Las Vegas is perhaps the last place on the planet you’d expect to find anyone attempting to practice the locavore lifestyle. It’s the kind of city, after all, where restaurants brazenly tout their ‘locally caught salmon’ knowing full well that the closest ocean lies more than 300 miles away. (Perhaps they’re secretly stocking Lake Mead with King and Chinook?)
But the evidence that times are a-changing is there in black and white: Wednesday’s Review-Journal Living section featured a front-page story on chefs seeking out local purveyors and farmers attempting to create a market for their produce. To my surprise, a fair number of crops are grown within an hour’s drive of Sin City, just over the hill in Pahrump – a town better known for its ‘chicken ranches‘ than its vegetable farms.
And there’s more good news, quite literally just over the horizon. Although the Las Vegas Valley’s extreme temperatures — well over 100 in the summer and occasionally below freezing in winter — make large-scale farming nearly impossible, the nearby valleys of Southern Nevada can support a wide variety of carefully selected crops. Although water-intensive fields of alfalfa and grain are out of the question, the article points out that water-conscious drip irrigation (much like the kind we use in our own mini-orchard) is particularly well-suited to food crops grown for humans, rather than livestock. The UNLV cooperative extension specialists are working with folks interested in raising “everything from natural beef and pheasants to vegetables and fruit”, right within shouting distance of the neon and nightlife.
It’s a fascinating article about a region in transition. One only hopes they gain some traction before the local housing boom puts pressure on farmers to sell out to developers of yet another slapped-together townhouse pod.
The story arrived too late for me to explore many of its finds — the lone retail farmer mentioned operates a stand only from June through September. But I’m ecstatic to read that Whole Foods has her farm, and presumably others like it, under contract for next year’s harvest. The last time I was in town, just months ago, the local Whole Foods in Henderson was trucking in every last apple and avocado they sold all the way from our very own Central Valley. Most of their produce had travelled almost as far as I had, and some even hailed from another hemisphere. I suspect we have Michael Pollan to thank for this radical change, for holding Mr. Mackey’s feet to the fire.
You can even find backyard edibles from green-thumbed gardeners making the most of their fickle surroundings. Some Asian friends have a few makrut lime trees, and another grows cilantro so prolifically that she can share giant batches with her friends. The neighbor up the hill has wide-paddle cactus along his fence; I doubt he’s making nopales, but we do see him harvesting tunas with a pliers now and then. (Let’s hope he’s making Margaritas with the juice.)
But although you might expect to find edible cacti among the sand and sagebrush, the desert is full of other surprises. On my last full day in town, Mom’s friend from across the street arrived bearing a pair of picture-perfect pomegranates from her own backyard. It’s one of those smack-your-forehead discoveries: These seedy fruits hail from the Middle East, so they’re well-adapted to dry desert climes. The ones grown just feet from our front door were large and beautiful; they weren’t as sweet as the cultivated variety, but they would make a delightful addition to a winter salad or a garnish for chiles en nogada.
Next time, we’ll have to put aside the casseroles and meatloaf for one night, and see where the desert leads us. Perhaps by then, even Whole Foods will have made good on its agenda, and ‘local Southern Nevada produce’ might no longer be an oxymoron.
When I was a little girl, my dad was my first food buddy, the adventurous eater who constantly egged me on to try new things — one of my first childhood memories involves Pops bribing me to eat blueberries. His years in the Marine Corps left him with an unquenchable Tabasco addiction, which I’m sure shaped my spice-loving soul; I became a fan of all things picante at a young age, under his watchful eye.
As I grew up, he’d let me cry on his shoulder when the boys were mean. “I know it’s not the same, but I love you…” he’d say. And then he’d take me out for ice cream.
And on that point, he never wavered: Ice cream soothes all pains, salves all indignities. So its fitting, perhaps, that the last thing he wanted, the last thing he ate, was a scoop of Nutty Coconut from 31 Flavors.
As we sat around this afternoon, holding his hand, a surprising number of “Dad stories” centered around food. We never let him live down the time he made us waffles using sesame oil, creating a crazy (dare I say inedible?) supper and filling the house with the lingering scent of stir-fry gone crazy.
We jokingly refer to my mom’s friends here in Henderson as the Asian Food Mafia — they’re forever getting together on some pretense or another to share food. They’ve been keeping us well fed, taking turns cooking for us. It’s actually been quite lovely to dip into curries and boo chim gae and gai gkaprow, instead of the usual assortment of chuch-lady casseroles. Pops had a generous heart, and it’s no surprise to me that this steady stream of friends and neighbors stopping by with covered dishes looked genuinely distraught by his grave state, and now by his passing.
He always sent me a valentine each year, and I always reciprocated. I sent my card early this year, and I’m glad that I did. Even though I’m married to a wonderful man (who my father dearly loved), I can’t imagine Valentine’s Day will ever be quite the same.
