The List – 2022

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We eat out a whole lot less than we used to.

But you’d never know it from this list.

We’re down to 5-6 restaurants a week (barely breaking a sweat compared to the old days), and sadly finding less and less to write about.

The infantilizing of food writing has not escaped our attention. The written word is an endangered species, and if it’s not in video or podcast form, few are interested in reading about restaurants anymore. Twenty years ago, I was considered an oddball for obsessively snapping pictures of my food. Fifteen years ago (when this website was conceived), I was still an outlier. Now, even high school kids take pictures of their tacos and rate them on social media.

With this in mind, for once, I’m not going to bore you with a bunch of words. Gleaning through my meals of these past five months, I discovered a number of tasty snaps (and a few videos) that should make you salivate more than prose ever could (which is, I suppose, the whole point of today’s ubiquitous food photography).

So here are the restaurants where you should be eating, from someone (me) who has actually eaten in them. Some of these recs are accompanied only with a picture (worth a thousand words?) — which, we hope, will supply you with ample reason to give them a go.

But first, a few words about Detroit pizza.

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For the uninitiated, Detroit is the home of a rectangular, reverse-form, pan-baked pie that loads its cheese on the top of the dough (and underneath the other toppings) allowing it to infuse a puffy, foccacia-like crust before a f**ckload of condiments are then applied.

Including pineapple? You betcha by golly.

 

Classic | Pizza Crimes | Know Your Meme(…and then we bake it in a casserole)

Refinement is not exactly its strong suit.

Detroit pizza is nothing new: Northside Nathan’s has been around for over twenty years. But it inexplicably became a “thing” a few years ago and now every foodie worth his fermentation extols the fine points of these belly bombs like they’re parsing the contrapuntal tinklings of Glenn Gould.

I blame the internet…and Instagram…and the legalization of weed. Because if nothing else, DP is perfect stoner food: ideal for dive bars, and temperamentally suited for a crowd that is usually as baked as the crust.

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Scott Weiner — America’s Pizza Geek extraordinaire — knows his pies, and Robby Cunningham’s Detroit rectangles stole a pizza his heart.

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If you insist, and if you’re stoned, Red Dwarf (second pic) and Guerilla Pizza (first pic and above, in the Hard Hat Lounge), are two of the best.

On to real restaurants…

NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK

Anima by EDO

Genting Palace

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Gorgeous room. Beautiful food. Bring your wallet. And a friend’s wallet.

Marisco’s El Fresco’s

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Mariscos El Fresco’s is brand new, and only days old as I type these words. But we snuck in early and the Mexican seafood by Chef/owner John Sosa and Chef David Serrano is like nothing else being offered in town.

Image(These tacos shrimply put others to shame)

What Elia Authentic Greek Taverna did for soul-satisfying Greek cooking these guys are trying to do with much-maligned Mexican seafood — most of which (this far north) is unmitigated crap out of a freezer bag. Minimal decor, maximum flavor, in a challenging location (Tropicana and Pecos). Fingers are crossed.

Nusr-Et Steakhouse

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Burger. Of. The. Year. (so far)

Rosa Ristorante

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Just like Stacy’s mom, Rob Moore (above) has got in going on…on St. Rose Parkway (of all places) way out in the wilds of Henderson. If this culinary renaissance keeps up in this former godforsaken restaurant wasteland, yours truly is going to run out of neighborhoods to trash.

Viva! by Ray Garcia

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Best. Mexican. In. Vegas. My pictures didn’t do the spectacular food justice, so you’ll have to go and snap some for yourself.

The Pepper Club

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Todd English’s third act in Vegas has impressed even an old cynic like me. They don’t call The Pepper Club a Japanese restaurant but that’s exactly what it is….with some great Korean fried chicken to boot.

Wally’s

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Pluses: Surrounded by a fabulous wine store and first-class French cooking, cheese, charcuterie, salads (above), sandwiches (below) and steaks, and perhaps the best fries on the planet. Open for lunch. Good service.  Great people watching.

