Why I Live Where I Live

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My House:

It was never supposed to last this long.

What started as a mild flirtation with Vegas has turned out to be the longest commitment of my life.

What brought me here was a woman (the second Mrs. Curtas), what’s kept me here has been my house.

Before buying this property, my transience was legendary.

Between 1970 (the year I left my parent’s domicile) and 1995 (when I settled here), I estimate I changed residences 22 times. College, law school, children, divorces, moving cross-country three times — things were pretty hectic for 25 years. The longest stretch in a single abode was four years; the shortest were nights spent couch surfing at the houses of sympathetic friends.

Then, one day in June, 1995, my then wife-to-be (the third Mrs. Curtas) stumbled upon an unprepossessing bungalow, smack dab in the middle of town (in old but not really old Las Vegas), and we fell in love at first sight.

With the house at least. Four years later we were splitting the sheets. She moved; I stayed.

It was a bachelor pad/party house for a few years and served all the functions necessary to those pursuits (nothing gets a woman out of her clothes faster than a hot tub), but it fell into disrepair as those exploits faded and the Great Recession took hold. It was nip and tuck as to whether I could keep it up for a while (insert dirty joke here), but through bailing wire and financial duct tape, things held together.

Now, the final Mrs. C (the long-suffering Food Gal®), has restored its former glory, and I wouldn’t live anywhere else in Las Vegas if you gave me a McMansion on a golf course with a butler.

Image(Feng shui 100, Curb Appeal 0)

As much as I love it, my house has zero curb appeal. There’s barely even a front. All you see from the street is a three-car garage with an iron gate beside it. But as anyone in real estate can tell you, fancy frontage frequently foretells edificial falsity. Or something like that.

The best thing about the place is its shape. Feng shui they call it, and you can’t help but notice the feel-good quality as soon as you walk in the iron gate. That shape is a “U” which wraps around a small rectangular swimming pool — exuding coziness from the get-go.

Most houses have walls; mine has windows. Big ones. Lots of them, some with giant sliding glass doors and some without. More natural light streams in than the Bellagio Conservatory; so much natural light the warmth of the sun is almost all we need to heat the place in winter.

One side of the U is the garage, the other two sides are the “L”-shaped living structure — nothing fancy but laid out for maximum comfort. You feel good when you walk through that iron gate and suddenly see the pool wrapped on three sides by the house. Everyone does. I’ve never had a person come over who didn’t remark how charming the layout is — even at the height of my bachelor revelries when dirty ashtrays, empty bottles, and womens’ underwear strewn about.

Somewhere around 2000 one of those parties ended with my couch — a fully functional living room couch — sitting at the bottom of the pool. Another soirée found some drunken lass spewing chunks all over my master bathroom, after I begged her….BEGGED HER…to stay outside on the lawn if she wasn’t feeling well. Took me three hours and a gallon of Clorox to clean up. Still remember going to court that morning stinking of bleach, no sleep, and middle-aged bachelor despair. Good times.

My house is more masculine than feminine, more Palm Springs than Palm Beach. It feels like it should’ve belonged to someone in the Rat Pack — not Frank or Dino or Sammy, but a minor hanger-on like Joey Bishop. It practically screams for men in Sansabelt slacks and cigarettes to be strolling around, asking the missus in a beehive when the martinis will be ready.

Image(If hot tubs could talk…)

My Neighborhood:

Like I said, smack dab in the middle of town. Practically its geographic center. Two miles from downtown; 3 miles from the Strip. Five minutes by car to the Sahara Hotel, ten to the Bellagio. Twelve to Chinatown. The only places too far for me to get to are areas (Summerlin, Green Valley) I don’t want to go to anyway.

Being one of Vegas’s older precincts, there are trees aplenty, walk-able streets are right outside my gate, and the neighborhoods don’t look like a stucco farm. I know my neighbors well-enough to knock on their doors and ask for help in an emergency, but not so well that we’re always in each other’s business….which to my mind is exactly how well you should know your neighbors. I’m sure they all think of me as slightly anti-social, which is just fine with me.

