Given a national tidal wave of retailer bankruptcies and thousands of store closures, why does the Las Vegas Strip defy all odds and increasingly look like the new Mall of America? Las Vegas used to be called “Sin City.” Now, it’s “Shopping City.” The iconic decorative fountains outside in front of Caesars Palace are now obscured by a pop-up retail store hawking Samsung smartphones. The pirate ship at Treasure Island has been torn down and hauled away, replaced by a lousy barbecue joint with a mechanical bull. Every casino along Las Vegas Boulevard has a shopping mall or is connected to a shopping mall. Indeed, everywhere you look up and down The Strip, there’s a trendy retail store or chain restaurant. Sales pests leap out of nowhere, begging to clean your jewelry or talk you into a miracle skin cream. Shopping has become so pervasive that it’s become increasingly difficult to find the way into a casino amidst a disorienting maze of overpriced clothing stores, perfume shops, gourmet burger bars, and kiosks selling
junk knick-knacks that nobody needs. Playing cards used to symbolize the Las Vegas experience. Now, it’s credit cards.
Even off The Strip, several so-called “outlet malls” packed with hundreds of retail stores cater almost exclusively to tourists. Near downtown, there’s a giant complex called Premium Outlets (which just announced plans to start charging to park, begging the question — who pays for parking just to shop?). South of Mandalay Bay, there’s an even bigger shopping outlet known as Town Square. Just south of that mall is another outlet mall named Las Vegas South Premium Outlets. Parking is still free there, at least for now.
Even the swarms of visitors who drive into Las Vegas from the west can’t escape the shopping craze. What’s the first thing you see when crossing the California-Nevada border? Not a casino. Answer: The Primm Outlet Mall. Who in the hell drives four hours from Los Angeles across the desert to swerve into Nordstrom Rack? Hmm, I guess there are no stores left in California.
Las Vegas doesn’t need Gamblers Anonymous. We need Shoppers Anonymous.
What’s truly baffling is this trend defies absolutely everything that’s happening across the rest of America. Retailers just about everywhere are in very serious trouble. More than 10,000 stores affiliated with national chains closed down last year. Retail bankruptcies are at an all-time high. More than 50 retailers have gone out of business just within the last year.
Toys R Us is bankrupt. Perfumania is bankrupt. Rue21 is bankrupt. Payless Shoes bankrupt. RadioShack is bankrupt. The Limited is bankrupt. Gymboree is bankrupt. Vitamin World is bankrupt. Aerosoles is bankrupt. Styles for Less is bankrupt. That’s the short list. READ MORE
K-Mart is about to be bankrupt. Sears is about to be bankrupt. JC Penny is about to be bankrupt. SteinMart is about to be bankrupt. Burlington is about to be bankrupt. Men’s Warehouse is about to be bankrupt. Joseph A. Bank is about to be bankrupt. That’s another short list. READ MORE
These are even worse times for shopping malls. They simply aren’t being built anymore. Not with Walmart, Costco, Sam’s Club, and other retail giants offering far better value and easier convenience. Who wants to visit a mall and walk three miles to grab a few things when one megastore offers the same thing at a cheaper price — plus a hot dog and drink lunch for $1.50?
Of course, the real culprit in the demise of malls and retail stores is online shopping, and more specifically the explosion of Amazon. E-shopping has revolutionized consumer culture. It’s far easier to find the perfect replacement part or the ideal sweater on a home laptop and then have it delivered to our doorstep. No doubt, Amazon will continue cutting into the market share of brick and mortar retailers, which will increasingly find themselves following K-Mart into bankruptcy court.
So, given what’s happening everyplace else, why is Las Vegas such a mystifying exception? It makes no sense. It defies all logic.
Clearly, these retail stores on The Strip don’t offer any bargains. The prices for goods and services are usually much higher in casino malls than back at home. Sure, tourists will buy t-shirts and souvenirs. That’s to be expected. But who flies to Las Vegas on their vacation to purchase a smartphone? Or, a bottle of perfume? Or, a pair of pants? Or, a pair of sneakers? Or, any of the other millions of products for sale at a considerable markup?
One plausible theory is that most Las Vegas visitors expect to lose money. Hence, rather than blowing $1,200 at a craps table as the tourists used to do, by splurging on an $800 iPhone and $400 handbag instead, at least there’s something left to show for the act of self-indulgence.
Still, I can’t shake the undeniable fact that at least some (albeit small) percentage of gamblers depart the casino with more money than they started with. A very tiny number might even get rich. But everyone who walks into a shopping mall and then buys something loses money.
Why is Las Vegas so different when it comes to retail shopping? I can’t explain it.
