The List 2021 – Vegas on the Rebound

Image(A toast to sanity restored!)

These are the times that try men’s appetites.

And by “try men’s appetites” I mean tempt them unmercifully.

After the trying times of 2020, it seems like nothing but sunshine and rainbows in our culinary world these days. With venue after venue opening (or reopening) to eager mouths and hungry souls.

Downtown is exploding (in a good way), the Strip is awakening like a slumbering giant (or an unstuck freighter?), and the ‘burbs are getting better than ever. Even Tivoli Village has become a destination.

Circa has pumped new life into Fremont Street; Oscar’s now serves the best cheeseburger in town, and we’ve even found a brunch we don’t hate. (High praise indeed!)

For grins and giggles we’ve decided this year to officially keep count of every restaurant in which we eat. In years past we never kept a running total, but generally we averaged around 500/year…for 20+ years.

Covid put an end to that streak — turning us into a soporific shell of our former self.  A somnambulant supper slacker, if you will.

But things have turned around in a big way: It took us all of 2020 to make it to 100 restaurants. This year we did it in a little more than three months.

These are thumbnails of where we’ve been, and why we think you should go there. They are mere sketches, pithy positive platitudes of pontification for your palate’s pleasure, and probably as paired down and word-penurious as our prolific personality can parse.

In other words, they’re short and upbeat and we’ve tried to keep the negativity in check.

And like we at #BeingJohnCurtas always say: you get what you pay for on this website.

So, without further ado, here it is….

THE LIST 2021

THE HEAVYWEIGHTS

Bazaar Meat

Image(Meat me at Bazaar)

It’s been almost a decade since I steaked out the great meat emporiums of the Big Apple, but I’d bet my sweet tenderloin none of them can hold a candle to this pinnacle of prime.

Cipriani

Image(Or as I call it: Friday)

Almost every Friday you’ll find me here at lunch. When someone else puts out a midday repast this elegant, you’ll find me there, too.

Costa di Mare

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As stunning as ever. As expensive as ever. Our splashiest seafood venue is worth a splurge, so don’t complain about the soaking. (You get what you pay for, and ingredients this good, and cooking this precise, are both trés chere. Ivo Angelov, Mark LoRusso and Daniela Santos have this place tuned tauter than the mizzenmast on a ship-of-the-line.

CUT

There are two great steakhouses in Las Vegas and this is one of them. The quality of the meat between CUT and Bazaar is a toss-up (although they source their beef from different purveyors with different philosophies), but on any given night I’d give CUT the edge for the restless inventiveness of Matthew Hurley’s cooking.

Edge Steakhouse

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A real sleeper in the Westgate Hotel. Neither the hotel nor the Yelper clientele quite seem aware of just how great Steve Young’s food is, but if I were forced to rate Vegas steakhouses right now, it would be a strong #3.

Estiatorio Milos

The best Greek restaurant in Las Vegas that isn’t Elia Authentic Greek Taverna. Simply incredible seafood in a stunning new location.

Kaiseki Yuzu

Image(Itadakimasu, Kaoru-san and Mayumi-san.)

Japanese food so authentic you’ll want to start acting like Toshiro Mifune.

Oscar’s Steakhouse –

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(Umani bombs away!)

Ben Jenkins has this place on a roll. His double-cheeseburger (above) belongs on a pedestal of prime.

Raku –

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Image(Hokkaido uni)

Still the best izakaya in the West. Fight me.

NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK

Ada’s Wine Bar –

Image(Shrimply the toast of the town)

Eclectic list; small menu; fabulous food  by Jackson Stamper; al fresco setting. So good I’ll even brave the depressing empty-ugliness of Tivoli Village to go there.

Big Dan’s Chinese Noodles –

Image(Long noodles = long life)

Inside the SF Market on Spring Mountain Road are Biangbiang noodles so good they’ll scare the Shaanxi into you.

Barry’s Prime Steakhouse –

Barry’s will forever be a war with itself over whether it wants to be a serious steakhouse or a hangout for the rich and beautiful. Celebrities and good food go together like hockey and high tea, but if that’s the way they want to market themselves, who am I to argue?

Burgundy Cafe & Bakery –

Image(Missing: a mime)

Our French bakery scene is starting to resemble the Left Bank. To Cafe Breizh, Delices Gourmands, and the newly opened Le Cafe Du Vegas, you can add this gem on West Sahara, built from the floor boards to the mille feuille by Chef Florent Cheveau. Straight outta Paris it is, with pastries so Parisian they ought to come with a mime and an organ grinder.