Mine is the shittiest house in a fancy neighborhood — surrounded on two sides by two-story structures too big for their lots (very Vegas that), and sheltered on two others by the circular street containing the other eight houses. (“Always buy the lousiest house in a good neighborhood,” my dad used to intone, and that’s exactly what I ended up doing.) Between the unassuming front, and being tucked among more impressive digs, we are sheltered from attention and the wind and that’s just the way I like it.

A Starbucks, and a supermarket and the best bagels in Vegas are only a five minute walk from our front door. There’s also a serviceable pizza parlor in the same center, and the UMC emergency room a quarter mile away, if things get out of hand — like they did in 2008 — when some bad oysters had me retching, fainting, and breaking my face (nose and eye socket) twice in one long night. Never was any man happier to be within walking distance of a hospital.

My neighborhood isn’t perfect, but it’s closer to the things I love (good food and wine, downtown, my office, the Strip) and far enough from what I hate (soulless suburban sprawl), to make it as perfect as you can get in Las Vegas.

My City:

Calling my relationship with Vegas “love/hate” is an understatement. You have to make your peace with Las Vegas, I’ve told people hundreds of times over the years. If you don’t, it will eat you up.

Everything Las Vegas doesn’t have — taste, neighborhoods, culture, museums, art, music (show tunes don’t count, neither does whatever the fuck this is), intellectuals, education, people who give a shit, residents who care about something other than money — will drive you crazy if you let it.

What it does have — weather, convenience, friendliness, good jobs, a great airport, proximity to California, some of the greatest restaurants on earth, a burgeoning local food scene, great Asian food out the wazoo — makes living bearable. (The awesome assortment of Asian eats is what we’d miss most if we left town.)

Let’s face it, though, in terms of community, Vegas ranks somewhere between a prison colony and a dormitory — our miles and miles of strip malls and stucco (made possible by politicians who sold their souls to real estate developers decades ago), have sapped and stifled all community spirit from the place. It’s why our schools are so crummy and no one ever feels connected to the place. Heck, even The Food Gal® (born and raised here) doesn’t feel connected to the place.

In Vegas, you co-exist with your neighbors, you don’t really share anything with them. Go to any neighborhood in any season — the number of people who are out walking, sharing, feeling connected to their environs you can count on one hand. Las Vegas is a place to make a good living (until recently) and that’s what it’s always been, and what it remains, 40 years after I moved here.

Image(We heart French bakeries)

So why do I stay? Well, I love my job, and my wife and my house. I love my swimming pool in summer, and walking to work anytime it’s not summer. I love our coffee culture and and the young chefs who DO give a shit and want to make this place a better place to live.

I’m nuts for all the good bread and the few French bakeries you can find around town, and I love going to Chinatown every Sunday — something I’ve been doing since 1995.

I love our Thai restaurants (one of which is the most famous Thai restaurant in America). I love big, fancy, expensive restaurants that are better than any big, fancy restaurants anywhere that isn’t New York or Paris.

As nice as these amenities are, I’ve always hated the fact that there’s nothing organic about our town — it exists solely because of tourist money. The only thing that’s ever grown here are monuments to human greed and stupidity: casinos.

But things have grown better over thirty years. Downtown may have a long way to go but it’s now live-able and walk-able — something unthinkable twenty years ago. There are good bars and great coffee and a dozen good restaurants to choose from. I walk to my haircuts these days, and I buy wine from the a store that would be right at home in a much bigger city.

But our supermarkets are shit, and there’s only two independent bookstores in the entire county, and our movie theaters don’t show anything that isn’t a tent-pole blockbuster.

And we’re still saddled with a single cheese store, no seasons, and a terrible newspaper.

