7 sure bets for Las Vegas dining
Live high on the hog in Sin City at these restaurants
This is the fourteenth installment of "Eat This List" -- a semi-regularly recurring list of things chefs, farmers, writers and other food experts think you ought to know about.
I go to Las Vegas for the food and booze. Yes, I live in New York, one of the greatest dining and drinking cities on the planet, but there's something about the unapologetic bombast of Sin City that just stirs my soul.
I've been to Vegas an awful lot over the past 15 years, and I don't gamble with my dining dollars. Neither should you. Here are seven sure bets I've made time and time again, and I hope they'll pay off for you, too.
1. The Peppermill
Since 1972, tourists and locals alike have sought refuge in the plush, rope-lit banquettes of this campy, comfy North Strip coffee shop and cocktail lounge. At any time of day or night, patrons can gobble down comically heaping platters of 10-egg omelettes and hash browns, towering club sandwiches and fishbowl-sized sundaes, but the real action is in the back at the Fireside Lounge.
Cozy into a seat around the lounge's titular fire pit: a bubbling pool of water with flames shooting up from the center. Your waitress will take your drink order, sliding into the seat next to you as gracefully as she can manage in her slinky, black high-slit cocktail dress -- and she'll return with a hurricane glass or scorpion bowl the size of your head. You'll succumb to a sugar coma (or fugue state induced by the mysterious C-list music videos echoing infinitely around the mirrored room) well before intoxication sets in, but just go with it. And when you finally wander outside after a few Mai Tais, Bahama Mamas or Planters Punches, don't be surprised to find that it's several hours later than you thought it was. Time flies by the fireside.
2. Golden Steer Steak House
The Rat Pack were regulars, so the Golden Steer oughta do just fine by you. The joint's been tossing tableside Caesar salads and setting bananas Foster ablaze since 1958. While it may not be as haute and happening as the celebrity chef-helmed steakhouses on the Strip, it more than makes up for that with the help of a seasoned staff, faithful renditions of warhorse dishes like escargots de Bourgogne, oysters Rockefeller and Lyonnaise potatoes, as well as sturdy pours of classic highballs.
The steaks might not quite match up to the restaurant's claim of being the "best on Earth," but they're perfectly serviceable (and compared to their on-Strip offerings, quite reasonably priced) and besides, you're there for the company. Clink glasses with Frank, Dean, Sammy and all their ritzy pals and savor a last chance to experience a style of Vegas swank that may not be around for much longer.
3. B&B Ristorante
It doesn't seem like the word "sustainability" would be uttered within a 100 mile radius of landlocked, neon-lit, resource-sucking Las Vegas, but Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich have prioritized environmental wellbeing in every aspect of the restaurant from direct-from-farmer sourcing and alternative fuel use to banning bottled water and composting kitchen waste. And they sure don't skimp on the food quality, either. Batali's signature offal and pasta-centric offerings stand out as adventurous and elegant in a city prone to safer, masses-pleasing fare, and it's a darned sight easier to get a reservation at B&B than at his flagship (and roughly equivalent) Babbo in New York City.
It's not cheap; consider this your big Vegas blow-out meal and splurge on the house-made charcuterie, every last one of the vegetable sides and an Italian wine pairing with whatever pasta or meat hunk you desire. Then wobble back to your hotel and take a disco nap to digest before you go out again. You won't need to eat for roughly another day and a half.
4. China Poblano
Since setting up shop at the Cosmopolitan Hotel and Casino when it opened in late 2010, chef José Andrés has become the rogue king of new Vegas dining with his cheeky, inventive take on the world's classic cuisines. At China Poblano, dishes and ingredients from Mexican and Chinese street food play nicely together, without losing their unique identities.
More than a few food writers (including myself) have confessed to sitting down to both lunch and dinner there in a single day, and sneaking in at least one more meal during their stay. After you've had a good sip or two of your salt air margarita (see the gallery above), hop around the menu and select at least a couple of tacos (the Viva China -- soft beef tendon, Kumamoto oysters and scallions in Sichuan peppercorn sauce is the single best item I ate in 2012), some pork buns and a vegetable or two (if Brussels are in season, ORDER THEM) to enjoy while you contemplate your next wave of food -- which should include at least one noodle dish and some siu mai. If you skip a dish, don't worry, you'll be back.
