John A. Curtas has been the voice of the Las Vegas food and restaurant scene since 1995. He is the author of EATING LAS VEGAS – The 50 Essential Restaurants, which will have its 5th edition published in December, 2016, as well as being the author of the Eating Las Vegas website
There is no sincerer love than the love of food. – George Bernard Shaw
My father could sell ice to the Eskimos. He was a born salesman. Made (and lost) a lot of money in his life, but he ended his run on an up-tick, and left my mother quite comfortable, so I guess all the hustling and drama was worth it.
I’ve never been much good at selling anything….even myself. Maybe because I saw all the sturm und drang my dad put our family through as he made all that money; or maybe it’s because the German-Protestant side of me considers selling and marketing to be a craven and unseemly.
The internet, in case you haven’t noticed, has become about nothing but selling. Everyone and every thing on it is trying to sell you something. For what is a selfie but a exercise in self-promotion? And who is naive enough to think these days that Facebook is just about sharing pictures with your friends and relatives?
No, when you boot up your computer or click on your phone, your eyeballs immediately become both product and target. The internet, along with being the great equalizer and disseminator of information, has fed us all into the sausage grinder of the world wide marketing machine.
And what it did to food writing was turn it all into fast food hamburgers.
By way of comparison, consider the New York Times writer (Amanda Hesser) who, in 1998, was given a company credit card and carte blanche to travel around France for two weeks finding subjects to write about. The only writers traveling to Europe these days either do it on their own dime (like moi), or hustle for a pay-to-play gig whereby they get a free trip in exchange for an agreement to write a favorable (it’s understood) story about their trip for some back-home publication (something I’ve also done, mainly for wine articles).
Thus has the entire field of food writing been turned on its head. No longer do publications like Bon Appetit and Travel + Leisure send writers to discover stories. Instead, they are the repositories for articles that have been pitched to them by hotels, cruise lines, tourist boards, international booze conglomerates, etc.. Marketing now dominates everything, and with the exception of a few giant national newspapers, and some teeny tiny periodicals, all opinions are now bought and paid for. It’s all quite sad because you can no longer trust anyone.
Except Chad H. on Yelp, who doesn’t like Estiatorio Milos because it’s “too fishy.” Him you can trust.
I say this with tongue only partially wedged in cheek, because at least “Chad H.” (who probably doesn’t know his xiao long bao from his Chow Yun-fat) actually went to the restaurant he’s opining about. The listicles that dominate web sites like Eater and Thrillist are the product of press releases. It’s doubtful that whoever compiles these has ever stepped foot in the places they proclaim as “hot.” All they know is what they’ve cribbed from a p.r. sales pitch, or the internet…or from the dwindling number of writers (for other publications, like this one) who are doing boots-on-the-ground (or, in this case, food-in-the-mouth) research. In it’s own subtle, insidious way, the internet created a vortex of simplified discourse that sucks the consumer farther and farther away from meaningful information. Which is just the type of controlled message that corporations and their public relations people want.
I was never selling anything. Not when I started my “Food For Thought” radio gig with Nevada Public Radio in 1995, not when I started my TV gigs with local news stations in August, 2008, and not when I started this blog exactly ten years ago today.
If there was a primary motivation it certainly wasn’t money. Even in its late 20th Century heyday, there wasn’t a lot of money to be made in writing about restaurants. If I have to point to a specific inspiration it would have to be much purer and less meretricious: I wanted to promote good restaurants so more people would eat there and they’d stay in business and their success would inspire others to follow.
Everyone thinks I’ve always been about criticizing restaurants, but in fact, what I really was doing was advertising them.
A restaurant critic might start out as a consumer advocate — and, indeed, it is through those eyes that you must view your subject — but what you end up being is a cheerleader, a fanboy, an unabashed promoter for the businesses you cover. You do it somewhat inadvertently, and you do it out of keen interest, but first and foremost, you do it out of admiration, not because you’re on the payroll…and that makes it the sincerest form of salesmanship there is.
Somehow though, I don’t think my father would’ve understood. He died in 2006, but I’m sure he, like many others, would’ve asked why I didn’t try to monetize Eating Las Vegas. All I could’ve told him was, “Because I’m doing it for love, Dad, not money.” I did it for the love of writing, and for the love of restaurants, and because I hated what the internet had done to food journalism.
I would further explain to him that be a professional critic of anything, you have to be in love with your subject. The job of a critic is to educate, not pander to the lowest common denominator, but to be a good teacher, you have to be both enamored of and fascinated by your subject.
And boy, have I loved writing about food and restaurants.
And I really love writing about them on my own web site.
Nothing against the dozens of editors I’ve worked for, but there’s a freedom in being able to express yourself without the constraints of some blue nose with a blue pencil telling you to “tighten it up,” or “tone it down,” so they can keep their lowest common denominator readership happy.
And what I’ve loved about you, dear reader, is that you never wanted me to dumb it down or tone it down. You appreciated me letting fly with my opinions, my stylistic liberties and my awful, insistent alliteration. Only a few of you ever begrudged me my fantasies or my foibles. Most of you got it from the get-go, and you let me have fun writing in my style and from my heart — not from the perspective of some fuddy-duddy dead-tree publication.
Almost everything I’ve ever written has come from the heart, not from a paycheck — which either makes me a hopeless romantic, or a fool.
The romantic in me longs for the days of incisive writing and journalistic standards applied to rigorous reporting about where you should eat and why. The fool in me thought that I could raise those standards (in Las Vegas at least), even as they were evaporating all around me. But unlike most critics (save for Seymour Britchky, my muse) I put my money where my mouth was. Sure I got comped a lot (especially in the last decade), but my restaurant bills from 1995-2010 would choke a horse. I went in, anonymously for the first ten years, threw down, and then coughed up my sincere opinions about what I ate. I don’t know if anyone ever again will be foolish enough to do what I did.
To be a blogger, you have to be obsessive. In the early days, I’d crank out two or three posts a day. Those were exciting times. In 2008, the wave of fantastic food that had begun to build a decade earlier was just cresting. It was a tsunami of gourmandia the likes of which no city in the world had ever seen in so short a time. What had begun with Spago in 1993 and Emeril’s in 1995 continued to swell with the opening of the Bellagio in 1998, and then, in rapid succession, the launching of the Venetian and Mandalay Bay. By the time Joël Robuchon showed up in 2005 and Guy Savoy arrived in 2007, I felt like the world’s luckiest surfer — one who was making the drop on some awesome lips, day after day, night after night, for a dozen years in a row.
15 years on the radio, 9 on TV, 6 books, countless magazine articles, multiple national television appearances, numerous contributions to guide books and web sites. — it’s been a good run. I’ve taken this whole food writing thing so much further than I ever imagined when I was nervously sitting in my bedroom on October 14, 1995, hand-scribbled script in one hand and a cassette recorder in the other, rehearsing for my first radio spot on KNPR — sweating over how to make food sound fun and interesting for three minutes. But I got through that, and I got better — at writing, at eating, and at radio and television. My waistline suffered, my liver suffered, and most assuredly by bank account suffered, but I made my mark, and helped a lot of restaurants and chefs in the process. Even my stick-to-business dad would’ve been proud of that.
As Augustus McCrae says to Woodrow Call at the end of Lonesome Dove: “By God Woodrow, it’s been quite a party hasn’t it?”
It’s been quite a party.
[ELV — the man, the myth, the inveterate Francophile, Romanophile, oenophile, turophile, Sinophile, Nipponophile, and Grecophile — will be on hiatus for the next month or two while he re-boots (and re-names) this web site and tries to decide what he wants to do when he grows up. Until then, kali orixi to all.]
(Matthew Hurley, David Robins, and Eric Klein -the boys from Spago)
A friend of mine recently accused me of going easy on a chef because I was “friends” with him. (The friendly argument concerned a social media post of mine, praising a dish, that my friend had found lacking.)
Leaping to my own defense (something I’m quite good at, given my amount of practice), I reminded my paisan that I am actually “friends” with but a handful of professional chefs. I am “friend-LY” with dozens, perhaps a couple of hundred professional cooks…but I’m not close enough to any of them to alter my opinion of their food.
Or am I? Maybe I’m fooling myself. Maybe being on a first name basis with a chef does alter how I judge him and his work.
Perhaps knowing something about someone’s career, and meeting their spouse, and following them on Facebook, for example, gives you a certain rooting interest in how well they do. You’d have to be quite the heartless asshole to argue otherwise.
