New Restaurants Are Floating Our Boat + One That’s Already Sunk

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Writing strictly about restaurants is no longer an obsession with us. This doesn’t mean we no longer prowl the streets of Las Vegas searching for good eats, but only that we’re not nearly as consumed by it as we once were.

We at #BeingJohnCurtas are now content to occasionally explore what’s new in local eats, but mostly, we retreat to the tried and true these days when it comes to dining out. After 25 years of this gig, we’ll leave the manic examination of our food scene to the erudite influencers and other excitable youngsters.

John Curtas can still get a boner, though, over the crispy authenticity of Ton Ton Katsuya, and his panties get moist over the mole taquitos at La Monjá.

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Ton Ton is terrific — a must for lovers of the panko-crusted, high-heat, deep-fried pork cutlets and seafood that Japanese chefs do better than anyone.

La Monjá (The Nun) is the latest in Dan Krohmer’s quest for Vegas restaurant hegemony. It hit a rough patch right out of the gate after opening in September (both original chefs left/were shown the door), but the simple menu of ceviches, tacos, steak, shrimp, and enhanced Mexican street food tastes like a sure winner….and a welcome change of pace from all of the “elevated American gastropubs” at this end of Fremont Street.

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While in one of his ever-rarer exploratory moods, Mr. Curtas recently ventured to Burnt Offerings. This excursion illustrates why he’d rather leave the intrepid examination of oddball eats to others — Burnt Offerings being by turns compelling and slightly weird.

Image(Jewish penicillin, complete with hypodermic)

The chef/owner — Jennifer Weiss Eckmann — has done a fine job updating a run-down Chinese joint on West Sahara into a presentable restaurant, but her Glatt Kosher menu is too ambitious by half.

Strict adherence to Jewish dietary laws means she also won’t be open on Friday and Saturday nights, and while we loved some things (her sauces and dips are a dream, so is her chicken-matzoh ball soup), we left shaking our heads over others (the barbecue beef needs work, and a lot more time on the smoke).

It is too late in John Curtas’s life for him to argue with people over arcane religious eating rules, so all he can do is wish Eckmann well, and try to get back some weeknight to suss out more Yiddish sustenance.

Image(I’ll have what she’s having)

Another opening that has him all a-Twitter is Garagiste Wine Bar & Merchant (above) in the Arts District in downtown Las Vegas — the first true wine bar to open in like….forever. Owners Mario Enriquez and Eric Prato are Strip veterans and have sunk their savings (and considerable expertise) into an operation unlike anything  Vegas has ever seen.

This is not some suburban supermarket wine sipping stop (a la Grape Street or Local), this is the real, big city deal — the type of wine bar gaining currency from Los Angeles to New York — featuring a highly curated list of exotic grape juice from some of the most interesting wineries in the world.

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With everything from JL Chave to noteworthy Nebbiolo to natural wines, Garagiste (the name refers to small-batch, exclusive, Right Bank Bordeaux wineries) is banking on a growing Millenial thirst for great grapes to take hold here, and the early returns (and crowds) have been encouraging.

Those looking for Sonoma chardonnays like they discovered during some insipid California foray should stay in Summerlin.

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On the buzzkill front, word came down yesterday that bBd’s in the Palace Station Hotel and Casino will be closing next week. Those who follow us know what huge fans we are of Ralph Perrazzo and his meat machinations. bBd’s had quite simply the best burgers in town.

It also had an incredible beer program featuring obscure artisanal brews from all over the globe. The meat was ground in-house, and the steaks were a steal, equaling anything you can find a mile to the east at a 20% discount.

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So what went wrong? Plenty. Like many a chef before him, Ralph was seduced by clueless hotel F&B honchos. We’re sure they sang him a sweet song about all of the fabulous upgrades and renovations which were going to set a whole new paradigm for the Palace Station — the ultimate low-rent, smelly ashtray, god’s waiting room, grind joint.

Yes, they built a bunch of new rooms, threw in a movie theater, and expanded one side of the depressing casino to accommodate some new food options, but what they didn’t/couldn’t do is change the clientele.  Or the reputation.

Everyone from Lake Mead to Los Angeles knows what the Palace Station is: an old people hotel. Hell, it was our dad’s favorite whenever he came to Vegas….and he loved coming to Vegas.

Anthony John Curtas (1926-2006) loved the Palace Station (formerly the Bingo Palace), because he was in his element. But he is gone now, and even as he as his contemporaries have died off, their favorite hotel is burdened with their legacy of dropping all those coins into all those slots for all those decades. Trying to upgrade the PS is like trying to make horseshoes hip.

