New Restaurants Are Floating Our Boat + One That’s Already Sunk

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Writing strictly about restaurants is no longer an obsession with us. This doesn’t mean we no longer prowl the streets of Las Vegas searching for good eats, but only that we’re not nearly as consumed by it as we once were.

We at #BeingJohnCurtas are now content to occasionally explore what’s new in local eats, but mostly, we retreat to the tried and true these days when it comes to dining out. After 25 years of this gig, we’ll leave the manic examination of our food scene to the erudite influencers and other excitable youngsters.

John Curtas can still get a boner, though, over the crispy authenticity of Ton Ton Katsuya, and his panties get moist over the mole taquitos at La Monjá.

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Ton Ton is terrific — a must for lovers of the panko-crusted, high-heat, deep-fried pork cutlets and seafood that Japanese chefs do better than anyone.

La Monjá (The Nun) is the latest in Dan Krohmer’s quest for Vegas restaurant hegemony. It hit a rough patch right out of the gate after opening in September (both original chefs left/were shown the door), but the simple menu of ceviches, tacos, steak, shrimp, and enhanced Mexican street food tastes like a sure winner….and a welcome change of pace from all of the “elevated American gastropubs” at this end of Fremont Street.

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While in one of his ever-rarer exploratory moods, Mr. Curtas recently ventured to Burnt Offerings. This excursion illustrates why he’d rather leave the intrepid examination of oddball eats to others — Burnt Offerings being by turns compelling and slightly weird.

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The chef/owner — Jennifer Weiss Eckmann — has done a fine job updating a run-down Chinese joint on West Sahara into a presentable restaurant, but her Glatt Kosher menu is too ambitious by half.

Strict adherence to Jewish dietary laws means she also won’t be open on Friday and Saturday nights, and while we loved some things (her sauces and dips are a dream, so is her chicken-matzoh ball soup), we left shaking our heads over others (the barbecue beef needs work, and a lot more time on the smoke).

It is too late in John Curtas’s life for him to argue with people over arcane religious eating rules, so all he can do is wish Eckmann well, and try to get back some weeknight to suss out more Yiddish sustenance.

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Another opening that has him all a-Twitter is Garagiste Wine Bar & Merchant (above) in the Arts District in downtown Las Vegas — the first true wine bar to open in like….forever. Owners Mario Enriquez and Eric Prato are Strip veterans and have sunk their savings (and considerable expertise) into an operation unlike anything  Vegas has ever seen.

This is not some suburban supermarket wine sipping stop (a la Grape Street or Local), this is the real, big city deal — the type of wine bar gaining currency from Los Angeles to New York — featuring a highly curated list of exotic grape juice from some of the most interesting wineries in the world.

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With everything from JL Chave to noteworthy Nebbiolo to natural wines, Garagiste (the name refers to small-batch, exclusive, Right Bank Bordeaux wineries) is banking on a growing Millenial thirst for great grapes to take hold here, and the early returns (and crowds) have been encouraging.

Those looking for Sonoma chardonnays like they discovered during some insipid California foray should stay in Summerlin.

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On the buzzkill front, word came down yesterday that bBd’s in the Palace Station Hotel and Casino will be closing next week. Those who follow us know what huge fans we are of Ralph Perrazzo and his meat machinations. bBd’s had quite simply the best burgers in town.

It also had an incredible beer program featuring obscure artisanal brews from all over the globe. The meat was ground in-house, and the steaks were a steal, equaling anything you can find a mile to the east at a 20% discount.

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So what went wrong? Plenty. Like many a chef before him, Ralph was seduced by clueless hotel F&B honchos. We’re sure they sang him a sweet song about all of the fabulous upgrades and renovations which were going to set a whole new paradigm for the Palace Station — the ultimate low-rent, smelly ashtray, god’s waiting room, grind joint.

Yes, they built a bunch of new rooms, threw in a movie theater, and expanded one side of the depressing casino to accommodate some new food options, but what they didn’t/couldn’t do is change the clientele.  Or the reputation.

Everyone from Lake Mead to Los Angeles knows what the Palace Station is: an old people hotel. Hell, it was our dad’s favorite whenever he came to Vegas….and he loved coming to Vegas.

Anthony John Curtas (1926-2006) loved the Palace Station (formerly the Bingo Palace), because he was in his element. But he is gone now, and even as he as his contemporaries have died off, their favorite hotel is burdened with their legacy of dropping all those coins into all those slots for all those decades. Trying to upgrade the PS is like trying to make horseshoes hip.