No one thinks much about this stuff anymore, since the days of the anonymous critic are as dead as Craig Claiborne. Truth be told, Claiborne, James Beard, Mimi Sheraton, Jay Jacobs, and all the critics I grew up reading were probably well known to the restaurants they frequented. It wasn’t until the 1980s rolled around that a big deal started to be made about critics dining anonymously. The best of them all — Seymour Britchky — was probably under-the-radar when he was at his most acerbic, but after years on the beat, I’m sure he was spotted all over Manhattan as well. From what I know about the man, he didn’t make a whole lot of friends with anyone — almost no chefs attended his funeral, despite his writing about New York restaurants for 20 years.
Once Ruth Reichl wrote her take-down of Le Cirque, and it became so nationally known that she, the New York Times critic was treated differently when she was in disguise then when she was spotted by the restaurant, every reader of every review wanted to know if the writer was known to the restaurant when they walked in. Even today I get asked by people if “they know me” when I eat somewhere, and my answer is always the same:
“Yes, I’m known to almost all the best Strip restaurants, but in Chinatown, I could be on the cover of the New York Times and they wouldn’t give a shit.” (For what it’s worth, I was on the cover of the New York Times (food section) once (June 24, 2012), and none of them gave a shit. POINT PROVEN!)
But am I friends with a lot of chefs? Not really.
A friend is someone you hang out with.
A friend is someone who has been to your house.
A friend is someone who invites you to their house.
A friend is someone who calls you for no reason just to see how you’re doing.
By any measure, I am not friends with many chefs….or restaurateurs.
Don’t get me wrong: I love hanging out with them, but I always suspect that they’re hanging with me more out of professional obligation than anything else. But whether we’re close or just acquaintances, you can always learn something by getting to know what makes someone tick. Great food makes me tick, and it’s what motivates the people I write about, so having that in common has always made the conversation fun.
And yes, that means I’m probably pulling for them to succeed…but not so much that I won’t give them an earful if I don’t like something. Just ask Gio Mauro, Steven Kalt, Justin Kingsley Hall, James Trees, Rick Moonen, or Paul Bartolotta about how prickly I get if I think they’re under-performing.
When you get right down to it, rooting for chefs to succeed was what has motivated me all along. I was never selling anything except my opinions. All I wanted was for those opinions to count for something — to improve the way we all eat — and to encourage chefs and owners to do a better job.
We have that in common — me and all my chef “friends” — even if we have almost nothing else in common. And that’s always brought a smile to my face.
(Justin Kingsley Hall gettin’ it done at The Kitchen at Atomic)
The following (in no particular order) are where I’ve been eating and why. Obviously, they all come highly recommended.
Yui Edomae Sushi – forever and always, my go-to place for superior sushi. Kazu-san (pictured above) is now the executive chef. Still the best in town.
7th & Carson – catty corner to EAT on Carson St., this little American bistro makes due with half the customers of its competition. Probably the best pure french fries in Vegas….and the fish and chips ain’t far behind.
EAT – those pancakes, the pozole, that hash! If it’s on this menu, it’s great.
The Kitchen at Atomic – I’m rooting hard for this place, but it needs to find its own way and stop trying to be Sparrow & Wolf Downtown. Some of the dishes sing, some fall flat. Still, a great space with a very cool vibe and libations to keep boozehounds, ale-heads, brewmeisters and winos pretty damn happy.
(Esther’s Kitchen specializes in pasta porn)
Esther’s Kitchen – hotter than hot right now, deservedly so. Get the pastas and the salads and the pizzas. Some of the sandwiches look better than they taste (never enough sauce for this pilgrim), but there’s no way you will ever leave hungry.
Kaiseki Yuzu – for when I miss my Yokohama mama.
Hiroyoshi – another unlikely success story, in a nondescript mall, serving drop-your-chopsticks great Japanese.
Pizzeria Monzú – do we need another great pizzeria in town? Oh yes we do, especially when the sides, the spritzers and the wine list are this good.
The Goodwich – every so often I go a month or two without eating at The Goodwich. This is a mistake I always regret.
Mother’s Korean Barbecue – not the best Korean by a long shot, but good enough when you don’t want all the folderol of one of our better K-pop barbecue joints.
Good Pie – Vincent Rotolo is da man! Don’t even think of getting a slice anywhere else.
Pho So 1 – our best Vietnamese has facelifted its decor, its menu and its food (like the mouth-water wings above). Better than ever.
Gelato di Milano – Best. Gelato. In. Town. Puts all the others to shame.
Yobo Shabu Shabu – Chef Xingkai Deng – the man who put China Mama on the map, is back! And he’s brought superior shabu-shabu (and noodles) with him.
Cafe Berlin – I know a little German….he’s eating right over here.
Wing Lei – gorgeous as ever, wonderful Mandarin cooking. One of only two places at the Wynn that still interests me.
Twist by Pierre Gagnaire – it is impossible to get bored with Pierre Gagnaire’s food.
El Menudazo – listen up, gringo. Hitch up the Bronco, put your fears of North Las Vegas aside (come for lunch), and get the pozole, muchacho.
Mon Ami Gabi – I only go at an odd hour (usually mid-afternoon) and sit on the terrace with.
Ferraro’s Italian Restaurant & Wine Bar – why eat Italian anywhere else? There’s certainly no reason to drink Italian anywhere else.
The Real Crepe – Brittany comes to the ‘burbs! Crepes, crepes and more crepes….and sweet or savory, they’re all great.
Canter’s Delicatessen – face it: it’s the best deli in town and Bagel Cafe isn’t.
Delices Gourmands French Bakery – as I’ve stated a hundred times: there ought to be a line out the door for these pastries.
Cafe Ohlala – just what a French bistro should be: small, solid, and personal. Nice wine list, too.
Flock & Fowl – I didn’t think Sheridan Su’s Hainanese chicken could get any better. It has! Bigger menu, more seats, and devilishly good deviled eggs (as you can see above).
Ocha Thai – coming soon: a new bar with small Thai bites!
Sweets Raku – the weekend lunch (and desserts like the one above) is a must-stop on any foodie tour of Las Vegas.
Chuchote Thai Bistro & Desserts – get the southern Thai specialties and bring a fire hose….or your own six-pack of beer.
Cafe Breizh – the best, Jerry. The best!
So there you have it. My final roundup.
These are the places I have been eating in, and the places that I imagine will hold my attention for the next year. I’m enthused about the Raku expansion, Khai Vu’s new wine bar on Spring Mountain Road, and whatever Jamaican specialties they might (eventually) cook up at Jammyland downtown, but two fucks I have ceased to give about whatever Gordon Ramsay is up to.
I fear for the fate of Bazaar Meat, and I suppose I’ll trundle over to Caesars or the Bellagio sometime to see what Guy Savoy or Le Cirque is cooking up, but on the whole, going to the Strip just isn’t doing it for me anymore. Which is kind of funny since I find myself with more money and spare time than ever these days.
I’ll still hit Las Vegas Boulevard whenever I’m hankerin’ for a great steak (nothing in the neighborhoods, except maybe Japaneiro, even comes close to the steaks at our premium beef emporiums), but there’s no need to put up with all that aggravation, and the crowds, and the paid-for parking, and the nickel-and-dimeing of the big hotels when there’s so much cool stuff happening on Spring Mountain Road, and less than a half mile from where I work.
I’ll be back on April 1st for a few last words and my final sign-off. Until then, bon appetit et à votre santé to all.
First of all, thanks to everyone for the kind words and comments. It’s hard to express how much they mean to me. While we may not get the number of page views we had 7-8 years ago, it’s gratifying to know that what we write still resonates with a certain level of intrepid foodie and discriminating gastronaut….like you.
Second of all, as promised, we’re going to end this incarnation of EATING LAS VEGAS with some short, to-the-point recommendations based upon where we’ve been chowing down since the first of the year, and where you’ll be finding us in the coming months.
As you will notice, most of these are off the Strip. Try as we might, it has been almost impossible to work up any enthusiasm for dining on Las Vegas Boulevard for months now. The greed, the stupidity, the same-old sameness, and the insanity of its pricing has finally gotten to us. After twenty five years of being their biggest cheerleader, we can no longer summon the energy to drag our ass down to one of the huge hotels, pay for parking, and endure the slack-jawed hordes who are being subjected to metronomic service at stratospheric prices.
Need more reasons for our disaffection? Then how about:
Bavette’s is charging $74 dollars for a steak you can barely see.