Thoughts and feedback are welcome.
Correction / Update: I’ve been informed the Samsung store at Caesars is now gone. So, don’t rush there to buy the new Galaxy S9.
Note: This article originally appeared at nolandalla.com on March 27, 2018.
Writer's Note: This is the second of a two-part series. Taste is subjective. Especially when it comes to food and eating out. I love classic French cooking but hate nouveau cuisine. I love cheap local eateries but loathe fast food. I adore butter bombs, spices, onions, and garlic and garlic and more garlic, but won’t touch a green pea or a mushroom. I drink wine daily but never order wine in restaurants. I demand everything to be fresh and try to avoid frozen or processed foods, but I can devour a half gallon of ice cream in a single sitting. I go through spells where I eat strict vegetarian and then turn into a werewolf the next week. I’m willing to spend good money on fine food. But I’m always cost-conscious. In fact, every culinary decision I make is based on value. Is this worth the money? Do I feel like I got the best end of the bargain? If so, that’s a restaurant I’ll return to many times. You can always find a good meal for $50. You can always find a great meal for $100. But find me a fantastic meal for $20. That’s where I want to go. Yesterday in PART 1, I listed five great comfort meals in Las Vegas — priced at less than $20. Continuing on with PART 2 here are five more recommended lunches and dinners….and then some: Sliced Smoked Beef Brisket at Rollin’ Smoke Barbecue Wherever I go, I’ve discovered great barbecue joints are often located in the shittiest areas of town. Las Vegas is no exception. Rollin’ Smoke is off Industrial Road, on Highland Drive, two arteries in the bowels the casino district. Nestled in dingy strip mall beneath a busy expressway, Rollin’ Smoke opened for business about ten years ago and has since become one of those hidden food havens everyone seeks out. It’s now a locals’ favorite. This isn’t a hangout where you’ll find tourists. Instead, expect to see casino executives and construction workers lining up faithfully at a busy lunch counter to place their orders. Rollin’ Smoke offers the standard barbecue options — consisting of pork, beef, chicken, sausage. Drinks are serve-yourself, with the added southern charm of pre-sweetened ice tea. Lunch/dinner platters are served on metal trays with wax paper. Seating is mostly picnic tables, with thick rolls of paper towels at the centerpiece. The floors are concrete. Not a great place for a first date, unless you’re from Little Rock. But what great barbecue. Rollin’ Smoke serves meats cooked up Texas-style, although ownership would bristle at the slanderous classification. Indeed, restaurant walls are saturated with Arkansas memorabilia, including a giant state flag and trophies of real (dead) Razorbacks. A Razorback is a feral pig and the proud nickname of the University of Arkansas football team. I’ve sung the “pig sooie” battle cry many times after eating at Rollin’ Smoke. My favorite entre is the Sliced Smoked Beef Brisket, priced at $10.99 for a half pound of heaven. The full pound costs $18.99. Each entre includes a side dish and the baked beans make for the perfect kicker. Rollin’ Smoke’s brisket is unique in taste because it’s given a dry rub of peppery spices before many hours of slow heat and smoke. After it’s been sliced and served, the peppery edges make a merely good barbecue divine. It’s one of the best beef briskets I’ve ever enjoyed. You’ll be picking peppercorns out of your teeth two hours later. Ah, the memories. The rest of the menu (including ribs) is a very good show, but not quite at the pinnacle of the brisket, which is the undeniable superstar. Overall, this a joint where you go to eat and expect nothing else. A deliciously-satisfying meal with a drink plus tax rounds up to about $17, and that’s with a buck tip to the nice young man who takes away your tray and wipes down the picnic table for the next hungry customer. [Note: Rollin’ Smoke took over Billy’s Barbecue on West Tropicana, which was also very good. I have not had the chance to try this location since Rollin’ Smoke bought them out, but I presume it’s equal to what’s served at the flagship location next to The Strip] Kibbi Platter at Khoury’s Mediterranean Khoury’s Mediterranean is a popular Lebanese restaurant in Village Square, at the corner of West Sahara and Fort Apache. This location has been open slightly more than a year after spending a decade hidden away in the far southwest corner of Las Vegas. This is another local gem, virtually unknown by tourists. Khoury is one of the most popular surnames in Lebanon. The Khoury’s are a local Las Vegas family and can often be seen them working side by side in the kitchen or running the floor. Pictures of the smiling Khoury family decorate the walls. This isn’t just a restaurant. It is a display of pride. Marieta and I have dined at Khoury’s 60-70 times