The other problem with bBd’s was its size. The bar was the length of a football field and it was too big by at least 100 seats. And the name and the logo also stunk (sorry, Ralph). bBd’s had about as much chance for success as John Curtas in a triathlon.

We ate there about ten times in the year it was open. And we’ll dream about Perrazzo’s steamed cheeseburger until he finds another (smaller, more locals-friendly) place to bring his boffo beef.

We’ll let Ralph P. have the last word here:

The past year John Curtas has snuck into bBd’s multiple times for lunch and dinner, eating his way through our menu spending his own money. In NY, food writers and reviewers for a publication don’t get a comp number or want to be taken care of for some marketing material. Their experience as a regular guest is what is looked upon, a true test to what the place is not by one visit but multiple. Hate him or love him, I completely respect his way of reviewing a place even if we were not in this book of great places in Las Vegas.

Going on 25 years in this business Yelp, FB, etc has put a serious change on how we operate. Restaurant owners and chefs appreciate the food bloggers & legitimate food reviewers more than ever. I look forward to doing more in LV and sharing that with all the people who have been nothing but supportive of my heart & soul that is bBd’s that was started in NY.

We have some big news coming out soon and can’t thank the team at bBd’s enough for pushing. I say it all the time you are only as good as your team and your relationships with the product that comes in the back door. This business is a professional sport that comes with many obstacles and adjustments and you must be Michael Jordan. Thank you Mr. Curtas

Thank YOU, Ralph, we look forward to you floating our boat with whatever you have planned:

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A Tale of Two Thais

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Las Vegas has had a robust Thai restaurant scene for decades. Even before Saipin and Bill Chutima put us on the Siamese gastro-map with Lotus of Siam in 1999, there were dozens of family-run Thai joints serving crab sticks, papaya salads and tom kah kai to a fare-thee-well.

My introduction to this cuisine occurred in the early 1980s at a free-standing white building on Las Vegas Boulevard (across from where the Federal Courthouse now sits). I don’t think it even had a name, just the words “Thai Food” in big red letters on the side of the building. Even then, it was one of three Thai places downtown, and there were a couple more in Commercial Center off east Sahara.

You could get a decent larb or mint chicken in any of these, but they pretty much stuck to a greatest hits catechism of deep-fried wings, beef salad, pad Thai, and those hot pot soups that made Thai food famous. When anything had to be sauced, though, “sweet and gloppy” always took precedence over sour and pungent. This was also the era of “How hot do you want your food on a scale of 1-10?” — as if a heat level of “7” would be all that different from a “6.”

As similar as these menus may have been, they provided just the right introduction to this country’s food, and they paved the way for our Thai 2.0 revolution. These new players (including the small-but-mighty DE Thai downtown, and Chuchote Thai on west Sahara) are expanding our horizons, in nicer surroundings, and using better groceries to boot.

The first thing you’ll notice about Weera Thai Kitchen is the decor. Located in the spanking new Shanghai Plaza, it is quite the upgrade from its older sibling, Weera Thai on west Sahara. Cool, conical lamps descend from the open ceiling and illuminate a yet-to-open bar, while oversized flower murals dominate a brightly-lit room with well-spaced tables.

The eye-popping picture menu will next appear, and you’ll immediately wonder if everything tastes as good as it looks. It does. So much so, the only problem you’ll have is trying to reign in eyes growing bigger than your stomach with every luscious item. With the move to Chinatown, the Weera Thai clan (including the lovely Sasi, pictured above) is broadcasting its intent to compete with the big boys, and bask in the black belt foodie cred Spring Mountain Road now represents.

Image(Khao yum means yummy)

Every Thai meal starts with appetizers, but somewhat confusingly, these don’t appear until page four of the multi-paged menu. This is no doubt calculated, since the fish cakes, crab sticks and curry puffs are supporting players to the upscale’d street food — the real stars of the show.

Top billing on pages 1-2 is given such jaw-droppers as khao yum (above – blue-tinted butterfly pea rice with toasted coconut and all sorts of crunchy veggies), khoa kluk kapi (another rice dish given special pungency by fermented shrimp paste, and depth from chunks of pork belly, and giant river prawns (goong maenam pao (below) or goong pao cheese – with mozzarella cheese, which is apparently a thing in Thailand. Dipping sauces are to Thai cuisine what melted butter is to French, and these house-made beauties always seem to hit the right balance of tart to sweet to hot.

Image(Nuthin’ shrimpy ’bout these shrimp)

These river prawns (above) might be common in Bangkok, but they’re new to this part of the world. As big as small lobster tails, they are perfect as an appetizer for four, or a meal for two.