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Minuses:  Rodeo Drive-level expense amidst a sea of bargain-basement fanny packers — who take one look at the potential wallet damage and flee faster than a fat man from a fresh vegetable.  Also, the inside seating (hard stools at bare tables) doesn’t match the cooking or the (seated) crowd  — making the whole place feel like a fast casual concept got lost on its way to the Cordon Bleu.

Bottom line: Wally’s, like The Pepper Club downtown and Harlo in Downtown Summerlin, is pushing the price envelope — seeing just far it can take the familiar-yet-FOMO comfort food thing. Inflation or no inflation, Millennials and GenXrs show no signs of voting with their feet, as it is consistently filled with folks who don’t seem to mind paying $32 for a salad.

TURNING JAPANESE

Izakaya Go

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Busier than a bee on a flower farm. Harder to get into than a nun’s habit. But worth it.

Sushi Hiro

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Hiro-san and his cadre of sushi chefs (above) are the best reason to eat in Henderson. Big plus: it’s open for LUNCH!

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Trattoria Nakamura-Ya

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Japanese-Italian food may cause some con-fusion to some, but the results are always lip-smackingly delicious.

Ichiza

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Twenty years on, our first izakaya has held up well, even if it now has loads of competition for the late-night sake-and-sustenance crowd.

IT’S CHINATOWN, JAKE

…and don’t you forget it.

One of these are not technically in Chinatown, but all are very Chinese and extremely worth their chopsticks.

Xiao Long Dumpling

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The new kid on the dumpling block is one of the best.

Noodlehead

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When China Mama is packed to the rafters, walk across the street and dandan the day away.

ShangHai Taste

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This is what we meant by “….worth a thousand words.”

Big Wong

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If there’s a better bargain in Chinatown than Big Wong’s Hainanese chicken, or its curry beef, we haven’t found them…or two nicer owners than Wei and Connie:

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Rainbow Kitchen

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Dat sum dim sum and dem sum.

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT…

Salvadoreño

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Because no “best restaurants” list should ever be without a Salvadoran platos tipicos:

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MORE SOUTH OF THE BORDER

La Vecindad

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Our go-to when we’re in the mood for some quick queso fundido fun. After lunch there, we usually traipse around the corner to…

Pasabocas Colombian Bakery

…for a taste of Bogata and buñuelos:

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Letty’s de Leticia’s Cocina

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These deep-fried chicharonnes might be our favorite noontime nosh:

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SEOUL FOOD

Napal Baji

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Unknown to most gringos, there is a mini Korean food boom going on in Chinatown. Some of it is perplexing, and subtle it is not.

Most is flat-out fabulous, even if it represents something like an assault  over the 38th Parallel against your taste buds. Rather than trying to parse all the flavors in these ingredient-heavy recipes, we prefer to let the sensations envelope us like the wisdom of their supreme leader.

If you don’t know Korean food, know your Koreans. We have good friends who know their Jjamppongs from their Gopchang Jeongols, and they always ply us with enough sochu that we don’t care how terrible we sound trying to pronounce these things.

Whatever you do, get the spicy sausage “Army” stew (above) — it’s just the thing to fortify you for your never-ending fight against the Commie menace.

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Q Bistro

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This joint has been around for a while, but is a good place to learn our kimchees and Qs. Our Korean friends swear by it. Beware though: some dishes will blow your head off. Like the Kim Sam Bok (above), that tasted as lethal as it looks.

Moobongri Soondae

Another recent addition to our Korean scene. Short on decor, long on authenticity. But it helps to have someone with you who knows how to cut the kalbi:

STEAK YOUR CLAIM

We sliced up this subject a couple of months ago, but here are the bovine beauties with whom we continue to have the best beef these days:

Bazaar Meat

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In a town of terrific tartares, José Andrés still makes one of the best. The only thing holding back this restaurant is its location….which we expect to change soon.

Golden Steer

https://twitter.com/i/status/1502493249612644355

Since the pandemic lifted, this place has been busier than a whisky concession at an Irish wedding. Reservations are now essential….even in the bar! The days of popping in for a quick drink and  grabbing a steak and Caesar on your way home are deader than Dean Martin.