5. Lotus of Siam
In 2011, Thai-born Saipin Chutima tied for the title of Best Chef, Southwest in the annual James Beard Awards, marking the only time such a distinction has been bestowed upon a restaurateur who shares a strip mall with a cowboy-themed gay bar and a world-renowned swingers club. Chutima earned that honor through her meticulous execution of authentic classical and regional Thai cuisine, including homey curries, drunken noodles, pungent larbs, pork blood chunk stew and a whole host of potential new obsessions. Don't skip the off-menu specials -- or the opportunity to indulge in fresh coconut ice cream for dessert. You'll be stuffed, but muscle through.
Do yourself a favor and take a cab to the restaurant. It's nowhere near your hotel, and you'll want to (safely) avail yourself of the opportunity to enjoy pairings from the thoughtfully assembled, heavily German wine list.
6. The Double Down
"Just close your eyes and let the darkness settle in," the conservatively-dressed 50-something told her friend as she led her to a stool in the dingy, mural-decked punk bar. A couple of $2 happy hour Ass Juices and a bacon martini later, both women were palpably calmer, nodding in rhythm to a Buzzcocks song along with the rest of the patrons there to drink the afternoon away.
A sign above the front door welcomes patrons to "The Happiest Place on Earth" and what this 24-hour bar lacks in sanitized Disney pep, it more than makes up for with a different kind of cheer. Low-key celebrities and devoted locals alike make this friendly off-Strip dive bar their home away from home, reveling in the cheap but expertly-made signature shots, raunchy reel of vintage cartoons and B-movies, and free performances by local and national bands. "Puke insurance" is available at a premium, allowing over-served customers to ditch out on cleaning duties should those inexpensive drinks re-emerge at some point in your visit. Otherwise, as the wall sign warns, "You puke, you clean."
If you're extra-lucky, bartender Brett "Butters" Balu will be on duty so you can sample one of his soon-to-be-legendary "Fat Elvis" cocktails. Don't ask what's in it -- just enjoy. You know The King would approve.
Yup, José Andrés earned a second spot in this lucky seven, and he earned it by way of whimsical, wondrous dishes rooted in classical Spanish cooking, and reaching for the stars.
A heady waft of woodsmoke greets customers ascending the elevator to Jaleo's floor. It's emanating from a wood-burning grill from which come massive crowd-pleasing pans of hearty paella -- and that's just a fraction of the menu. Stack the deck with some tried-and-true Andrés offerings: croquetas de pollo (served in a clean running shoe, because why not?), deep-fried bacalao, bacon-wrapped dates, pan con tomate with Manchego and anything involving Iberico ham. Then roll the dice on seasonal vegetables, whatever potato treatments strike your fancy and items labeled "José's way." You'll come up a winner every time.
21 more hits: Get the pig ears at Comme Ça, any dessert at Sage, "My Wife's Favorite Salad" and a charcuterie pizza at Honey Salt, a light lunch at Eiffel Tower (ohhhhhh...the view...), a Negroni at the bar at Sinatra, ceviche and gazpacho at Julian Serrano, spicy pork adobada tacos at Tacos El Gordo, flatbreads and a Blood and Sand at Herbs & Rye, afternoon tea at the Mandarin Oriental Tea Lounge, banana pancakes at eat., boudin blanc at Bouchon Bistro, whatever cocktail the bartender cares to serve you at Vesper Bar, truffle tater tots at The Henry, a Hunter S. Smash at Atomic Liquors, trout and eggs at Tiffany's Cafe, whatever punch they're ladling out at The Velveteen Rabbit, late night snacks at Aburiya Raku, an gastromolecular adventure at the eight-seat é by josé andrés, a glass of wine at Aureole ("wine angels" select bottles from a giant tower on bungee harnesses!), burgers at Hubert Keller's Burger Bar and a cocktail and crowd-watching at Oscar's Beef, Booze & Broads. Go home broke, full and happy.
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