Big Casino now tacks “resort fees” onto bills for things (like the gym and landline phones) that most people don’t use.
Drink and wine prices continue to be obscene. Getting a drink at a Vegas casino is like fighting with the peasants for a sliver of soylent green….and paying $22 for the privilege.
Paying for parking is a non-starter for us (as with most locals) — another reason to continue to patronize the Venetian/Palazzo, at least until they capitulate to their accountants and start nickel and dime-ing everyone and everything.
The Las Vegas “food press” (note air quotes) trips over their dick praising Hell’s Kitchen, and whatever licensing deal Giada struck this week to slap her name on some pathetic piece of plagiarism.
Mario Batali is now persona-non-grata in his own restaurants….the restaurants that are only famous because his name is attached to them. Yes, we know he’s a pig and has behaved deplorably around many women on many occasions, but what are we to make of his Las Vegas presence? Can his restaurants stand on their own? Even with the talented Nicole Brisson at the helm? Three years ago I would’ve cared, now I can barely manage a shrug.
The Strip may be dying the slow death of a million paper cuts, but the re-branding/down-sizing of the Batali-Bastianich empire — a bastion of serious foodie cred in our humble burg for almost a decade — is an immediate casualty from which there may be no recovery — because there are no more celebrity chefs on the horizon, and because the ones here (with a few exceptions, mostly French) are either played out or washed up.
One final story before I rest my case, stop my navel-gazing, and make a recommendation.
I went to lunch not long ago with some very well-known, affluent types who live in those Happy Trails/Heartbreak Ridges-type neighborhoods in the fancy part of town. These folks have known me for a long time and are fully aware of my writing, my persona, my palate, and my prejudices.
They spend their days tooling around in expensive automobiles, playing golf and planning their vacations. They travel the world. They profess to love good food and wine. As far as I know they can all read and write. It was for that reason that I had given them a copy of my book in the past. They asked me where I wanted to go (up around Summerlin), but I got overruled. Where we ended up was one of those inexplicably popular restaurants that pretends to be about wine, but really isn’t, and acts like it’s putting out great food, but doesn’t.
As I sat there pushing my food around on my plate and trying to find a drinkable bottle for under a hundy, it struck me: You’re never going to reach these people, John. 23 years of preaching and proselytizing hasn’t made a dent….not with this crowd. They can buy and sell me a dozen times over, and talk about flying here and renting a yacht there, but they wouldn’t know a good cacio e pepe if it bit them on their Asti spumante. And they don’t care to know. Like most folks when it comes to food (and wine) they are blissful in their ignorance. (Did I mention that Santa Margherita pinot grigio was the preferred libation? And that the place was thick with lawyers? And that two of them proudly told me that Michael’s at the South Coast was “the best restaurant in town”?)
As I sat there, it occurred to me that I’ve been no different all these years than a music or movie critic who is always suggesting that people learn to appreciate a higher, more advanced form of the entertainment they enjoy. Month after month and year after year these critics recommend more complex, better music, better movies, and more elevated examples of these art forms. And what do they get for their troubles? People asking them how they like a stupid Star Wars re-boot, or taking them to a Miley Cyrus concert.
When the hoi polloi does this, it doesn’t bother me. When wealthy friends and acquaintances do, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
But for you, dear reader, I have nothing but respect.
You have braved the wilds of the inter webs to find me, and have suffered through enough of my kvetching.
You, my friend, are here to learn about the good stuff — the best food and drink this town has to offer. So I say: fuck the knuckle draggers; screw affluence….AND GET THEE TO GOOD PIE!
Why Good Pie? Because it’s the best New York-style pizza in town. It’s a slice joint no wider than a pepperoni, but the deck oven stuff being put out by Vincent Rotolo puts other pretenders to shame.
Good Pie gives me hope. It stands for the proposition that passionate individuals are still out there trying to bring good taste, and better pizza, to Las Vegas.
Good Pie is everything Tivoli Village and Downtown Summerlin (which is neither down, nor a town, nor downtown of anything) are not.
Good Pie is as real as the dough Rotolo is proofing (every two days) and rolling out to order. Good Pie is excellent ingredients, house-made sauce (from a combination of California and Italian tomatoes), and the best pizza cheese you’re ever going to find in a take-out joint.
Those pizzas are something to behold, but his garlic knots:
…are going to be what makes him famous.
Yours truly is not a calzone lover (too bready and cheesy — even for this carb-lovin’ turophile), but if you insist on one of these belly-bombs, this is the place to get one:
And if vegan pizza is your thing, look no further than this bad boy:
….or what these bad boyz are up to:
My rich friends won’t come here, because, on a fundamental food and wine level, they’re idiots….and content to remain so in a culture-free cocoon of their own making.
But you, my friend, should, because, like me, you’re always searching for something better.
If I wasn’t fat and old and being hounded by my wife and cardiologist, I’d be here every day.
Our staff is girding its loins for the final push.
And we at ELV know that the time is nigh.
What we’re talking about is the conclusion. The climax. The finale.
The denouement, if you will, of this web site in its current incarnation.
Come April 1, 2018, on the exact, 10th year anniversary of its birth, EATING LAS VEGAS (www.eatinglv.com) will cease to exist in its present form.
What will succeed it is anyone’s guess.
One thing we do know is that we’re not going away completely.
There will be a re-boot; there will be an outlet for our deathless prose, our incisive wit, our impeccable palate, and our call-it-like-it-is ruminations on Las Vegas: its people, its places, and its eating parlors.
We have been thinking long and hard about these things over the past few months, and we’ve come to a few conclusions about what we don’t want to do, going forward, but the path ahead is still a bit foggy as to what is in store. Therefore, in the spirit of honesty, respect, gratefulness, and camaraderie with you, a follower who has been faithful enough to still be reading our words, it is only right that we share some of these thoughts.
One thing is clear, and has been clear to us for over five years now: the time of the blogs is over. Facebook killed the whole idea of someone blogging some blog that their blog-appreciating fans onto a blog with their own blogviations about whatever bloggings were being blogged.
Blogs were once a beautiful thing. From around 2002-2012 they were a way for people with common interests to communicate. Whether your passion was petit fours or Parcheesi, you could set up a blog and people who were interested would google and find it and they’d all create a small community of readers who shared knowledge, comments, arguments, witticisms, about whatever subject was held dear to their hearts. Back in the day, there were blogs about Mullets Galore, Hot Chicks with Douchebags, and, my personal favorite: MenWhoLookLikeKennyRogers.com.
As gone as the hope that the interwebs would spawn a new way, highly informed and dexterous way of communicating with each other.
What began so hopefully morphed into trolls, clickbait and cat videos.
What killed this hope was that great bugaboo: advertising. More specifically, the lust Facebook had to aggregate all of its fans into mind-staggering numbers that it could then sell to its advertisers — companies that have paid it a fortune to access all those eyeballs.
If you’re like me (i.e., like most grownups) you started with Facebook around 2008-2009. Back then, it seemed like a groovy way to connect with friends and share pictures. Little did anyone suspect that it would become the primary way people would start interacting with each other on the internet. Little did we know that those advertisers would mine all that Facebook data about us and turn it into a privacy-compromised, marketing juggernaut.
By opting to communicate very loudly and very publicly on Facebook on just about every topic, the public was basically turning its back on those little communities of quilters or Female Lego Academics and announcing that if it didn’t happen on Facebook, it didn’t really happen.
This phenomenon, along with the improvement of phone cameras and Instagram, effectively killed food blogs.
Of course, the rise of Yelp, TripAdvisor et al had a lot to do with it too. Once you could dial up a crowd-sourced opinion of everything from a hole-in-the-wall taco joint to a haute cuisine palace, there was little reason to endure the bloviations of some gasbag “expert” before deciding where to eat.
Back in the day, people had to read to get information. My early restaurant years were soaked with the prose of Seymour Britchky, Craig Claiborne and Jay Jacobs. Decades before everyone was posting pictures of their shrimp salad, you had to wade through hundreds of words describing every dish in detail in order to get a mental picture of a meal. Those words were dense with descriptors and sometimes the sledding was heavy, but it pulled you in, made you commit. And with that commitment came accomplishment — the sense that you had achieved something — that you actually knew something, after you finished reading a food article or a review.
Epicures no longer have to put in the work to call themselves such. All they have to do is look at pictures and pay attention to whatever Thrillist, or 50 Best list, or award list is in the news this week. Galloping gourmets simply notch their belts and post photos to call themselves a connoisseur.