Image(Summer bounty at Intuitive Farmers Market)

God bless the scattering of “farmers markets” around town, but they are so small as to be a drop in the bucket — and you’d better fill your bucket early and fast if you want to get the good stuff.

You have to face facts about Las Vegas: it is, and always will be a tourist town, populated by folks who make a living off of others who come here to solely to drop sizeable amounts of disposable income in our buckets. Gambling is the greatest business in the world, my father used to say, a commercial transaction without a product. We don’t make anything; the only thing we sell is hope.

And hope is in short supply these days.

As gambling has receded as Vegas’s primary source of income, the livability of the town has increased. And it’s become a nicer place to live not because of its parks, or sports or music. We’ve done it with food and drink, like I predicted we would twenty years ago. That’s the good news.

The bad news is figuring out whether we have truly reached peak Vegas, and if our economy is going to remain mired in muck for years to come. Put another way: Is a boom town worth living in if it is no longer booming?

It’s all so exhausting these days. But when I get tired of these contemplations, I can always retire to my humble abode, and thank my lucky stars for a cool pool and the house surrounding it. In Las Vegas, in summer, sometimes that’s all you need.

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TRÉS CAZUELAS is the Best Restaurant You Haven’t Been To

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At first glance you might think Trés Cazuelas has the worst location in town.

But what seem to be liabilities are actually assets.  Yes, it’s tucked into a corner of a worn out building that houses the Sand Dollar Lounge and not much else. True, it faces an industrial side street only used by commercial trucks and crafty cab drivers. And of course there is zero bustle and no buzz in the neighborhood. Curb appeal is negligible; pedestrian traffic nil.

But look again, pilgrim. The Strip is only a half-mile east; Chinatown’s food mecca beckons a quarter mile west. Large open windows face that street, and behind them something cozy and comforting this way comes. Parking is a breeze (you pull up right to the front door), and as soon as you step inside, smells of moles, chipotles, and achiote waft over you.

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The place is tiny — no more than 40 seats — but the tables are well set and sturdy, the chairs are comfortable, and the vibe is as if you’ve found the coziest cantina on a Guadalajaran side street.

Fresh-made warm chips and three dips (spicy mayo, pickled onions, and habanero chile-mix, above) greet you, and it takes about three seconds to forget all about the industrial park outside.

Image(Great food while you’re getting your brakes re-lined across the street)

Decisions are easier at lunch than dinner. You can opt for burrito stuffed with al pastor pork or eggs or chicken or one of the usual suspects, or (our choice) head straight for the rotating cast of cazuelas (cauldrons) that change everyday.

Image(I like my food in threes)

Monday finds your cute little trio of bowls filled with tinga de pollo, longaniza en salsa verde, and bistec en chile pasilla, while Wednesday (above) presents fork-tender pork ribs in ancho chile sauce, green mole chicken, and strips of beef amplified by beans, bacon and pepper. You really can’t go wrong with any of these guizados (braised meats), and three of them for $15 is a steal.

And did I mention that the house-made corn tortillas are worth a visit all by themselves?

Image(The best, Jerry. The best!)

Dinner is where this minuscule kitchen punches way above its weight. You will start with guacamole tinged with habanero (above) because it might be the best in town. From there you can’t go wrong with any of the tapas or apps.

We were partial to the garlicky gambas al ajillo, queso fundido, and organic beet carpaccio, but other beauties like a single lamb chop “moruño” (redolent of cumin and coriander), a nice (if small) crabcake, and roasted corn (off the cob) “esquites”, all compete for your attention. The very Spanish papas bravas also do owner Angelo Reyes’ Latin heritage proud, as do his Churrasco Argentino (short rib skewers), and a tart, chunky mahi mahi ceviche.

Image(Positively pulchritudinous paella)

Main dishes are large and mostly meant for sharing — whether you’re getting more of those lamb chops, or diving into a clay pot roasted chicken perfumed by rosemary-garlic sauce, or tucking into more seafood paella (above) than any four-top can handle.

