Enough Already…

Whiskey Barrel Wood Block SMOKED Cocktail Gift Set image 0(Please god, Make. It. Stop.)

Smoke – No one likes smoked meats more than yours truly. But bread? Veggies? Cocktails? Butter? Ice? Banana pudding? (Yep, we had it once, in Austin, TX, natch.) When it comes to smoked foods, a little goes a long way (unless we’re talking beef brisket), and the gimmick has run its course.

Octopus – If another piece of octopus never touches these lips it will be too soon. If another waiter never comes to my table bringing the grilled tentacles of a dead cephalopod (which probably cost the restaurant 89 cents), I will jump for joy. The gleam in their eyes when they act like Neptune has anointed them special dispensation to shower us with rubbery nothingness is actually quite comical, considering that every upscale restaurant in the world seems to offer it these days.

Branzino – I’m old enough to remember when Mediterranean sea bass was a new thing in America (we’re talking mid-90s); now every chef in town trots them out like the fresh-caught king of the sea is being bestowed upon your table. When every restaurant you go to is shilling “branzino,” you know you’re being mass-marketed by a wholesaler with plenty of product. It’s almost enough to make us miss Orange Roughy.

And as long as we’re talking about being sick of seafood, how about…

Scallops in the shell

Scallops – are great, when they’re done correctly. And by “correctly” we mean being broiled whole, in the shell, with their roe (see above) — like they do in Europe. Sea scallop abductor muscles are the boneless, skinless chicken breasts of American cuisine. Every chef cooks them exactly the same way: crispy-browned on one side, sitting in the middle of a naked plate. This is because they (and their diners) are afraid of actual scallops. ADMIT IT.

Infeasibly large Nigerian prawns – God only knows why/when these things started to invade American menus (actually, we know: it was around four years ago). Now they’re more ubiquitous in Las Vegas than attorney billboards.

Curated cocktails – Just make me a decent drink with good booze and get over yourself.

Tacos – unless you’re Mexican. It is a scientific fact that you can’t make a good taco unless you speak with a slight Spanish accent. No one named Seamus McMullen ever made a taco worth eating.

Image(Made by real Mexicans at Milpa)

Every chef thinking he/she can barbecue – Unless you’re getting three hours of sleep a night, hauling whole hogs around, and are covered with more smoke than a northern Californian, you aren’t doing it right.

(Ken Spadey, doin’ it right)

“Tapas menu” – Unless you’re Spanish, stop it.

Tomahawk steaks – Bros and Bruhs love these odes to excess, served in temples to testosterone. Modern Vegas was made for them. Show me a table making a big deal over 40 ounces of meat and I’ll show you a group of douchebags. Give me a tasty strip or picanha steak any day.

Image(Picanha steak at 8East)

Natural wines – Don’t get me started. If I wanted to drink fetid feet, I’d ferment my sweaty socks.

Korean ketchup Unless you’re a Korean cooking Korean, you need to holster this luscious condiment and leave it to the experts. Non-Koreans playing with Korean flavors are as out of their depth as a short order cook at a sushi bar.

Bao – Unless you’re Chinese (or at least vaguely Asian), stop sticking everything imaginable inside of tiny buns! I know, I know: THASS RACESS!

Avocado toast – I know, I know: taking on avocado toast is trashing some pretty low-hanging fruit. Most of it is terrible, but the one exception? This bad boy at Johnny C’s Diner:

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Tataki – Thank you Nobu Matsuhisa, for giving every chef in America license to throw a tangy, vaguely Asian vinaigrette on some lightly-seared protein and call it original. “Ceviche” is almost as bad, but I’m too exhausted to complain about it right now.

Tartare’d everything – It started with steak, now it’s everything from tuna to avocado to beets. Calling it poke doesn’t get you off the hook. We realize attaching “tartare” to a foodstuff removes the sting of it being raw, but slapping a trendy name on something doesn’t make it special,

Obscure, weird-ass menu names Tatsoi, Dulse, Samphire, Tropaeolum tuberosum….we get it: you are ready to dazzle us with your out-of-the-box cooking and mastery of the inscrutable. But we’re here for dinner, not Google searches.