But there’s a big difference between helicoptering to the top of Mount Everest and actually climbing there. Unfortunately, in the food world — and especially in the world of social media as it pertains to food — these distinctions have all been wiped out. No one really gives a shit if the editor of Eater or Thrillist or Travel + Leisure actually knows anything about their topic, or has eaten in the restaurants they write about. All that matters is that they’ve distilled a very little amount of information into an easily digestible form.
Like I said: marketing eventually ruins everything.
So, with these things in mind, where is this food blog to go? (BTW and FWIW: we’ve always hated calling this a “blog.” Blogs are for weird people who love posting pictures of ugly Renaissance babies and hungover owls. To us, Eating Las Vegas always been our website.)
A few things have become clearer to us in the last year:
Item: We’ve had it with the Strip. The nickel-and-diming of resort fees, paid parking, and such have stuck in our craw, but what has really cinches it for us is the stagnancy of ideas and the milking of old cows going on there. Wynn/Encore spent five years trumpeting its restaurants. Now, with a couple of exceptions, it’s manned by a bunch of itinerant chefs. Perhaps Elaine Wynn can restore its F&B program to some of its former glory. (Hope springs eternal!) As for the rest of the bean-counting casinos: there hasn’t been an original idea in any of them in a decade. I’m not saying I won’t go to the Strip to dine, but I’m through writing about it on this web site. If you want to know what I think about its big hitter eateries, BUY MY BOOK! Given the lack of imagination going on up and down Las Vegas Boulevard, everything I wrote for the 2018 edition should be good for at least the next three years. I’ll still post pictures of my dinners at Guy Savoy, Bazaar Meat or Wing Lei (see above, for example) on social media, but my days of praising them to the heavens on this site are over.
Item: I’ve been traveling a lot in the past two years and intend to keep it up. Expect a lot more stuff about my edible adventures abroad.
Item: I’ve been cooking a lot lately as well. (Little known fact: before I started writing seriously about restaurants in 1995, I had been a serious home cook for twenty years.) Therefore, we may even turn this into a food/cooking/recipe site (occasionally).
Item: Wine is a passion of mine . Wine writing is usually a bore. Expect the occasional post about what I’m drinking a why. I’ll try to make it informative and not boring.
Item: Life in general is a passion of mine. Expect the occasional blowhard dissertation about some obscure thing that interests me.
Item: Cocktails, spirits and whiskeys continue to fascinate me (beer less so), so expect an occasional dissertation about what and where you should be drinking.
Item: I will never, ever, subject my readers to my politics. There are more than enough political writers in the world. Not even I am interested in my political views. Politics is a boring little game played by small-minded little people. The only reason we are inundated with it (in the press) is because it is one of the few human activities that is going on all the time.
Item: We’ve been reading a lot lately…and may even throw in an occasional book review.
Item: The one exception to the above rule will be gun control. I have felt strongly about gun control all of my adult life. Because I believe we all have a moral obligation to prevent murder. If you’re one of those psycho-sexual, barrel-stroking gun-loving, 2nd Amendment freaks, don’t read me. For the rest of you, I will try to keep my outrage to a minimum.
Item: Asian food/Chinatown/Spring Mountain Road: I expect to be eating a lot more Asian food in the coming year and reporting on it more frequently on this site.
Item: My days of searching out cheap taco shops and bar burgers are over.
Item: Downtown Las Vegas is booming and I’ll continue to be its biggest booster.
Item: The name of this site may be changing. It’s going to be more about other things than just “Eating Las Vegas.” More likely the title will be something along the lines of:
JOHN CURTAS is
Eating Las Vegas
Traveling the World
Telling It Like It Is
….or something like that.
In the next few weeks (after we return from New Mexico this weekend), we will be highlighting a few of our favorite meals of the this (still young) year, and then shutting things down (on April 1) for our reboot.
When next we re-appear (sometime before Summer), you can expect a stripped down site, composed mainly of our prose, and, as always, a few tasty snaps to accompany the articles.
As always, bon appetit to all.
Europe - The Final Countdown (Official Video) - YouTube
Before we begin, let’s get two things straight: I love Jews, and their food. Especially their Ashkenazi-American-Jewish food.
And even before I knew a rugelach from a gefilte, I was a lover of the Jewish culture. I consider the Jewish faith to be the best, most sensible and loving of all religions.
If I were a religious man, I would be Jewish.
But some Jews have a problem: they wouldn’t know a great piece of pastrami if it bit them on their bialy.
But even if they don’t know their kashrut from their kreplach, boy do they have opinions.
And when you start splitting Talmudic hairs with them, you better gird your loins for a fight.
First some background. I’m an old deli aficionado, as my father (a Greek) was before me. I was practically raised in Ronnie’s in Orlando, Florida — which was a direct copy of Rascal’s and Wolfie’s in Miami Beach. And if you don’t think they knew from delis in Miami Beach back then, you’re a putz. Or at least a schlemiel.
In the 1970s through the 1990s whenever I was in New York, a stop at the Stage, 2nd Avenue, Carnegie or Katz’s was mandatory. When I was out west, you’d find me at Canter’s or Langer’s. In Chicago, it was Kaufman’s and in Montreal, Schwartz’s. I even remember at stellar experience at the Gotham Deli on 47th Street, in the heart of the Diamond District, back in the Eighties that might’ve been the best bagel I ever tasted….next to Barney Greengrass’s….which was second only to Schwartz’s…none of which held a candle to the sweet-sour little pumpernickel rolls (wrapped around tiny bits of melted onions) at the Ronnie’s of my youth.
Most of those mentioned are now closed. In New York, Katz’s continues to hang on, but the the rest of them are history. On the west coast, the famous ones persevere against all odds. (There’s even been an infusion of new Jewish deli blood in L.A. with the opening of Wexler’s.) But in Miami Beach, where my deli education began, good Jewish food is harder to find these days than a heterosexual.
All of which is by way of establishing my bona fides for this type of food. I love it the way only a person raised with something can. The deep, rich, mahogany red of great pastrami pulses through my blood every bit as much as my matching hemoglobin. At various times of my life, if you had opened a vein, I’m sure it would’ve smelled like corned beef on rye.
Which is why I was excited when Canter’s decided to come back to Vegas and open a store in Tivoli Village. (Some may remember they had an outlet in the Treasure Island hotel that skedaddled some years ago.) The original Canter’s on Fairfax Avenue in L.A. is an institution. Although I’ve always found its sandwiches a notch below Langer’s, I vastly preferred them to the so-so stuff at the celebrity-studded Nate ‘n Al. (Further proof, if any is needed, of the inverse relationship between great food and celebrity endorsements.)
It all started with this opening salvo on my Facebook page: “There ought to be a line out the door at Canter’s Las Vegas. But I bet there’s a 20 minute wait for a table at Mimi’s and the Bagel Cafe – where everything comes out of a bag or a box.” (It was a poor choice of words, since deleted, as I’m sure everything at the Bagel Cafe does not come out of a box, it just tastes like it.)
It started out as a mild controversy, as one of my Facebook friends weighed in a statement,”The owner claims they make all of their food from scratch.”
To which I replied:
Really? They do their own baking? (It never smells or tastes like it.) Cure their own meat? Make their own bagels? (possible….then why do they look and taste like the bagels at dozens of places around town?) Do they slave over salmon? Nourish the nova from the time they fillet the fish? Roll out their own rye? Do they have a cadre of cooks in the back making everything from the tuna salad to the shredding potatoes for the latkes? Color me skeptical….Or perhaps we just have different definitions of what “making things from scratch” means…
What started as a tickle of tendentiousness swelled into a raging river of retorts, ripostes and rejoinders.
The comments ranged from the thoughtful:
[Canter’s] is like a pop-up deli missing many of our major top food items.
Desserts and pastries better at Bagel Cafe; pastrami and corned beef better at Canter’s.
To the underwhelmed:
Service was excellent, pancakes were heavy and chewy….pastrami a bit dry to my liking.
To absurd hyperbole:
The matzoh ball soup at Bagel Cafe is ten times better than that at Canter’s.
To complete disagreement:
I enjoy Bagel Cafe very much and didn’t agree with John Curtas.
To the totally disagreeable:
Canter’s is disgusting. (ELV note: Canter’s is not disgusting, and the person making the comment thinks the best Jewish deli in America is in Texas. Because we all know how high the deli bar is set in Texas.)
