The Covid Diaries – Vol. 9 – The List

Image(Puck’s peeps knock it out of the park)

Day 50, May 5 – Where We Ate

The Great Cessation is winding down. What began in a fit of panic will end in a cloud of failure and despair.

Lives have been ruined, businesses crushed, hopes dashed….but the media and government did its job: whipping everyone into a frenzy so they would buy into the ham-fisted, blunt instrument approach to public health — one akin to “we have to destroy the village in order to save it.”

Both (media and government) are better at getting into messes than getting out of them, so picking up the pieces will be left to the citizens.

And there will be pieces aplenty: 30 million unemployed; an economy in shambles; poverty, disease, murder hornets, you name it.

Las Vegas will be hit hardest of all, just like it was by the Great Recession. (If you don’t believe in Karma, you might consider these double-whammies, twelve years apart, have followed 20 years of unprecedented growth. Yup, Vegas will end up paying double for all the unbridled prosperity it enjoyed between 1989-2009.)

But enough depressive pontification, We are here to celebrate the places that have fed us so well over the past six weeks.

As you might guess, we didn’t let some little old Covid-19 shutdown interfere too much with our gustatory gallivanting. The biggest issue on a daily basis was lunch. Only a few places are open for takeout, so most days it was homemade sandwiches, fruit and cheese brought to work. (I’ve actually lost a couple pounds.)

Dinner found more places open, but even then, we ordered out far less than our habit. (In peak season, The Food Gal® and I easily hit 10+ restaurants a week.)

When we went out, more often than not, we brought our own table and chairs and ate on the sidewalk outside the restaurant with our friends, Deanna and Greg. (They got stranded here, from their Boise, Idaho base, on March 15 and have been toughing it out by working at home and helping us relieve the boredom.)

Occasionally, a restaurant would wave us inside and serve us like the old days — this helped everyone feel as if a little sanity had been restored to a world turned upside down. (These restaurants will not be named for fear the Covid Gestapo is only too eager to hate-shame (or worse) anyone who doesn’t share their misery.)

Dinner was confined to far fewer options than you might expect (good pizza, amazingly was not in abundance throughout this crisis), but if you wanted to drive, lots of quality is/was out there. Very little of it compared to what those same restaurants could turn out at full throttle, but at least you knew a real chef was busting her/his ass to feed you.

We are listing the restaurants in the order in which their takeout menu most closely approximated the quality of what they do when firing on all cylinders. But there are no losers here. Even the most mediocre meal was savored with the appreciation of Lucius Beebe contemplating the nesting habits of a recently-devoured woodcock.

At the end of The List, we’ll have a few choice words for people who continue to accuse us of criticizing the shutdown only because we only want to get back to eating in fancy restaurants.

The List:

Raku

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Both The Food Gal and I forgot our anniversary (on April 29). That is how soul-deadening this has been. Endo-san and Haruko-san bailed me(us?) out big time by bringing their “A” game — from bento boxes to grilled Japanese wagyu — for a meal that, if you closed your eyes, was a dead ringer for any other of the dozens we’ve had there.

Kaiseki Yuzu

Image(Katsu-preme chicken)

Las Vegas’s most beautiful bento — because, if you need to be reminded, the Japanese perfected takeout food when Americans were still living in log cabins.

Player’s Locker by Wolfgang Puck

Image(Chinois Chicken Salad never goes out of style)

All hail to the Wolfgang Puck Restaurant Group! It has the horsepower to do what few restaurateurs anywhere could: bring a murderer’s row (at top of page) of its local chefs together (at its Summerlin location) to produce an ever-changing menu of Puck classics (above), as well as dishes from each of its six local restaurants. Stars like Matthew Hurley, Kamel Guechida and Nicole Erle, the are producing food, bread, and desserts as eye-popping and fork-dropping as any restaurant in America over these past six weeks. With all that talent at the stoves, how could they not?

Tres Cazuelas

We ate on the sidewalk, but the food would suffer very little if taken home. Braised dished always travel well.

