessen is now about as fashionable as Henny Youngman.

He admits that it has. Pickled herring, smoked whitefish, lox used to fly out the door. No longer, he says wistfully. Lox now takes a back seat to cold-smoked Nova, if you can sell it at all.

This may not bode well for the future of delicatessens, but as a dedicated faynshmeker, I would urge you to take one bite of this beauty before writing them off entirely:

Image(Whatever you do, don’t Passover this Nova!)

At the drop of his fedora, Saginaw will wax poetic about rendering chicken fat and skins down, filter it into schmaltz, then frying the gribenes (cracklings) before whipping them into the chopped liver and sauteed onions. The result, when done right, like it is here, is otherworldly:

Image(Not just any chopped liver)

You’ll have to travel to New York, or Ann Arbor, or Los Angeles to find any as good.

He admits no self-respecting Millennial would be caught dead professing admiration for chopped liver…even if they swoon over some fancy-schmancy paté. Such are the tides Saginaw’s is swimming against.

And then there is the corned beef — the holy grail of edible Judaism.

Brined in Michigan to Saginaw’s specs, flown to Vegas and finished on-site, it is so good it could turn a Hindu into a Hebrew:

Image(Beef – properly curated and corned)

As I’ve said on social media, don’t even talk to me about the best corned beef in town until you’ve had this bad boy.

Bread crust with real crackle, soft-yet-dense chewy rye enveloping lean, salty/spicy meat, it is a sandwich that puts its competition to shame. “Even the New York delis use cheaper bread and pre-slice it these days,” he rues. “Ours takes more time but we think you can taste the difference.”

Saginaw’s house-made, slightly-spicy Russian dressing has twelve ingredients in it and is worth a trip all by itself. So are the house-fried potato chips. They get their breads from Bon Breads locally, and he’s looking for a local bagel bakery which meets his standards. (Right now they’re coming par-baked from New York).

The desserts are from the nonpareil Zingerman’s Bakehouse. They also do real half-sour (“new”) pickles here along with fully sour (“old”) ones; the cream cheese is “the cream of the cream cheese crop” (according to Cooks Illustrated), and even the kneidlach (matzoh ball) soup is a deeper, denser, more intense broth than the shiksa stuff you’re used to.

Spend five minutes with Paul Saginaw and you’ll find his enthusiasm for good deli is infectious. He’s in the restaurant every day, and is a non-stop fount of opinions you can learn from. (Get him talking about bread and fatty brisket and he’ll make a convert of you forever.)

This deli is his labor of love and it tastes like it. Don’t even think about telling me your deli is better until you’ve tried it.

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Sandwiches are in the $15-$22 range but easily feed two. A meal for two with plenty of leftovers should be about $50, including tip. I had five meals here before I met and interviewed Mr. Saginaw. Service was always friendly and helpful and lickity-split.

SAGINAW’S

Circa Hotel and Casino

8 Fremont Street

Las Vegas, NV 89101

702.726.5506

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8East

Sitting within a stone’s throw of Saginaw’s, on the same side of the second floor, is a stark contrast to a traditional deli and big hitter beef emporium. 8East checks the boxes for those wanting something Asian, unique, modern, and flexible. It is not a noodle bar, per se, nor is it all about bao, or dedicated to dumplings. What you’ll find is a mix and match menu of Asian nibbles from across the Pacific, given a personal spin by chef/owner Dan Coughlin.

Coughlin is something of an Asian-American phenomenon. His family has run traditional Thai restaurants for years, and he struck out on his own a decade ago with the fabulously successful Le Thai on East Fremont. Given a bigger space to work with (above), he’s let his imagination run wild (but not too wild) with the various techniques  of the Far East.

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The cuisine itself is hard to pigeonhole, but that’s part of the fun. Coughlin may be playing with flavors from all over the Pacific, but he has enough restraint to keep things in focus.

You can toggle between the traditional (a steamed egg custard with soy and sesame), to the trendy (pork belly bao) and never find a flaw. His Dan Dan and Sizzling Noodles would be right at home on Spring Mountain Road, while seared circles of carpaccio, adorned with baby tatsoi greens and dressed with citrus wasabi creme, are straight from the Nobu playbook.

Coughlin is unabashed in wanting to use the entire Asian flavor palette, as when he drops traditional Chinese sauteéd green beans with ground pork, right next to bites of Hawaiian musubi, and a Tokyo crepe rolled, sushi roll-style, around sauteéd mushrooms and fried tofu.

Image(My little dumplings)

He doesn’t make a big deal about his vegetarian offerings, but he should. Dishes like the simple, stir-fried bok choy in oyster sauce, the fried tofu, and the mélange of mushrooms in butter are some of the tastiest plant-based recipes you’ll find, in Asia or anywhere.