The other problem with bBd’s was its size. The bar was the length of a football field and it was too big by at least 100 seats. And the name and the logo also stunk (sorry, Ralph). bBd’s had about as much chance for success as John Curtas in a triathlon.

We ate there about ten times in the year it was open. And we’ll dream about Perrazzo’s steamed cheeseburger until he finds another (smaller, more locals-friendly) place to bring his boffo beef.

We’ll let Ralph P. have the last word here:

The past year John Curtas has snuck into bBd’s multiple times for lunch and dinner, eating his way through our menu spending his own money. In NY, food writers and reviewers for a publication don’t get a comp number or want to be taken care of for some marketing material. Their experience as a regular guest is what is looked upon, a true test to what the place is not by one visit but multiple. Hate him or love him, I completely respect his way of reviewing a place even if we were not in this book of great places in Las Vegas.

Going on 25 years in this business Yelp, FB, etc has put a serious change on how we operate. Restaurant owners and chefs appreciate the food bloggers & legitimate food reviewers more than ever. I look forward to doing more in LV and sharing that with all the people who have been nothing but supportive of my heart & soul that is bBd’s that was started in NY.

We have some big news coming out soon and can’t thank the team at bBd’s enough for pushing. I say it all the time you are only as good as your team and your relationships with the product that comes in the back door. This business is a professional sport that comes with many obstacles and adjustments and you must be Michael Jordan. Thank you Mr. Curtas

Thank YOU, Ralph, we look forward to you floating our boat with whatever you have planned:

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TRÉS CAZUELAS is the Best Restaurant You Haven’t Been To

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At first glance you might think Trés Cazuelas has the worst location in town.

But what seem to be liabilities are actually assets.  Yes, it’s tucked into a corner of a worn out building that houses the Sand Dollar Lounge and not much else. True, it faces an industrial side street only used by commercial trucks and crafty cab drivers. And of course there is zero bustle and no buzz in the neighborhood. Curb appeal is negligible; pedestrian traffic nil.

But look again, pilgrim. The Strip is only a half-mile east; Chinatown’s food mecca beckons a quarter mile west. Large open windows face that street, and behind them something cozy and comforting this way comes. Parking is a breeze (you pull up right to the front door), and as soon as you step inside, smells of moles, chipotles, and achiote waft over you.

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The place is tiny — no more than 40 seats — but the tables are well set and sturdy, the chairs are comfortable, and the vibe is as if you’ve found the coziest cantina on a Guadalajaran side street.

Fresh-made warm chips and three dips (spicy mayo, pickled onions, and habanero chile-mix, above) greet you, and it takes about three seconds to forget all about the industrial park outside.

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Decisions are easier at lunch than dinner. You can opt for burrito stuffed with al pastor pork or eggs or chicken or one of the usual suspects, or (our choice) head straight for the rotating cast of cazuelas (cauldrons) that change everyday.

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Monday finds your cute little trio of bowls filled with tinga de pollo, longaniza en salsa verde, and bistec en chile pasilla, while Wednesday (above) presents fork-tender pork ribs in ancho chile sauce, green mole chicken, and strips of beef amplified by beans, bacon and pepper. You really can’t go wrong with any of these guizados (braised meats), and three of them for $15 is a steal.

And did I mention that the house-made corn tortillas are worth a visit all by themselves?

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Dinner is where this minuscule kitchen punches way above its weight. You will start with guacamole tinged with habanero (above) because it might be the best in town. From there you can’t go wrong with any of the tapas or apps.

We were partial to the garlicky gambas al ajillo, queso fundido, and organic beet carpaccio, but other beauties like a single lamb chop “moruño” (redolent of cumin and coriander), a nice (if small) crabcake, and roasted corn (off the cob) “esquites”, all compete for your attention. The very Spanish papas bravas also do owner Angelo Reyes’ Latin heritage proud, as do his Churrasco Argentino (short rib skewers), and a tart, chunky mahi mahi ceviche.

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Main dishes are large and mostly meant for sharing — whether you’re getting more of those lamb chops, or diving into a clay pot roasted chicken perfumed by rosemary-garlic sauce, or tucking into more seafood paella (above) than any four-top can handle.