Lamaii

Image(Tangy Thai needs terrific Riesling)

Another sidewalk dinner — straight out of Styrofoam — but one that knocked our socks off.

Café Breizh

Image(Napoleon would be proud)

A lifesaver each week, turning out French pastries and breads worthy of Pierre Gatel’s “Pastry Chef of the Year 2019” award.

The Black Sheep

Image(No table? No problem. We bring our own!)

Jamie Tran now owns the restaurant herself, and herself and a helper are staying strong and producing a truncated menu of her standards that are as tasty as she is adorable.

DE Thai Kitchen

Thai restaurants seem to be weathering the storm better than pizza joints. DE Thai hasn’t missed a beat.

Saga Pastry + Sandwich

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I love this place — even if they can’t get those beautiful tiny, sweet, Scandinavian shrimp for their smorgasbord sandwich right now. It’s one of only two reasons that can get me to the restaurant black hole that is Henderson/Green Valley. I love it, but I also fear for its future.

Ohlala French Bistro

Richard Terzaghi is doing it all himself, and what he’s doing is doing his French tradition proud.

Sin City Smokers

Ribs and a pork sammie blew me away the other day on an episode of Las Vegas Food To Go.

L & L Hawaiian Barbecue

Image(The Burly Boyz take on Hawaiian ‘cue)

Best Kaluha pig I’ve had in Vegas. My comments on Spam Musubi are best left for a time when I’m not struggling to say only nice things.

China Mama

I dream about their xiao long bao and Dan Dan noodles. All of the proteins here — from boiled fish to lamb with cumin — are stellar as well. The fish dishes do not travel well, however.

PublicUs

Another lifesaver. Has become our morning go-to for coffee. The tips we leave often exceed the size of the bill…and they’re worth it.

Locale Italian Kitchen

Nicole Brisson has left the building. Before she left, she cooked us one helluva meal.

Rooster Boy Cafe

We would frequent here more often if Sonia El-Nawal didn’t have her hands full servicing customers who can’t get enough of her catered dinners and superb pastries.

Delices Gourmands French Bakery & Cafe

Image(Palm tree perfection)

I like Pierre Gatel’s baguettes better at Cafe Breizh (by the width of a mille-feuille layer), but the bread selection (and pastries) here is a close second on all other fronts, and I would walk three miles for one of their palmiers…and have!

Kung Fu Thai & Chinese

Any place that’s been in business since 1974 is doing a lot of things right. Just the spot when you’re craving some cashew chicken or Yen Ta Fo soup.

7th and Carson

Still one of Vegas’s most boffo burgers. So good we were fighting over the last bite.

Yummy Rice

Simple little rice bowls studded with veggies or proteins. Normally, they serve these in super-heated clay pots – Hong Kong style. Now, the rice caramelizes on the bottom of cheap, to-go aluminum.  Something is lost but the bowls are still damn tasty. A Food Gal® favorite.

Weiss Deli & Bakery

Image(Righteous pastrami on rye)

Jewish food and Las Vegas go together like craps and born-again Christians. Our best bagels are made by an Italian. Go Figure. Weiss is the closest we have to real, big city deli. Bagels, lox, pastrami, rugelach, the works — they have it all and all of it is worth traveling to Sunset and Sunset for.

Valley Cheese and Wine

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Three weeks in a row we’ve headed to the far corners of Horizon Ridge to grab some cheese and wine here. We never fail to blow at least a couple of Benjamins, and we’ll spend twice as much if means keeping this little gem in business.

Ocha Thai 

Always a fave. Always there when we need a Thai fix.

Now, some final thoughts.

Many times over the last six weeks we’ve been accused (by self-righteous supporters of the shutdown) of being opposed to it solely because it prevents us from eating in fancy restaurants.

Here’s a typical (but by no means uncommon) barb tossed my way by those who, over the past month or so, have decided to really, really care about old, sick people dying in hospitals thousands of miles away:

So, just to be clear, if you’ve had COVID -19, have it, or lost somebody to it, John wants you to know that you’re nothing more than an inconvenience to his dining agenda. [B}efore they died, did you tell them to their face that you were glad they were dying, because it meant you could dine out sooner?