Before you get to them, a platter of ma haw or ma hor (literally: galloping horses, below) might catch your eye. These balls of caramelized minced pork are served up on pineapple slices and are best described as meat candy. They are very sweet, but somehow beckoning bite after each teeth-aching bite. If nothing else, the sweet meat sets up your palate for the barrage of penetrating flavors yet to come.

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If there’s one way WTK distinguishes itself from the original restaurant, it is with the emphasis on both things that swim and street food. Beautiful shrimp get wrapped in thin rice noodles and deep-fried in kung sarong, yum hi-so sees slightly slimy, raw blue crab get lit up with chili and lime. That crab and the tender spicy squid salad will give you all the heat you can handle. And then there is the garlic shrimp (below)  — so loaded with melted slices and crispy chips you’ll think you’ve died and gone to Allium heaven.

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One of the tamer dishes is ka pow gai-kai dao – four bowls containing minced basil chicken, rice, onion and peppers and a fried egg — all ready to mix into an amalgam of a one-dish meal, but we’d rather spend our time with their sai oua (“stuffed intestine”) northern Thai sour sausage, or the nam khao tod which is right up there with Lotus’s.

They also do a nice dry version of yen ta fo, here called yen ta fo hang, which is much more palatable in the Vegas heat than the same ingredients served up in a giant steaming bowl of tomato-laced broth, and you shouldn’t miss their definitive pad see ewe pong (below) — broad flat noodles, with really tasty shrimp, in yellow curry.

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You won’t find any fault with the pinkish pad kee mow with chicken, either, but the whole pompano lard prik — deep fried topped with sweet-hot chili sauce — is a bit challenging for those used to eating fish in neat little fillet form.

Image(Deep-fried pompano makes you work for the tasty bits)

The crowds have taken to WTK from day one: it’s been open for barely a month and tables are already a precious commodity at peak hours. It’s as if they (the Thonguthaisiri family and its loyal customers) recognized a pent-up demand for a good Thai restaurant on Spring Mountain Road — one bringing forth the in-your-face flavors of the Thai street with better ingredients in a stylish atmosphere. As soon as they get their full liquor license, and start featuring cocktails and wines to go with all of this incredible food, it might become as hot as gaeng tai pla.

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Lamaii is playing a different game — one rooted in the Thai street food vernacular but also seeking broader food/wine credibility. Chef/owner Bank Atcharawan has picked up where Chada Street (his previous Thai-meets-wine venue) left off. In this case, by taking an ice cream parlor at the far end of a strip mall (Sparrow + Wolf anchors the other end) and creating magical space of comfy booths and upscale furnishings that are as far a cry from a Bangkok street as a Thai fishing boat is from a cabin cruiser.

While you wouldn’t call Lamaii luxurious, it certainly wins the Chinatown design award for those booths, subdued colors, lots of wood, muted lighting, and huge, drop-down lamps. (Thai people apparently have a thing for light fixtures the size of hot tubs.)

As pretty as the decor is, it is also noisy — like gymnasium noisy — at peak hours. They also turn the lights too low at night, which is a problem since the joint is only open for dinner. Grab a table early (preferably in summer) if you want a good view of your food. What you’ll find on your plate (either by touch or flashlight) will blow your socks off, sometimes literally.

Image(I’ll take Zind-Humbrecht for 125, Alex)

Before you get to the food, you’ll have to negotiate the beverage selections. Atcharawan is an old F&B pro (he previously managed Lotus of Siam), so his lists are full of saison ales, obscure stouts, and (by now obligatory) creative cocktails — none of which go as well with this food as a Kabinett Riesling or cru Beaujolais. (In the interest of fairness, we will concede that certain chilled, malted beverages — pilsners, session beers and such — match this food just as well.)

Regardless of your preferences, there’s no ignoring the wine list here. It is short, wrinkled, and superb. (see above) Prices run from the low $30s to the low 100s, and to a bottle, selections are priced at at least half of what you would pay on the Strip. The Gravner Breg (at $110) is less than I paid for the same bottle in Italy a year ago. There is a grand cru Chablis for $65….which has to be close to the wholesale price of this bottle to the restaurant. (Personally, I consider myself fortunate whenever I can score any Chablisienne grand cru for under a hundy, retail.)

In other words, this list is insane. A treasure trove of interesting bottles at ridiculous prices.

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The only down side is, it’s a small restaurant with limited storage space, so what you want may not always be available, but if you’re a white wine lover (and let’s face it, who isn’t?), you owe it to yourself to dive in. Like almost every wine professional in town already has.