Under-cooked vegetables – This includes potatoes. You’d be surprised how many restaurants don’t know how long to cook a spucking fud.

Photo of Able Baker Brewing - Las Vegas, NV, United States. Beer Menu 1(Pacifiers not included)

Local brews – Face it: most Las Vegas-made beers taste like carbonated dishwater. FACT! The only time you’ll ever catch me telling people NOT to support locals is when they’re trying to drag me into a local brewpub. You can tell our water is all wrong for beer brewing because our suds landscape is littered with…

Infeasibly absurd beer flavors (see above) – You can tell how awful most made-in-Vegas brews are by the ridiculous additives (and juvenile/asinine names) they employ to get you to drink them. Pineapple-Curry-Spice Stout? Coming right up, sir!

Dumplings – unless you’re a dumpling restaurant.

Shishito peppers everywhere – Who decided this was a good idea?

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Deep-fried cauliflower – hasn’t quite yet jumped the shishito pepper/Brussels sprouts shark, but it’s close.

Crispy sweet-sour Brussels sprouts – Another way for chefs to push some cheap-ass bitter vegetable no one likes to try to boost their bottom line.

Quinoa – No one likes it; it tastes like cardboard ; it doesn’t go well with anything. The only people who order it are pansy-ass trend followers.

Word I Agree GIF by INTO ACTION

Keto – I don’t even know what the fuck it is, but I hate it.

Paleo anything – When I’m allowed to start dragging women around by the hair, I’ll start eating like a caveman.

Gluten-free – Are we done with all that celiac disease nonsense? (I know some people suffer, but most of you don’t, so get over it and eat a real pizza fer chrissakes.)

Calling anything “milk” that isn’t – Soy milk, almond milk, rutabaga milk…..STOP IT! It ain’t milk, it’s JUICE. Call it “soy juice” and watch the sales dry up…like they should.

Making a big deal out of a motherf*cking chicken sandwich – ANY chicken sandwich.

Air-frying – You ain’t FRYING A GODDAMN THING! How dumb are you? Wait, don’t answer that.

Celebrity booze – Does the world really need another tequila? Or Jay-Z slapping his name on another overpriced champagne? The question answers itself.

Each one of these is enough to make me want to chug a bottle of Walton Goggins’ Mulholland Gin.

Feel The Bern Democrats GIF by Bernie Sanders

The End

Postscript:

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33 Things I Now Know About Mexico

Image(This isn’t even the half of it, or the quarter of it)

Ed. note: We recently returned from a short vacay to Mexico. We went to escape the craziness that is America, and because it is the only country on earth that is accepting American tourists these days. As usual, when we have a great time in a foreign land, we like to share.

Mexico City is so big it makes Vegas look like Boulder City.

They used to call Mexico City D.F. (Distrito Federale), but that’s now as dated as the Frito Bandito.

Trying to see Mexico City in a week is like trying to tour the Louvre in an hour.

If all you know of Mexico are its border and beach towns, then you’re missing the real deal.  Diving in to where it all started is a cultural eye-opener.

Mexicans eat better and cheaper than we do.

They are more vigilant than Americans about Covid protocols as well.

CDMX (Ciudad de Mexico, aka City of Mexico) is a walk-able city, but the distances are vast.

As with Tokyo (and most huge, international capitals), it is best to pick a neighborhood (Centro, Reforma, Polanco, Roma, etc.) and spend a day getting to know it.

Roma is tree-lined, peaceful, and filled with places eat — a nice antidote to the crazy cacophony of the city surrounding it.

There are more museums in one park (Bosque de Chapultepec) than in the entire state of Nevada.

Image(The Polanco at 2:00 am)

The air there is so lousy you can’t see the stars at night, none of them. (That little dot in the picture above is a helicopter.)

The air may be terrible, but I didn’t notice. The Food Gal®, however, was starting to complain of an irritated nose and throat by Day 4.

Uber is über-cheap – there is no reason to take any other form of transportation.