Brezza

Image(“Risotto for one, coming right up, Mr. C.”)

Not exactly a steakhouse and not exactly not one, either. So we’re putting it here, even thought we’ve pretty much sworn off Italian restaurants (until we go to Sardinia in July). No matter what you call it, whenever Nicole Brisson is making risotto inside a ginormous wheel of Parm, we’re on it like a porker at an acorn farm.

Carversteak

We’ve eaten a LOT of beautiful steaks in the past six months, but the best has been the dry-aged Kansas City strip at Carversteak:

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We’re pretty nuts about Daniel Ontiveros’s mayonnaise-y take on tartare, too.

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Capital Grille

We come for the lunch (and the steak salad), but stay for dessert:

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Harlo Steakhouse and Bar

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Gina Marinelli’s pastas are better here than they are at La Strega. There, I said it.

The desserts are worth a special trip all by themselves:

SW Steakhouse

Wallet-bending but worth it. The steaks and sides are superb, but Mark LoRusso’s starters and are stars in their own right.

Image(SW recently gave me a boner. Wait, what?)

Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab

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I’ve never been quite sure what to call this place. In Miami where it was founded it is Joe’s Stone Crab. Here, it is more of a steak house but seafood gets top billing. Not only that but they also do incredible fried chicken. Color me confused, but always satisfied.

Pro tip: this joint is always packed, so go at an off-hour (late lunch is best) or late at night. (You’ll have to wait until fall for your stone crabs, however.)

Sparrow + Wolf

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S+W isn’t a steakhouse per se, but we think this is the best thing on the menu:

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If Carversteak fed us our best steak of the year (so far), this 32 oz. beauty with American banchan isn’t far behind. All of those small dishes of sharply-focused spice, veggies and texture are perfectly calibrated to mitigate the richness of the beef.

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I may occasionally give Howard grief for criticizing the high-wire act he has going on with some of his food, but there’s no denying the pioneering status of his restaurant, and the revitalization of Chinatown it sparked five years ago.

Vic & Anthony’s

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The Golden Nugget does not leap to mind when someone says “first-class beef emporium,” but its steakhouse goes t-bone-to-t-bone with the competition on Fremont Street. The old-school, dark, clubby atmosphere is a big plus, as is the professional service, and a wine list full of bargains if you’re willing to break your Cali cab addiction (see above).

It might also have the best crab cake in Vegas (see below):

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NEVER BEEN TO SPAIN?

Jamon Jamon Tapas

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Traditional Spanish in the burbs. Fun decor. Easy parking. Ignore the surroundings, and dig into tapas to beat the band and the best paella that isn’t made at Jaleo (below).

Jaleo

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There is no better paella in America. The open pit alone cost over $1mil and you can’t duplicate its woodsy subtlety and smokiness without moving outdoors. Also open for lunch (which we tend to forget), and has a killer bar and beverage program (which our aging liver doesn’t need). Around for more than twelve years and still one of our gastronomic gems.

TRIED AND TRUE

Cipriani

https://twitter.com/i/status/1497673359080845319

DE Thai Kitchen

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Don’t ask me what this is or how to pronounce it. Just take this picture to the restaurant, point to the not-so “secret menu” on the wall, and dive in. Beware, however, of ordering it or anything here “Bangkok hot.”

Saginaw’s

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The world famous 99 cent Vegas shrimp cocktail lives! But now it costs $11. Still a bargain; still worth every penny.

Life’s a Bagel

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The Legends Oyster Bar & Grill

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Your best off-Strip seafood option that doesn’t have a Japanese flag attached to it.

PublicUs

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Our weekend go-to for incredible coffee and fresh-baked pastries. These scones should be illegal:

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Braeswood BBQ

The two best barbecue options in town are within a couple of blocks of each other on Main Street in #DTLV. Both are no-nonsense odes to smoked meat. Don’t even think of arguing with me about Vegas ‘cue until you’ve given each one a test drive.

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Soulbelly BBQ

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Elia Authentic Greek Taverna

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As welcoming as the Greek Isles, blessedly without the unwanted nudity and non-stop bouzouki music.