Then I got a little arrogant and pushy (I know, quite a surprise) when responding to those trashing Canter’s:
Canter’s has the best bagels I’ve tasted in town. It doesn’t duplicate the magic of the original, but in Vegas — where we haven’t had a decent deli in 30 years — it’s as good as you’re going to get. And BTW: your friends (who say otherwise) probably don’t know anything about Jewish food.
Finally, after dozens of comments, I weighed in with what I thought would be the end of it:
Here’s the bottom line: Canter’s actually cooks and prepares all its own food. Bagel Cafe (where I had eaten many times over the years, and seen the Sysco trucks and viewed the pre-packaged meats in the counter) tastes pre-made. To those of you who say, “[Canter’s] is not as good as….” – I leave you to your pre-packaged mediocrity.
There were comments upon comments and threads within threads and it all became exhausting after a while. Many agreed with me that the Bagel Cafe is a mediocre deli experience at best. The real fressers in the threads pointed to how well steamed and hand-sliced Canter’s meat is. (Those busy defending their BC turf hardly ever articulated why anything there was superior in any way.)
For the record, I did give props to the chicken noodle soup at the Bagel Cafe. It’s about the only thing I’ve ever had there that impressed me.
My favorite comment was:
I’m ashamed to see some of my fellow Yidden don’t know from great pastrami and corned beef. We finally get a world-class place and people just kvetch. This is why we can’t have nice things. (This comment even included a link to David Sax’s “Save The Deli” – a book I doubt anyone associated with the Bagel Cafe has ever read.)
But things got really interesting when the Bagel Cafe itself started weighing in:
I am the owner of The Bagel Cafe. You must immediately take down your slanderous comments….we do, in fact make our food, in house, fresh daily. Shame on you.
To which I replied:
Please explain “make our own food fresh daily” – I’ve asked questions and I’m skeptical. If you actually: 1) do ALL your own baking; 2) cure your own meat and fish; 3) smoke your own pastrami; and 4) make all of your salads and soups from scratch; etc…I will not only apologize, I’ll come eat there.
Sir, you are not welcome at the Bagel Cafe…I will not continue to engage with you.
I also heard from the general manager of the BC who gave me the usual “We’ve been in business forever, everyone loves us, how dare you say anything bad about us blah blah blah…” — to which I responded with the same questions I posed to the owner. I even requested he send me pictures of all of the curing, smoking, and baking going on there, with my assurance that I would retract any comments that turned out to be untrue.
His response was to block me from any further conversation.
And so it continued…for days.
At one point, BC acolytes were purposefully posting bad reviews of Canter’s on Yelp to (I guess) try to enhance their reputation by besmirching another’s. Classy.
People went nuts accusing me of all sorts of things, but I never did get my questions answered to my satisfaction, and my satisfaction demands more than the owner and his relatives telling me, “We cook all our own food.”
Bottom line: My three meals at Canter’s have been really really good. It has demonstrably better sandwiches, meat, cheesecake, bagels and fish than Bagel Cafe. (The coffee is also great, too.) If people don’t want to believe it, that’s their business.
Bottom line #2: Just because you like a place doesn’t mean it’s any good, and just because you’re born into a culture doesn’t mean you have a clue about quality. There are Italians all over America who swear by shitty Italian food, and Americans who wouldn’t know a good cheeseburger if it bit them on the bun.
The next time I want a corned beef sandwich, I’m heading to Canter’s. The rest of you, I leave to your mediocrity.
ELV note: We temporarily interrupt this web site’s obsession with food in order to share with you a serious, personal anecdote. Because sometimes there are things much more important to talk about than where to eat, and because we believe everyone has a moral obligation to (try to) prevent murder.
Several decades ago, when I was still practicing criminal law, I happened upon a homicide scene where I knew the detectives. One of them with a particularly morbid sense of humor (homicide dicks are famous for their gloomy humor) asked me if I wanted to see the body. (He joked that since I might end up defending the perp, I might want to see the other half of the equation.) “Sure,” I said, so he led me over to a parked car.
Inside was the driver with his head resting on the steering wheel and twisted to the left as if he were leaning forward and trying to see something out the driver’s side window. His eyes were wide open, and you wouldn’t even had thought he was dead if you just casually glanced at him. From a distance of about five feet, the only odd thing about the body was its stillness and a small black indentation — about the size of a nickel — just below the left cheekbone. There was no blood on his face, and it being nighttime, at first I saw no blood anywhere else, either.
“What happened,” I asked the detective, “how did he die?”
“Since you asked, counselor, come with me.”
With that we walked around to the passenger side, took out his flashlight and shined it through a curtain of blood and what looked like wads of chewing gum stuck all over the side window. Inside I could see a ragged, gaping hole the size of a large man’s fist had been blown out of the back of the victim’s skull. A mosaic of flesh, brains, blood and bone dripped from every interior surface as if someone had sprayed it there with a fire hose. I can still see the shards of skull stuck in globs of pink-grey brain.
“Must’ve ruined his whole fucking day,” the cop quipped. It certainly did mine.
Impressions like that are powerful and never forgotten. They are far different from what you see in violent movies, or watching people shoot pumpkins with firearms. They also make you much more sensitive to what really happens when people are shot. You can’t compartmentalize it with distant sympathy. You can’t create a gauzy, intellectually-removed effect of poor bodies antiseptically slumped motionless in a sleep-death of sadness. No, what you live with is the knowledge of just how violent, bloody and revoltingly grotesque their death was.
Gun nuts and the gun lobby don’t want you to understand just how destructive their implements of death are. Guns are, first and foremost, killing machines. And they do their work most effectively. Hunting is about killing things and self-protection is about killing people. Hunters at least are well aware of the power of firearms. I don’t think they’re the ones behind all the political nonsense spewed forth by the NRA. The self-protection nuts are the bigger problem. They are the ones who have been convinced they “need” guns for some unknown boogeymen who are out there (usually, other gun nuts), or that guns are cool.
If more people saw what a gun really does to a human body, that “cool factor” would be greatly diminished. If gun-control advocates (which greatly outnumber those who still believe in the myth of the 2nd Amendment) saw the blood, the wounds, and the faces of shooting victims, lying there in sticky, putrid, purple-black pools of their own fluids, the gun control movement might galvanize in the same way the Civil Rights movement did when the public saw pictures of lynchings and dogs biting through the legs of protesters.
It’s time to show the bloodshed. There are photographs of those 20 Newtown children slumped bloody across their tiny desks with gaping bullet holes in their terrified, disfigured faces and little chests. There is, I’m sure, a photograph of the fatal neck wound my friend Cameron Robinson suffered on October 1st — a gun shot that snuffed out a young life just as it was beginning. People need to see this shit — literally see the shit, and the blood, and the guts, and the brains, and the bone shards — in order to break the murderous stranglehold the gun lobby has on our politics.
People need to have their whole fucking day ruined, too.
Rules are what give us comfort. They provide context and boundaries to how we’re supposed to act and how we’re supposed to eat.
By nature, I’m not a rule follower. Laws are just suggestions, I’m fond of saying, but I don’t really mean it, especially when social intercourse is involved, and especially when dining pleasure is at stake.
Civility, decorum, manners, tradition — they’ve all taken a beating over the last decade, a beating that shows no signs of abating.
In that same vein, upscale eating has become a no-holds-barred, free-for-all.
Fish sauce in meatloaf. Clam toast. Uni shooters. Baby back ribs mingle with roasted cauliflower — in a supposed Italian restaurant. (Boy, do American chefs LOVE roasted veggies.) Soffrito this and lamb burger that.
Mocha oatmeal stout mole with beef cheek, brown butter, and a masa dumpling?
Stoner food. Comfort food. Everything has to be cravable. Nothing is tethered to anything but the chef’s imagination — imaginations that are running wild from coast to coast because everyone is copying everyone else’s Instagrammable dishes.
On and on it goes from Grant Achatz to chefs from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon.
I don’t want to eat Iberian-inspired cuisine, I want to eat the real thing…or at least an American restaurant’s close approximation of the real thing. Simply tossing some pata negra ham on something does as much for me as putting pesto on peanut butter.
“Their food aesthetic is hard to define.”is what wins you national publicity these days, but who in the hell wants to eat something they don’t understand? Grownups want definition; teenagers need it, and young adults are searching for it. The only people who don’t want definition are children too stupid to know how essential structure is for things to make sense.