My response on Facebook was a little blunt: I told the writer (politely) to go fuck himself.

A more nuanced response would have been as follows:

The only thing I’ve obsessed about during this debacle has been how brutal it has been on working people in the hospitality business. Whether I ever eat another foie gras torchon has been the furthest thing from my mind.

I eat out now because I love restaurants and restaurant people — love supporting them, love watching them thrive. My devotion is like someone who loves a sports team — it is unconditional. But it is also different. Because every day I evince my passion with my time, my appetite, my prose and my paycheck. My life has been a full one; I will eat well no matter what happens.

What I’ve also realized from fifty years of obsessing about food is how important restaurants are to the soul of a community. We are social beings. Gathering to eat and drink has been inculcated into our DNA since time immemorial. You can no more prevent people from talking, rubbing elbows, sharing food, or passing the platter than you can keep the sun from shining.

The idea that you should take a society and shut it down to keep people from breathing on each other is the dumbest thing since the Vietnam War. Unlike the war, however, this policy will ruin tens of millions of lives across the globe.  It is those lives who deserve our sympathy, not people you don’t know — people you’re only pretending to care about because it makes it easier to disguise your fear and makes you feel better about yourself.

You’re right about one thing, though. Because of your irrational fear(s), the Golden Age of American Restaurants is over. The way has been cleared for soulless, antiseptic, corporate eateries to dominate our landscape for years to come. But for as long as I can still chew, I going to fight you and your fright, and put my money where my mouth is to keep places like those above alive.

Image(Big eye tuna from Player’s Locker)

You Can’t Beat This Meat – MABEL’S and SIN CITY SMOKERS

(A man and his rib)

Las Vegas is where barbecue goes to die.

If I’ve said these words once, I’ve said them a thousand times.

Great ‘cue has come and gone over the years. From Struttin’ Gates to Paul Kirk’s R.U.B. to Salt Lick to Little Joe’s at Plant World (remember him?), all the good ones barely make it two years in Vegas before picking up stakes and heading back where they came from. (Kansas City, Kansas City, and Driftwood, Texas if you’re interested.) As far as we know, Little Joe departed for that great red neck smoker in the sky years ago.

Because of the failures of actual, pit-cooked, smokehouse barbecue, the real, smokey deal has been harder to find around here than a pork chop in an ashram.

And because mediocrity in all forms sells in these here parts (Guy Fieri, Giada, Donny and Marie…) set-it-and-forget-it has become the watchword of all of our barbecue restaurants. Why bother trying to do something good, the thinking goes, if your customers can’t tell the difference?

But things they be a’changin’. First out Green Valley way with Sin City Smokers, and more recently with Michael Symon’s Mabel’s.

Steve Overlay’s Sin City Smokers has been around for a while, and the only thing I can find wrong with it is that it’s too far from my house. His ultra-long smoke times produce a beautiful bark, and spoon-tender brisket ($9) that is dense and moist — whether you’re biting into a lean or fatty cut. No mean feat that.

Speaking of brisket, Valley Cheese and Wine proprietor Bob Howald sprinkled the finishing salt you see on the cuts above. He told me he always does it with brisket and he was right: the little flakes of sodium chloride really bring out the beefiness (and smoke) in the meat. Try it sometime.

Symon (pictured at the top of the page) is a well-known celebrity chef from Cleveland. (Full disclosure: I once judged him on an episode of Iron Chef America. He won, if memory serves.) As a Greek-Sicilian, you might presume that he has as much business doing barbecue as dim sum, but like all accomplished chefs (and Overlay, for that matter, who also did some serious work in professional kitchens), when he sets his mind to cooking something, he does it right.

And I’m here to tell you: Mabel’s has got it right.

The brisket is straight outta Austin. More particularly, I’d hold it up to the stuff being done around Lexington, Texas like Snow’s or Louis Mueller). As good as the brisket is, it is the brontosaurian beef rib — straight from Black’s in Lockhart — that will get your attention.

Keeping the Texas vernacular going, Symon’s hot links have that snap, bite and serious heat you rarely find outside of the Lone Star State.