Image(Allium avoiders beware)

A rib eye “Del Torero” (above) is the most expensive thing on the menu ($39), and comes shingled with garlic chips and coated with chimichurri — both announcing the “no prisoners” approach this kitchen takes with its seasonings and spices.

Which is why you come here. Not for some namby-pamby attempt to make Latin cuisine(s) palatable for gueros — these Hispanic dishes strut their stuff, smacking you left and right with garlic, herbs, chilies and spices in full flower.

If Trés Cazuelas has anything in common with its Chinatown neighbors, it is in the honesty and integrity of its cooking. You might as well ask Chengdu Taste to dispense with Szechuan peppercorns as wanting Reyes to dial back the cilantro. This is they way these dishes are supposed to taste, and if you don’t like it, adios muchacho.

The dense flan comes sprinkled with Mexican sea salt, and the coffee, by LaVazza, is excellent as well. The wine list is short, well-chosen and well-priced.

So why haven’t you come here yet, gringo? Because it’s tucked into a next-to-nothing building on a forlorn corner on the cusp of Chinatown? That’s no excuse. If you love pan-Latin cooking the way they’re supposed to be, and can’t resist a great tortilla, and are tired of dumbed-down, warmed-over verdes and pathetic pasillas, then you owe it to yourself to get here pronto.

Lunch for two will run around $30-40; dinner about double that. Despite what the sign says, they no longer serve breakfast.

TRÉS CAZUELAS

3355 W. Spring Mountain Road #35

Las Vegas, NV 89102

702.370.0751

SUSHI KAME Arrives on Scene

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There are two cuisines we crave after one of our forays to France: Mexican and sushi. So it’s no coincidence we’ve been stuffing our pie hole with tacos and raw fish for the last week.

Good tacos are easier to find (especially downtown), but when it comes to Japanese, the pickings are slimmer. We’re always on the prowl for a place to add to our rotation. (Keep in mind we’re super-picky about the quality of sushi/sashimi we eat, as you should be. If you’re one of those AYCE bargain hunters, stop reading right now, and go check yourself for tapeworms.)

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So imagine our delight when  Sushi Kame (officially called Sushi Kame Omakase & Kaiseki) opened a few months ago at a location that’s not way up near Summerlin (its old home where great food is as rare as good taste).

The new Kame is right on the cusp of Chinatown, on the ground floor of a new condo complex near Valley View. And since it’s now in a neighborhood we like rather than loathe, we stopped in for a few exploratory bites.

What we found was impressive, accessible, and eye-popping — a welcome addition to the Japanese offerings along this increasingly crowded avenue, especially when the seats at Yui and Kabuto are full.

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This Kame is quite an operation. A hostess stand greets you right inside the door, a large, well-stocked bar hugs the left side of the space, while an even larger sushi bar beckons ahead. Plenty of tables line the bifurcated room, and to the far right (behind a dramatic window) lies the kaiseki room (above), where reservation-only omakase meals (starting at $200/pp) are served.

We’re not ready to take that plunge (the size of my restaurant bills from Paris has the Food Gal® contemplating some sort of 12-step gastronomy withdrawal program for me), but what we found at the sushi bar when we let the chefs strut their stuff was most impressive.

Just say omakase, and what you get for $100/pp will blow right past 95% of the neighborhood joints in town.

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Sushi is as much about the rice as it is about the fish, and this was the real deal — soft-yet-firm, perfumed, kernels (possessing both a whiff of vinegar and umami). so perfectly cooked you can count them in your mouth.

I’m not ready to pronounce the knife work the equal of its two rivals, but having a quality alternative to these edomae sushi icons, a mile closer to the Strip (and our house), is a nice problem to have.

SUSHI KAME

3616 W. Spring Mountain Road #103

Las Vegas, NV 89102

702.665.5731

For Kaiseki reservations call:

702.771.0122