Bouchon

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I’ll put this $36 chicken up against your $72 steak any day.

Marché Bacchus

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We don’t know for how much longer André Rochat is going to be cooking, but right now, this septuagenarian’s desserts are worth a special trip.

It’s hard for us to carb our enthusiasm for this place. An essential stop on any Italian eating tour of Las Vegas.

Khoury’s

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I have dreams about this mezze platter: visions of endless baskets of nutty-puffy pita bread, stuffed into my eager maw after a slathering of spicy sujuk sauce and a dollop of labne as cool and bracing as a summer salad  — all of it refreshing my spirit as it satisfies my primal appetites. In my dreams, I caress and suckle each bite as if it were my last, kneeling before these treasures, intoxicated by the perfume of garden greens given lusciousness by oils, seeds, fruits and plants squeezed gently, then rapidly from the earth by pulsating soft-yet-turgid fingers, until, after stroke after stoke, then lick upon lick from my avaricious mouth, the cornucopia of sweet, herbaceous and milky tastes ooze forth in an explosion of happy, dribbled satisfaction.

Thanks, I needed that.

Anyone got a cigarette?

Smiling Charlie Sheen GIF - Smiling Charlie Sheen Smoke - Discover & Share GIFs

D’Agostino’s

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Just order this linguine with clams and thank me later.

Cafe Breizh

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JUST DESSERTS
How inexcusable of us to end without featuring a few sweets that have sated our cravings for something sugared and syrupy after a surfeit of savory sustenance. Good, house-made desserts (like good bread) are now as common in Las Vegas restaurants (on and off the Strip) as hamachi crudo. Here are a few concupiscent confections of which we are quite fondant (sorry, couldn’t resist one last pun).
Just as we can’t resist this picture of Cipriani’s luscious, multi-layered, insanely rich chocolate cake — here being attacked by a Proper Lunch Bunch attendee who we try to keep away from sharp objects and anything that has to be shared:
Image(Matt Brooks can resist anything but temptation)
Honey toast at Sparrow + Wolf (modeled by Sherri Mirejovsky, who graciously took her modeling fee in sweets):
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Vanilla Panna Cotta with Vanilla Sorbet at Wally’s:
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And finally, all the Catalan creams at Jamon Jamon Tapas:
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That’s all for now folks. These should keep you busy for a while. They aren’t every restaurant I’ve been to since Jan. 1, 2022, but they are the ones that left the deepest impression….and where I think your hard-earned dollars will be best spent.
In the meantime, should you want to follow me on a podcast, tune into the What’s Right with Sam & Ash show every Friday to hear my masticatory musings about the Las Vegas food scene.
Or follow me on Twitter (@eatinglasvegas), where I try to post real-time photos (with commentary), about all of my eatings about town.
Bon appétit!
THE END
Image(It only took thirty years, but I’m finally the official something of something.)

Fish Fight: MILOS v. COSTA di MARE

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Las Vegas is to fish what tumbleweeds are to Tahiti.

Seafood and the High Mojave go together like Hawaii and gambling. (If you don’t believe me, just look out the window.)

There’s an old rule of thumb that goes: for every ten miles you move inland, the fish gets ten percent worse.

By this calculation, seafood in Las Vegas should be 150% worse than it is on the coast.

Of course this isn’t true. The miracles of refrigeration and air freight have made fresh (or reasonably fresh) fish a reality no matter how far you are from an ocean. All you need is an airport, and presto change-o! – you can charge prices for a wild-caught turbot that would make a potentate’s knees buckle.

That said, seafood in Las Vegas is still something of a crap-shoot. Much of it is farmed, and too much of it is the same old same old salmon and sea bass in restaurant after restaurant.

But we are blessed with two, world-class, seafood emporiums: Estiatorio Milos and Costa di Mare. Each of them is special in its own way, and together they put to shame the fish being flung at all but our toniest steakhouses and sushi parlors.

Image(Something fishy is going on…will salmon help me order?)

So, as a public service, we at #BeingJohnCurtas thought we’d outline their similarities and differences, to better help you decide where to drop a boat payment the next time you want to swim in the deep end of our best seafood restaurants.