More Carolina-like is his spicy pulled pork sandwich ($14), a thing of beauty in its own right:

(Spicy pulled pork)

And then there is that beef rib ($50). Coated with “pastrami spices”, it is 2+ pounds of pure, unadulterated beefy bliss. According to the menu, it’s enough for 2+ hungry adults. Realistically, it’ll feed four.

Of course, the disclaimer didn’t dissuade yours truly from tearing into one all by his lonesome:

(I enjoy eating things as big as my head)

When I got done with it, there was plenty more on the platter to tackle, including some righteous ribs, truly sour kraut, house made pickles, and cheddar-jalapeno hot links that take no prisoners.

Put it all together and you have the most complete barbecue restaurant to come to town since Salt Lick threw in the towel ten years ago at the Red Rock Resort.

About the only thing I’m not wild about at Mabel’s are the sauces. Three are offered: Cleveland Mustard, Sweet and Sour, and Green Chile. They’re plenty tasty (especially the mustard), but have a guar gum-my thick stickiness to them which imparts a cheap mouthfeel and  impedes their flow from the bottle. Better, if less complex, are the house-made sweet, or sweetly-spicy stuff Overlay is pouring at Sin City:

(Why are these pigs smiling?)

As for sides, I barely pay attention when the meat is this good, but Mabel’s does a killer poppyseed slaw and Sin City does a super-filling “Five cheese smack-a-roni” of uncommon cheesiness.

Desserts at both are minimal and forgettable, but who cares when things are this smokin’?

For years, I’ve told anyone who’ll listen to avoid the beef in our barbecue joints. (I’ve eaten so much lousy, tough, dry, stringy ‘cue in this town, I’ve taken to making my own a few times a year.)

Sin City and Mabel’s are the first places in a long time where I can firmly and happily advise to park the pork and bring on the brisket.

Just like they do in Texas.

SIN CITY SMOKERS

2861 N. Green Valley Pkwy

Henderson, NV 89014

702.823.5606

http://www.sincitysmokers.com/restaurant

MABEL’S BBQ

Palms Casino and Resort

702.944.5931

http://palms.com/mabels-bbq.html

 

 

 

First Bites – BOTECO, ELIA, MERAKI, SALUD et al

We at ELV don’t wish to alarm you, but there’s a mini-restaurant boom a’ happenin’ in our humble burg. And we’ve been a busy beaver checking them all out lately.

For every closure (Standard & Pour, Zydeco, Glutton) there seems to be several new kids on the block springing up.

Thus have we recently seen everything from Korean Chinese (Yu Xiang) to Israeli (2 Bald Guys) to barbecue (Sin City Smokers) to Mexican (Salud) to Greek (Meraki, Elia) to Spanish (Boteco) to badly-named, half-baked concepts (7th & Carson) become major blips on our radar. Don’t forget, the hit-from-the-get-go Sparrow + Wolf is only a month old, and try to wrap your head around the fact that two of our best new eateries are….wait for it….GREEK!

The one that has blown us away is Elia Authentic Greek Taverna.

The one that has intrigued us is Salud Mexican Bistro and Tequileria.

The two that are packing them in are Meraki Greek Grill and Sparrow.

The rest of them have major uphill battles ahead.

For now, though, let’s accentuate the positive.

Meraki is doing a land-office business based with a fast-casual concept that is being expertly executed by Nikos Georgousis (formerly of Milos) and Girair Goumroian. (Try saying those names after a few ouzos sometime.) It’s basically your best hits of Greek casual food — gyros, (pronounced HEE-roe, not GY-ro) souvlaki, salad, tzatziki, taramasalata, avgolemono soup, dolmades, etc. — and all of it done to a “t”. We’ve tried about half the menu and can highly recommend all of the mezze (appetizers) and the gorgeous lamb burger:

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There are a dozen or so “Mediterranean” restaurants around town doing this food (many of them being run by Bulgarians and Russians, strangely), but Meraki is a cut above them all. As good as it is, though, it doesn’t quite hit the heights of its first cousin a few miles away, as you’ll read below.