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A rib eye “Del Torero” (above) is the most expensive thing on the menu ($39), and comes shingled with garlic chips and coated with chimichurri — both announcing the “no prisoners” approach this kitchen takes with its seasonings and spices.

Which is why you come here. Not for some namby-pamby attempt to make Latin cuisine(s) palatable for gueros — these Hispanic dishes strut their stuff, smacking you left and right with garlic, herbs, chilies and spices in full flower.

If Trés Cazuelas has anything in common with its Chinatown neighbors, it is in the honesty and integrity of its cooking. You might as well ask Chengdu Taste to dispense with Szechuan peppercorns as wanting Reyes to dial back the cilantro. This is they way these dishes are supposed to taste, and if you don’t like it, adios muchacho.

The dense flan comes sprinkled with Mexican sea salt, and the coffee, by LaVazza, is excellent as well. The wine list is short, well-chosen and well-priced.

So why haven’t you come here yet, gringo? Because it’s tucked into a next-to-nothing building on a forlorn corner on the cusp of Chinatown? That’s no excuse. If you love pan-Latin cooking the way they’re supposed to be, and can’t resist a great tortilla, and are tired of dumbed-down, warmed-over verdes and pathetic pasillas, then you owe it to yourself to get here pronto.

Lunch for two will run around $30-40; dinner about double that. Despite what the sign says, they no longer serve breakfast.

TRÉS CAZUELAS

3355 W. Spring Mountain Road #35

Las Vegas, NV 89102

702.370.0751

A Very Chile Thanksgiving

I’m about as Mexican as Donald Trump.

Don’t speak Spanish and have only been to the country twice in my life.

The only Spanish I know is, “Dos cervezas, por favor,” “Buenos dias,” and “Muchos gracias.” (I guess I speak a little tequila too, but that’s a different subject.)

The only Mexicans I’ve ever interacted with are people who work in restaurants or on my house. To them, I do a lot of loud talking (because that ALWAYS makes them understand my English better), punctuated by many buenos diases and muchos graciases. No matter how stupid I sound, however, they invariably smile at me and keep working.

I think I fell in love with the Mexican people during a family road trip my family took through the country in 1965, and no amount of inflammatory immigration rhetoric, drug wars, or negative stereotypes will ever cool my ardor for the country.

Speaking of stereotypes, the only ones I think should apply are how great looking and hard working they are. Plus, they have the happiest music on earth.

And great soap operas.

The thing about Mexican soap operas is, you can watch any scene any time, and I guarantee there will be two or three of the best looking people on earth chatting about something. As you watch, you’ll be thinking to yourself, “Damn, I didn’t think human beings could get any better looking than that.” Then, two more people will walk into scene who are even prettier than the three you’ve been looking at! Try it sometime, with or without the sound on. (It works even if you’re looking at the men too, but I’m usually not paying attention to them.)

Our handyman Ulysses once told me I was a güero not a gringo and I considered this quite a compliment. (Gueros are white guys; gringos are white guys Mexicans don’t think much of, is how he put it.)

My closest connection to Mexico is through its food. It is a cuisine that both fascinates and intimidates me, with an inscrutability only the Chinese can match.

To say I love Mexican food would be a serious understatement. But the food captivating me has little to do with the tacos-burritos-enchiladas triumvirate most people associate with this cuisine — they being to true Mexican cuisine what hamburgers-hot dogs-pizzas are to American.

It is a shameful fact that most Americans have little knowledge of the Mexican states — areas as diverse as Montana is from Mississippi — and this ignorance extends to the food of these areas. Part of this sad state of affairs can be laid squarely at the feet of Mexican-American restaurateurs who, like their Italian, Greek, Indian, and Chinese counterparts, adapted the food of their native land to a one-size-fits-all template to pander to American tastes. As a result, with few exceptions in some big cities and barrios, you are as unlikely to find a Puebla, Oaxaca, or Yucatan  Mexican restaurant as you are a Republican in a sombrero.

That’s why I make my own.

And that’s why this Thanksgiving we are featuring the foods from Mexico and New Mexico at our table.

No canned cranberry sauce at the palatial Curtas manse. No sirree. This year we went all-in with chiles galore (see picture at top of page), with the centerpiece of our Thanksgiving table being a molé poblano.

And to cook such an ambitious dish (20+ separate ingredients and 10 different techniques) we started at Cardenas Market.

