Writer’s Note: And now for something completely different…..Taking a break from sports and gambling to write about one of my favorite subjects — food. With the World Series of Poker fast approaching and many visitors destined to make a trip to Las Vegas this summer, here’s an affordable food guide. By the way, you won’t find many bargains on The Strip. Best to get away.
If I ever get elected to anything important, and there’s no chance of me ever getting elected to anything important, my downfall won’t be because of sex or money — it will be due to my addiction to Reuben sandwiches.
And steak. And pizza. And lasagna. And just about anything else containing the culinary holy trinity of sugar, salt, and fat.
I do love my comfort food.
Resistance is futile. I tried going on a diet once. The diet might have lasted more than a week and perhaps even succeeded. That’s if Maggiono’s Little Italy hadn’t fish-hooked me with a 2-for-1 free dinner mailer. My daily calorie count shot to hell by a heaping family-style portion of manicotti with extra cheese, it was off to the races. After devouring their housemade cheesecake for dessert, I felt like a bloated junkie.
Ever poked an extra hole in your belt with a steak knife? Every guy reading this who carries a few extra pounds knows exactly what I’m talking about. Some guys dream of having a threesome. Yeah, me too. My three-way fantasy is a giant platter of beef brisket, smoked sausage, and a slab of ribs.
I’m lucky, not in gambling, but when it comes to food and drink. Hell, I’m the Phil Ivey of local restaurants and cheap wine. Las Vegas is a fantastic city for comfort foods, which are both delicious and affordable. My favorite meals aren’t always the healthiest fare, but two out of three are certainly results I can
have a heart attack live with.
Just about every restaurant I frequent regularly is located off the Las Vegas Strip. Sure, more than a few casino restaurants in this city offer world-class food and service. But I don’t venture much anymore to Strip casinos to eat out. That’s because I’d rather not fork over half a day’s pay for a couple of sprigs of asparagus doused in peanut sauce invented by some “celebrity chef” pimping his name. Fuck overpriced snail food. Besides, who wants to pay $15 for parking and walk three miles to wait 45 minutes for a table? No one goes to The Strip anymore. It’s way too crowded.
Most of my favorite hangouts are on the west side of Las Vegas. That’s not meant to imply restaurants here on the west side of town are superior to what’s over on the east side. But hey, I do live over here for a reason. Certainly, Green Valley, Henderson, and the reinvented Downtown area have some really interesting places I enjoy. Since I reside in what’s known as “The Lakes” area of the city, I’m more familiar surroundings on the west side of Las Vegas, which includes ritzy Summerlin where just about everything has been built within the past 20 years. So, what you’re about to read is admittedly biased.
Hey, it’s an opinion. And, if you don’t like it be sure and hit the ATM machine before you order the fresh asparagus with the peanut sauce and pay 12 bucks for a bottle of tap water at the Cosmopolitan.
I’ve compiled a list of my ten favorite comfort meals here in Las Vegas with the caveat that they’re priced at less than $20. This was a tough list to compile because there are so many excellent options and it’s all a matter of personal taste. I could easily expand my list to 50 meals all over town which are great. However, this concise list should give readers some idea of what’s great versus merely good on a consistent basis.
In no particular order, here are my most highly-recommend lunches and dinners:
Here’s a short story. I’ve known 2004 world poker champion Greg Raymer for 25 years. Sometime around 2000 before he was rich and I was infamous, Raymer and his wife Cheryl
dragged invited Marieta and me to an Indian restaurant for the very first time. I’d never tied Indian cuisine before and expected to hate it. But instantly, we became hooked. Since that eye-opening experience, we’ve probably visited close to 100 Indian restaurants in the U.S. and in Europe. Las Vegas has about 20 or so decent Indian places, and most are pretty good. However, Curry Leaf on Fort Apache and Tropicana stands out above the rest.
Curry Leaf opened about five years ago. The decor is spartan. One doesn’t come here for the atmosphere, or the service, which can be spotty. What makes Curry Leaf a stand out is the outstanding quality of the food, and especially one of Indian’s most popular international dishes (especially with non-natives) — Chicken Tikka.
