Downtown Dining is Now a Destination

Image

Downtown has become a gastronomic destination in its own right.

Five years ago I would’ve called you crazy if you uttered those words. But things have been booming, as drinking and dining options continue to expand, and everything from wine bars to wood-fired pizzas are on the horizon.

Main Street (aka the 18b Arts District) and East Fremont Street are the epicenters of this epicurean revolution, and though bleak some surroundings may be, once you duck inside any of these eateries, you will find delightful meals, and hand-tooled food aplenty.

I eat out in downtown Las Vegas more than anyone. Ever. (No brag just fact.) Morning, noon and night I patrol these concrete canyons scouting the best places to sooth my savage hunger, and seeking to send you serenely to the most satisfying sustenance. Here’s where you should be supping and slurping right now, but be advised, more superior comestibles are soon to surface.

Image(Holy Ensendada, Batman! We’re in Baja!)

Bajamar Seafood & Tacos

Good Mexican food used to be harder to find downtown than a slot junkie with good credit. These straight-from-Baja tacos (above) immediately changed that. Ignore the surroundings and dive in.

Casa Don Juan

An old reliable with a large menu and a huge following. The tortillas and the carnitas and the great service keep us coming back.

Carson Kitchen

CK started the downtown dining revolution five years ago and is still going strong. Those veal meatballs, oxtail risotto, and glazed donut bread pudding never get old.

DE Thai Kitchen

Forget the regular menu and order off the (not so) secret menu on the chalk board. If there’s a better Kua Gling (spicy ground pork) or soft shell crabs in town, I haven’t found them.

18bin

Brand spanking new, still finding its sea legs, but early experiences with its limited menu have been positive.

Image

Esther’s Kitchen

I eat here so often they ought to name a booth after me.

EAT

Wonderful breakfast and lunch; to-die-for flapjacks; heavenly hash.

Evel Pie

Downtown is blessed with four good pizza joints, and it all started with Evel Pie. As good as it is, I prefer the dense, chewy slices at….

Image(One of each please)

Good Pie

Nothing more than a counter, some deck ovens, and an assortment of the best slices in Vegas (above). Soon to open a full-service pizza restaurant in the Arts District, much to the rejoicing of pizza mavens everywhere. The pepperoni slice (above) absolutely slays the competition.

Image(Sake to me Hatsumi)

Hatsumi

Robotayaki on East Fremont? Yep, and it’s great. Fine sake list, too.

Jammyland

The drinks here are so good they make me wish I was an alcoholic. A booze-absorbing menu of (mostly) Jamaican food is just the thing after a few of them.

La Monja (The Nun)

This is one fun nun. An indoor-outdoor vibe (at the top of the page) that threatens to do for East Fremont Street what Esther’s did for the Arts District: bring a modern twist to a hoary formula. In this case, by giving ceviches, taquitos, and fish tacos the upgrade they deserve. Everything is under twenty bucks, and the patio has “destination drinking” written all over it.

Ocha Thai

A family-run oasis of good Thai cooking for decades.

Image(Comfort me with meatloaf)

Old Soul

The odds are against Old Soul, but Natalie Young’s food — like the meatloaf above — is so good we don’t care. Take the time to find it and you’ll fall in love.

Oscar’s Steakhouse

Oscar Goodman is an iconic figure in Las Vegas. His steakhouse doesn’t quite match his out-sized reputation, but new chef Ben Jenkins is on a mission to change that.

Image(PublicUs is always packed)

PublicUs

We constantly debate the relative merits of PublicUs v. Vesta like a man who can’t decide between his wife and his mistress. We resolve this argument by alternating between them… just like we did in 1999.

7th and Carson

Elevated pub grub (below) at a location we can never quite remember.  ;-)

Image(Once in a blue moon, we eat healthy)

The Kitchen at Atomic

Jackson Stamper’s food might be too hip for the room, but it suits us just fine. One of the best steaks (and rum-brined pork chops) in town, too.

Image(Blimey, mate; takes me straight back to the Cliffs of Dover, it does.)

The Smashed Pig

Ignore the Fremont Street fanny-packers and duck in for a black & tan and the fish and chips (above).

VegeNation

If you insist, there’s a vegan restaurant downtown – the best vegan restaurant in town, in fact. In fact, we have actually eaten here more than once and sorta enjoyed it (hangs head in shame).

Vesta Coffee Roasters

See comment to PublicUs above. And please don’t mention anything to our current wife.