Page two of the menu finds a plethora of impressive proteins  — from definitive salt & Szechuan pepper wings to cumin lamb lollipops to crispy pork belly — square chunks of sticky sweet pork that could be sold as meat candy if someone wanted to make a killing. The only entree over twenty bucks is the Five Spice New York Strip ($25), with echos of Chinese spices playing off good beef and a tangy “butterfall” sauce.

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About the only thing we can’t wholeheartedly endorse is the “$MKT-priced Lobster Fried Rice” (above). It’s plenty good, but (as we like to say), it ain’t $55 good. Stick with the Brisket Fried Rice ($16), or one of the noodle dishes if starch is what you seek.

Sharing is the mantra here, and experimenting with Asia, the theme. Coughlin’s menu has something for everyone and packs quite a punch for such a small operation (at such a small price point). The only thing it needs now is customers.

Nothing on the menu (except that steak) is over $16. Two people can eat like kings for $50, and four will be stuffed for a Benjamin, exclusive of booze. We haven’t tried any cocktails, but they’re quite proud of them. The wine list is barely adequate to the task; the sake selection a little better.

8EAST

Circa Hotel and Casino

8 Fremont Street

Las Vegas, NV 89101

702.726.5508

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To summarize: Barry’s is a worthy addition to Vegas’s high-end sweepsteaks; Saginaw’s is best in show by a Moses mile; and 8East is a breath of fresh Asian-fusion air in a part of town that needs one.

Derek Stevens’ team should be applauded for shaking up a hotel’s culinary offerings with something other than the usual steak, Italian, coffee shop suspects. There’s also a burger restaurant (Victory Burger, below) which is fine, if not life-changing, and a coffee bar (Jack Pots) with some tasty brews and tastier breakfast cakes straight from Zingerman’s.

Bottom line: You don’t need to leave the premises to eat very well, and it’s been a long long time since anyone said that about a hotel on Fremont Street.

Image(Victory Burger!)

 

 

 

What’s New In Vegas

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What’s new on our restaurant scene?

Quite a lot, actually.

No other city in America can say the same, but Las Vegas, my dear foodie friends, is no ordinary city. We are the quintessential tourist town, with huge rumbling, cacophonous casino/hotels bestriding Nevada’s economy like so many Brobdingnagian towers — casting long shadows, quaking the earth, dominating the landscape.

Until now.

Now, like every other city in America our economic engine is moribund, comatose, on life support. Visitation numbers fell off a cliff in 2020, down to 19 million souls from a 2019 high of 42.5. And those coming are not the free-wheeling, high-spending conventioneers, whooping it up on someone else’s dime. No, these are the bargain hunters, the coupon-clippers, the escapees from California looking for something fun to do on the cheap. During the week, casinos are deader than Moe Dalitz. Even on weekends, the big hotels can feel like ghost towns. Shows are closed, shops are empty, and eatery options have been eviscerated.

Sounds depressing, doesn’t it? Well, it is and it isn’t. Because it is there (on the Strip)but isn’t here — in the actual town where 2.3 million Las Vegans live.

It seems the Strip’s loss has been the neighborhoods’ gain. New restaurants on Las Vegas Boulevard South might be harder to find than toilet paper in a pandemic, but the local scene is flat-out jumping. Downtown is leading the way, with a spanking new hotel (Circa), which opened late last year — the first new one on Fremont Street since 1980. It boasts five excellent restaurants, and seems to be busier every weekend. (We’ll deeply dive into its dining scene next week.)

A mile to the south, in the Arts District on Main Street, new joints are popping up like porcinis after a downpour. Can any other town in America say this?

Pretty doubtful. New York and California — the epicenters of American food/restaurant culture — are doing their best to crush the life out of the restaurant industry. Thankfully, little old Las Vegas has kept the foodie flame burning. albeit at bare BTU levels. But at least we’re open, and feeding people, and human beings are socializing and breaking bread together like humans were meant to.

While it might take those giant hotels another year to start humming again, locally, Las Vegas appears to be entering a new age of local dining — a resurgence led by a neighborhood that didn’t even exist four years ago, but now is one everyone is talking about.

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YU-OR-MI SUSHI BAR

The Arts District in downtown Las Vegas is fast becoming one of the coolest neighborhoods in America. While it still has a ways to go residential-ly, food-wise the options are expanding geometrically. A micro-climate of good eats has sprung to life on South Main Street, boasting a dozen bars, four brewpubs, and three new restaurants within a stone’s throw of each other. All are much much better than they have any right to be.

Image(The usual suspects)

Yu-Or-Mi (the name comes from a Jackie Chan movie) exists across the street from Esther’s Kitchen, a half-block from the Garagiste Wine Bar, and in a world of its own when it comes to Japanese-fusion food.

