Las Vegas is Having a Food Moment That Couldn't Happen Anywhere Else
Las Vegas is Having a Food Moment That Couldn't Happen Anywhere Else
By KEVIN ALEXANDER Published On 05/21/2019
EVERYONE HAS OPINIONS ON CITIES. Sometimes they’re colored by lore (Didn’t a river in Cleveland catch fire?), sometimes they’re colored by facts (A river in Cleveland DID catch fire!), but either way, they’re usually based around a kind of national reputation a city inherits. And often those national reputations stray from reality because people don't regularly frequent those cities. That is not the case for Las Vegas.
Stop for the Gas, Stay for the Grub
Thanks to the more than 40 million people visiting each year, Vegas opinions tend to come a little more formed, a little more cocksure, and, let's be honest, aggressively judgmental. Vegas, as the stereotype goes, is the Forever 21 of cities -- a disposable Hollywood backlot mostly inhabited by three card poker dealers, topless nuns, and Criss Angel. It’s the culinary equivalent to an NBA All-Star Game on the Strip (many famous chefs, few trying hard) and a culinary wasteland off; the town equivalent to a bowling shirt with flames on it; the type of place where Zach Galifianakis can put Rohypnol in his friends drinks, wake up with an illegally procured tiger in the bathroom, then find and carry around a baby and everyone is just cool with it.
But if you believe the old ad campaign that Vegas is essentially a city-sized chamber of secrets, then it shouldn't be hard to swallow the fact that, as the rest of the world judges its vapidity based on 36-hour Westworld-styled parachute excursions, playing Pai Gow and seeing the Jabbawockeez, Vegas has been keeping a few other secrets:
1) An ascendant yet still overlooked off-Strip food scene is growing in the desert, pieced together with a uniquely Vegas alchemy of trial and error, experimentation, luck, tragedy, and excess.
2) Las Vegas is transitioning, in real time, from that place you might want to visit for a weekend of poor decision making, to the place you might want to move your thoughtful post-college furniture purchases into and stay for the rest of your life.
As the reporting for this story sprawled, and I kept traveling back to eat at Vegas restaurantsand talk to more chefs, bartenders, food writers, podcasters, entrepreneurs, and professors, I began to think of the city as a Magic Eye puzzle. At first, all you see is a giant Statue of Liberty replica wearing a 28-foot-long Golden Knights hockey jersey. But the more you relax, the more you realize the picture behind the facade is the one you really want to stare at.
Hattie B's chicken sandwich and Lardo's Korean pork shoulder at Block 16 Urban Food Hall in the Cosmopolitan Hotel. | Cole Saladino/Thrillist
HE MODERN HISTORY OF THE VEGAS FOOD WORLD starts with Ruth's Chris coming to town in 1989. The steakhouse's success set off an upscale chain reaction, which is both a bad pun and a reflection of the fact that places like Morton's and The Palm would soon follow.
In 1991, real estate mogul Sheldon M. Gordon convinced LA celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck to open an iteration of Spago in The Forum Shops at Caesars Palace, beginning the first celebrity chef era in Vegas, and helping further the idea that Vegas could be a destination for non-gamblers.
Casinos began paying attention. Up until then, most were playing the same food song: a coffee shop, a buffet, a "Continental" fancy spot (or "gourmet room"), and either a steakhouse or, less often, an Italian restaurant. The first to act was MGM Grand in 1994, who opened with Chicago chef Charlie Trotter, New Mexican chef Mark Miller of the Coyote Cafe, and New Orleans chef and catchphrase connoisseur Emeril Lagasse. The MGM's ante was raised by the Bellagio, which debuted in 1998 with Alsatian chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, La Cirque restaurateur Sirio Maccioni, and other big hitters from across America.
The Cosmopolitan's Block 16 Urban Food Hall brought multiple trendy fast-casual concepts from around the country to the Strip. | Cole Saladino/Thrillist
After the Bellagio, celebrity chef-helmed restaurants became the norm, but the 2010 opening of The Cosmopolitan signaled yet another shift -- from splashy restaurants helmed by splashy chefs, to the kind of hip casual fine dining spots that typify the Good Food Revival Movement sweeping the entire country: revolutionary NYC chef David Chang's Momofuku, Eric and Bruce Bromberg's beloved Blue Ribbon, an unmarked "Secret Pizza" speakeasy, and Block 16 Urban Food Hall featuring cool fast casual joints from Nashville, New Orleans, and Portland.