As usual, only the most skillful, precise, and scientific measurements were used to chart the distinctions between the two. And by “skillful and scientific” we mean our own, historically-proven, unchallenged omniscience and infallibility.

Decor

Image(Feng shui in spades)

Milos’s reboot in the Venetian is soothing, dramatic, reminiscent of the Greek Islands, and appetite-inducing. It’s feng shui is so good there should be a picture of it beside every definition of feng shui. Plus, the fish display alone (see above) is worth major design props.

Advantage, Milos, for feng shui and all that tasty fish.

Image(A great place to set the hook, just for the halibut, or on porpoise, if you’re fishing for a gill-friend)

Costa di Mare’s re-launch in the Wynn reopens a space that is by turns eye-popping, comforting, and mouth-watering. As gorgeous as the new room is at Milos, it’s hard to beat the bi-level views and poolside drama of CdM.

Advantage CdM for outdoor dining, romantic lighting and jaw-dropping design.

In other words: Draw

Greeting

At Milos, they treat me like a big shot who owns the place; at CdM, they treat me like the King of Siam. I’ve been comped at both and I’ve paid through the nose at both.

Draw

Service

Image(Oh for cod’s hake, we’ve haddock enough! Stop floundering and choose!)

Intensive care service is the rule at both. Milos is still in its shakedown cruise, so things are a bit wobbly — well-meaning, but not as polished as they will be.

CdM (above) is operating like it never closed in the first place. Both plaices are so solicitous it feels like someone would cut your food, sand dab the corners of your mouth and troll you to your car if you asked them too.

You expect nothing less than consummate professionalism from both operations since two of the smoothest cats in the business (Ivo Angelov and Fabian Forlini) hold down the front of the house — at CdM and Milos, respectively.

You also can’t fault Milos for having to adjust to a huge new space with a brand-new crew, but at this juncture, we’ll award…

Slight advantage, Costa di Mare 

Price

Bring $$$. Lots of it. Seafood this spectacular has gone through quite a journey to get to your table within a single day. What you’re eating Thursday night was probably flopping around on a boat Wednesday morning….6,000 miles away.

A small rouget or racasse (for two) will easily run $150 at either place. A five pound St. Pietro (John Dory) set us back $275 at CdM, but easily fed five. Plan on at least $125/pp minimum. These beautiful scallops at Milos, are $17 apiece, and you’ll want one each…or two.

Image(So good we can’t clam up about them)

Ordinarily, we’d call the price war a draw, but Milos scores an early knockdown with something in its arsenal CdM can’t defend against or counter…..

Lunch

Image(We’re in lavraki)

Milos serves lunch. A great one. And quite a bargain to boot. Its special $36, 3-course dejeuner is justifiably famous as the best lunch deal on the Strip. Yes, there are surcharges on some dishes, but stick with the basic menu (like the gorgeous lavraki above) and you’ll eat a very healthy, very Greek midday repast and feel a little like a thief while you’re doing it.

Costa di Mare: no lunch. This is a tragedy of unspeakable proportions, and thus…

Advantage, Milos

Hours

For the time being, CdM is only open Thurs.-Sun nights. Milos is open 7 days for lunch and dinner.

We’d like to give a point to Milos for being so accessible, but the shutdown of restaurants put them in a no-win situation, so as they re-open, it wouldn’t be fair to judge them harshly on what they have to do to stay afloat. Still…

Advantage, Milos

Bread

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Costa di Mare gets its superior basket of baked goodies from Wynn’s in-house shop. Milos serves its single, toasted, thick nutty slices of sourdough pain de campagne with some of the best olive oil in the biz.

Draw

Appetizers

Both are minimalists. Both let the ingredients sing for themselves. Each does the best langoustines and crab dishes Las Vegas has ever seen. Even with Milos offering the nonpareil “Milos Special”:

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…we ‘re calling it a….

Draw

Seafood Selection

This one is relatively easy: there is no competition with Milos when it comes to a daily variety of fresh fish and seafood. CdM has a beautiful, impeccably chosen but smaller selection.