Image(Sweet sammie dreams are made of these)

The Goodwich

We have dreams about the Rueben-ish (above) and the Patty. How good do sandwiches have to be for you to dream about them?

Image(Comes with a “highly addictive” warning label)

Pop Up Pizza

The only thing wrong with Pop Up Pizza is its customers. Most of them take a gander at these superior pies and wonder where the Domino’s is. The stromboli (above) is so good it ought to be illegal.

Image

Santos Guisados Tacos & Beer

These guisados (braised meat) tacos are in a class by themselves. Good beers and a full bar in a postage stamp place about the size of studio apartment (above).

>>>>>>>>>>>>><<<<<<<<<<<<

As tasty as things have gotten downtown, it bears mentioning that this entire renaissance has occurred because restaurant owners, chefs and developers finally decided to ignore Fremont Street altogether.

Those of us of a certain age remember all the teeth-gnashing in the 90s and early aughts about how to “revive” Fremont Street….as if that collection of sad, shitty hotels and their slacker/slob customers were the key to downtown’s revival. They weren’t and aren’t. Leave them to their lame-ass beers and souvenirs.

No one under that atrocious canopy gives a crap about spending money. All they want is Vegas on the cheap. Gawking at those stupid light shows and naked street performers is the Las Vegas they deserve.

The good stuff is for the rest of us. All you have to do is walk a few blocks east, or a half a mile south to taste it.

Image

 

 

The List – Summer 2019 Edition

 

Image

We are elbow-deep in writing the 2020 edition of EATING LAS VEGAS – The 52 Essential Restaurants, so postings on this site have been slim this month.

While we’re in the process of gleaning and vetting and grooming and culling the herd of worthy restaurants down to manageable size (as well as re-writing the intro and other chapters), we thought we’d give you a little sumpin sumpin to chew on….

…and by “chew on” we mean a list of all the worthy places we’ve dined over the past several months, as well as a few unworthy ones.

As always, if you find anyone who eats out in Las Vegas even half as much as we do, lunch is on me.

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

Image(Trés cazuelas at Trés Cazuelas)

Trés Cazuelas – Fab food in a funny location. And when I say “fab” I mean our most interesting, pan-Latin cooking, in a tiny, 40 seat space that is quite inviting once you get inside. Ignore the shitty building and dive in. You can thank me later.

Le Cirque – Ivo Angelov has left after 11 years of handling the front of the house like a maestro. As great as he was, no doubt the old pros running things will keep it humming along smoothly. Alan Mardonovich’s food fits the setting like pearls in a gorgeous oyster.

Joël Robuchon Christophe de Lillis keeps this place at or near the top of America’s (and the world’s) best restaurants.

Esther’s Kitchen that place is so crowded no one goes there anymore.

Flock & Fowl I don’t know what’s going on here, but two mediocre meals in a row tell me this place has lost its mojo.

Image(This soup won’t leave you wonton)

Nuro Bistro – our best Hainanese chicken. Don’t argue with me about this. Killer wonton soups, too.

Bazaar Meat – 1-2 with CUT for Vegas’s best steaks.

Jammyland – come for the drinks; stay for the Jamaican meat pies.

Image(Two terrific Thais, less than a half-mile apart)

Lamaii – Las Vegas is Thai’ing one on these days, haven’t you heard?

Weera Thai Kitchen – already a tough ticket at peak hours. Worth the wait.

Cipriani – my Friday fave.

Vesta Coffee – our hangout.

PublicUs – our hangout with good pastries and great bread.

Water Grill a chain seafood place for those who miss McCormick & Schmicks.

Image(Duck panang curry at Lotus)

Lotus of Siam – our greatest Asian has gotten even better.

88 Noodle Papa – brand new, and a solid second place in the Hainanese chicken sweepstakes.

Ocha Thai – always solid, if unspectacular, Thai favorites.

Orchid Vietnamese by-the-numbers Vietnamese.

Good Pie – others get more pub, GP makes the best pizza pies.

Pop-Up Pizza – another unsung hero in our pizza revolution. The stromboli is out of this world.

Image

Sin Fronteras Tacos – way up on Tenaya. Frightfully good Mexican food, not out of a can, made with real passion. Quite a find.

District One – best pho broth in Vegas….says noted pho expert The Food Gal® (honest to Christ, she’s tried them all).

Jaleo – we love the D.C. original, but the paella here is nonpareil.