American restaurants, I’m here to tell you, and especially new American restaurants, have stopped making sense.
I get it: chefs are in the business of making food that people want to eat. If the crowd wants eclecticism, then pile French foie gras alongside Peruvian tiradito topped with a lamb necks and Millennials will beat a path to your door.
But there’s a big problem with this kind of eating: it’s exhausting.
Thematic restaurants are comforting. Whether it’s a Umberto’s Clam House, Joël Robuchon or In-N-Out Burger, you know what you’re getting when you walk in. You know (or hope) you’re going there to be fed something recognizable, and relax while you’re eating it.
When you have to figure out what’s good, something has been lost. When you have to constantly strain to parse what the chef is up to, then you’ve lost a big battle with my stomach before the war has barely begun.
I’ve been to Europe a lot in the past two years. Even as I type these words I am pining for the beef bourguignon in Beaune, or that pork shank in Munich. I find myself dreaming about Japanese fish restaurants and orgies of Roman pasta. What I don’t dream about is some Japanese-Mexican chef trying to make “Iberian-inspired” cuisine with a Nipponese twist. The worst foreign restaurants I’ve ever eaten in were “eclectic” in their cooking. The worst American restaurants I’ve eaten in were jacks of all trades and masters of none. Just because we live in a melting pot doesn’t mean our restaurant food has to reflect that.
There’s nothing new in food, despite what some chefs will try to tell you. There’s a reason you put ground up pork and not turkey meat in dumplings — because turkey meat brings nothing to the party. All those ingredients you see in Korean stews? Each one is there for a reason. Red wine with meat; white wine butter sauce with fish? The French figured this out a thousand years ago.
Why does no one put pasta in clam chowder? Because potatoes lend better starch and texture to the broth.
The other thing all the world’s cuisines figured out is how to eat. And by “how to eat” I mean the progress of a meal.
Light to heavy, climbing the food chain, all of it makes sense in the context of every country’s cuisine. Even the Ethiopians will tell you in what order to attack your injera. Simply throwing a bunch of small plates on the table confuses both the mind and the palate, to say nothing of lessening our sense of civility.
Thus have America chefs taken the whole cross-cultural thing too far.
Who wants to spend time deciphering whether to get the Bento box and Scotch egg or the fried calamari with some riff on ramen? Or how about salmon with forbidden rice and tomatillo sauce? In a Vietnamese-American restaurant?
The best restaurants in Las Vegas know what they are and what they’re trying to emulate. Carnevino is an Italian steakhouse in the best sense of the word. Twist is French to its core, and YuiEdomae Sushi is a direct copycat of a hidden Ginza sushi joint. They are “foreign” restaurants (and they are essentially theme restaurants), but like all great orchestras they stick to the music and leave improvisation to the fools.
American restaurants have no idea what they are, and spend too much time concocting wild variations of dishes done better somewhere else by cooks who specialize in that kind of cooking. (I get it; chefs get bored. But thinking up oddball combinations to combat boredom is an insult to gastronomy.)
Here’s where I give kudos to James Trees for knowing what he wants to be and what he’s good at. Esther’s Kitchen may not sound like a modern Italian restaurant but that’s what it is.
James Trees knows the rules. He’s not afraid to tweak things here and there, but he sticks to the catechism of Italian cooking pretty closely.
I wish his competition was so inclined.
There are many things to like about Carson Kitchen, 7th & Carson, The Black Sheep, Sparrow + Wolf, Boteco, and The Kitchen at Atomic, but thematic consistency isn’t one of them.
To their core, they are new American restaurants that are all over the map with their (relatively short) menus. And to be blunt about it: this kind of cooking is rarely transporting. It may be picture-worthy and just fine for sitting in deafening rooms with screaming 35 year olds raving about how “amazing” everything is, but at the end of the day, it fills your belly but rarely your soul.
No matter how talented a hotshot young chef is, they’re never going to make a mole as well as a Mexican mamacita who’s been doing it all her life. Ditto raw fish. There’s a lot more to it than just putting some raw slices on a plate and throwing some lime dressing on top. Deep frying is an art, too, as is roasting. But restaurants that are trying to all of these things will excel at none of them.
Fusion food has had an interesting ride over the forty years I’ve been paying attention to restaurants. What started in the early 1980s with Wolfgang Puck’s Cal-Ital-French menus took a sharp turn east when Jean-Georges Vongerichten took New York by storm a few years later with his Thai-inflecked French. By the 1990s, Nobu Matsuhisha and Roy Yamaguchi had everyone talking about pan-Pacific flavors. But by the early 2000s, every food writer in America was over all of it. “Fusion-confusion” was how we mocked it back then.
Then, instead of going away, it took over. The recession had something to do with it. Fancy dining was dead (at least we thought so at the time), and restaurateurs, searching for an audience, had to find something casual and hip and, god help us, picture-worthy, to drive business in the door.
Enter restaurants with more moving parts than a Game of Thrones episode. All of it helped along by the molecular craze — which may have jumped the shark a decade ago, but which gave casual eateries license to try all kinds of wacky combinations.
The foam-thing may have died, but the “anything goes”legacy remains. And what we’re left with is wood-fired grills throwing Bento boxes at us…and udon carbonara.
I’m not necessarily against combining the world’s flavors into interesting combinations, but I am against it when it makes no sense….and when that’s all you’ve got. What I’m looking for is focus — on the menu and in the recipes — focus that seems to be lacking when all of these cultural lines get blurred.
Which leads me to ask: Do they teach this kind of cooking in culinary schools these days? I think not. I think it’s all a direct result of social media creating a “can you top this?” attitude among young chefs. Which deceives them into thinking they’re doing something fresh, when in reality, they’re all posing for the same selfies.
The mission statement of any chef in any restaurant is to satisfy his or her customers. And when all you’re doing is trying to dazzle someone, you don’t allow them to get comfortable enough to be satisfied.
Creativity is a great. The world can’t run without it. But creativity is a slippery slope when it comes to food — a slope that too many chefs are sliding down these days.
I think we’re slowly evolving past the small plates thing, and the something-for-everyone-thing, and the let’s-throw-Asian-accents-on-everything-thing.
This is a good thing, I think. Or maybe I’m just hoping.
It’s time to get back to basics — food that makes people feel good, not impress them for all of the wrong reasons.
Here comes my annual “Piss the Asian Eater Crowd Off” post, so buckle up and hang on.
I don’t like pho. I eat it once in a while, but I can’t say it has ever impressed me.
I have eaten dozens of bowls of pho in my lifetime in dozens of Vietnamese restaurants, stretching from Garden Grove, California to New York City. If there’s a scintilla of difference between this pho and that pho, I’ve yet to decipher it.
Aside from filling you up, there is precious little to recommend about pho.
Maybe I just don’t get pho. And if by “don’t get” you mean I can’t get on board with a bland noodle soup, then guilty as charged.
Japanese soups are more substantial; Japanese noodles are far more interesting. Thai soups are spicier and more mysterious, and Korean soups are far more complex, so just what is it, pilgrim, that drives you to a bowl of pho?
I’ll tell you what drives you there: price. Pho is cheap. So cheap they can serve it by the gallon. It’s also filling. Two pounds of noodles for $6.95 will fill anyone up.
But that doesn’t mean it’s any good.
Pho for the most part is just boring. The broth is nothing to write home about, ever, and the pounds of cheap, flavorless, flabby rice starch noodles (banh pho) they serve with it bring nothing to the party, either. The only thing that makes pho interesting is the forest of fresh herbs they bring to your table. In other words, you’re served bland broth and limp noodles and you’re supposed to season it yourself! WHAT FUN!
Pho is the most grandma-friendly of all Asian dishes. It’s what you serve to those who find kung pao chicken too exotic. It’s entry-level Asian for wimps.
I like the pho at Le Phobecause the broth has guts. And his meat is better than the suspect cuts a lot of cut rate pho parlors sling at you. But the noodles, there and everywhere, are entirely forgettable.
And don’t get me started on whatever it is they call this stuff:
I fear pho is about to cross the Ramen Line, and suddenly be the soup du jour among the Instagram crowd. But it doesn’t deserve it. It doesn’t deserve it anymore than your mother’s chicken noodle soup deserves it.
And spare me the whole “it’s part of our cultural heritage” claim, as these ginormous bowls of blandness didn’t become popular until around a hundred years ago. An argument can be made that it’s really French.
Here’s my suggestion for pho eating:
If you’ve got a head cold, eat pho.