Advantage, Milos

Bar

Image(Swanky and sexy)

The new bar at Milos is huge and a focal point. It is destined to be a hangout in its own right. CdM bar is smaller and more of a way station for those waiting for a table. Both have impressive collections of pre- and post-prandial booze. I’m not the guy to judge the mixology, but I’ve never had anything less than a stellar cocktail at either.

Draw

Pasta

Image(Uni pasta a la LoRusso)

No contest. Costa di Mare has some of the best Italian pastas you will find in Las Vegas….or anywhere in America for that matter.

Advantage, Costa di Mare

Food/Cooking/Menu

Milos doesn’t know how to improperly cook a piece of seafood. But CdM has serious kitchen talent at the stoves in the form(s) of Mark LoRusso and Daniela Santos.

Milos has tried and true formula which works across the world; CdM is more inventive with its menu and cooking, and its pastas alone are worth a special trip.

Advantage, Costa di Mare

Dessert

Image(We heart Daniela)

Once again, you can’t fault Milos for its tried and true Greek sweets, but CdM has a first-class pastry chef (Santos) in the kitchen.

Image(Berry, berry good)

Advantage, Costa di Mare

Wine

Greek wines go with seafood like mint leaves and lamb. You may not be able to pronounce them (see below), but that’s why they’re so reasonable.

The list at CdM is objectively better, deeper, and broader in its selections. It is also priced for the big boys, not mere mortals. Trying to find a wine bargain at the Wynn is more useless than looking for a ham sandwich at a bar mitzvah, BUT Covid has caused a huge surplus of un-drunk bottles up and down the Strip, so CdM now offers some discounted “Cellar Selections” with softer markups.

Selection – Advantage, Costa di Mare

Price – Advantage, Milos

Wine Service –  Advantage, CdM

Country of Origin – Advantage, Milos (You may disagree, but Greeks were washing down their Χταπόδι (Chtapódi/octopi) with Asyrtiko when the Romans were suckling on the teats of wolves.

Therefore, Draw…unless you’re fishing for big game, in which case you’ll love the Costa di Mare list. If you’re looking for a good bottle at a less predatory-shark price, it’s Milos.

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Let’s Recap:

Wine – Draw

Dessert – Costa

Food/Cooking/Menu – Costa

Pasta – Costa

Bar – Draw

Bread – Draw

Appetizers – Draw

Seafood Selection – Milos

Hours – Milos

Lunch – Milos

Price – Draw

Service – Slight advantage to Costa because of Milo’s new digs

Decor – Draw

Judgment

If you’re scoring, you’ll see a 1 up victory for Costa di Mare by the thickness of a soft shell crab shell:

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However, if you’re paying attention, you’ll notice that what looks at first like two similar restaurants are, in fact, two entirely different experiences.

Costa di Mare is a big deal meal Vegas restaurant with all the luxury trappings, right down to the exotic amaros, ports, and digestivos.

Milos is very much like its chef/owner Costas Spiliadis: welcoming, informal, but very serious about its Greek food.

Wherever you find a Milos (from Montreal to Miami) it is always one of the best seafood restaurants in town. It is, by far, the best Greek restaurant within ten miles of the Las Vegas Strip, and you’ll have trouble finding a better one anywhere west of the Mississippi.

Costa di Mare is Italian in focus, a lot more chef-y, and sui generis. If I wanted to impress a date, I’d take her to the Wynn; if I want simple, beautiful fish that tastes like it jumped out of the sea and directly onto my plate, I’ll go to Milos.

No matter where you end up, you won’t regret it, because, and you can sea, both are fin-damentally….wait for it….wait for it… soleful:

Image(Face it, you’re bass-ically hooked on these sofishticated puns)

COSTA di MARE

Wynn Hotel and Casino

3131 Las Vegas Blvd. South

Las Vegas, NV 89109

702.770.3305

ESTIATORIO MILOS

Venetian Hotel and Casino

3355 Las Vegas Blvd. South

Las Vegas, NV 89109

702.414.1270

TATSUJIN X

Anyone who knows me knows I’m nuts about Japanese food. I was crazy about it for years (decades really) before I actually went to Japan.