All the usual sushi suspects are here, but it’s in the small plates and rolls where the kitchen puts out an array of twenty appetizers that show a hand both refined and restrained.

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Everyone does crispy Brussels sprouts these days, but the sweet-sour kurozu reduction on these keeps you reflexively reaching for another bite. Other standards like yakiniku (“grilled”) beef gyoza, rock shrimp tempura, tuna takaki, and chicken karaage rise above the cliches to remind you why they became famous in the first place.

The Yu So Shellfish roll (above) bundles lobster tempura with lobster salad in bite-sized packages of tofu skin which announce a textural, salty-sweet-seafood contrasts with every bite. The purist in me is horrified, but I can live with cutesy names like “Oh Snap” when the Japanese red snapper is this fresh, and the ginger-chili ponzu is this bracing:

Image(Two snaps up!)

Even non-ramen fans will have to admire the broth here — as rich as any you’ll find on Spring Mountain Road — and the yakisoba noodles and garlic fried rice are full of both subtlety and amplitude, no mean feat that.

All of these are conceived and executed by Chef Virakone Vongphachanh (he goes by “V” out of sympathy), a Laotian by birth and an inspired Japanese chef by temperament.

The sake list is not one you can get lost in, but the small selection is well-chosen and well-priced, and, for our yen, the only thing to drink with this food.

What YOM is doing is straddling a line between high-toned raw fish and crowd-pleasing concoctions — compelling creations that do its Nobu ancestry proud. Shopping mall sushi this is not. But the prices are fair and the setting is cozy and the downtown crowd has taken to it like barnacles to a boat.

Yu-Or-Mi Sushi Bar

100 E. California Ave.

Las Vegas, NV 89104

702.473.7200

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GOOD PIE

Like its neighbor Main Street Provisions (above), Good Pie opened late last year when starting a restaurant was dicier than drawing to an inside straight. It survived serving pizzas to-go and by-the-slice, and with a recent opening of both inside and outdoor tables, chef/owner Vincent Rotolo is poised to re-set Las Vegas’s pizza paradigm.

Rotolo is a classicist in the vein of every family-run Italian joint up and down the East Coast pizza belt. The dark bar, white tile and comfy booths (along with the “Grandma Wall” of family pictures), puts you in mind of the type of place where you’ll hear, “Ma, who gets the scungilli?” or Faackin’ Yankees did it to us again” over the thrum of dough being slung.

Image(To parm or not to parm? That is the question.)

And what dough it is. Quality flour, long-fermented, in a variety of styles, one bite tells you you’re in the midst of a higher-level of deck oven craftsmanship. The doughier, rectangular (Sicilian, Detroit) crusts have the complexity of great bread, while the thinner Brooklyn, and “Grandma” styles, display the crackle and char of their big-city forebears.

Ingredients matter is the mantra here, and from those crusts to the olive oil to the house-made tomato sauce to the ricotta and toppings, everything hits home. To my mind, there are almost too many choices, and the dizzying menu array can sometimes make ordering feel like a jigsaw puzzle. But amazingly, the pieces always fit no matter how you arrange them.

Beginners should tuck into a simple “Grandma” square, or Brooklyn round to acquaint themselves with the Good Pie oeuvre, while fressers should throw caution to the wind with a spongy Sicilian the size of a small desk, a Detroit-caramelized cheese crust carb-fest, or a “Quality Meat” 3-protein lollapalooza.  They offer something called “Mike’s Hot Honey” here to dribble on your pies, and, also amazingly, this little sweet-hot condiment adds quite the pleasant kick to counter the queso overload.

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Those not in a pizza mood will be happy with Italian-American standards like chicken parm, “Sunday lasagna,” garlic knots, superb fried ravioli (above), great meatballs, and a decent Caesar salad.

Prices start in the high teens to $34 for the Grandma Supreme, but the round pies come in small and large, and the big boys will satisfy 6 hungry adults. I’m no fan of gluten-free pizza, but if you insist on eating yours on top of cardboard, Rotolo’s are probably the best in town.

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Can a new school/old school pizzeria, which looks like it belongs on Wooster Street in New Haven, and acts like a modern restaurant (complete with upscale cocktail bar), come out of this pandemic smelling like a tomato rose? The crowds seem to be saying that it can. Pent-up demand for great pizza is real, people. Long may Good Pie’s red sauce flag fly!

Good Pie

1212 S. Main Street

Las Vegas, NV 89104

702.844.2700

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MAIN STREET PROVISIONS

You can throw a stone and hit all three restaurants mentioned here. All were on the drawing board, and scheduled to open downtown in mid-2020. Covid put an expensive dent in everyone’s plans, and none more so than Main Street Provisions. Owner Kim Owens and Executive Chef Justin Kingsley Hall spent the entire year cooling their heels until finally, in early December, the doors swung open to….25% maximum capacity.