San Francisco, hang your head in shame. Much as I love my City by the Bay, it’s never been a good place for pizza. The situation has improved in recent years, thanks to the likes of Pizzeria Delfina (If you can get in. if you want to pay $70 for pizza.), but only barely.
I’ve always found the situation mystifying–but after today’s lunch it’s escalated to infuriating. Why, in the foodiest city in the country (hush you homers, I’m pontificating), is it practically impossible to get a decent pizza, when I can sit down to a magnificent Neapolitan pie at a strip mall in Henderson, Nevada?
Settebello has modern Vegas charm, which is to say that it’s cavernous, painfully clean, clangingly empty, and so new that you can practically smell the fresh concrete. The sheer size of even the smallest of these commercial spaces dwarfs any attempt at coziness, but Settebello manages to inject some warmth–perhaps it was the overwrought Italian pop music wafting through the sound system. Could have been the Real Madrid game on the widescreen TV. Perhaps it was the friendly staff. Might have been the giant mural of the Bay of Napoli on the wall, or the Italian travel posters. Could it have been the enormous pizza oven?!
The menu is simple, built around Neapolitan pizza. Settebello has been certified by Vera Pizza Napoletana, a distinction that it shares with Seattle’s Via Tribunali, among others. We’ll pass lightly over the absurdity of creating a committee to preserve taste, but only because the pizza at Settobello is very, very, good. I defiled the purity of my margherita with finocchiona from Salumi, secure in the knowledge that “Variations of pizzas are recognized if they are informed by the Neapolitan tradition of pizzas and are not in contrast with the rules of gastronomy.” The pie and its precious cargo were worthy of each other’s company. The sauce and cheese were light, fresh, and applied with a gentle hand. The crust wasn’t quite as perfect, but according to the folks at Valley Wine and Cheese across the parking lot, there have been some oven issues that needed sorting out. Anita’s calzone wasn’t as spectacular as my “margherita con…”, but was still very good.
Nitpicking. Pure nitpicking. This is seriously good pizza. I can’t wait to try the bianca. It will be a sad trip to Henderson that doesn’t include a visit to Settebello, and a sad flight back to pizza wasteland that is San Francisco. I shall console myself with carnitas and birria.
Settebello Pizzeria Napoletana
1776 W. Horizon Ridge Parkway
Henderson, NV 89052
I’m back here in Vegas, and… oh, who am I kidding? I’m back here in Henderson, home of tract houses, chain restaurants, and megamarts. Very nice ones, all of them, but still… a bit prefab. On my last visit, I drove almost 10 miles to the nearest Whole Foods, on the other side of town, in a fit of homesickness. Imagine my disappointment to find rock-hard avocados, bin after bin of out-of-season produce, and sickly looking everything. I guess it was better than Vons, but only just.
So when a friend suggested that I check out a place called Valley Cheese, I was a little skeptical. If even Whole Foods can’t deliver the goods in this culinary wasteland, I didn’t have much hope that a small shop would do any better. When I found their rather sad website, I was even more suspicious. But — what the hell — I was bored and hungry, and needed an excuse to get out of the house.
Valley Cheese & Wine is the kind of place you could drive right by for months and not even know it’s there, set back off the street in what can only be described as an upscale industrial park, adjacent to a construction site. Inside, it’s another world: The spacious shop is anchored by a wall of gourmet dry goods — pasta, oils, vinegar, pickles, and such — on one side, and a pair of cold-cases on the other: one with a well-kept assortment of cheese, and another displaying surprisingly robust charcuterie options. The entire center of the store is given over to rack upon rack of wines.
Both of the owners, Bob and Kristin, welcomed me within minutes. When Kristin found out I was a first-time customer, she offered the “nickel tour”, a full circuit of their various wares, complete with an explanation of the cheese case schematic ( “East Coast artisans on the left, West Coast on the right, Europe on the lower shelf…”) — an obsessive after my own heart, to be sure.
Bob talked about their groceries and salumi offerings, including a half-dozen varieties of Fra’Mani sausage… but nothing from Armandino, alas, due to problems getting their orders filled correctly. He also went to great pains to tell me that everything in the store was hand-selected. They were both adorably proud of their shop, and rightly so.
My only gripe — and it’s a very small one — is that they keep all of their cheeses and meats under plastic, both in the display cases, and when wrapped for you to take home. I’m guessing it’s difficult to keep artisanal products properly hydrated in the desert climate otherwise, and everything looked and tasted just fine, so perhaps I’m just being irrationally persnickety.
This corner of Henderson’s awfully far from The Strip to make Valley Cheese & Wine a side trip for most visitors, but if you happen to be making your escape at Green Valley Ranch or any of the Lake Las Vegas resorts, it’s definitely worth a long browse. Just be sure to bring a map.