Atcharawan’s cuisine is designed to match with these top-shelf wines, and much of his menu dials back the heat in favor of more wine-friendly fare. Pork jowl gets grilled, belly gets deep-fried, chicken is satay’d, and fluffy shrimp cakes the size of ping pong balls float on a plum-blueberry sauce — all of them designed to be enhanced by a steely Riesling or herbaceous sauv blanc.

Image(Kua gling is not for the Thai timid)

Loui  suan wraps ground pork in lettuce and rice paper, and is designed to showcase the Thai herbs, not incendiary heat. When the staff does ask you how hot you want something, as in the kua gling ground pork with southern curry paste (above), or gang pu (spicy crab curry noodles) be forewarned, then strap in and hang on.

Image(What’s mu pu with you?)

No one will ask you how spicy you want your mu pu (crab fat) fried rice, but the silky richness of rice shot through with crab tomalley doesn’t need a pepper kick. Neither does a grilled 12 oz. rib eye  (sua rong hai on the menu, below) that might be the best $24 steak in town. The pad Thai here comes festooned with huge crispy prawns, and the surprisingly fresh, non-muddy-tasting catfish comes dressed with just the right tart chili-lime-mango dressing.

Image(The best 24 buck steak in town)

Even the curries are toned down here, but are none the lesser for it. Gang rawaeng, described as an ancient turmeric curry, has the creamy depth to play off fork-tender chunks of braised beef, and that old reliable, panang curry gives new life to crackling slices of duck breast. Atcharawan has always done a tongue-searing steak tartare, and the one here is for brave souls only.

Everyone gets the honey toast for dessert here, but the mango sticky rice, fried bananas, and coconut ice cream are just as exemplary.

Lamaii isn’t a standard Thai restaurant, but it challenges all your preconceptions about Thai food. Weera Thai Kitchen is like a old friend who’s decided to shape up with a nicer wardrobe, upscale attitude, and fresh new ambitions after moving into new digs. Between them, they signal a quiet but significant change in the way Vegas now appreciates the food of this country. It is spicy and soul-warming, but it is also one of the world’s great cuisines. Las Vegas is finally starting to appreciate it as such.

Nothing on any of these menus is over $24, and most dishes are priced in the $10-$15 range, meaning: it’s hard for two people to spend more than $50-$70 on food. Lamaii offers half price portions of some of its noodle dishes. I’ve been comped once at Lamaii and a couple of times at WTK.

Get this (Weera Thai Kitchen): Yum hi-so – raw blue crab salad; Thai fried rice with shrimp paste; yen ta fo hang – “pink noodle dry version”; “Galloping Horses” – minced pork on pineapple; jumbo river prawns; khao yum – butterfly pea rice with vegetables; ka pow gai-kai dao – ground chicken stir-fry with basil and egg; sai oui sausage; kung sarong – noodle wrapped fried shrimp; beef salad; spicy squid salad; fish cake; papaya salad; garlic shrimp; pad see ewe.

Get this (Lamaii): Garlic green beans; loui suan – ground pork wrapped in rice/lettuce; shrimp cakes with blueberry sauce; steak tartare; moo ma now – grilled pork jowl; gang rawaeng – ancient curry with braised beef; panang duck curry; pla crispy beef; kua gling – ground pork with southern curry paste; sua rong hai – grilled rib eye steak; mu pu fried rice; pad Thai with shrimp; mango crispy catfish; honey toast; mango sticky rice.

WEERA THAI KITCHEN

4276 Spring Mountain Road #105-106

Las Vegas, NV 89102

702.485.1688

LAMAII

4480 Spring Mountain Road #700

Las Vegas, NV 89102

702.238.0567

THE BLACK SHEEP

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Jamie Tran is no bigger than a goi cuon. Her restaurant isn’t that large, either (50 seats), but between the two of them, these pocket dynamos are pioneering neighborhood dining in a big way.

The Black Sheep‘s modest dimensions belie its ambitions. Within you’ll find a small bar towards the back and a loyal following of local foodies who have turned this unassuming storefront (in another soulless shopping mall, natch) into a a mecca for a unique blend of Asia-meets-American eats.

The restaurant is named after Tran’s familial nickname, but meeting her, you’ll have a hard time wondering where that reputation came from. Tran is as bubbly as a glass of Prosecco, with a smile as wide as one of her luscious, cross-cultural pancakes. She can talk your ear off about food, family, or the fun she has running this restaurant, and the enthusiasm she brings to the conversation can be tasted on the plate. That a female chef this young has made such a big splash on our local restaurant scene is no small feat.