But what was truly interesting was not the openings themselves, but an accidental consequence of them. In order for top American and European chefs to open restaurants in Vegas, they needed a trusted lieutenant (because, more often than not, after the first three months, the headlining chefs weren’t sticking around). These lieutenants would move from New York or LA or London to open the restaurants and then, as former Momofuku Vegas chef Shaun King put it, "realize weather is great, pay is good, and they don't have to worry about spending $3,000 for a tiny studio with a roommate."
Celebrity chef Guy Fieri's Vegas Kitchen + Bar at the Linq Hotel. Not pictured: Donkey Sauce. | Cole Saladino/Thrillist
In fact, with their salaries, many could afford to buy actual homes. Suddenly talented cooks from all over the world were putting down roots in Vegas. And they weren't the only ones. "Nearly everyone we've talked to said a big reason they came here was affordability," said Sonja Swanson, a journalist who, alongside Nevada Public Radio producer Kristy Totten, hosts the Spicy Eyes Podcast showcasing underexposed food stories across Vegas.
At first, cooks were pleasantly surprised by the unexpected advantages of running a casino kitchen. Anything that broke was fixed by an in-house facilities guy in two days. You could get Spanish shrimp and Japanese uni and Canadian ice cubes and no one blinked. But, for some chefs, the weird idiosyncrasies of the casino-restaurant business added up. The fact that you couldn’t go directly to a farmer and buy squash, but had to go through a purchaser who went through a vendor and it took six weeks. That you were constantly feeding big parties of impatient people more excited about Celine Dion’s setlist than their hamachi crudo.
"You felt disconnected from your guests on the Strip," said Chef Brian Howard, who worked for Thomas Keller at Bouchon in The Venetian before opening his own place, Sparrow + Wolf, in Chinatown. "You didn't know what they liked, you couldn't get used to their style. From a hospitality standpoint, it wasn't as satisfying."
Eventually, these executive chefs and chefs de cuisine and sous chefs who came from a 35-seat restaurant in Manhattan or Madrid to open a 300-seat restaurant in Vegas started craving the independence that came with the 35-seat joints. But this time, since they'd already bought a house and maybe even gotten married and had kids and exchanged desert gardening tips and Netflix passwords with their neighbors, they were going to build that restaurant in Vegas. And so they started wondering what was happening off the Strip.
Atomic Liquor in Downtown Las Vegas, one of the first bars to revitalize Downtown's nightlife scene | Mona Shield Payne/Thrillist
FOR YEARS, BEFORE THE EL RANCHO OPENED IN 1941 on what would become the Strip, Downtown Vegas was the place. It had the first paved road (Fremont Street!), and the first legal gaming license (the Northern Club!), and was likely the only place where, as Atomic Liquors owner Lance Johns told me, people would drink cocktails sitting on the bar's roof while watching nuclear testing.
But as the Strip took off, downtown businesses and hotels and casinos either closed or became increasingly run down. Through the years, sporadic efforts have been made to revitalize the scene. In 1995, the Fremont Street Experience opened as an electric canopied Strip-Lite, complete with street performers, free concerts, and a zip line. 2007 saw the completion of the Fremont East Entertainment District, a six block campy-retro reimagining of the area directly in front of the Fremont Street Experience, notable here mainly because Michael Cornthwaite's 2007 bar Downtown Cocktail Room opened, the first in Vegas to really attempt the Milk & Honey-esque rigor of the craft cocktail movement's salad days. But things Downtown really took a turn in 2012, when Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh launched the most ambitious, weirdest, and fascinatingly flawed idea with the most mundane name: the Downtown Project.
After relocating Zappos headquarters from nearby suburb Henderson into the old City Hall in Downtown Vegas, Hsieh doubled down on the area. Using $200 million of his own money to buy up 60 acres, then another $150 million, Hsieh attempted to build a "City as a Startup" by opening and investing in small businesses, launching or enticing startups, and helping fund arts, education and culture. The Downtown Project hoped to essentially accelerate the process through which a city becomes a cool, robust place for business and culture from 15 years down to five. And during the boom days of the project in 2013, it appeared his Real Life TedTalk might be working.