D’Agostino’s –

Donny Thompson’s makeover of Cafe Chloe is still in mid-stream — waiting for the old regulars to either die off or seek their pre-chewed pasta at some other insipid Italian. There’s lots to love here (Tablecloths! Better wines! True Bolognese!), but also some red sauce holdovers on the menu which are best forgotten. Let Brandi guide you and you’ll eat damn well…especially if you start with the antipasto salad.

8East –

Image(We’re very picanha about our steaks)

Fremont Street’s most fascinating food. Asian-fusion filtered through Dan Coughlin’s American-Thai sensibilities. Open for lunch and dinner. So good it ought to be featured on the Circa Hotel marquee. Get the appetizers — all of them — and that picanha steak (above). On second thought, get the whole menu…except the lobster fried rice. It’s good but not worth the tariff.

Good Pie –

Too many pizzas! That’s what I complain to Vincent Rotolo about: his menu is too damn big. Too many toppings. Too many crusts. Too many options. On the other hand, we have yet to have a bad bite here so I should probably just keep my (pizza) pie hole shut.

Johnny C’s Diner –

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A real, old-fashioned diner, tweaked with just enough cheffy accents to keep the snobs satisfied. Avocado toast may be to savories what cupcakes are to sweets, but Johnny Church’s version is to others what a symphony is to a square dance.

Letty’s –

Image(Toasted Oaxacan cheese-wrapped quesataco at Letty’s)

The best tacos downtown. Don’t even think of arguing with me about this.

Main Street Provisions –

Image(Wagyu eating anywhere but Main Street Provisions?)

They took the ham steak off the menu, and for this I can never forgive them. But they kept the polenta hummus, gonzo babaganoush, the fry bread and the best veggies this side of Sparrow + Wolf, so all is forgiven. P.S. We love the short wine list and the cocktails too.

Osteria Fiorella –

Three previous Italians in this space have all fallen flatter than stale focaccia. Marc Vetri’s troops made it a raging success right out of the chute. I actually enjoyed my brunch there, even if the whole time I was dreaming about dinner.

Pizza Forte –

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Mimmo Ferraro is casting pearls before swine by bringing legitimate, big city pizza to unworthy college kids at UNLV who probably think Little Caesars is an upgrade from Domino’s. They won’t appreciate his cheesy, crusty, New York-inspired pies. But we do, Mimmo, we do.

Rainbow Kitchen –

Image(Dungeness love crab?)

Holy har gow, Batman! The dim sum here is spectacular! And a dumpling or three above its competition. This place had the misfortune to open one month before Covid hit (late January last year), and had been limping along since last summer. Now that restrictions have loosened, it has become Number 1 on every shu mai researcher’s list. A well-heeled Chinese clientele has taken to it like hoisin to spare ribs. Killer deals on Dungeness crabs (above) and lobsters, too. Very Cantonese, but also quite welcoming to gwailo. No carts, you order off a menu, much as you do in the nicer dim sum palaces of Hong Kong. “All of our food stays fresher that way,” says owner Bill Chiang, and he’s right.

Robata En –

Ramir de Castro returns! Bringing his unique brand of Japanese fusion to Spring Mountain Road. Like many of the newbies on this list, he’s had a brutal go of it for the past year, waiting to open, then opening with all kinds of restrictions. If you liked him at Yonaka (where he first made his mark), you’ll love his updated takes on tsukune, kaarage and such. I was always puzzled about why Yonaka threw in the towel after an awesome start, loyal fan base, and plenty of publicity, but whatever the reason, he’s back and Chinatown is richer for it.

Saginaw’s –

Image(Better than…?)

Sex is great, but have you tried “Derek’s Favorite” roast beef and salami sandwich?

YUGA KOREAN –

A pleasant surprise right next door to the Village Theaters on West Sahara. Friendly service. Easy to love Korean ‘cue.

Yu-Or-Mi Sushi –

Is it top-drawer, drop-your-chopsticks sushi of the Kame, YUI, or Kabuto persuasion? No, but it’s a damn site better than most neighborhood spots, with some interesting sakes and Japanese beers.

OLD RELIABLES

China Mama –

Image(The Mamas of China Mama)

Our best Chinese restaurant. Period.

DE Thai Kitchen –

Small but mighty. Small but incendiary menu. The Kua Gling (spicy southern Thai dry curry) separates the men from the boys in the Thai spice brigade.

E-jo Korean –

Image(E-jo banchan, I say, before I do.)

It had been ages since we ate here. One of the first Korean restaurant locations in town that’s still going strong. (Back in the day, there were several in Commercial Center, but all have gone to that great banchan in the sky.) Modest but satisfying, and filled with fellow Korean travelers chattering away in their native tongue the day we visited.