Valley Cheese & Wine
1770 Horizon Ridge Parkway
Henderson, NV 89012
Every time I sit down to write this post, I sigh deeply and then find something more pleasant to do… like empty the dishwasher. It’s not as though our meal at Bouchon Las Vegas was bad, per se (ha ha), but the experience was so far below even our modest expectations that I’m still disappointed, days later.
As I browse through the photos, I realize that most everything we ate was reasonably good, some things were even great. But there were so many service missteps, awkward moments, and food fumbles that added up to a whole lot less than the kind of memorable meal I expect from a Thomas Keller establishment, even a baby bistro in Sin City. Especially one with $35 entrees.
I suppose the biggest issue with our meal was the sevice. Our waiter was undeniably sweet, but simply not ready for prime time. As Cameron said: “He has the raw skills to be a great waiter, but he’s definitely not there yet.” His numerous gaffes included awkward check-ins, stammering recitations of specials, and a rather graceless handling of a bar mistake. Oh, and an outright “WHA?” moment, when he described “soubise” to the couple next to us as “kind of like a risotto.” Um, ah-no. On the flip side, the host staff and managers were right on top of things, both as we arrived and as we departed.
The other clunker of the evening was the atmosphere: Bouchon’s space at the Venetian suffers from a severe lack of coziness. I know, I know… it’s Vegas, but the high ceilings make the place feel less like the Grand Canal and more like the Grand Canyon. On the positive side, the decor hits a gently Gallic tone, whispering “bistro” — a Parisian-style hat rack over banquettes and pastel still-life murals — without dipping too far into cliche.
The food, alas, was similarly hit and miss. After we placed our order, a runner brought shatteringly good bread and a welcome bowl of pistachios to accompany our drinks: a signature Bouchon cocktail for me (a touch too much peach liqueur for my taste — but hey, it’s their recipe) and a glass of sancerre for Cameron.
Moving into the appetizers, Cam’s onion soup came out of the kitchen terribly undersalted; With no salt on the table, he had to ask our gawky waiter to bring some. My salade lyonnaise was top notch — perfect egg (sous vide, perhaps?) and lovely lardons — but slightly overdressed.
We both opted for nightly specials for the main course. Cameron’s dayboat scallops were perfectly seared, served in a delicate, creamy sauce gilded with tender pieces of crab, and accompanied by a light-as-air potato gratin. (Sounds impossible, I know… but Keller’s crew knows their spuds, even here.) My pavé de veau featured meltingly tender veal breast, assembled into a tall cube and crisped up with panko. Underneath: Lovely roasted brussels sprouts, a too-sweet soubise (that’s an onion-infused Bechamel sauce… not at all like a risotto, thanks), and odd but definitely tasty chestnut “pain perdu” sticks on top of the stack.
For dessert, we chose after-dinner drinks and an order of beignets to share. The pastries themselves were cold and leaden, like they’d been made hours ahead of service, and their cream filling tasted pasty and heavy. An unbilled scoop of chocolate ice cream was the plate’s saving grace.
Our waiter stopped back after our dessert arrived to let us know it would be a few minutes before the bar could serve my requested glass of poire william; they needed to get a bottle from storage. I truly didn’t mind the delay, but the waiter’s fumbling and stumbling left me more annoyed than the actual missing drink. When the digestif did finally arrive, the glass contained a gargantuan pour, easily three times as much as any sane person would drink at a sitting — a generous gesture, perhaps, but one that came off feeling amateurish.
All in all, it seemed more like a meal that should have cost closer to $130 than the $230 we spent, even adjusting for the Vegas Factor. Would I return? Possibly — I suppose we could have dropped in on an off night…although it’s hard to believe that Keller wouldn’t have the A-team in the kitchen (and working the tables) on a Saturday night, even on a holiday weekend. With so many other restaurants left on our Vegas list, it’s hard to imagine we’ll be back anytime soon.
3355 Las Vegas Blvd.
(inside the Venetian Hotel)
Las Vegas, NV 89109
Thais revere the lotus as a symbol of Buddhism: It’s a beautiful, symmetrical flower that thrives in the dankest, most polluted cesspools. So perhaps it’s apt to find Lotus of Siam — one of the most celebrated Thai restaurants outside of Thailand — in a sketchy area on the edge of downtown Las Vegas. Specifically, it’s smack in the middle of a dimly lit, semi-derelict shopping center with the Stratosphere tower looming in the distance. This outdoor mall full of businesses with an illegitimate air features a parking lot that looks quite like a great place to get mugged. That said, it also looks like a great place for ethnic food finds, with a Jalisco-style diner that serves only birria — try saying “birriraria” right on the first try — sporting a goat-head logo, plus a Korean bar-cafe and a plenty of other places lacking any sort of English signage.