Elyse Petersen, the Founder and CEO of Tealet, saw her business, an online farmer's market and wholesaler connecting retailers with tea growers, funded by the project. She and other entrepreneurs moved into what she called "Start Up Block," a group of houses all rented in the same area, each with its own new business. Many were food based. There was a healthy dessert company called Sugarcoat. And Chef Natalie Young's breakfast and lunch spot Eat. The Downtown Project folks opened Downtown Container Park, a quirky shopping center made from shipping containers featuring nine places to dine and drink (including a jerky business and a barbecue joint), retail shops, and at least one metal praying mantis that shoots fire from its antennae.
"There was a party nearly every day in 2013," said Petersen. "They'd be tied around some sort of business coaching or inspirational speaker, which was cool but it just didn't feel very sustainable. It felt more like that Batman movie where the Joker is throwing money out of the parade float."
By 2014, the party was ending. The Downtown Project laid off around thirty workers, cut funding, and seemed to scale back its ambitions. It had inarguably helped revitalize Downtown, but many of the businesses it funded were not self sustainable and folded without further funding. Others, like Petersen's, moved out of downtown, and, in some cases, left Las Vegas altogether.
The Downtown Project had the ironic consequence of making Downtown too expensive for most industry folks looking to do something off the Strip, or anyone who wasn’t in Hsieh’s bubble of funding. "They skipped the part in the lifespan of a gentrifying neighborhood where it's cool and cheap," said Mitchell Wilburn, a local Vegas food writer. "And that's when you saw the Arts District really take off."
Las Vegas' increasingly hip Arts District | Cole Saladino/Thrillist
IF THERE WAS A SUPERLATIVE for "Most Like Other Gentrifying Hipster Neighborhoods," the 18 blocks northeast of the Strip that make up the Arts District would win by a landslide: Murals from local artists. A burgeoning restaurant and bar scene. Tattooed creative folks with hard-to-define jobs. Luxury condos being built at alarming speeds by out of town developers. A refurbished motel now featuring reclaimed wood bed frames and rain showers. Hip coffee shops bearing names that don't immediately shout "I am a coffee shop." The requisite New York Times trend story using the term "indie food and bar scene."
Cacio pepe, lobster and bacon ravioli, and more at Esther's Kitchen in the Arts District | Cole Saladino/Thrillist
Last November, I went to talk to Chef/Owner James Trees at his restaurant Esther's Kitchen, one of the epicenters of the Arts District buzz machine. Unlike the chefs who'd come from food Meccas to work on the Strip and then stuck around, Trees had the opposite track: he was a Culinary Institute of America-trained Vegas native who left a well paid job in LA overseeing 15 restaurants, and opted to scrape together money from friends and family (including a small business loan that Trees' mother put her home on the line for) to open Esther's in his hometown. His plan was to create an industry and local-friendly neighborhood restaurant serving housemade pastas that were "Strip-quality" for $17 instead of "$40 or $50." Esther's has been a success from its opening in January, 2018. Trees told me that the night before I was there, a Tuesday, between lunch and dinner they'd had 290 covers, a crazy number for a restaurant with 48 seats.
After our interview, I sat up at the bar talking to the man who literally wrote the book on Vegas’s restaurant scene, Eating Las Vegas author John Curtas, who Trees described as "one of the only truly independent voices in Vegas food." A Vegas resident since 1981, Curtas has a booming voice, a substantial handshake, and, I’m pretty sure, is the only American food critic who has also practiced law for over 40 years as a day job. As a prominent voice and personality, though, he’s also drawn plenty of controversy. He got in public Twitter spats with Anthony Bourdain. David Chang once told the Eater Upsell podcast that he had tried to ban Curtas from his Momofuku restaurant in the Cosmopolitan, and that he "hates Curtas." And in 2017 a local Vegas news broadcast raised questions about his position with the city attorney's office after Curtas made several offensive social media posts. (“The Mayor and the city council and the city attorney were well aware of my reputation when they hired me,” Curtas told the station at the time.)
Esther's Kitchen chef/owner and Las Vegas native James Trees. | Cole Saladino/Thrillist
Spending time at the bar with Curtas, one thing became clear: the Vegas food circle is small, and he knows everyone. Between stories about local food history, I was introduced to Hemant Kishore, an Indian chef who told me about a pop-up concept he was crowdfunding called Toddy Shop, showcasing bar-friendly foods from the Kerala region, and Vincent Rotolo, the pizzaiolo behind pizza joint Good Pie.