over the past decade, including celebratory New Years Eve dinners. We’ve enjoyed just about everything listed on the menu. For those unfamiliar with Lebanese cooking, two highly-recommended dishes are the Kafta Kabob and/or the Kafta sandwich served with fresh cut fries. My favorite dish is the Kibbi platter. This classic recipe consists of spiced ground beef rolled into a golf ball-sized clump sprinkled with fresh pine nuts. Next, an outer cask of bulger wheat engulfs the tasty treat inside and then the entire fist-sized ball is deep fried. The wheat, pine nuts, beef, and spices blend to absolute perfection. If that’s not enough flavor, then a house-made yogurt side sauce makes for dipping. Kibbi platters are served with a side of whole grain rice, with a tinge of olive oil and a fresh salad of your choice. The Tabbouleh is marvelous here, but I usually opt instead for the house Khoury’s salad, which is ecstasy for garlic lovers. This is a tongue-burning joy. All entrees also include a generous pie-dough sized portion of Lebanese pita, which is freshly-baked in a brick oven. The bread always comes out piping hot and is puffed out like a balloon. Khoury’s even serves fresh butter (no cheap margarine). Add a tall glass of fresh-squeezed lemonade as the perfect topper. Incredibly, the Kibbi platter with all the accompaniments is priced at a marvelously affordable $13 for lunch and $18 for dinner (which consists of a much larger portion). Either option is a slam dunk bargain and a great meal. You will become a regular, for sure. Give Khoury’s a try. Here’s my write-up, “The Best (and Worst) Mediterranean Restaurants in Las Vegas,” published in 2015. Trout Almondine at Kings Fish House (Green Valley Ranch) Trout Almondine is my favorite dish. I’ve had it hundreds of times in far too many restaurants to count. The best Trout Almondine is served in the very finest restaurants in New Orleans, and I’ve been to every one of them (some multiple time). If I have a foodie fetish, you can probably tell — it’s for Trout Almondine. [Note: Almondine is also commonly spelled “Amandine” or “Almandine”] The classic French-Louisiana recipe calls for fresh rainbow trout (commonly shipped from Idaho in this part of the country). The fish is seasoned, then doused in flour (or cornmeal), and then pan seared in olive oil and sprinkled with toasted almonds (sometimes it’s fried). Finally, the fully cooked boneless trout filet is basted in a Beurre Blanc sauce, which means “white butter.” The downside to being a
hopeless food snob Trout Almondine aficionado is maturing into a spoiled-rotten brat. Guilty as charged. There are many unacceptable Trout Almondine options around the country, and Las Vegas offers only a few choices which I grade as passable. Put this way, I can count them on one hand.
The very best Trout Almondine priced at less than $20 is served at King’s Fish House, in the Green Vally Ranch retail district, next to the casino in Henderson. Large and often noisy, with optional outdoor patio seating, King’s appeals to just about everyone.
Coastal dwellers won’t be impressed, perhaps. But given we’re in the middle of the desert, it’s tough to find fresh fish and decent seafood, unless you’re willing to shell out $100 someplace on The Strip. King’s is the far more accessible and affordable option, which includes the widest variety of foods from the sea.
King’s does Trout Almondine right. It’s the best recipe (for the money) I’ve tasted outside of New Orleans. For $18 (lunch), a nice portion of fresh fish is served, along with the two side dishes (no ala carte here — nice to see a restaurant refusing to nickel and dime guests for the extras). My favorite accompaniments include the buttered corn, which is sliced right off the cob and then seasoned, along with garlic spinach served in a small iron ramekin. That way, I can order the spinach and brag that I tried to eat a healthy meal.
King’s also offers the best San Francisco-style sourdough bread in the city, which is airy fresh and served with real butter. I’m also quite fond of their house specialty drinks, best of all the Agave Sting — silver tequila, fresh lime, Jalapeño, basil, and pineapple….poured on the rocks with a chili salt rim. It’s amazing.
Read more about my obsession with Rainbow Trout here: “Who’s Been Pilfering my Rainbow Trouts?”
Enchiladas (or Tacos) at El Segundo Sol
El Segundo Sol is the creative brainchild of master chef Terry Lynch, responsible for making Mon Ami Gabi (Paris Casino) one of the most popular restaurants in Las Vegas. Lynch’s attention to the slightest detail is self-evident in every drink or bite or taste. I’ve listened to Lynch talk affectionately about food for hours, going into painstaking detail as to why he selected a specific type of rice to accompany a dish. His cooking classes aren’t just fun foodie events. They are spiritually-infused sermons, transformational experiences filled with culinary and cultural enrichment.