(Honey, toast me some hot chicken)

Calling her food all over the map is an understatement. But this is one time the term “fusion food” fits. Tran takes salmon skins (at the top of the page) and turns them into tacos; perfumes her duck confit with lemongrass; and punctuates Indonesian corn fritters with mango salsa. There’s not a metaphor she doesn’t like to mix, which may first strike you as odd, but after a bite or two, as you’ll be calling it spot-on delicious in a “I never thought of that” sort of way.

Dishes as diverse as duck prosciutto salad, Thai basil shrimp ceviche, and “hot chicken”  on honey toast all come at you from multiple directions, but once in the mouth, they all make sense. Tran is playing with her food, to be sure, but she’s equally at home sautéing vegan Vietnamese noodles, deep-frying a whole trout, and braising a lamb belly…after spicing very French flageolet with the scents of Vietnam.

(Picky palates prefer puffy pancakes)

If that’s not enough to pique your palate, then there’s her brunch — a meal most of us epicureans love to hate. The most confusing of meals (booze for breakfast? dessert for lunch?) is usually caloric and boring beyond words. Somehow, in the Tran oeuvre, it achieves angles of interest — from the ordinary to the oblique — that will keep you fascinated.

The ordinary starts with old reliables like challah French toast and chicken and waffles, which quickly announce themselves as anything but old hat standards. The eggy-yet-light toast gets a brandy syrup bath, eggs Benedict lie over meltingly-rich, soft ropes of lemongrass short ribs, and Tran’s hot chicken goes full kaarage — managing a sweethotsoftcrunch from chicken set off by mustard seeds, fermented cabbage, and sriracha.

You can also go with traditional steak and eggs here (Creekstone Farms beef being topped and a fried egg), or a perfect soufflé pancake (above), or watch Tran indulge her heritage with deep-fried Vietnamese Imperial rolls, given a boost with better ingredients (Duroc pork, briny shrimp) than you’ll ever find in a same old same old pho parlor.

Image may contain: food(Bao before me)

If there’s a signature dish on the menu, it’s probably the hot chicken, but the crackling Imperial rolls, and bao sliders (above) — made with housemade pork sausage — give it a run for your money.

The sausage gets its kick from fish sauce, the sliders cover all the flavor bases with their adornment of oozing quail egg, crispy shallots, and jalapeño-spiked aioli. You won’t find a more soothing mini-bite anywhere in Vegas.

They do serious cocktails here, too (doesn’t everyone these days?), but bargain-hunting oenophiles know the wine list is the real libation star. Owner Andy Hooper is obviously on a mission to bring good bottles at affordable prices to his ‘hood, which explains Veuve Cliquot champagne at $95, and Gaja ‘Promis’ for $90 — marked up at double the wholesale price, not triple the retail, like they do eight miles to the east. By-the-glass offerings all hover in the $10 range, and there’s even a selection of funky amaros for Italophiles who are into that sort of thing (like yours truly).

Image may contain: food(Mexican-Vietnamese is a thing? Who knew?)

Tran does double duty as pastry chef in a tiny kitchen that used to be a sandwich shop, so desserts tend to be limited in number. When she’s doing it, the chocolate tres leches cake (above, beneath a bird’s nest of chocolate thatch)  is not to be missed, nor should you pass on her macarons, cheesecake or persimmon bread pudding.

The Black Sheep calls itself a “New American Kitchen,” but it’s not like any American kitchen you’ve ever been in, or Vietnamese one, for that matter. What it is is American food filtered through the sensibilities of an Asian American who is equally at home blending the two cultures on a plate. In doing so, Jamie Tran is paying homage to both cuisines, and inventing a new vocabulary of restaurant food. She’s not the only chef doing it (Khai Vu at Mordeo and Kevin Chong at Japañeiro also spring to mind), but she’s one of the few doing it in Las Vegas. (No one on the Strip has the gumption or the chops to try to duplicate these highly personal brands of hybrid deliciousness.)

The Black Sheep is much more revolutionary than people realize. It is the direction in which all American food is headed. We are a deeply cross-pollinated society and our cuisine should reflect that. More and more it does, and chefs like Jamie Tran are leading the way.

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(Starters run $6-$12, with mains in the $15-$30 range. Two people can dine very well here with a good bottle of wine or a few drinks for well under $150 — half that if you share a couple of dishes. Brunch is a steal for cooking this good.)

THE BLACK SHEEP

8680 W. Warm Springs Road

Las Vegas, NV 89148

702.954.3998