Eventually Sonia Stelea, the lead bartender at Esther's (who'd moved from San Francisco after running the incredible bar at Cotogna) also joined the conversation. After sliding a Pisco Sour across the bar, she asked where I was headed next. I told her Sparrow + Wolf.
"Oooohhh, Chinatown," she said.
"That's where it's at."
Soup dumplings, jianbing, and fried rice at Niu Giu in Chinatown | Cole Saladino/Thrillist
S EARLY AS the 1850s, Chinese immigrants had been living and working in Nevada. As UNLV history professor Sue Fawn Chung told the Las Vegas Review Journal, when Chinese communities developed in railroad towns, they would build sturdy, permanent "joss houses," temples of worship that doubled as community centers. Throughout the early 20th century as communities grew, these groups wanted to go beyond single structures, and looked to build neighborhoods as a way to "preserve their history and culture." Chinatowns spread throughout Nevada, and though Vegas's Chinese population had been stopping and starting similar projects since the 1970s, it wasn't until Taiwanese-born James Chen opened Las Vegas Chinatown Plaza in 1995 after purchasing several acres on Spring Mountain that Chinatown in Vegas flourished.
Today, Chinatown consists of a series of rather prosaic strip mall plazas, which do a good job camouflaging the fact that Spring Mountain features what one chef estimates to be 150 restaurants. Also, it is quite possibly the most glorious place on earth.
From left to right: Tamarind octopus and gin 'n tonic at Edo in Chinatown; Edo chef Oscar Amador; smoked salmon montadito with truffled cream cheese | Cole Saladino/Thrillist
During my three research trips to Vegas, I spent as much time as possible eating through Chinatown's restaurants, and still felt like I had barely started to roll the neighborhood's Sisyphean food boulder up the hill. But man, did I try.
There was Mitsuo Endo's Japanese den of grilled meats, Raku (get the tofu and the pork ear). Vietnamese chef Khai Vu's influential District One for lobster pho and big bone soup. The omakase at Yui Edomae Sushi. Barcelona-raised chef Oscar Amador Edo's Gastro-Tapas & Wine, with its gin 'n tonic bar cart and wall mural of a Spanish woman drinking said gin 'n tonic. Classic Sichuan spot Chengdu Taste for spicy pig stomach with Chinese celery and the house special beef. Smoking cocktails at modern French restaurant Partage, the second restaurant opened by three young Frenchmen who moved to Vegas in 2015. Blue Lagoons and Painkillers at the Golden Tiki. And steak tartare, Spanish octopus, braised lamb neck, and whatever else I could still jam into my body at Chef Howard's Sparrow + Wolf.
Vegas' Chinatown does not have the walkable density or the fantastical sounds and smells of NYC or San Francisco's Chinatowns (Hui-Lim Ang, former president of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance and a Vegas resident since 2001, pointed out that Vegas’ Chinatown is strictly a commercial district, not residential, which sets it apart from many other Chinatowns in America). In fact, the scene, a series of strip malls over a few mile stretch, is much more reminiscent of the random culinary pockets of Los Angeles celebrated by legendary (now-deceased) LA food critic Jonathan Gold, or a much more compact representation of the diverse Houston food scene.
The Center at Spring Mountain, one of many strip malls in Chinatown | Cole Saladino/Thrillist
But unlike those LA strip mall restaurants, most of which are comprised of tiny, quietly excellent neighborhood joints, Vegas' Chinatown has everything: big, splashy restaurants from international chefs with three-star Michelin experience, hip American casual fine dining joints, tiny family places, and kitschy bars with faux-thatched roofs and Swedish fish in the drinks. In my small tour alone, I sampled menus built from seven vastly different culinary traditions, and, even so, passed up Japanese udon, Korean barbecue, Vietnamese pho, Argentinian steak, a Persian hookah lounge, a Taiwanese deli, Hawaiian poke, Italian gelato, Filipino lumpia, a place called Flamingo Pizza, and Island Malaysian Cuisine, which Ang, who grew up in Malaysia, calls “the best real Malaysian restaurant in America.”
"A co-worker and I try and eat at a new place everyday," said Petersen, whose Tealet business is now in Chinatown. "It's been nearly a year and we still have no repeats."