If you’ve never been, Cardenas is a revelation. Unlike American supermarkets, it’s aisles are stocked with foods made for people who actually cook. The produce department alone is twice the size of any gringo grocery store in town, and people’s carts are filled with fresh food, not ready-to-be-reheated crap.

Like I said, that produce is fascinating and inscrutable….but it’s also beautiful:

But there’s always a helpful employee on hand to explain things to you, and give you a taste. Whether you cook Latin American foods or not, if you’re into cooking or just great food, you ought to spend an hour strolling the aisles of Cardenas. It is, by far, the best Latin American market I’ve found in Las Vegas, and the house-made fresh tortillas are worth a trip all by themselves.

To make a molé, a trip to Cardenas is essential. It is the only place to gather the dizzying variety of chiles, nuts, spices and vegetables comprise this intense, multi-layered sauce. Before we get to those, an overview of how we spice up our Thanksgiving is in order. (As of this writing — two days before Thanksgiving — we’ve been three times and a forth trip is planned for tomorrow.) Here’s our menu as it stands now:

The Starters

Spiced jicama

Chile garbanzos

Fresh fried warm tortilla chips (so much better than what you get in a bag)

Guacamole (made at the last possible minute, as it should be)

Chile con queso (from scratch, natch)

Four salsas — tomatillo chile verde, tres chiles with red beans, roasted tomato “Romana”, and arbol-pasilla red chile

The Vegetables

Calabacitas — New Mexican zucchini-corn

Red chile mashed potatoes

Arroz Verde — Mexican Green Rice

Esquites — Corn con crema with epazote

Grandma Schroader’s sour beans (a German interloper, but essential at all my Thanksgivings)

Lots of tortillas (from Cardenas, of course!)

The Proteins

Traditional turkey with sausage stuffing

Ancho chile-rubbed turkey with poblano molé

New Mexican pork posole

New Mexican (beef) green chile stew (which contains a buttload of these deceptively fiery little monsters):

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The Desserts

Flan

Trés Leches cake

Chocolate Trés Leches cake

Mexican dark chocolate tart

As for that molé, all I can say is, I slaved away for an entire day, and I hope people eat it with a grand olé!

Seriously though, it was a lot of work. A labor of love if you like standing on your feet for hours on end, toasting spices, soaking chilies, chopping this and blending that. A pain in the ass if you do not.

The nuts alone will drive you nuts — toasting them, chopping them, cooking them, pureeing them, and straining them — all to make a smooth paste which gives the sauce that certain je n’ais ce quoi.

Without going all recipe nerd on you, I’ll recount the steps just to show you how labor intensive the process is:

First you toast the chiles, which gives you a mess of crackly brown stuff:

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Then you soak, toast, saute, blend and toss until your arms fall off.

After that is the batch cooking (of all of these disparate ingredients) that seems to take half a day.

What you end up with is a big ugly brew: a stew of three chiles, multiple nuts, fruit both dried and fresh, herbs out the yin yang, and spices galore. Various alliums add their accents, and three or four hours after you started, you’ve got a mess that looks like this:

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Which, after more cooking, looking, stewing and straining:

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…. will eventually look like this:

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The dish has more than a little in common with the great spiced stews of Indian cuisine (dots not feathers), and the complexity and intensity is almost overwhelming.

Is it worth it? To anyone who loves the alchemy of cooking, yes. To the average casual cook? Not in a million years. To the diner? Of course, even if 98% of them will have no clue what went into the making it. Some will note the depth, the complexity, the soul-warming essence filling their olfactories; others will be vaguely aware of these things in passing. Both groups will gobble it up in a few minutes. And therein lies the pleasure for the cook. As with any art or craft, the pleasure must come from the making of it, not the end result. If the final product is spectacular, more’s the better. But the satisfaction, as pure and deep as those flavors you created, is in having done it — in creating a whole greater than the sum of its parts. This is the cook’s reward.

Thanksgiving is the one holiday American media and marketing hasn’t managed to ruin. It is solely about food, family and friends, and no matter how hard they try, they can’t really commercialize it. Cultures the world over think about food 365 days a year, while America sets one day aside in late November. We should be thankful for this — for a holiday so tasty that the only people profiting from it are food purveyors. No matter what your table looks like, I hope you take some pleasure in creating it, and thank the people who made all that delicious food possible. Especially the Mexicans.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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