Putting the best face forward she could, Owens has said that the restrictions allowed her to dispense with the usual friends and family shakedown cruise, and let her staff get used to customers without dealing with overload at either the front or back of the house. Now that things are starting to relax, they’re going to have to get used to being in the weeds.

Hall’s menu can best be described as smokey and southern — as in Utah and the Deep South. To those descriptions add the word gutsy: frou frou bistro food this is not.

Right off the bat the Scotch Egg will catch your eye — a soft boiled and wrapped with smoked Riverence trout crusted with potato chips, sitting in a shallow pool of lemon cream. Nothing says “don’t try this at home” like a smoked trout Scotch egg in verbena cream, and it takes a chef with Hall’s chops to pull it off — cloaking the prosaic egg in a sophisticated wrap which enhances both of them.

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(Don’t try this at home)

Beyond that, you’ll find a unique butcher plate of smoked meats, pates and rillettes made in-house, accompanied by fry bread that is pretty much the last word in Native American carbohydrates:

Image(Fit to be fried)

The same bread sits alongside an herb-flecked hominy hummus studded with preserved lemon, which turns something with usually all the interest of drywall spackle into a compelling starter. I wish I could celebrate the use of barely-seared venison in a tataki of whiskey-shoyu dressing, but the venison doesn’t come through and the whole dish feels like the chef is trying too hard. Likewise, the deep-fried, breaded Sole Kiev (wrapped around herb) butter feels forced and out-of-place on a menu brimming with interesting edibles.

Once you get past those misses the hits abound: rosy red Heritage Ham Steak blanketed with a sour-sweet pepper-tomato sauce, charcoal roasted quail gumbo with smoked andouille sausage stuffing, a serious New York strip dubbed “Utah Woman’s Steak” (after Hall’s wife) that comes with a one-two punch of aggressive, charred scallion chimichurri sauce and a soothing “funeral potato” croquette.

The burger is good, if a bit overloaded (with pickles, smoked cheddar and fried onions), but all sins are forgiven once the poached rabbit sausage with potato dumplings shows up. It is flat-out great, and for our money, should be the restaurant’s signature dish:

Image(This is some bunny I used to know)

Any restaurant bold enough to serve rabbit sausage, quail, hominy, and ham steaks is clearly trying to set a trend, not follow one, and the feeling one gets when sitting down here is of a chef who is cooking the kind of food with which he and his friends like to impress each other — gussied-up for restaurant customers of course, but substantial, rib-sticking stuff done with a chef’s flair and an eye for detail. It may not be the lightest meal you’ll have in Las Vegas, but it will be one of the most original, and there is no more interesting cooking going on right now than down on Main Street.

Whenever something threatens to feel a tad overwrought (the fish, that venison), Hall pulls you back to the simple reality of exquisite ingredients being allowed to shine, as with his harissa carrots (roasted, of course), oat milk grits, cattlemen’s bbq pea beans, and Louisiana popcorn rice (served plain or with schmaltz). These side dishes are frame-worthy on the menu (and would make a great meal all their own). The one salad we tried — For Ernie’s Birds — was a tantalizing tumble of local greens and seeds, dressed just-right in an herbaceous chimichurri vinaigrette.

Desserts are few in number but pack a wallop, especially the butter cake: another homage to the caloric glories of the South and southern Utah.

Like its neighbors, MSP has feng shui in spades. It is long and narrow with welcoming bar to one side, and colorful, comfortable seating pointing to an open kitchen in the back. The effect is to pull you in and make you feel like you belong there.

Whether by design or happenstance, all three of these restaurants have an inviting familiarity about them. Each reminds you of small, personal restaurants shoehorned into intimate spaces in large, impersonal cities. Restaurants like these give metropolitan spaces their warmth and livability. They are human scale, not profit-scaled by real estate developers. There are no anchor tenants to block out the sun, nor soul-killing ginormous parking lots to traverse. Cars drive by at civilized speeds, they don’t whiz by in a hurry to get to the secluded glory of living in the isolated splendor of a stucco farm.

Time will eventually credit these pioneers for changing the way Las Vegas looked at restaurants — for tapping into a market hungry for the real thing, not pre-packaged template dreamed up by a corporation in Dallas or Tampa.

The world is coming out of this pandemic, and the pent-up demand for authenticity will be real. It will be for community, and for togetherness and for gathering around food and drink prepared by people who care about these things as much as you do.

Main Street Provisions

1214 S. Main Street

Las Vegas, NV 89104

702.457.0111

This is Part One of a two-part article.