For me, going to Japan was like having sex for the first time — something I thought about, read about, and fantasized about before it really happened. Then, once I went, I realized what I’d been missing. And like a love-struck teenager, all I could do was fantasize about doing it again.

It was in Tokyo when I realized that eating Japanese food in America was really nothing more than foreplay — most Japanese food here being but a teasing, pornographic representation of the real thing. The real deal envelopes you, transports you, titillates the senses and pleases the palate in ways that get lost once the recipes travel across the Pacific. (A country obsessed with fresh fish and umami will do that to you.)

But as with many things edible and Asian, things have improved immeasurably over the last decade. Our finest Japanese places — Kabuto, Yui Edomae Sushi, Raku, Kaiseki Yuzu, Monta, et al — do a fine job of recreating the food of their homeland. Thanks to an influx of dedicated chefs (and the wonders of air freight), faithful re-creations of noodle parlors and intimate sushi bars are now in our backyard. The fact that many of them are tucked away in odd locations only adds to their verisimilitude.

(A good rule of thumb when looking for the genuine article in Japanese food is to look for any Japanese word in the title of the restaurant. ( Korean-owned “Japanese” restaurants usually just slap the word “sushi” up there, knowing everyone will come for their California rolls.) Any nebulous Nippon nomenclature generally is a good sign, even if it tells you nothing. Because when it comes to most things Japanese, the more obscure something is, the better. )

And it doesn’t get much more obscure than Tatsujin X.

(Poetry on a teppan)

Stuck in the middle of an old strip mall in the shadow of the Palms Hotel, Tatsujin X (the name means “master”) is the most recent addition to our expanding catalogue of authentic Asian eats, and might be the last word in nondescript eateries. Only the noren cloth awning out front gives you a hint that something strange and wonderful lies within. As in Japan, the signage tells you nothing but the name.

Those in the know will discern its name to denote the teppanyaki cooking of Japan — the flat, steel griddle (teppan) upon which various foodstuffs are grilled, broiled or pan-fried (yaki). Call it a teppan or plancha or good old frying pan, what you get is food prepared on a hot, smooth metal surface upon which a dexterous chef can work wonders.

The showier aspects of this food gave rise to the post-WWII Japanese steak house craze, where knives got thrown and food got flamed, all to the oohs and ahhs of prom dates everywhere. But crowd-pleasing this place is not.  Tatsujin is to your average “Japanese steakhouse” what Jiro Dreams of Sushi is to Beer Fest.

Think of Tatsujin as Benihana with a PhD.

What Grand Chef Yoshinori Nakazawa aims for at this bare-spare 13 seat counter is not the applause of wet-behind-the-ears teens or well-lubricated tourists. He is shooting for appreciation on a deeper level: the sort of gratitude bestowed by black belt epicureans who know the right stuff when they taste it. And what they taste is an 8-course meal like nothing in Vegas.

You have to go to a Shinjuku alleyway to find food this good, starting with a “chef’s choice” platter (above) of a crispy sawagani crab  flanked by a bright salmon tartare, spicy edamame beans, a soy salad and meltingly tender strips of barely-grilled rib eye. All of it sets you up for a well-paced courses to come, from a sparkling wakame (seaweed) salad, to a dashimaki-tamago omelette gently wrapped around strands of king crab and oozing sea urchin. If there’s a bigger umami-bomb in town than this egg concoction, I’ve yet to find it.

(‘erster innards – yum)

As you’re swooning from the seafood omelette with its cross-hatching of mayo and sweet ponzu sauce, you’ll notice the seafood star of the show: a Brobdingnagian oyster the size of a filet mignon. It is designed to intimidate the most ardent ‘erster eater (me), and it does.

These five-year old beauts come from Washington State, and are not meant to be slurped, but instead, they are meant to be grilled and sliced…the better to see and taste all that fleshy bivalve muscle and those oyster innards. (There’s no way around it: what you see and eat are the oyster’s intestines. The good news is the only thing they’re filled with is algae and other microscopic sea veggies.)