Chicken Tikka is cubes of chicken in a spicy orange-colored paste which is unique. It’s poured over white rice, like a stroganoff. Buttered nan, the fresh in-house bread baked on the spot, comes as the ideal accompaniment. The Chicken Tikka at Curry Leaf is superior to any other recipe I have tasted, including some far more expensive places in Las Vegas and London (known for outstanding Indian cuisine because of the large immigrant community). Best of all, the price is ridiculously cheap. Marieta and I dine here frequently, and with double rice, extra nan, and two iced teas, the total bill (minus tip) rarely hits $30 at lunchtime. That’s for two portions. With tax and tip, we’re usually out the door for $37.
I’ve recommended Curry Leaf to at least a dozen people, and every one of them have become regulars. Note that lunch is the same quality, but cheaper. So, try to go before the menu changes over at 3 pm.
Here’s my more detailed review of Curry Leaf, published in 2015.
Nittaya is a Thai-born chef and restaurateur who opened up her own place about ten years ago. From day one, it’s been my local “go to” destination for tasty Thai cuisine, in some respects surpassing the undisputed Las Vegas landmark institution for this type of fare, rival Lotus of Siam located much closer to The Strip. Nittaya gets everything right, down to the slightest detail. Many Thai places kinda’ taste the same. Nittaya’s has flavors all their own that I’ve never experienced anywhere else.
The best values are at lunch, every bit as amazing as dinners, but at a lesser price. A three-course salad, a small appetizer, and main dish will cost about $12. My two favorite dishes are Cashew Chicken and Drunken Noodles. The Cashew Chicken basks in an amazing brown sauce, which is mouth-watering enough to enjoy alone over white rice. The generous mix of fresh vegetables, chicken, and cashews transforms the merely satisfying into the spectacular. A wonderful alternative, Drunken Noodles are best enjoyed with minced ground beef (or minced ground chicken), which blends perfectly with the eye-watering chilis. I love spicy food, but not too hot. Go with a 2 on the 5 hot scale if you’re somewhere in the middle. Rice noodles are rolled together with a magical mix with beef, fried egg, carrots, and chilis — and makes for an extraordinary taste.
A special bonus at Nittaya’s if you want the total experience is her signature dish — the Fried Spinach appetizer. This is a stunning recipe, best shared by two. The dipping sauce is essential, consisting of a taste so unique, it defies description. It’s heavenly.
We’ve dined at Nittaya’s perhaps 75 times. The average lunch for two, with tax/tip rounds up to about $35. An amazing bargain. Nittaya’s is small and the tables are positioned closely together. The small restaurant became so popular that Nittaya took over next door, knocked out a wall, and installed 12 more tables. At dinner, that’s still not big enough to accommodate what’s become a devoted clientele of Nittaya lovers.
Here’s my list of Top Ten Thai Restaurants in Las Vegas, published in 2014.
Las Vegas offers quite a few solid breakfast spots, which must be competitive to match what’s available at the casinos. The three best “egg” themed restaurants include — Egg and I, Egg Works, and Eggslut (yes, that’s really the name).
I’m partial to Egg Works, which has multiple locations. Just about everything on the menu is priced between $10-12. This diner/greasy spoon (not meant as an insult) is very informal. No one comes here for the atmosphere. Just the food, which is homestyle. Let me put it this way — Fox News is constantly on multiple televisions at Egg Works where I frequent, and I’m still willing to overlook the abomination. I do sometimes wear a wide-brimmed ballcap, which is akin to fitting a racehorse with blinders so as not to lose my lunch listening to Hannity.
The menu is pretty standard. As advertised, Egg Works is an omelet place, but they have a marvelous selection of sandwiches, as well. The portions are generous. The standout for me is the classic grilled Reuben Sandwich, on toasted rye. Sliced pastrami is infused with sauerkraut and melted cheese. This will become an addiction. Reubens can be hit or miss, and there are many marginal options just about everywhere. I didn’t expect a breakfast place to get this so right. Everything blends perfectly and is of top quality. Perhaps there’s a great $22 Reuben on The Strip somewhere, but for my money, this is the best in town (that I’ve experienced so far — I continue to explore).