Speaking of cheap, food and drink are a serious bargain: from superb street tacos to modernist cuisine meccas, prices are laughably low.

Service with a smile is also the universal rule. The language barrier is also no big deal. To figure out the price in dollars, divide everything by 20.

Image(Pujol)

Modernist cuisine — as exemplified by hyper-local, multi-course, fixed priced menus — is alive and well. We hit the two biggest names (Pujol and Quintonil) and both were jammed with Rico Suaves and their lovely ladies. As I’ve said many times, the whole tasting menu thing has run its course, but as long as the World’s 50 Best nonsense is around, there will always be gastro-tourists (with more money than taste) keeping these things afloat. For this reason, the next time we’re here, I expect to be at the Taco Omakase at Pujol, or ordering a la carte from Quintonil.

You don’t see/hear many American accents (we counted three); this is a good thing.

You don’t see many fat people either (even among the mobs at Mercado de Merced).

People have asked me if it’s “clean.” Yes, cleaner than the human toilet that is downtown Los Angeles; more pristine than San Francisco. In many ways, CDMX reminded us of an Hispanic Chicago: spotless streets, wide boulevards, nice people and a remarkable lack of trash.

Image(Roma)

It is also safe. There is, literally, a cop car on every corner.

Crossing the street can be take-your-life-in-your-own-hands endeavor, however.

Beggars are a nuisance, but not an issue. Sit or stand anywhere for more than ten seconds and someone will approach either asking for a handout or to sell you some junk. You learn the words “no, gracias” very quickly, and will say them about fifty times a day.

Image(Anyone for an Orthopteran?)

They take their insects seriously here, at lunch and dinner.

As impressive as Pujol and Quintonil were, the first meal I’d revisit would be Guzina Oaxaca — a chic, casual spot in the Polanco specializing in Oaxacan cuisine in all its glories.

Image(Holy mole!)

Mexican wines were also a nice surprise. They use a lot of European varietals, to varying degrees of success. Pro tip: this is uncharted territory for even serious oenophiles, so let your sommelier guide you. No matter what you buy, it will probably be under $50. Pro tip #2: They’re doing better with their reds than their whites, but this is only based on a very limited sample.

La Merced is a zoo, a labyrinth, a maze of shops: a tangle of warren after slithering warren of alleyways and side streets selling miles and miles of junk. There’s also a food section (our real reason for going), but we never found it. Pro tip: Don’t go on a Saturday morning. Pro tip #2: Don’t let your Uber driver drop you off blocks from the main market — you’ll never find it, no matter how much you look at Google maps. Pro tip #3: Sign up for a tour, unless you enjoy being swallowed up by a sea of humanity seemingly enthralled with miles and miles of plastic junk. One of our companions remarked how ubiquitous and similar these “street markets” are around the globe — selling cheap clothes and toys to tens of thousands every day. “The one in Istanbul is even worse,” he sighed as we struggled to find an exit ramp from the human highway that enveloped us.  It was almost enough to make us miss Walmart.

Mercado Roma was as disappointing as Mercado de Merced was frustrating — it being little more than a glorified food court.

Image(Cochinita pibil tacos at Turix)

The tacos are insane, but I already knew that.

Even the bad tacos in Mexico City are good tacos. The tacos at El Turix (a hole in the wall in Polanco) are some of the best of all.

Image(Sensational seafood at Contramar)

Mexican seafood is its own thing, treating fish in ways that would have a Frenchman crying sacre bleu! Like most of the country’s cuisine, it emphasizes strong flavors over delicate technique (see above).

That said, the better restaurants know how to treat fish right. Contramar (in the Roma neighborhood) is such a restaurant (reservations essential).

There is no such thing as a bad trés leches cake.

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Muchas gracias to foodie friends Greg and Deanna, and JB and Kathy, for setting up so many fabulous meals and acting as interpreters for the trip. All of us can’t wait to return, because….

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Tastes Like Chicken

Image(Try it, you’ll like it)

Remember all the things you used to take for granted? Your health? A job? Walking around without looking ridiculous? Shopping? Going out to eat whenever you felt like it? Overpaying for food on the Las Vegas Strip?