Maker’s & Finders – the charms of this place never cease to escape me.

DE Thai Kitchen the best Jerry, the BEST! (Thai street food)

Santos Tacos – the best tacos within a 5 mile radius of downtown. Fight me.

Image(We’re secretly in love with Mio-san. Please don’t tell The Food Gal®)

Raku Sweets – Mio-san (above) makes our best sweets, and the sweetest weekend lunch in town.

Hatsumi – get skewered and sake’d in downtown’s hottest new joint.

Mabel’s BBQ – our best barbecue. Something else you shouldn’t argue with me about.

The Kitchen at Atomic – casual vibe, serious food. Not sure if downtown realizes exactly how good it is.

Image(Righto, Guv-nah!)

The Smashed Pig I’m not going out on a limb and recommend the whole menu, but the fish and chips (above) are worthy. A pleasant surprise on East Fremont Street when I was famished one weekday.

Gauchos Sacred Flavors – This place will be a lot nicer when it’s not 105 degrees outside (the only place to sit).

Pamplona – 5 years ago I would’ve been at Pamplona every week. Now, there’s too many good restaurants to choose from. #firstworldproblems

Locale – been once, liked it. Too fucking far to rush back….especially with downtown and Chinatown practically in my backyard. 

La Strega – been twice, want to like it more than I did. Cookie-cutter Italian menus just don’t tingle my nethers anymore. That said, the ingredients are top-drawer, the cooking is precise and the wine list is great.

Daigu Rice Noodle another in a tsunami of Asian chains (Korean, mainly) threatening to swamp Chinatown. This one advertises for you to buy your own Daigu Rice Noodle franchise….right on the menu! The food isn’t worth investing in.

Image(José Andrés would be proud)

Valencian Gold – $10 bowls of paella never tasted so good. Neither did patatas con bravas (above).

Vetri – the polar opposite of cookie-cutter Italian. Not for everyone, but the food is as awesome as the view.

The Goodwich – I have dreams about the Reuben-ish and The Patty.

Saga Pastry + Sandwich – Gert’s sandwiches and pastries could make a new Nordic lover out of me.

Image(James Trees puts the putta in the puttanesca)

Ada’s – I like Ada, but I like her big sister Esther better.

Rooster Boy Cafe – Las Vegas’s best breakfast.

Serrano’s Mexican Food – a hole-in-the-wall worth seeking out.

Old Soul – Outstanding food in a less-than-outstanding location. If it makes it, it’ll be a miracle, but I’m rooting for the miracle.

Café Breizh – our best French pastries. I’m glad they’re so far from my house.

The Black Sheep – fantastic fusion food. Jamie Tran is a treasure.

Image(In heaven, all cookies are warm and chocolate chip)

Spago – our best old reliable. The people-watching isn’t as good as it was at the Forum Shops (how could it be?), but the place feels cozier and the food never misses a beat. And the chocolate chip cookies (above) might be the best on the planet.

New York Bagel and Bakery the best bagels in town. I’m tired of telling you this. Go see for yourself. Loser.

CUT – a meat lover’s fantasy come true. Not sure any steakhouse in America has a better selection of top grade beef.

China Mama – soup dumplings, crispy shrimp, cumin lamb and pepper beef…what more does a man need?

Not bad for one summer, considering we took two week’s vacation and visited a number of them more than once.

With a little luck, and a lot of hard work at Huntington Press, the 2020 edition of ELV should be released in November….and boy will there be some surprises…

Image(Chilaquiles at Rooster Boy Cafe)

 

 

Fit To Be Thai’d: Where to Go While LOTUS OF SIAM Repairs Itself

The hole in Lotus of Siam’s roof (see previous post), left a substantial hole in our Thai food scene for tourists and locals alike. We have spent the week fielding inquiries about where to go in place of our most iconic Asian restaurant, so, as a public service, our staff thought a quick round-up of the best Thai places in town was called for for those needing their pad ped moo or ka nom jean nam ya pla fix.

None of these can compete with Lotus’ national and international reputation. None have won a James Beard award or boast a world-class white wine list. But all of them deliver the goods — real Thai cooking without lines out the door at lunch or dinner, or a steady stream of cabs dropping off handfuls of tourists every five minutes during dinner hours. (Face it: there’s no substitute for being lauded in the L.A. Times, New York Times, and various national food publications and TV shows. Because of this publicity (most of it pre-social media, btw), LOS has a world-wide reputation that no place in Vegas can rival.