If you’re broke, eat pho.
If you enjoy eating soup broth by the gallon, eat pho.
If eating flavorless broth is part of your culture (Vietnamese, Jews, Mormons, Iowans) by all means eat a lot of pho.
If you have no teeth, eat pho. (without the eighteen cuts of beef)
For the rest of you, I suggest trying savory soups of substance.
(Hot, sour, and spicy Tom Yum at Ocha Thai)
But if you like oddly firm, funnily flavored meatballs like this:
…knock yourself out.
As for me, I’ll continue diving into the food of Vietnam (which I love, especially the broken rice dishes), and consign this so-so noodle soup to the oblivion to which it belongs.
To head off the haters, here’s a partial list of Vietnamese food that I do like (and I like them a lot):
Goi cuon (fresh spring rolls)
Bun bo Hue (hearty/spicy beef soup with round noodles)
Banh cuon (steamed rolled rice cakes)
Buo luc lac (shaking beef)
Bun thit nuong (grilled marinated pork)
Com tam (broken rice)
Canh chua (hot and sour soup)
Goi xoai (shrimp salad)
…just to name a few.
Hope to see you at Le Pho, orDistrict One sometime soon…just not behind a bowl of f*cking pho.
Back in the 1980s, I had a client. She was a cocktail waitress on the Strip. As I recall she was a pretty brunette, in her early 30s, divorced and with a small child. She was referred to me by another lawyer who didn’t think she had much of a case.
When she came to my office she acted shy and quiet, barely speaking above a whisper. The whole time she sat across from me she acted like she was embarrassed about something.
At first I thought she was there because of a workman’s compensation case. I thought this because the first thing she did was roll up one of her sleeves to show me the bruises on her upper arm.
“It looked worse a few days ago,” she told me. “It happened over a week ago.”
“My boss grabbed me and tried to have sex with me.” She was quivering as she said this, eight days after the incident.
“Where did this happen?”
“In his office,” she replied, “where he takes all the girls he wants to have sex with.”
“Who’s your boss?”
“He’s the vice president of food and beverage.”
“For the whole hotel?”
“Yes. I don’t want to lose my job, but he shouldn’t have done this.”
“Did he do anything else to you other than grab you by the arm?”
“Yes…as I twisted away from his grip, he reached out with his other hand and grabbed my boob and ripped my dressed as I was pulling away from him.”
“Where’s the dress?”
And with that, she reached into a large bag she had with her and produced a short, torn cocktail server dress with the upper quarter of it ripped open.
Then, with her next statement, we both got embarrassed.
“Do you want to see it,” she murmured almost inaudibly.
It was difficult for both of us, but she showed me the inside of her breast with three short scratches in the process of healing and a fading bruise.
“Did you tell anyone at the time this happened?”
“Yes, I told my shift supervisor.”
“A man or a woman?”
“What did she say?”
“She told me to forget about it if I wanted to keep my job.”
Long story short, she eventually quit, claiming sexual harassment. We sued on those grounds as well as assault and battery. The hotel fought tooth and nail, and the case eventually settled…for $15,000.
As I’ve said many a time over the years, if this case had happened two decades later, we could’ve added two zeros to the settlement. As it was, both the hotel and its attorneys continually scoffed at the claim. “All he did, at the very worst, was make a pass at her,” was their contention. The ripped dress was a fake and the bruises on her arm could’ve come from anywhere. The fact that she immediately told her supervisor bothered them not at all. “So her boss got a little out of line. What’s the big deal?”
To some youngsters, 1986 seems like the 1800s, but to those of us of a certain age, it wasn’t that long ago. And America was hardly in the dark ages about sexual harassment in the Eighties — it had been a hot topic, both legally and socially, for at least twenty years.
But Vegas took no heed of that. Las Vegas, then and now, plays by its own rules. And those rules begin and end with the fact that whatever blue-collar, unskilled job you have, you should be damn grateful to have it. Better still, you, the employee should never forget that if you move back to Fresno or Little Rock, you’ll be holding down the same job for about 60% less money.
The same holds true for our hotel executives. To a man (and woman) they know that no where else in America can they make the same, six-figure income, managing a bunch of maids, dealers or accountants. And the big bosses — the guys with the high six-figure/seven-figure incomes — know that they know this, so all of them create a tight little bubble of economic security that no one wants to puncture.
Low level employees are expendable. Hot young masseuses, manicurists, waitresses are a dime a dozen. Use ’em up and spit ’em out. When one makes waves, circle the wagons and wait for it to pass. (And waiting for it to pass is what Steve Wynn is doing right now.)
And pass it does. I know one well-known executive (who has worked in at least half a dozen hotels in town), who was fired from two of his jobs because he couldn’t keep his hands off the cocktail waitresses. Nevertheless, whenever a new hotel is in the works (as many were fifteen years ago) this fellow’s name keeps popping up as an F&B executive. “In-fucking-credible,” I always say to myself….but I look up and there he is, strutting around the new hotel like a little Caesar with his monogrammed shirts and fuck-you Italian shoes.
The culture that allows this to go on all over Vegas is endemic to Vegas. It is very unique, in that we’re a town built upon the seven deadly sins. Our pleasure palaces are built upon all sorts of vices. Sex, drugs, and rock & roll are what sells this town. Take away the drugs (I’m including booze when I say drugs), and the glitz and the easy women and what do you have? Fremont Street in 1936: a dusty old western town with a dozen seedy gambling halls.
But a dusty old gambling parlors do not support six-figure lifestyles and fuck-you Italian loafers. We need glitz and glamour and an endless supply of eager, compliant, blue collar employees to constantly polish and enhance our image. Managing so many uneducated folks ain’t easy, and if a casino boss wants to partake of these vices and take a few liberties, who does it harm?
It’s one thing when sex in the workplace is a fair fight (e.g. among the restaurant crowd with their after-hours partying and musical beds*), quite another when someone risks a valuable job in a big hotel by calling out a rich and powerful boss. Complicating things are the willing or semi-willing females (or males, I suppose) who go along with sexual overtures to get along. Or at least get ahead.
But my guess is that the ones who do mind outnumber the ones who don’t by 10 to 1. Everyone in Las Vegas has a story, but precious few will ever spill the beans, because Mr. Gucci will always be making $400,000 a year, and, no matter how bruised your ego or dented your flesh, fifteen grand only goes so far.
*When the Mario Batali scandal hit, in early December, I made the observation on social media that people get into the restaurant business precisely because it’s a hotbed of social/sexual activities. (As one manager once told me, “It’s like a never-ending frat party you can continue going to well into your thirties.”) The morality police jumped all over me, accusing me of “hating restaurant workers” and “condoning sexual harassment.” The difference is, of course, that the groping and grabbing (and language and philandering) among young people is an even economic match. What happens at after-hours parties between restaurant management and staff is a far cry from Steve Wynn patrolling the halls of his hotel, looking for more notches on his belt.
(ELV has been to Chinatown so much, they really should erect a statue in his honor)
ELV note: Rather than attempt a comprehensive look at Las Vegas restaurants (for that, you’ll have to buy my book) we at ELV thought it better to let you know where you’re likely to find us dining in the coming months. As we said in our last post, we are done exploring every nook and cranny of the local food scene. We’re not going to ignore the shiny and the new, but more likely you’ll find us patronizing the well-worn and comfortable. And nothing fits our comfort zone more these days than Chinatown.
The Food Gal® once asked me what I would miss most about Las Vegas were we to move to another town. The things I would miss most about Vegas, would be, in order:
My swimming pool in summer
Having half a dozen great French restaurants within 15 minutes of my front door
Las Vegas’s Mexicans restaurants don’t compare with SoCal, Phoenix, Tucson and Albuquerque, but all it takes is a quick trip to any Mexicali eatery in Atlanta or St. Louis to see how good we’ve got it.
And when it comes to Asian food, there are very few cities in America that compare with the offerings up and down Spring Mountain Road.
As with Mexican food, I can hear the aficionados braying: “Nothing you have compares with the San Gabriel Valley, or Garden Grove, or Richmond (outside of Vancouver) Canada!”
True dat, but for a town our size, the quality and variety of our Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and Korean restaurants is pretty darn impressive, and beats anything Miami, Chicago, Minneapolis, Denver or Philadelphia can throw at you.
Best of all, our Chinatown (which really should be called Asiatown) is mostly compressed into one, three mile stretch of road. (As tasty as it is, traipsing all over Alhambra, San Gabriel and the Valley Boulevard Corridor can be a slog for all but the most intrepid gastronaut.)