Cocktails, dumplings, steak tartare and Spanich octopus Sparrow + Wolf in Chinatown | Cole Saladino/Thrillist
The wide-ranging choices are partially a testament to the diversity of the city (the latest census has Vegas’ population at 7% Asian, 12% black, and over 30% Latino), but also an extension of the domino effect of downtown's high rents. Howard noted he’d originally looked Downtown before finding a space for Sparrow + Wolf in Chinatown.
There are worries that, as more big name chefs come to Chinatown and rents rise, it will lose its Asian character (Petersen told me about the beginnings of a secondary cluster of Asian spots starting to develop further southwest, and Ang made a similar point about an area in the suburb of Henderson). But as of now, unlike the "city as experiment" elements of Downtown, and the Portlandia vibe of Arts District, Chinatown feels the most organically, uniquely Vegas. It isn't a Jane-Jacobs-approved walkable dream neighborhood, but a series of strip malls in a city made from them, and a persuasive argument to keep in your quiver in case anyone might debate the merits of Vegas's off-strip food scene. After all, name another city where a 3-mile stretch of diverse family-run spots and late-night grocery stores sitting shoulder to shoulder with fancy destination restaurants would remain under the national radar.
"You can't," said Petersen when I posed that exact challenge. "Because it doesn't exist."
Soul Foo Young owner Artisha Hall and family at their West Las Vegas restaurant | Cole Saladino/Thrillist
IN AN INSULTINGLY BLUSTERY SPRING DAY, I walked down Martin Luther King Boulevard in West Las Vegas looking for a restaurant called Soul Foo Young. I quickly learned the giant, four-lane boulevard isn't really a walking street. And West Vegas (or the "Westside") isn’t really an accurate description of the neighborhood's location anymore, as it now sits rather centrally in the greater scheme of the city, just south of North Las Vegas.
But the neighborhood has a long, extraordinary history. During the building of the Hoover Dam in the ‘30s, Western Vegas saw a population boom. And as Claytee White, UNLV libraries' oral historian told KNPR in a 2018 interview, “White people moved into housing developments that had restrictive covenants. So, African-Americans could not live in those neighborhoods. The African-American community moved west of the tracks.”
Well after World War II, Vegas remained deeply segregated. Though allowed to work "back of the house" jobs, African Americans couldn't patronize The Strip, and, after performing, even famous entertainers like Sammy Davis Jr. and Ella Fitzgerald were limited to segregated accommodations like Genevieve Harrison's Harrison House and other boarding homes in West Vegas. To serve the African American community in the ‘40s, Jackson Avenue on the Westside became known as "The Black Strip," with spots like the Ebony Club, the Cotton Club, the Chickadee, and the Brown Derby.
In 1955, a group of white businessmen from LA (along with boxer Joe Louis) opened the Moulin Rouge, which billed itself as "America's First Interracial Hotel," cost $3.5 million, and featured a mostly African American staff catering to a racially mixed crowd. Folks braced for issues, but from the beginning, it was a hit, hosting greats Billie Holliday and Dinah Washington. Frank Sinatra was even known to drop in for impromptu late-night sets after performing on the Strip.
But after less than five months, the Moulin Rouge closed (no official reasons were given, though problems with the mob seemed like a pretty good bet). The casino may have flamed out quickly, but its influence was undeniable. On March 26, 1960, in a groundbreaking move known as the Moulin Rouge Agreement, segregation on The Strip ended, ushering in a new era where African Americans could patronize the casinos and work front of house jobs.
But integration also signaled the beginning of the end of Jackson Avenue's (and thus the Westside's) glory years. No longer confined to a specific area of the city, Vegas’ black westsiders left to work and spend their money and sometimes move elsewhere. And over the years since, Westside development has been largely stagnant, even as other parts of the city grew.
In 2015, the Downtown Design Center did a year long study of the neighborhood, which culminated in the release of their “HUNDRED Plan for the Historic Westside Community,” with suggested improvements to the neighborhood, including bringing back Jackson Avenue as an entertainment district, starting with the Moulin Rouge site. But, in the years since the study was released, no new “catalyst projects,” as the director of UNLV's Design Center Steven Clarke called them, have launched. Any restaurants opening tended to be national fast food chains. And that's part of why I so badly wanted to check out Soul Foo Young.