A few caveats. Although there are Thai restaurants all over this valley, most of them serve the sort of gloppy-sweet, dumbed-down Thai food that appeals to American tastes. They are as far from the real deal as Bud Lite is from a Belgian ale. We’ve tried them all over the years  — Prommares, King of Siam, Kung Fu, Thai Spice, Archie’s, Pin Kaow, just to name a few — and all are perfectly fine, in the same way a by-the-numbers Chinese restaurant satisfies the tastes of the sweet and sour pork crowd.

Those were the restaurants that sustained us through the first years of our Thai food cravings, but when Lotus opened nineteen years ago (more specifically, when the Chutima family took over LOS on Nov.1, 1999), we got our first taste of the strong, savory, funky-sour, salty-hot food of northern Thailand, and from that point on there was no looking back.

Even Lotus serves up gringo-friendly versions of certain Thai dishes, but it became popular by not bending its menu to the whims of its American customers, and staying true to authentic recipes. (Would that more restaurants would do so, instead of acting like scared rabbits whenever a customer complains about something.) These days, when we look for Thai food, we want strong, no-holds-barred street food, or the kind of country cooking (Isaan or northern Thai – they’re not the same thing) that brooks no compromise with American tastes.

Be forewarned, however, that in most of the places we recommend, you may have to politely protest to the staff when they try to talk you out of some of their specialties. But be firm and they’ll relent. Thai people are some of the friendliest on earth, and I’ve never had bad service in a Thai restaurant. If you don’t like it, eat it anyway; you might learn something. There are some Laotian salads at Weera Thai that leave me cold (and pushing ingredients around on the plate), but they’re a great window into a cuisine I barely know and am fascinated to discover. Plus, nothing is ever that expensive in these places (dishes in Thai restaurant rarely exceed $15-$20), so experimentation won’t break the bank. More timid sorts (of palate or wallet) should stick with the drunken noodles at Arawan Thai Bistro.

OUR BEST THAI RESTAURANTS (AFTER LOTUS OF SIAM):

Ocha Thai – Family run since 1989. The food is still cooked by a couple of ladies who together don’t weigh a hundred pounds. This is the perfect place to try traditional Thai dishes made in a less sweet, more authentic style.

Don’t miss: Dadd deaw (pork jerky), todd munn (fish cakes), E-sarn sausages, kra pow (mint chili chicken), poh tak (spicy seafood soup), warm bamboo shoot salad (the very definition of “acquired taste’), pad ped moo pa (wild hog with hot sauce).

Chada Thai – “Elevated Thai food” hits the nail on the head, with a killer wine list to match. Both here and at Chada Street give you the best window (and taste) of dishes you will only find in Thailand.

Don’t miss: oysters, kua kling (ground pork with house curry paste), pou nim pad prik thai (stir-fried soft-shell crab), sea bass tod krueng (glazed with chili paste), pla nua tod (crispy beef tossed with rice powder).

Chada Street – Like the name says, more casual than its older sibling down the street. Bring a crowd, point and pick and dive in. Just make sure you have lots of champagne, Riesling or beer on hand to wash it all down. As close to eating on a street in Phuket as you can get. 

Don’t miss: Northern Thai sausage, red pork and pineapple curry, crab fat fried rice, grilled prawns.

Weera Thai – The second Thai restaurant in town to boldly proclaim its northern Thai/Issan roots. More than a few Laotian dishes on the huge menu as well, but we always find ourselves returning for the roast duck curry.

Don’t miss: Roast duck curry, papaya salad Issan-style, tom zap (pork rib soup), spicy squid salad.

Chuchote Thai Bistro & Dessert – Our newest entrant in the “Thai One On” sweepstakes is only a few miles west of Lotus on west Sahara Avenue, and a block and a half west of Weera Thai on the same street. It’s spanking new, clean and comfortable, and boasts all of the usual Thai dishes on the menu. But look a little farther down and you’ll see what you came for: six southern Thai dishes that will light you up like no one’s business. They’ll tone things down for more timid palates, but this is the place to come to see how true Thais taste their incendiary food.

Don’t miss: Seafood cakes (pictured at top of page), pork jerky, potato and chicken stuffed samosa, crunchy tofu, pad ped moo (stir-fried minced pork), khua king (spicy ground pork), kang sam salmon curry with Thai omelette, ka nom jean nam ya pla (house made curry with fish balls) – so hot it should come with a disclaimer and a release.