Almost nothing is as it was four months ago, but some degree of normalcy has returned, once you get a table inside a good restaurant.

Yes, the staff will be speaking in muffled tones (and this will infuriate the both of you), and yes, the seating has been re-jiggered in many places at  awkward angles, but by and large, once the grub start showing up, you won’t be disappointed. The restaurants that were good-to-great before the Panic of 2020 hit are still putting out delicious meals, and surprisingly, there are openings planned which have us excited (one of which happens this week – see below).

These openings aren’t happening on the Strip as much as off it….as the Strip now resembles nothing so much as a giant, three mile long aircraft carrier that has been bombed and strafed into submission. No one knows the extent of the damage done, and they’re getting underway without a clue as to how seaworthy the old rustbuckets are.

Some encouraging notes:

High altitude eating got a boost this past week with the opening of Restaurant Guy Savoy in Caesars Palace. No need for much social distancing at its elegant, well-spaced tables, but the champagne bar is usually where you’ll find us, noshing on nibbles and perusing one of America’s greatest wine lists. Going there tonight, actually. (Ed. note: went last night, dropped a bundle, had a whale of a time. ;-))

Elio has opened in the Wynn. We have a res later this week and are totally jazzed about its take on modern Mexican gastronomy. Our meal last summer at Cosme in NYC was one of the highlights of 2019. As with most big deal meals in town, it will only be open on Thursday-Saturday for dinner.

Speaking of big deals: three very different restaurants had us jumpin’ for joy in the last week. One of them will open to the public this Friday and was a dinner most fowl:

This is No Yolk: Raku Toridokoro Opens Friday

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Yes, we’re talking about an entire meal comprised (mostly) of chicken parts. But the star of the show was….wait for it…chicken sashimi!

Peck-uliar I must admit, but also, flocking amazing. A flight of fancy, if you will. A notable chef’s beak performance no doubt.

So without feather ado, I’ll give you a hent….and a bird’s eye view.

We’re talking conspicuous chicken here. Like nothing Vegas has seen before. No one is more fanatical about their fowl than the Japanese, and their chefs usually have a bag of chicks up their sleeve….which makes for eggcellent dining.

Image(Around here, they call me the gizzard king)

Yep, raw chicken. eaten by the slice, like sushi. Not a lot of it, a couple tender slices (of breast, gizzard and liver) will do ya.

It exists, in Japan, and, like fugu, is quite safe if the chef/restaurant knows what it’s doing. In this instance, the chef in question is Mitsuo Endo — the chef/owner of Raku and Raku Sweets. You can take it on faith that he knows what he’s doing.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that Americans won’t freak the fuck out over it. Because freaking the fuck out over foreign foods is what Americans do.

Let’s get to the details, shall we?

The restaurant in which you will be sampling your chicken sashimi will open on July 3. It is called Raku Toridokoro (toridokoro = poultry house). It is not just a simple yakitori parlor, although lightly seared chicken skewers will be a substantial part of your meal.

The restaurant occupies the space formerly occupied by Tatsujin X — one of our 52 Essential restaurants for EATING LAS VEGAS 2020 — which closed within weeks of the book being published late last year. This incarnation promises to be more crowd-friendly and compelling, capturing more the izakaya-vibe of its namesake, as well as serving things unheard of in Las Vegas before…like raw chicken parts.

Image(Liver a little…try it raw)

The raw poultry parts you will eat will not be slimy or old or taken from the outer flesh of the bird. They will be quickly poached (as you will see on the exterior) to kill some outside bacteria and firm up the meat.

Don’t worry, if you chicken out (sorry, that pun wrote itself), the restaurant provides a very hot rock (above) for you to quickly sear/cook the meat thoroughly. Texture-wise it’ll remind you of lean blue fin or Big Eye tuna. Taste-wise it is almost sweet, but very, very mild. With your eyes closed you wouldn’t peg it as poultry until the merest hint of fresh, raw chicken taken from the refrigerator surprises your back palate.