Fried chicken, collard greens, mac 'n cheese, and fried catfish at Soul Foo Young | Cole Saladino/Thrillist
Next to Uppercuts Barber Shop in a well maintained strip mall on W. Owens Ave, Soul Foo Young is, as advertised on their banner, an "Asian Southern Cooking" restaurant run by Artisha Hall and family. Hall moved her family to Vegas sixteen years ago from Waukegan, Illinois, where she’d worked with her mother, Georgia Harvey, at her two well-known soul food restaurants: Harvey’s and Sweet Georgia Brown. In Vegas, Hall worked for many years in casino marketing, but when her mother moved west after a fire closed her Illinois restaurant, they started thinking about another soul food restaurant, while also finding themselves craving “Midwest-style” Chinese-American food, especially egg foo young.
Hall began experimenting with different recipes and serving them at parties, and got such positive feedback that she thought “why not just do both?” And so, in September 2017, Soul Foo Young opened. Hall manages the restaurant. Her mother, her husband, and her eldest son, Shacoria, 30, all cook. And her younger sons, Armon Jr., 18, and Ashton, 12, run the front of the house.
“And when I say run the front of the house, I don’t mean they are just the cute faces that say hello when you come in,” Hall told me. “I mean, they do everything. This is a true family business.”
Hall said that, despite the challenges (“the city doesn’t make doing anything on the Westside easy,”) she’s been thrilled by the way the community has embraced them. She tells a story about a local musician who, upon learning her son Armon wanted a saxophone, just went ahead and bought him one out of the blue. “I’m not sure where else but the Westside that sort of thing would happen,” she said.
Exterior view of Soul Foo Young | Cole Saladino/Thrillist
When you walk into Soul Foo Young, you first notice a sign: "y'all come EAT." And so I did, following local writer Greg Thilmont's recommendation to get the egg foo young and Bruce Leroy combo (three whole fried chicken wings and fried rice). But then, because of my own inability to stop, I also got catfish and banana pudding. Everything was wonderful -- the chicken wings were crunchy with a peppery kick, the catfish was moist, the pudding otherworldly.
After filling up, I decided I needed to walk again. As I made my way towards Jackson Avenue, I was struck by the empty stretches of nothing -- gravel parcels devoid of any structures. And the churches. Everywhere I looked, it seemed, there was a different church or place of worship. The Progressive Community Church of God in Christ. Greater New Union Baptist Church. New Bethany Family Worship Center. The Pilgrim Church of Christ. True Vine Missionary Baptist. New Revelation Baptist. Pentecostal Temple Church of God in Christ. Calvery Southern Baptist Church. Muhammad Mosque 75. And many more. Others had noticed too. UNLV's White says that 18,000 people of color attend those churches each Sunday. In 2005, T.R. Witcher put it this way: "The irony of Jackson Avenue is that as its casinos and clubs have drained away, the churches have risen up to take their place."
Zenaida's Cafe Chef/Owner Sterling Burpee in his Las Vegas restaurant | Cole Saladino/Thrillist
For those who feel the act of eating good food after church is nearly as important as the service itself, the trip down the 515 to the Tropicana Plaza strip mall to Chef Sterling Burpee's Zenaida's Cafe is just as much of a ritual. Burpee, who is Native and African American, grew up on a farm in New Jersey, came to Vegas to work on the Strip, but after a few years left to teach at the culinary school in North Vegas and start a catering business on the side. He opened Zenaida's (the middle name of both his wife and youngest daughter) in 2016 as an extension of that business and developed a serious post-church following for his biscuits smothered in sausage and ground chuck gravy.
Sitting in his cafe one day, I watched Burpee go from table to table shaking hands and chatting with customers as he dropped off gratis desserts. "I think everyone should have a little sweetness at the end of the meal," Burpee explained to me later. "I was a waiter first. I'm one of those rare folks who actually loves dealing with people and fixing problems."
Vegas's future is not the casinos, Burpee says, but "these little pockets of great freestanding restaurants." His dream is to have his own version of the old Open Door in Atlantic City, a late night industry haunt where all chefs and cooks and waiters could gather and get great food. With so many industry folks from all over the world, he reckons you could have a lot of fun with a menu. "It wouldn't have to be big," Burpee says, laughing. "It would have to be right."