Elia Authentic Greek Taverna –

Jammed every night it’s open, with good reason. Beautiful Greek food even my yia yia would approve of.

Ferraro’s –

Former Chef of the Year Francesco di Caudo was a Covid casualty — which tells me means they’re going back to basics at our oldest and best Italian. But the basics here have always been solid, and the wine list remains an Ital oenophile’s dream come true — now with some beautiful discounts on some of its best bottles.

Kung Fu Thai-Chinese –

There is something delightfully old school about this institution on Valley View at Spring Mountain Road. Most of it is standard issue, but sometimes a body just wants to getta big dish of beef chow mein.

Los Antojos –

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Image(Tacos, tacos, y mas tacos!)

Hadn’t been in almost a decade, even though it was in the early editions of EATING LAS VEGAS – The 50 Essential Restaurant (Max Jacobson was a huge fan). I was alone. Ordered a couple of things. Sat down. Removed the mask; fiddled with the phone. Within minutes the manager came over, dropped his mask to reveal and ear-to-ear grin and shook my hand. Then he pointed to various notices, articles, and awards on the wall (from Saveur magazine to Food Network) and thanked me for all the national recognition they received after our first book came out in 2010. Made my fucking day. P.S. The food is still great (as it has been since 1995), at this ultimate Mexican hole-in-the-wall.

Nakamura-Ya –

Image(I’m urchin you to try this uni linguine)

Japan goes Italian with some creamy, seafood-packed pastas. The real deal that’s also a real deal.

Ohlala French Bistro –

French resilience should never be underestimated. Another mainstay that came through Covid smelling like a rosé.

Orchid’s Garden –

Not the best dim sum by a long shot, but a lot better than it used to be.

Partage –

The Three Musketeers — Vincent, Yuri and Nicolas — have created a following for all things French….in the middle of Chinatown. Their new wine store venture — French Cellar by Partage — has quickly become the in-spot for Burgundian imbibing.  Incroyable!

PublicUs –

This place is so crowded nobody goes there anymore.

The Black Sheep –

Jamie Tran is on this season’s Top Chef. Go Jamie Go! And go you should to hear neighborhood powerhouse that’s soon to be one tough ticket, until she expands, which we hope happens soon.

7th & Carson –

The Irish breakfast is worth a trip all by itself.

Sparrow + Wolf –

Image(Endless pastabilities)

Brian Howard’s seasonal menus are things of beauty. Blink and you’ll miss them. Therefore, we suggest you hit S+W seasonally, if not more often, if you want to thoroughly examine what our most restless chef is rustling up.

Windy City Dogs –

A thing of beauty.

The Italian beef didn’t wow us; the Chicago dogs did.

Yi Mei Champion Deli –

Weird Taiwanese spot tucked deep into a Spring Mountain strip mall. No one speaks much English, service is spotty, decor is mid-century-someone’s-warehouse, but some of the soups will save you a ticket to Taipei.

JURY STILL OUT

Flock & Fowl –

Will be changing its name and concept soon. Good bar food is tough to find, and better-than-average bar vittles is what they’ll be shooting for here. We’re rooting for it.

Milpa

Image(Everything but the location bowls me over)

Beautiful, fresh-ground tortillas, nice tacos, local sourcing, and hard-working chefs with a great idea in the wrong place.

Steve’s Pig Pickins BBQ –

Good ‘cue. Terrible location. We shall see.

NEVER AGAIN

Hugo’s Cellar –

Read this and weep.

Mint Indian Bistro –

Vegas once boasted a host of outstanding Indian eats….or at least a half-dozen addresses of acceptable sub-continent alimentation. What the hell happened?


That’ll do it for the first quarter of the year. As bullish as we are about Vegas’s restaurant future, it won’t truly be “back” until the great Strip dining palaces are open more than 3 nights a week. Fingers are crossed; breath is being held.

In the meantime, find someone who covers more territory than I do, and I’ll buy them dinner at Restaurant Guy Savoy.