The just-opened 2 Bald Guys did not impress, but we plan on giving it another whirl. The food (shawarma, tabouli) seems technically proficient but is woefully under-seasoned. It’s the first restaurant I can remember where I actively reached for the salt shaker multiple times during my meal. On the plus side, the house-made hot sauces are fantastic…and necessary. This place can fill a much-needed niche downtown if it ups the ante on its seasonings, but if the food remains this timid,  we fear people will stay away in droves.

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Boteco was a treat. It’s got a big city/small tapas bar vibe, and a small menu of innovative small bites like botequito sliders made with smoked Gouda and caramelized onions:

Dungeness- Singapore Chilli crab dip:

…and off-beat items like avocado crunch salad, escargot croquetas, and braised beef and Piedmontese rice — all dedicated to showing off the chops of Executive Chef Rachel LeGloahec, a veteran of Joël Robuchon’s kitchens and a girl with serious skills. Boteco is a sliver of a place in a monster of a strip mall in the middle of a town (Henderson) that treats chef-driven restaurants like leprosy colonies. Like we told Cory Harwell when he opened Standard & Pour: “Good luck (Rachel), you’ll need it.”

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 YuXiang is for fellow travelers (and adventuresome eaters) only — although the crispy beef (lower left in the picture above)  with sweet-sour sauce would make anyone happy.

Sin City Smokers (above) showed us the best brisket we’ve seen in Vegas (other than our own), along with some serious sides.

It’s not Central Texas quality, but it’s a durn sight better than a dozen other mediocre spots in town, and its house-made sauces (especially the pepper-vinegar) are a treat. We weren’t as keen on the chopped pork, but the ribs were first-rate and smoky — not the borderline-inedible, chewy ones passed off by some joints in these here parts. There is definitely a return visit to SSS sometime in our future.

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Salud is something of a mystery. It sprung up almost overnight in the old Rosemary’s space on west Sahara. We went in on a weekend night and it was mostly empty. Our hearts sank but our bellies were growling, so we took a seat, ordered some peppers stuffed with chorizo, ceviche, and guacamole, and expected some same old same old stuff. What arrived (above) showed the freshness and snap you don’t usually encounter in by-the-numbers, south of the border cantinas. “This is a lot better than I expected,” said the Food Gal®, and we had to agree with her. Time will tell if this place finds an audience in a ‘hood starving for good things to eat.

And then there’s Elia, which means olive in Greek.

One of my cousins told me I had to go. “It’s real Greek food,” he said. “No hummus, good bread, not pita (which Greeks consider Arabic bread), real pork souvlaki, out-of-this-world fish, amazing tyrokafteri (spicy whipped feta), great vegetables,” he continued,  “actual gigantes beans in fresh tomato sauce, just like my mother makes (ELV side note: his mother is a wonderful Greek cook), you’ve got to go!” He was so excited he drove me there. One bite in and I could see what he was talking about.

Those beans were a treat unto themselves:

 

The lamb as perfect as lamb can get:

 

Those potatoes beside the lamb were beyond wonderful; the french fries with the souvlaki as crispy and melting as fries can be. (Real Greeks, not Bulgarians-pretending-to-be-Greeks, have a thing about seasoning potatoes correctly – with salt, pepper, oregano and lemon.)

They even do a beets thing here, topping them with chunky, garlicky potatoes sprinkled with green onions that is so good (this from a beet hater) you will want the recipe:

 

The galaktoboureko is the best I’ve ever had (outside of my yia yia’s house):

 

..and the 40 seat restaurant is a charm to sit in, with a small selection of good Greek wines at soft prices.

Elia might be the most exciting new restaurant in town. (I’m not saying this because I’m part Greek.) It certainly is the best, most authentic, beautifully composed Greek food Las Vegas has ever seen. You might be tempted to drive right past it (on south Durango) thinking it’s just another souvlaki/gyro shop. Don’t. Stop your car. Park it and walk in and taste this cuisine the way it’s supposed to be.

Kali Orixi! (“bon appetit”  in Greek).