Lynch departed Las Vegas about a year ago to launch a new restaurant in Japan, but his mark remains indelible. El Segundo Sol is a Mexican restaurant located right underneath Maggiono’s, at Fashion Show Mall across the street from the Wynn/Encore. But don’t look for Tex-Mex and margaritas made with an industrial powder mixer. Instead, El Segundo Sol uses classic recipes and natural ingredients popular in Jalisco and Yucatan.
I remember Lynch once ranting about the depreciated peppers grown in the United States and served in most traditional Mexican restaurants. So, his kitchen insisted on the far zestier peppers imported from central Mexico shipped to flag-plant authenticity. Homemade cheeses and sauces served here don’t rely on the cheapest local dairy. This restaurant relies on a fresh supply of superior products from the great Straus Dairy in Sonoma (California). Yes, you can taste the difference.
Everything on the menu is excellent. For $7.95, two homemade corn tamales with a creme fraiche sauce nearly lifts the bar of expectation to an impossible height. However, if forced to pick and chose, I’d go with any enchilada dish (cheese, chicken breast, or slow-braised beef), which offers a spectacular combination of flavors at a reasonable cost of $17.95.
Enchiladas are served on an oval-shaped platter and come with an original black bean recipe combined with their signature cilantro rice — which is the best rice I’ve ever tasted. Thanks again, Terry Lynch for sampling 40 different rice varieties first before settling on this gem of a taste. What really pushes this dish over the top are the two sauces, one red and one green. They are served in small tin cups and can be applied sparingly or generously, according to taste. It’s a waltz for the taste buds.
If enchiladas aren’t your thing, then go for the tacos instead, which are served roll-your-own style. It’s just about as good.
El Segundo Sol is the best Mexican-themed restaurant in Las Vegas and a definite reason to drive down to The Strip. Parking beneath the mall is free and just steps away from the front entrance. Moreover, the restaurant continues its tradition of monthly cooking classes (Saturday mornings) and special dinners, which are a bargain since a four-course meal and multiple margaritas are always included.
One more helpful hint: Request a table inside, since the music can be loud on the terrace and it gets hot in the summer. It’s much nicer in the back.
Addendum: This dish would be my favorite, but it’s not regularly on the menu. It’s shrimp basted in achiote, with rice, beans, and homemade corn tortillas. Read more about El Segundo Sol in my review with lots more photos I took, published in 2014: Restaurant Review: El Segundo Sol
Andre’s Burger (Hamburger) at Andre’s Bistro and Bar
I can hear the laughter now. I’m recommending a visit to famed chef André Rochat’s restaurant — and suggesting a hamburger?
Yes, I am.
The trick is to visit Andre’s between 3 pm and 6 pm on Monday through Friday, which is the Happy Hour. Many outstanding dinner items are discounted, some as low as half price. Specialty cocktails are also discounted.
We’ve enjoyed Andre’s only a handful of times (it’s still relatively new) and came away on each occasion with the satisfaction we received first-class food and service at economy prices. It’s like dining at one of the snooty rip-off restaurants on The Strip at a fraction of the price, and with smiling waiters sans all the attitude.
The Cheese & Charcuterie Board normally priced at $22 is discounted to $15 during Happy Hour and is an exceptional appetizer to share. This is a smorgasbord of tastes to be experienced. In fact, everything we tasted here was either very good or great. Presumably, excellence is consistent throughout.
Oh, but back the hamburger. We ordered two burgers on the shiny brioche bun, topped with imported swiss cheese, red onion marmalade, and truffle mayonnaise. We each inhaled our own small basket of duck fat fries (a house salad can be substituted instead). The burgers were delicious. Especially after scarfing down everything on the Cheese & Charcuterie Board.
The price of the Andre’s Burger, as shown in the photograph above? Try this: $7
It’s half-priced from the usual dinner cost — which is $14. I asked the waiter what’s the difference between the $7 burger and fries and the $14 burger and fries. He replied: “Nothing — except $7.”
Obviously, Chef Andre makes almost no money on this deal. But one expects that we loyal guests will order something else with a higher profit margin. I’m certainly willing to oblige the generosity, by trying out and ordering more menu items, visiting repeatedly, and giving this new establishment my highest recommendation.
Also worth trying — for dessert, I strongly recommend the Chocolate Walnut Gateau which is a chocolate-glazed caramel walnut torte, with crème anglaise for $8.
I have some concerns about Andre’s due to its far-out location, in the same mall area where Khoury’s Mediterranean used to be. This is a drive for most of us, even for those living in the southwest area of Las Vegas. That said, Andre’s Bistro and Bar is worth driving the extra mile.