This rarest of rare treats (and a Vegas first) is only one small course in a multi-plate production spanning the entire length of the bird. Skin, gizzards, liver, heart, you name it, almost everything except the pecker.

Image(Our love for this food is a bit skewed)

You will start with an appetizer platter served in a basket, and end with what might be the richest chicken soup you’ve ever tasted without cream in it.

In between will be skewer after skewer of different parts, each of them challenging your preconceptions about this (heretofore) bland bird. Endo-san can be credited with jump-starting our Asian food revolution in 2008, when he opened Raku. With it he took Japanese food to another level. People were ewwwing and ahhhing then over such exotica as beef liver sashimi, dried sardine salad, monkfish livers, and uni custard back then. Now they’re as common as California rolls. Well, almost.

Life is short, pilgrim. It’s time to enjoy it to the fullest. Eating dangerously is the best revenge (even though it is not that dangerous). But don’t dispel your friends’ fears, exploit them!  Dive in and take the accolades. It’s really not a big deal, but don’t tell them that. Eating chicken sashimi will give you bragging rights among your gastronautic comrades for years to come. They’ll look at you as the Tenzing Norgay of poultry, the Sir Edmund Hillary of farm-to-table conquests.

See for yourself and eat here soon, before a reservation is harder to get than a martini at a Mormon wedding.

Tacos, Tacos y mas Tacos!

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When you walk into a Mexican restaurant, and the chips and salsas blow you away from the first bite, you know you’re on solid ground.

Chef Jose Aleman calls Sin Fronteras a “no Tapatio zone” and a splash of any of his five, “grandma sauces” will convince you never to hit that bottle again. He charges a buck apiece for them and they’re worth twice that much. We’re partial to the Verde and Roja (both on the mild side), but there’s not a loser in the bunch, and the Morita (habanero chipotle), and the arbol-based Diablo will light you up and set you free from the tyranny of Mexican tepidness which infects what so many think of as true south-of-the-border flavor.

Image(These are nacho average salsas)

These are salsas where the fruit and piquancy and smoke of the base ingredients come through — as far from bottled or canned Mexican salsas as a fresh corn tortilla is from a bag of Doritos. But the salsas and the house-made, addictive chips are just the beginning. You won’t find better nachos (above) anywhere this far north of Piedras Negras, and the chile relleno (stuffed with melted Oaxacan cheese and swimming in roasted tomato salsa) is a thing of beauty:

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And we haven’t even gotten to the tacos yet.

Suffice it to say they are great across the board, using meat, veggies, cheese and those sauces which put them light years beyond what you find in your standard neighborhood, straight-from-Sysco taco assembly line. Spoon-tender carnitas, smoky carne asada, crisp, non-greasy chorizo — these tacos are given a proper chef’s touch, befitting Aleman’s former stints in top-flight restaurants on and off the Strip.

At this point we’re tempted to say you won’t find any better tacos anywhere in Vegas. You certainly won’t find better salsas. It may be in an odd location — sort of a restaurant no man’s land at Tenaya and Alexander in the northwest — but wherever you’re coming from, you’ll find the trip was worth it. The churros alone are worth the trip.

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Something for Everyone…in a Sports Bar…Go Figure

I generally hate something-for-everyone restaurants and sports bars, but if I had to choose between the lesser of two evil meals, I’d pick the latter every time. Sports bars may not be known for great food, but within a narrow range, they can fill the bill. Salt and fat rule. Paltry pizza, afterthought burgers, frozen wings, and flabby fries. all of it soaked in ranch dressing. (Yuck!) Expectations are always low and usually exceeded, at least if you’ve parked five beers, your team is winning, and the waitress has a nice rack.

A postcard displaying a Howard Johnson's restaurant location in Bedford, Pa., featuring the chain's traditional Georgian-inspired style.(When quality reigned over quantity)

Something-for-everyone eateries are the enemy of good cooking. The specter of the dreaded “family restaurant” looms over all of them. The HoJo’s of my youth (above) were, in fact, family restaurants, but they didn’t call themselves that.