A nice accompaniment to the sandwich is the house-made Cincinnati Chili. It’s hard to find a good varietal with just the right mix of spices (cinnamon and nutmeg are often included in the recipe). They get this right, and for $3.95 a cup and $5.95 a bowl, you can’t go wrong. Diced onions and cheddar cheese are served on the side. The Reuben/Chil pairing is a carnivore’s delight and clocks in at about $17. Come with an appetite. You will leave stuffed.
When I first heard some poker pro friends — Todd Brunson (pictured above), Max Pescatori, and Fabio Coppola — had pooled their Lira together and bought out Roma Deli, I was both happy — and mortified. I was happy that Todd, Max, and Fabio were now restauranteurs. I was mortified that one of my favorite Italian “go to” spots was being hijacked by people who (I thought) had no clue on how to run a kitchen.
To my shock, No surprise, Todd & Company took over Roma and not only maintained both the high quality and Roman authenticity, they improved upon it — something I thought unimaginable. Roma is no bargain. You won’t find Heinz Tomato Paste-infested $7 spaghetti and cheap filler meatballs here. But you will get enjoy an extraordinary East-Coast style experience (tile floors, deli counter, rickety chairs, live music), with all the ingredients of what you’d expect to find in Palazzo Manfredi.
My favorite dish isn’t listed on the menu, but they always make it for me — al dente. That because I’m special. Well, not really. I just go there a lot. Always eager to please, I presume they will make it for you, too, upon request. Or anything else you want.
My favored dish is capellini (angel hair) tossed with extra virgin olive oil, punched with garlic, and topped with broccoli. It a vegetarian dish. The caveat is demanding the chef punches the hell out of the garlic. When I taste the dish, I want my tongue to fall off. That’s how much garlic I want. My tongue should burn like a match. This is my special entre, and they make it to perfection every time. Garlic lovers rejoice, we have discovered the promised land. Garlic hammers primavara dishes, and should be used generously (assuming you share my affection for the vampire-repellant).
Add a tasty house salad with their zesty house dressing, combined with a jumbo bottle of Pellegrino mineral water, and you are out the door for a $20 bill. This is a marvelous meal that has no meat whatsoever but still leaves me completely satisfied. Order it my way, because this recipe hammers the senses into submission without all the guilt of devouring animals.
Here’s a detailed write up of my fabulous dinner with Fabio Coppola last year, shortly after he took over Roma Deli I with his business partners. Note that Roma Deli II (on W. Sahara) is not the same ownership.
I’m no fan of corporate chain restaurants, but the new make-your-own pizza kitchens popping up all over are amazingly tasty and a great bargain. The primary two pizzerias that do this here in Las Vegas are Pieology and Blaze. They are identical in concept and charge about the same price. Hence, my comments to follow are interchangeable.
You walk in and go to the counter. Select your own pizza dough, which is a 12-inch crust. Then, you can pile on as many fresh ingredients as you want, all done by the chef standing in front of you. Let me write that again — you can pile on as many fresh ingredients as you want.
The price is the same. $8.95 for a pizza that’s baked in a brick oven, on the spot, with everything you want on top (none of the 50-cents an extra topping bullshit). I have requested triple portions of garlic, olives, various cheeses, sausages, pepperoni, and just about everything except the kitchen sink, and they don’t blink an eye.
It’s still $8.95.
And, the pizzas are fantastic.
I usually opt for the white pizza, flooded with all the cheeses, then layered with meat and other toppings. The pie is an inch-and-a-half thick, despite the thin crust. It takes about five minutes and is sliced into six portions. You can be out the door in 25 minutes for less than $13 with a large drink.
Why anyone would ever eat fast food again, or order one of those miserable soggy pizzas from other places that nickel and dime you to death for every extra topping is baffling. These new places should put the old shitty mass-production pizzerias like Dominos and Papa Johns out of business. If you ever order from Papa Johns again after eating at either Pieology or Blaze, please unfriend me immediately.
Coming in Part 2: “More Great Comfort Meals in Las Vegas for Under $20”