Note to Self: In a future series of articles, make a list of the best Happy Hour bargains in Las Vegas.
Foodie Lovers Encore: Five More Great Comfort Meals in Las Vegas worth trying at least once:Gumbo or Jambalaya at Lola’s — A Louisiana Kitchen (Arts District location) Lola’s is the most authentic Creole-Cajon restaurant in Las Vegas (don’t be fooled by Emeril’s New Orleans Fish House at MGM-Grand, which is twice as expensive and not nearly as good). A big bowl of hearty Gumbo ($12) with a side of hot Leidenheimer’s Garlic Bread ($2.50) is the very definition of the perfect comfort meal. If you want to go a little spicier, then the Jambalaya will certainly make you return for more. Top of the experience with Lola’s homemade banana pudding, which is made fresh daily ($5). The perfect way to spend $20. Note: Lola’s opened a second location a few years ago, on Town Center in Summerlin. I’ve been there once and the menu appeared to be identical. Chicken Francese (Northern Italian Style) at Pasta Mia One of my favorite dishes is Chicken Francese which is served widely around the country and in most traditional Italian restaurants. What most places miss, however, is the ideal pairing for the breaded chicken cutlet, which is atop capellini (angel hair) pasta. Do not order this dish any other way! It must be served “Northen Italian Style.” I’m spending myself broke trying to educate America on how to make this dish correctly. The unique blend of flavor and texture comes from the egg batter around the cutlet, which absorbs the tangy lemon and butter sauce. When the cutlet is layered across the angel hair as the base, the cutlet remains firm (not soggy). Moreover, the nest of angel hair absorbs all the flavors of the sauce and becomes a symphonic culmination of aroma, texture, and taste. Pasta Mia, in the corner of a strip mall on Flamingo across from the Rio gets it right. But give the waiter strict instructions so no mistakes are made. The house salad with a thick garlic dressing is fabulous. When I die, I want to be embalmed in that dressing. Kubideh Kabob at Zaytoon’s I wanted to include at least one restaurant which is ideal for carryout. Zaytoon’s is a market and deli with a small restaurant attached, consisting of about ten tables. The interior is pleasant, but it’s better suited for to go orders. It’s located in the middle of a strip mall near the corner of Durango and Spring Mountain. Zaytoon’s is Persian/Iranian. Even though the kitchen is small, the menu is quite extensive, consisting of most classic Persian dishes. Non-Middle Easterners are likely to opt for the beef kabob, known as Kubideh. This popular specialty is served with two 10-inch ribbons of pressed and seasoned ground beef with parsley, after being skewered on metal rods over an open flame. The kabobs are blanketed across a heaping pile of rice, with is slightly buttered and texturally ideal. The charcoal-colored Persian seasoning sprinkled over the beef is highly recommended. A half grilled tomato and a quarter onion are served on the side. All meals come with pita bread. Kubideh costs $10.99. Also recommended to order a Shirazi Salad, which is a delicious mix of cold cucumbers, fresh tomatoes, and parsley marinated in lemon and olive oil. One of the best take-out meals in the city for around $15. Clam Chowder at The Chart House (Golden Nugget) Where should you go when you’re not really hungry, but still want something good to eat? So far, I’ve tried to avoid chains and casino restaurants because they’re usually unoriginal and pricey. One notable exception is The Chart House, an ideal Downtown Las Vegas seafood destination inside the Golden Nugget Casino. Take a seat at the bar and order a big bowl of New England Clam Chowder, especially if you’re not too hungry but still want something filling. The chowder is priced at just $7 at lunch — and $9 at dinner. It’s a delight. For me, great chowders are all about the three “T’s” — taste, temperature, and texture. This classic New England specialty fires on all cylinders. The diced potatoes are slightly firm. The clam count is generous. The broth isn’t too thick (often the sign of a cheap chowder). It’s also slightly peppery. I have no idea of this is by design, but each time I’ve ordered the chowder here, it seemed to contain tiny specs of sand, as if to subliminally suggest to diners — this is fresh right out of the sea! It’s also a generous portion served steamy hot. This is the best clam chowder in a city not known for many affordable seafood options. Photo caption: Me, doing my "research."
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:
Chicken Tikka Masala at Curry Leaf (Flavors of India)
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.
Cashew Chicken or Drunken Noodles with Ground Beef at Nittaya’s Secret Kitchen
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.
Reuben Sandwich (with a bowl of Cincinnati Chili) at Egg Works
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.
Capellini Primavara at Roma Deli (Spring Mountain location)
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.
Make-Your-Pizza at Pieology Pizzaria or Blaze Pizza
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"