If you’re interested, here are the restaurant meals I’ve had since January 1st of this year, in order:

  1. Jack Pots – Circa
  2. Cipriani
  3. Saginaw’s
  4. D’Agostino’s
  5. PublicUs
  6. Vegas Test Kitchen
  7. Cipriani
  8. The Tap House
  9. DE Thai Kitchen
  10. PublicUs
  11. Hugo’s Cellar
  12. Cornish Pasty
  13. Goodwich
  14. Yu-Or-Mi Sushi
  15. Cipriani
  16. Orchid’s Garden
  17. Financier – Winter Park, Florida
  18. Hamilton’s – Winter Park, Florida
  19. Boca – Winter Park, Florida
  20. Croissant Gourmet – Winter Park, Florida
  21. Bosphorous Turkish – Winter Park, Florida
  22. Rocco’s – Winter Park, Florida
  23. Financier – Winter Park, Florida
  24. FARM – Bluffton, South Carolina
  25. Skylight Inn – Ayden, South Carolina
  26. Sam Jones BBQ – Ayden, South Carolina
  27. Rodney Scott BBQ – Charleston, South Carolina
  28. Lewis BBQ – Charleston, South Carolina
  29. Waffle House – Somewhere in Georgia (Birthday Breakfast!) Image
  30. China Mama
  31. Main Street Provisions
  32. Cipriani
  33. Oscar’s Steakhouse
  34. Yi Mei Champion Deli
  35. Kaiseki Yuzu
  36. E-jo Korean
  37. Ferraro’s
  38. Robata En
  39. Cipriani
  40. Yu-Or-Mi Sushi
  41. Barry’s Prime
  42. Cipriani
  43. Johnny C’s Diner
  44. Good Pie
  45. Good Pie
  46. Cipriani
  47. Oscar’s Steakhouse
  48. YUGA Korean BBQ
  49. Steve’s Pig Pickins BBQ
  50. 8East
  51. 7th & Carson
  52. Elia Authentic Greek Taverna
  53. Saginaw’s
  54. Yu-Or-Mi Sushi
  55. Milpas
  56. Cipriani
  57. Burgundy Bakery & Cafe
  58. Bazaar Meat
  59. Windy City Dogs
  60. 7th & Carson
  61. Kung Fu Thai-Chinese
  62. Raku
  63. Main Street Provisions
  64. Yu-Or-Mi Sushi
  65. Esther’s Kitchen
  66. Cipriani
  67. Big Dan Chinese Noodles
  68. Ohlala French Bistro
  69. Saginaw’s
  70. Osteria Fiorella
  71. 8East
  72. Saginaw’s
  73. Edge Steakhouse
  74. Cipriani
  75. Big Dan Chinese Noodles
  76. Estiatorio Milos
  77. Letty’s
  78. Partage
  79. Los Antojos
  80. Del Taco (Yes, Del Taco.)
  81. Yum Cha Dim Sum
  82. Mint Indian Bistro
  83. Osteria Fiorella (Brunch!)
  84. Milos
  85. Nakamura-Ya
  86. Papa Noodle
  87. Los Antojos
  88. Saginaw’s
  89. Cipriani
  90. Costa di Mare
  91. Flock & Fowl
  92. Good Pie
  93. Sparrow+Wolf
  94. The Black Sheep
  95. Main Street Provisions
  96. Cipriani
  97. Pizza Forte
  98. Ada’s Wine Bar
  99. CUT
  100. Cipriani
  101. Rainbow Kitchen
  102. Letty’s
  103. Milos
  104. Main Street Provisions
  105. Cipriani

Image(Big Dan Shaanxi Noodle Shop)

The Covid Diaries – Vol. 10 – What’s Next?

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Day 57, May 12 – Surveying the Landscape

What’s next? Who the fuck knows.

Trying to figure out what’s next is the question on everyone’s mind.

I, for one, have decided to stop thinking about it.

Fearing for businesses I love, and the futures of people I respect, has (literally) kept me up nights over the past six weeks.

But it’s a “no win” game going on between my ears, because what’s done is done and nothing I think, do, or say will affect what’s going to happen.

All I can do is continue to put my money where my mouth is, and urge you to do the same.

Image(Beauteous bento at Kaiseki Yuzu)

Trying to find a silver lining in the cloud that hangs over Las Vegas is a fool’s game. Nothing good will come out of this.

Most cities are fearful for some peoples’ jobs; Las Vegas has an entire industry that’s been laid to waste.

We’re talking entire hotels going under, not just a few small businesses, or the death of an outdated business model.

Imagine someone telling New York City it can re-open, but Wall Street has to remain closed “indefinitely” and you’ll get the idea. Or Hollywood being told it can’t make movies and TV shows in the foreseeable future.

The Sinking of the RMS Titanic (1912)(Las Vegas, say hello to your leetle friend)

Every city’s economy will feel a ripple effect from this shutdown; in Vegas, it is more like a tidal wave, soon to be followed by another tidal wave…as Titanic after Titanic sinks.

If/when a place like Mandalay Bay goes down (with its thousands of employees), it’ll be more like an aircraft carrier sinking.

To keep the maritime metaphor going, turning around Las Vegas’s shattered economy will be like asking the 7th Fleet to change course.

