The Underground Food Scene in Las Vegas
Ah, Las Vegas. She is my skanky little friend, teetering through the neon in impossible heels, one nip-slip away from stealing the show from the ladies at the Spearmint Rhino. We know each other well, me and this wonderful hot mess. We’re warriors, battling side-by-side toward free bottle service at XS and skipping that crazy queue at Drai’s.
She’s always leaving me in way worse condition than when I first saw her. I always promise to leave her alone forever after 48 hours with her. But somehow she always lures me back, only to chew me up and spit me out again.
So on my most recent roadtrip to Las Vegas, I began a cautious negotiation before I even hit Barstow. What if we made ourselves a little more comfortable? What if we left the heels at home, let our hair air-dry, and slipped into jeans instead that tight mini dress?
To my shock, by the time I rounded that last bend after Jean and started slowing down for the inevitable Vegas congestion, she had agreed. So we got comfortable, made a list of places to eat, and got to know each other without the haze of booze and bad decisions swirling around us. In short: I avoided the Strip.
Hidden Las Vegas: The Food Chronicles
Sure, sure. The Las Vegas Strip is a culinary juggernaut on paper. More master sommeliers than anywhere in the world. Michelin stars dazzle in the neon lights. Everydamnchef with a modicum of celebrity has a restaurant there.
You could have a wonderful weekend treating yourself to all the razzle-dazzle that is so indicative of Las Vegas. But what if you decided to step away from the showgirls, shrieks, and freaks for a while? What if you decided to see Vegas like a (gasp) local?
That’s exactly what I did a couple of weeks ago. With an open weekend and limited time before I left for a four-month adventure to Alaska, I jumped in my car and drove out to see one of my besties, who has been living and working in Las Vegas for the past few years.
She let me in on a little secret: There’s a new hotspot in Las Vegas.
Fremont, a.k.a. Downtown Las Vegas, a.k.a. Old Vegas
The first time I went to Fremont, it was a kitschy throwback to the glory days. The days when the glittering lights rose out of the desert, a mirage dedicated to vice. When major construction moved south, many of the old casinos and hotels shuttered, becoming time capsules of the 1950s. The Las Vegas I knew best was the new Vegas, where mega hotels rose in months and an absurd amount of money was thrown around on green velvet tables and marble bar tops.
About ten years ago, Fremont started to have a renaissance. The hipsters moved in, setting up ‘see and be seen’ places where only the cool kids in the know would go.
Nine years later, the revolution is nearly complete. Once-defunct storefronts are now bursting with bars and restaurants. They manage to keep the hype factor low by avoiding the brash celebrity so indicative of the Strip. And in so doing, the become (relatively) hidden gems.
Where to Eat in Downtown Las Vegas
Want comfort food? Therapy is your place. With dishes like Super Mac & Cheese, Oxtail Empanadas and burger called “Big Sexy” (sign me UP), you’ll want to wear your stretchy pants to this one. Their In the “Gnudi” appetizer of baked ricotta, truffle honey, fig jam and crostini will make you want to faceplant into the dish and never come up for air. It’s better than an hour on the therapists couch — and you will leave a whole lot happier.
Want to pretend you’ve gone back to the heyday of Downtown Las Vegas, when it was run by mob bosses and molls? Go to Oscars. The soaring glass ceiling, the cushy booths, the crystal chandeliers… you’ll feel like you stepped into the past. And the food is 100% Goodfellas, with Shrimp Cocktail, Crab Cakes, and some serious cuts of beef. It’s not the cheapest or the most inventive meal you could get, but for the atmosphere alone it’s worth a visit.
Locals rave about this busy Thai eatery. If you come for dinner, be sure to book, otherwise make it a lunch plan. Who doesn’t like a spicy hangover cure? Just be careful, their 1 — 5 spice rating scale is heavily skewed toward the spicy side, so aim lower than you normally do. The short-rib fried rice is a brilliant East-meets-West combo, and their curries are top-notch. You can even wash it all down with an ice cold Tiger beer and pretend you’re lazing in Koh Lanta.
The Smashed Pig
Maybe it’s because I’m getting married to a Brit, but I have a soft spot for English pubs. And this is the closest you can get to the real deal beneath the glitter of Las Vegas. It’s the traditional order-at-the-bar-then-sit scenario, the menu features British classics like Fish & Chips, Bangers & Mash, and Yorkshire Puddings. They even have Sticky Toffee Pudding for dessert! If you like the pub experience (albeit at Vegas prices), check this one out.
Don’t be put off by the close-up of the chef on the homepage of the website (his name is Kerry Simon and he passed away last year). This restaurant has a major reputation that rivals its cousins on the Strip, and it’s a place that many food-obsessed tourists will make the trek to visit. People go into ecstasies about the bacon jam, a rich bacon-and-brie concoction baked down in a cast iron dish and served with a baguette. If you want a well-thought menu at decent prices, this is the last word in quality Downtown cuisine.
This funky fondue restaurant wins for affordability and originality. Sure, the S&M theme isn’t really carried past the entryway and the DJ looks like he should be the host, but they serve melted cheese! The menu is super simple: there’s a cheese fondue, a shrimp fondue, a beef fondue, and a chocolate fondue. You choose red wine or white wine, and it’s served in unlimited quantity in a baby bottle throughout your meal. Included in the price! If you want to go out with a big group and not worry about haggling over the bill at the end, this is your spot.
Link: http://fpigalle.com/ (BEWARE loud music on autoplay on this site)
Mingo’s Kitchen & Lounge
Mingos is a little irreverent, a little saucy, and lots of fun. They pull dish names straight from the pages of TMZ (such as The Notorious P.I.G.), and a hashtag accompanies each one. Mingos is an upscale bar food haven, with burgers, hot dogs, and even a fried egg sandwich on the menu, but with gourmet touches. Grab a table in the outdoor patio area if you can, and peruse the galleries of the Arts District once your belly is full.
Plus, Where to Grab a Drink
I can’t exactly cover Sin City without talking about where to grab a tasty beverage, right? Here are three bars that I can personally vouch for.
If you’d like a few tunes or maybe a manicure with your cocktail, check out this bar that was Downtown before it was cool. Originally a New York venue, they expanded to Vegas in 2006. It’s the ultimate hipster hangout, very see-and-be-seen, but it’s a cool place to check out a new indie band and have a drink. They recently made the news with an off-color joke that was incorporated into their decor (bad call, dudes). They do nickel beer nights, but you’ll need to elbow through the masses to get your cheap brew. It’s up to you to decide if it’s worth it.
Who doesn’t love an expansive bar with friendly staff and a speakeasy vibe? Not me! There’s a secret room that can only be accessed by texting the top-secret number, but you’re best bet is to do it before the weekend or it will be full. Even if you don’t get in, the main room manages to be spacious and cozy at the same time. And the cocktail menu is full of yummy concoctions with clever names. Little Hot Mess? Yup, that’s me!
Prefer a dive bar over swanky cocktails or hipster music spots? I got you covered! Atomic Liquors bills itself as the oldest freestanding bar in Las Vegas, but it’s the suuuper laid-back vibe in a city with zero chill that keeps people coming back for more. They do great cocktails and have a really good beer selection, and it’s easy to feel like home here. If you want an unpretentious locals experience, this is your spot.
Okay foodsters, is there anything I missed? Let me know in the comments and I’ll put it on the list for next time!