Howard Johnson’s was all about feeding families, but it gets a pass because it was divine — 28 flavors, fried clams, twin, butter-grilled hot dogs (called “Frankforts”) in those cradle buns, chicken pot pies with flaky crusts  — food overseen in later years by chefs like Pierre Franey and Jacques Pépin. (True!) It was, as far as I’m concerned, the last family restaurant in America worth a split-top.

The Howard Johnson's hot dog. Buttered, split top, and grilled ...

Simple Simon and the Pieman may be long gone, but their legacy lives on. From Olive Garden to Cheesecake Factory, chain restaurants serving standardized, all-over-the-map fare are HoJo’s progeny. They prove daily that it really is impossible to do cross-cultural cooking under one roof with any authority. But, if you downsize, and put your cooking in the hands of a real chef, there are exceptions to the rule that culinary genres should never mix on one menu.

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And by “exceptions” I mean the Wolfgang Puck organization — the only collection of chefs I know who seem to be able to toggle between cooking styles and genres without missing a bean sprout.

They kept the flame alive at Player’s Locker over the three-month lock-down, and now they’re seating customers like nothing ever happened. Of course the tables look strewn about willy nilly — but big comfy booths let you social distance without feeling like you’ve been sent to detention.

The menu includes a lot of “best hits” from the Puck oeuvre, but you won’t be disappointed with any of them. If you’re looking to feed a crowd (whether of picky eaters or picky epicureans). it’s probably your safest bet this side of Spago, which is no coincidence.

Image(I’m really piggy when it comes to a porcine of interest)

It’s hard to find fault with any of it: great breads, good pizza, serious sandwiches, a killer burger, garlic shrimp, meatloaf, pastas, superb roast chicken, the famous Chinese chicken salad… good god this place even had me (a noted hummus hater) eating hummus…. All of them co-exist easily on a menu full of confidence and bold flavors.

The ribs are KC-style and righteous — easily pulled from the bone, but not falling off it, served under a blanket of thick, dark, sweet sauce and with some honey-sweetened cornbread my Georgia relatives would recognize.

Image(Poultry in motion – Puck’s chicken enchilada)

Even the deeply-spiced chicken enchiladas got our attention, as did the house-made pickles, the onion rings, the apple pie, banana pudding, you name it…It’s hard enough to run a restaurant where they do a couple of these things well, but Chef Robert Rolla and his mentors have an attention to detail a lot of sloppier places (some within a few hundred feet of this one) could learn from.

Player’s Locker is basically a good restaurant masquerading as a sports bar.  You could also call it a family restaurant, or a something-for-everyone eatery, but spare it those insults. If indeed there is such thing as an American bistro, it captures the essence of whatever the term means, in all of its mashed-up mixed metaphorical glory.  It is the restaurant every Applebee’s, Chili’s or Cheesecake Factory wishes it could be. It is the best food you will ever find among oversized screens displaying over-hyped sports.

(Here’s how things work in the John Curtas universe these days: We go to a restaurant. We order modestly, then, 4Xs more food shows up at the table. We fight for a bill. Sometimes we get a bill, but it is usually for a fraction of what showed up on the table. We then leave a monster tip. Our meal at Raku Toridokoro was a special pre-opening tasting, so no charge, but our sake bill was $130 and left a $100 tip. When the restaurant opens, the set menu will be $80/pp and there will be a la carte options. At Sin Fronteras, we ordered 3 tacos ($8.25) and then had five more dishes hit the table. No bill, but we left $40. At Player’s Locker, the entire menu showed up (or so it seemed), but they only charged us for about $40/couple. To compensate, we bought an $80 bottle of champagne and left a combined $70 tip.)

RAKU TORIDOKORO

4439 West Flamingo Road

Las Vegas, NV 89103

702.337.6233

SIN FRONTERAS TACOS Y MAS

4016 N. Tenaya Way

Las Vegas, NV 89129

706.866.0080

PLAYER’S LOCKER BY WOLFGANG PUCK

10955 Oval Park Drive, Ste D3

Las Vegas, NV 89135

702.202.6300

Image(Because we knew you wanted another chick pic)