The word is MGM Resorts is going to open only two hotels in its portfolio: Bellagio and New York New York. The Palms has been shuttered until a buyer can be found — taking with it a star-studded lineup of restaurants, including Vetri, Mabel’s BBQ, Shark, and Scotch 80 Prime. The exquisite Mr. Coco is also history.

The Wynn/Encore group is making noises about re-opening everything (including all restaurants) this summer, but its statements feel more like a p.r. gambit than reality.

Venetian/Palazzo is a more unwieldy beast, with dozens of eateries leasing space in both the hotels and the Grand Canal Shoppes. Still, props to both hotel corps for being aggressive in trying to make themselves attractive to vacationers again — even if a quarter of all their customers have indicated they won’t return to Sin City until a vaccine is found.

Nothing about the numbers looks good for the hospitality industry. The Nevada gubenator has mandated a 50% reduction in seating in all restaurants — as if businesses operating on 10% margins can make a go of it with their revenue stream cut in half.

Locally, Tivoli Village (a restaurant black hole in the best of times) is losing Brio and Hampton’s, with perhaps more on the way. Unless some free rent deals are figured out pronto, expect others to follow suit.

Image(Maggie the Magnificent)

The only good news I’ve been able to discern in all of this, after speaking with numerous chefs and owners over the past month, is this: small, personal, low-overhead joints may be able to weather this storm. Places like Japaneiro (top of page) La Maison de Maggie (above) Kaiseki Yuzu, The Real Crepe, Elia Authentic Greek Taverna, or Saga Pastry + Sandwich, might survive, with a little help from the government and their landlords.

These eateries are simple operations — little more than a chef/owner at the helm and a helper (often a family member) in the dining room or kitchen. I like to think of them as speedboats, rather than the behemoth battleships of the Strip. They can get by with less because their operations are so bare bones. This was a major part of their charm before, and it’ll be what drives customers to them now.

Re-booting won’t be so easy for chef-ier joints like Esther’s Kitchen, Partage, Honey Salt, Sparrow + Wolf and Other Mama. Don’t kid yourselves — for all the laid back vibe they project, these are sophisticated operations with lots of moving parts. The good news is they have loyal followings of diners just itching to return; the bad news is you may find a restaurant that, for the time being, is 50% of what it used to be in more ways than one.

Image(Hiro-san slices heroic sushi)

If I was a betting man, I’d be betting on Chinatown. And by “Chinatown” I mean our pan-Pacific panoply of Asian eats all over town.

Never underestimate the resourcefulness of Asians, I say!  They’ve been bucking the odds in this country since the 1850s. Their restaurants, almost by definition, are lean and mean family operations. They expect less and have centuries of experience doing more with less, cooking-wise.

For a taste of Vegas like it was a couple of months ago, you can’t go wrong with  Shang Artisan Noodle, Hiroyoshi, Monta Ramen, or China Mama, or scores of other joints up and down Spring Mountain Road.

Yes, nothing is coming up roses right now, but worrying about it accomplishes nothing. (Easy for me to say, I know.)

How quickly people forget that the reason for the lockdown in the first place was to “flatten the curve” and keep our hospitals from being overrun. Guess what? They never were, and the curve flattened long ago.

This is what happens when you turn public policy over to germaphobes, public health ninnies*, and fraidy-cat politicians. They’ve ensured that the picture ahead isn’t pretty — but it might be pretty tasty if you know where to look.

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* Pardon my snark, but if pro-shutdown advocates are going to continue to treat Covid deaths (most of which are the very sick and old) as tragedies of biblical proportions, then I’m going to (continue to) to play the cynical skeptic.

Chef of the Year – Brian Howard

Until Brian Howard had the foresight to place an American gastropub on Spring Mountain Road, this three-mile stretch of “Chinatown” was the exclusive province of all things Asian. Now, it’s where gastronauts go for boutique lettuce salads, beet and green apple tartare, and giant steaks served with a dozen side dishes.

Those sides are an homage to the Korean banchan available up and down the avenue, and give a strong hint about how Howard loves to mix and match his meal metaphors. While one table is fighting over an Hamachi collar, another may be torn between the lamb neck with herb crêpes, scallop robata, or Chinatown Clams Casino.

By making Sparrow + Wolf our most interesting restaurant, Howard did more than just fuse a number of cuisines. He bridged a great divide between our various gastronomic cultures, inspired others (Partage, Mordeo Boutique Wine Bar, EDO Gastro Tapas & Wine) to follow suit, and turned this neighborhood into our number one dining destination.

SPARROW + WOLF

4480 Spring Mountain Road

Las Vegas, NV 89102

702.790.2147