View of Las Vegas from the Eiffel Tower observation deck | Cole Saladino/Thrillist
ON OCTOBER 1, 2017, a retired tax auditor barricaded himself in a hotel room high above the Route 91 Harvest music festival on the Strip and killed 58 people and injured 887 concertgoers in the worst mass shooting in American history. Like many other cities grasping for some sort of rallying point after suffering a major tragedy, the hashtag #VegasStrong became the city’s unifying cry. As journalist and UNLV visiting lecturer Amanda Fortini recounted in her incredibly moving California Sunday magazine story on the shooting and its aftermath, "By the end of that first week, “Vegas Strong” was everywhere. It flashed on digital marquees at the airport and the hotels. It was on the flanks of ambulances and fire trucks. It was on bumper stickers peeled off and stuck on seemingly every car."
In the aftermath of a tragedy, there is a natural inclination to support others in the community who are grieving, to be nicer and kinder, to feel more inclusive. And in Vegas, most folks I talked to mentioned that. "Everyone I know got involved really quickly, giving blood, or putting together packages of food," said Wilburn, who grew up in the city.
But there was something else too. Forte Tapas owner Nina Manchev, who was also raised in Vegas, put it best. "It wasn't that the community just rallied together," she said, "as much as it reminded people that there was this caring, passionate Vegas community in the first place."
Interior view of Forte Tapas, and owner Nina Manchev. | Cole Saladino/Thrillist
I heard that same sort of thing echoed in others’ statements. That the tragedy encouraged or even necessitated people in Vegas to lean on each other for support, bringing together a naturally disjointed community in small but vital ways. But a cab driver I spoke with put yet another spin on it. After talking about the shooting and the sadness that seemed to settle over the city, he brightened as we turned off Las Vegas Freeway past the T-Mobile Arena. "Thank god," he said, "for the Knights."
2017 was the Las Vegas Golden Knights first season in the National Hockey League, and all history suggested they, like any first-year expansion team, should've sucked. But the Golden Knights did not suck. Instead, the Golden Knights had the most successful first year of any expansion team in any major North American sport, making it all the way to the Stanley Cup finals and selling out every home game along the way.
There are long lists of rote narratives artificially attaching importance to local sports successes after tragedies, as if winning will somehow lessen the impact. But it is hard to argue with the communal appeal of sports, the feeling of togetherness it can engender, especially as a community tries to grapple with unspeakable horror. But even more basic than that, just the act of having a major sports team to cheer for is an acknowledgment of a city's standing amongst other cities, another way for someone to plant lifelong roots in the fabric of a city.
The case for these two things -- terrible loss and sports fandom -- both acting as rungs on Vegas's community building ladder was most symbolically made at the gift shop in McCarran International Airport's Alaska Airlines terminal. During my first visit, next to a variety of #VegasStrong paraphernalia and souvenir Vegas T-shirts with the tagline "always open" was a row of Golden Knight hockey shirts. The writing on the front said "Vegas Born."
Manchev and her mother, Mimi, enjoying some Bulgarian fruit brandy | Cole Saladino/Thrillist
ON MY FINAL VEGAS TRIP, I went to Nina Manchev's Forte Tapas. Manchev was born in Bulgaria, came to the States when she was three, was raised in Las Vegas, went to UNLV to study hospitality management before realizing what she really wanted was to introduce people in the States to the Bulgarian style of eating, which, like in Spain, centered around multiple dishes served over a long period of time. Though the majority of her menu consisted of family recipes, she also occasionally cherry picked from other cuisines. She sourced the ingredients herself, drew murals all over the walls, and opened Forte Tapas in a strip mall next to a giant empty shell of a supermarket in 2009, months after the terrible recession reduced much of Vegas's business growth to ashes.
Despite the timing and less than ideal location, her tiny restaurant started to catch on. Industry folks loved this amazing, eclectic, proto-Bulgarian spot, as did the pockets of Eastern Europeans in her greater proximity. And then, in 2012, Guy Fieri's Diners, Drive-ins, and Divescame to town and featured her. Almost overnight, the masses started to flock to Forte. Manchev expanded the restaurant for big groups, added a wine shop, and began to build out a caviar business.
Bulargian fruit brandy, chebureki, Hungarian goulash, and pelmeni at Forte Tapas | Cole Saladino/Thrillist
That night, I sat up at the bar at Forte with Manchev and her enchanting mother Mimi, eating pelmeni and chebureki and Hungarian goulash. As we sat talking, Mimi eyed me suspiciously and asked what I was doing in Vegas. When I told her about the story and shared some of my enthusiasm about the uniqueness of the food scene and the city itself, she all but rolled her eyes. She'd been in Vegas for 30 years, she told me. She had seen lots of people come through town and try and shape it in their own image. "This," she said, as she gestured around with her hand at the lively restaurant, "is not new."