Before you get to that big boy, however, you’ll first be served a hot, oily broth containing big, meaty chunks of clams. One of my dining companions called it a clammy bagna cauda, which pretty much summed it up. Both of these sweet bivalves will have seafood lovers in hog heaven. Less adventuresome types should take their favorite intrepid foodie friend along to share what they can’t handle.

From there you’ll move on to simple, teppan-grilled vegetables which act as an intermezzo to the proteins.

(Strip-san meet Rib eye-san)

Three steaks are offered (fillet, rib eye, strip), with a forth of imported Japanese wagyu for a $35 surcharge). Sea bass (excellent), salmon (good) are a bone thrown to non-meat eaters. Both are perfectly fine pieces of fish, well-handled and cooked, but they sort of miss the point of the joint. The steaks are the stars here, and they are lightly seasoned and gently cooked as perfectly as beef can be. There’s no denying the melt-in-your-mouth appeal of the expensive wagyu, but my Japanese friends profess to like the denser, beefy quality of the American “Kobe” better. Either way, the cuts are seared to a level of subtle succulence you don’t achieve with the pyrotechnics of charcoal grilling.

(American rib eye)

There probably should be a chicken option too, but as soon as Nakazawa starts trying to please everyone, this place will lose the vibe that makes it so special. The specialness comes from remaining true to the single set, coursed-out meals that defines many small restaurants in the Land of the Rising Sun. Japan is not a “something for everyone” culture — not eating-wise anyway. Restaurants do what they do well, and you’re expected to value them for their individual styles of cooking, not demand that you want something “your way.” This is going to be a challenge for Tatsujin as it moves forward.

However you like it, there’s no way to improve upon the final savory course. Choose either a thick, pork-filled okonomi-yaki pancake (above), or garlic rice. Both will have you dropping your chopsticks in awe. The pancake, served with waving katsuobushi (bonito) flakes dancing atop it, would almost be a meal unto itself somewhere else, and the garlic rice is a testament to great food coming in deceptively simple packages. It’s not much to look at, but soothing-sweet-nutty garlic permeates every bite of the sushi-quality grains. This is a grown-up rice dish for connoisseurs of starch.

Desserts are three in number and very Japanese. If you’re very Japanese, you will love them. If you’re not, stick to the ice cream.

To recap: Tatsujin is basically a fixed-price, fixed-meal steakhouse. (In Asia they call these fixed-course meals “sets.”) You pay one price (from $50-$70) and you receive eight dishes, four of which give you some choice (salad, protein, and whether you want the pancake or the rice, and dessert). It is not a menu for picky eaters; nor is it a place to take someone who demands to know whether they will “like something” before they order it. The whole idea behind teppanyaki restaurants is to sit down, enjoy the show and let the chefs work their magic.

Sitting at the bar watching the chefs work, I felt like I did in January, 2008, at the early days of Raku. Then, I was watching the birth of a new kind of restaurant — one that plugged into a new, sophisticated zeitgeist of budding internet gastronauts learning about Japanese food. Will Tatsujin be the next Raku (albeit with a much more limited palette)? Or will it be another Omae (remember it?) — a genre-bending, ultimately unsuccessful attempt to broaden Las Vegas’s Japanese food cred?

Only time will tell, but we are a much more knowledgeable food community now than we were ten years ago. Our Japanese food scene has also increased exponentially since then. The time would seem to be right for us to embrace this sort of cooking in this sort of restaurant. Tatsujin is now our most unique Japanese restaurant and steakhouse, and it is certainly the closest you can get to Tokyo without flying there.

(The prices above do not include beverages, but as of this writing only water, tea and some soft drinks are offered. You can BYOB but they ask that you tactfully hand your covered bottles to the staff upon entering, and they will pour your (beer, sake, wine) from the kitchen into ceramic cups as you request. For the quality of the meat and the cooking and the show, and all the attendant dishes, this place has to be considered the best steak deal in town. One of our meals was comped, the other, with the Japanese wagyu surcharge, came to $225/two, including a $50 tip.)

TATSUJIN X

4439 W. Flamingo Road

Las Vegas, NV 89103

702.771.8955