Chinatown really rings our chimes, again and again. It’s the one food address in town that we never tire of exploring. When Thai tedium ensues, there’s always some copious Korean. Should we be sated by sushi, there’s always some restorative ramen at hand. Upscale Vietnamese? Verily, it is so. Interesting izakaya? Indubitably.
Plus, all of this bounty seems to be increasing. As we type these words, a huge condominium complex is under construction near Valley View Boulevard, along with a giant new shopping mall (dubbed “Shanghai Plaza”) a half mile up the street.
Something tells us the quantity and quality of Chinatown eats is about to grow exponentially. In the meantime, here’s where we’ll frequenting in the coming year:
(We have purposely included a few non-Chinatown addresses here, but lumped them in this section in the interest of pan-Pacific consistency.)
Noodles, Noodles, Noodles
(“Screaming For Vengeance” at Ramen Sora)
No one does cheap eats better than Asians. Ten years ago there was nary a noodle to be found in Chinatown that wasn’t in a pot of Vietnamese pho. Now, nourishing noodle nibbling necessitates numerous navigations. Put another way, the number of choices is notable. And without a whole lot of negotiating, you can become a noodle-noshing nerd.
For ramen, we prefer an old reliable — Ramen Sora — along with an interesting upstart: Ramen Hashi, a mile or so up the road. Ramen Sora satisfies our cravings for miso-based noodles (often with everything but the kitchen sink thrown on top), while Ramen Hashi has blown us away recently with its lighter, shio (salt) and shoyu (soy) based chicken broths. We have nothing against Monta, and give it all the props in the world for pioneering our ramen revolution, but Hashi and Sora are just as good, and never quite as crowded.
For unctuous udon, Marugame Monzo fills the bill with its thick, chewy strands of cotton-white udon (and killer karaage). And for the best of Szechuan, nothing beats Mian Taste (or Mian Sichuan Noodle, depending on how literal you want to be) and the fiery, lip numbing intensity of the Szechuan peppercorns that infuse each dish.
If it’s all-around noodle-liciouness you seek,nothing beats the hand-pulled beauties at Shang Artisan Noodle….or its pocket beef pancake:
Life is too short to eat cheap fish. It sounds elitist (and it is!) but you should have to pay through the nose for your seafood. Nasty, shit-fed, farm raised fish doesn’t do anyone any good, and ocean trawling for cheap tuna is destroying our eco-systems.
My solution: Ban cheap fish altogether and make people shell out a car payment for their sushi. It’s going to come to this eventually, so we might as well start now.
If you want cheap protein, eat a chicken.
If you want wonderful seafood treated right, try this on for size:
The Japanese revolution began in January, 2008 with the opening of Raku. We hear an expansion is planned and we hope that means it will be easier to get into. (Don’t bet on it; it’s still one tough ticket.) Raku’s excellence and popularity shows no signs of abating, as it has continues to elevate our dining scene, and set a standard for all of Spring Mountain Road to emulate. In the ten years hence, it has begat such tasty options as Japanese Curry Zen and Raku Sweets. Curry Zen is a must for lovers of Japanese curry. Its spinach curry rice shows up at my house at least once a month (the Food Ga® is a big fan of their takeout), and it might be the healthiest cheap eats in Vegas. Raku Sweets remains a marvel. We can never get in for dessert (always a wait) but weekend lunch is definitely on the horizon.
Gawd I wish I could parse the fine differences between this pho parlor and that pho parlor. They all have the same menu and they’re all alike to this haolie. All I know is this: When I get a hankerin’ for pho or spring rolls downtown, I head straight to Le Pho. When I want more interesting, out-of-the-box Vietnamese, I head straight to District One. I really don’t give a shit about any other Vietnamese restaurant in town, because I’ve been to ’em all, and they all taste the same.
We don’t give a flying frijole that Kkulmat has only 2 TripAdvisor reviews. It’s really really good, and the people are really really nice. At Mother’s, they barely seem to tolerate round-eyes, but the banchan and dolsot bibimbap make up for the cursory service.
That is all.
Don’t Leave Your Chinese To Chance
(Let Jimmy Li slip you the tongue at Niu-Gu)
Chinese restaurants still outnumber all others on Spring Mountain, and mediocre Chinese restaurants are more the rule than the exception. The Chinatown Plaza pictured at the top of the page – the place that started our Asian revolution in 1995 – is chock full of mediocrity, and every strip mall seems to have at least one forgettable boba tea or Taiwanese street food joint. But there is fascinating food to be found. You just have to be smart, read this blog, follow me on Instagram, and buy my book. (That’s two shameless plugs in one post if you’re counting.)
For dim sum, and many other classic Chinese favorites, head straight to Ping Pang Pong. For sophisticated Mandarin-worthy fare at a fraction of what you’ll pay on the Strip, nobody beats what Jimmy Li cooks up every night at the unassuming Niu-Gu Noodle House. (P.s. the tea service is spectacular as well.)
Chengdu Taste is where we head when we’ve got a hankerin’ for dan dan mian, green sauce chicken, or boiled fish in chili sauce. It is a restaurant that brooks no compromise and lays on the tongue-numbing heat the way they do in southwestern China. J & J Szechuan is older, less flashy, and not as of-the-moment as chef Tony Xu’s Alhambra offshoot — but it’s almost as good, even cheaper, and usually easier to get into.
Thai One On
(Our usual at Ocha Thai)
We group our Thai restaurants into 3 categories:
1) Rustic and authentic
2) Upscale and authentic
3) Everyone else
(Nam-Prik-Ong – red chili dip at Lotus of Siam)
When it comes to rustic and authentic, nothing beats what the adorable little ladies of Ocha Thai are turning out. A little more polished are the operations at Weera Thai (which features quite a few Laotian dishes) and the incendiary stylings of Chuchote Thai. If you want to know what it feels like to have a flame thrower stuck up your fundament, ask for anything “Bangkok hot” at any of them, and then hold on for dear life the next morning.
Thai comes in more sophisticated form (and with better wines) at Chada Street and Chada Thai as well as at that old reliable: Lotus of Siam. We’ve twice tried to get into Lotus at their new location on West Flamingo, and have been thwarted by long lines every time. At this rate, we may have to wait for their old location to reopen for our yearly fix of Koong Char Num Pla (raw shrimp) and Nam Kao Tod (crispy rice), or to get another chance to waltz around America’s best German Riesling list.
What do we always say: When you want a good dessert in an Asian restaurant, go to a French one.
….or just about any other thing he’s serving to satiate your sweet (or tea) tooth.
Other than that, and the gorgeous creations of Mio-san at Raku Sweets:
…there’s not a whole lot we can recommend from our Asian brethren in the dessert department.
Boba tea is a bad joke (it all comes from over-sugared mixes), Korean pastries are pale, spongy copies of French ones, and the wallpaper paste that the Japanese and Chinese make out of red beans might appeal to them, but we find its best usage is holding down roof tiles. And those slushies that some upscale Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese joints throw at you at the end of the meal are just odd, chunky imitations of something the Greeks perfected 2,500 years ago.
Face it: Asians don’t get sugar. Not like the French do. Or the Italians. Or the Germans. They don’t really have a sweet tooth. But we don’t hold that against them. In fact, it’s one of the many reasons we crawl up and down Spring Mountain Road every week — we always know that wherever we chow down on this most chow-downable of streets, we’ll save ourselves a thousand calories by skipping dessert every time.
In Part 3 of Where I’ll Dine in 2018 we will explore what’s left of Strip dining that still gets us excited. In the meantime, we’ll leave you with some thoughtful words from George Orwell about critical writing and the abandonment of standards. (He was writing about book critics, but the regression to the mean (and mediocrity) holds true for restaurants and restaurant writing as well.):
It is almost impossible to mention restaurants in bulk without grossly overpraising the great majority of them. Until one has some kind of professional relationship with restaurants, one does not discover how bad the majority of them are. In much more than nine cases out of ten the only objectively truthful criticism would be “This restaurant is worthless”, while the truth about the reviewer’s own reaction would probably be “This restaurant does not interest me in any way, and I would not write about it unless I were paid to.” But the public will not pay to read that kind of thing. Why should they? They want some kind of guide to the restaurants they are asked to visit, and they want some kind of evaluation. But as soon as values are mentioned, standards collapse. – with apologies to George Orwell