This frequently happens with locals fed up by the tidy narratives superficially imposed on their city by out-of-towners eager to traipse into town for a couple of days, drink some mezcal cocktails, talk to some chefs and writers and one “quirky” local, see the Backstreet Boys a baker's dozen times, and gin up a carpetbagging hot take on what Vegas's food culture really means for America. But the folks in Vegas seemed more protective and self aware than most. "People from here have a real obsession with proving Vegas is a real city," Wilburn told me.
There’s an idea that a certain sort of elite, snobbish person couldn't imagine raising a family here, because, as Manchev put it, "they think you're just letting your toddler wade through the casino playing roulette and smoking cigarettes." Fortini, who is currently working on a book about Vegas, said she found many coastal friends, when they discovered she lived here, would seem baffled or find it ironically fascinating.
“The Strip was, of course, founded by gangsters -- it was declasse from the start,” she told me. “I think quite a bit of aesthetic snobbery gets directed at the city, which gets conflated with the Strip. But Las Vegas is fundamentally a working-class town, and I think the fixation on ‘bad taste’ is often just veiled classicism.”
As Fortini points out, Vegas is by no means some utopian tale -- its public schools are poor and underfunded, the city has the 10th highest rate of homelessness in America, the Latin East Vegas neighborhoods have many of the same stagnant development issues that plague the Westside, and no one seems to know how the recent relaxation of rules around gambling across America will impact tourism. And if recent development trends continues, Vegas could suddenly stop being affordable for service professionals -- or Las Vegas natives, for that matter -- to buy homes. At $266,000, business forecaster Kiplinger currently sits Vegas between Colorado Springs, Colorado, and Providence, Rhode Island, in terms of median home price, but also notes that, over the last six years, its prices have risen faster than any other city in America.
There is a Mystique-esque chameleon aspect to Vegas, in which we think it takes on whatever form we want it to be, whatever titillates our sense of sin, of letting go. For me, this took the form of a Dionysian food tour: Sashimi and a sesame-washed shochu cocktails at Dan Krohmer's Other Mama. Glass noodles and imperial rolls at Jamie Tran's The Black Sheep. Paid in Full's silly good Mapo tofu Frito pie. Jammyland's habanero pepper jelly finished ribs. Harold Rose Jr.'s fantastic cinnamon rolls at Homies. Everything at Broadacres Food Fair (but especially Tacos Tijuana's lengua tacos, La Botana Carnitas Michoacanas's carnitas, and the fermented corn drinks at Guerrero Azteca Tejuino Jalisco Style). The Koong Char Num Plar at Saipin Chutima's legendary Lotus of Siam. Sheridan Su's Hainanese Chicken Rice at Flock & Fowl. Cocktails at Starboard Tack, Sand Dollar Lounge, and the Velveteen Rabbit. Sour beers at Atomic Liquors. Something called a "Brookie" at Honey Salt.
In reality, of course, Vegas's time-server reputation is just a projection, the invention of some incredibly successful marketers. Vegas is merely a city, with a workforce and residents with hopes and dreams and opinions about the size of their neighbor’s hedges. But to say it’s just like any other city would be wrong too.
Las Vegas's alchemy -- Hsieh's grand city experiment Downtown, the energy of the Arts District, the culinary majesty of Chinatown, the fascinating history of the Westside and its impact on the city's character, the colony of talented cooks who've planted flags here -- isn't replicable. And maybe that's the point. The less you try and think of Vegas as a Jeff Speck case study other cities can learn from, the more you can just appreciate it for what it is: one of the few truly unique, utterly American cities.
After her mother finished knocking me down whatever could be considered a lot of pegs, Manchev shrugged, smiled and brought down a bottle of Bulgarian fruit brandy, Rakija. "My mother is very wise," she said as she poured each of us a shot. We held up our glasses, and Manchev gave the standard Bulgarian toast, "Na Zdrave!" (To your health).
Her mother gave a wry, knowing smile, and looked right at me. "And to Vegas.”
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Kevin Alexander is Thrillist’s National Writer-at-Large, Food. His book on the unique mix of people, places, and circumstances that led to the last decade of eating/drinking in America, BURN THE ICE: The American Culinary Revolution and Its End, will be published in July, 2019 by Penguin Press. He is a 2017 James Beard Foundation Award winner.