Once inside the door, it’s hard to miss the wall covered with accolades, but the parking-lot experience prepares you for the rest of what you see: A slightly run-down but brightly lit space without a smidgen of pretense. A large buffet steam table takes up the center of the room (it’s used at lunchtime, weekdays only) and Formica-topped tables are set with paper placemats and restaurant-supply cutlery. This isn’t a bad thing, in my opinion… in fact, it probably served to raise my expectations. If so many foodies think this place is amazing, I figured, they’re obviously not being misled by any fancy-pants décor.
If you’ve come looking for pad thai or green chicken curry, you won’t be disappointed — all the familiar favorites are present and accounted for. There’s also a selection of what could charitably be called oddball dishes, things like shrimp tempura, fried wontons and chop suey that left me a bit worried that I’d mistakenly stumbled into one of those terrible Seattle “Thai” restaurants — the ones where they bring you chopsticks and ask “how many stars?” to gauge your chile tolerance. My nervousness was put to rest by the middle section of the menu — a collection of specialties from Isaan province, and another page of Thai dishes that I have rarely, if ever, seen on American Thai menus… things like sour sausage, crispy catfish salad, and choo-chee freshwater prawns.
Mom’s not as much of a fire-eater as I am, so I picked through the likely suspects, looking for dishes that would give us a good sample of styles without blowing our heads off. We started with a pair of stuffed chicken wings, a classic appetizer where deboned wings are restuffed with pork, mushroom shreds, and plenty of spices, then rolled in panko and deep-fried. Ours turned out to be mysteriously dry despite plenty of stuffing, but the accompanying sweet-sour sauce helped a bit.
Next up, a generous portion of chicken larb, served with a few slices of cucumber and a wedge of white cabbage. The sparseness of the presentation belied the execution: A perfect balance of sour-salty-hot.
Last, we split a bowl of kao soi, a northern curry-noodle dish I’d first enjoyed — and fallen in love with — during our January Thailand trip with Kasma. Although I’ve made kao soi at home a couple of times since then, I haven’t managed to salve my cravings. Luckily, Vegas is closer than Chiang Mai… and Lotus of Siam’s drier version of kao soi — garnished with fried noodles, pickled vegetable, red shallots, and lime wedges — may be the favorite of any I’ve tried. The noodles were firm but supple, the sauce perfectly balanced between sweet and hot, the tender beef pieces adding a salty-meaty contrast every few bites.
If you’ve spent any time at all reading online food boards, you’ve almost certainly stumbled across someone (or some-twenty) raving about Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas. They throw out phrases like “the best Thai restaurant in the country” and “there’s simply nothing else like it anywhere”, and wax rhapsodic about the stunning flavors.
But this collection of over-the-top raves is really doing the place a disservice. It’s a creditable Thai restaurant, and they certainly serve some of the best Thai food I’ve had since San Francisco’s Thep Phanom took its nosedive into mediocrity. Every dish we tried was tasty and properly balanced, the service was attentive and welcoming, and the menu’s impressive in its diversity. And, of course, there’s an undeniable pleasure of finding such a gem amid the underbelly of Old Vegas seediness.
But unless you’ve spent your life eating ketchup-y pad thai, Lotus of Siam is not going to change the way you think about Thai food. But that’s not the point, nor should it be. If you go expecting a palate-altering experience at a trek-worthy temple of gastronomy, you’ll certainly come away disappointed. Go, instead, hungry for a well-made, casual dinner in an atmosphere that couldn’t be less “Vegas” if it tried.
Lotus of Siam
953 E. Sahara Avenue
Las Vegas, NV 89104
I don’t know what, exactly, I was expecting of International Marketplace. I suppose I had a specialized supermarket in mind, like Seattle’s squeaky-clean Uwajimaya, or the frayed-at-the-edges 99 Ranch stores in the Bay Area. But neither of these notions prepared me for the reality.Set a few blocks past the freeway, west of The Strip, this enormous warehouse-like space is more like a Costco for imported food than like any supermarket you’ve ever seen. In fact, it’s not even exclusively food-centric: If you’re in the market for gaudy Eastern European statuary or Asian-made Disney fleece blankets, this is the place. But the mainstay of International Marketplace is food, and to a lesser extent, the tools with which to prepare it.
Along the south side of the building, you’ll find mostly European and New World fare, like Greek pickles, Dutch sweets and British cordials. The rear of the store includes a small but exotic produce selection, a bit of cheese, some meats, and a service counter for seafood – alas, no live creatures other than lobster. Across from the fish counter, though, is the largest collection of kimchee you’re likely to see anywhere outside of a large metropolitan Koreatown.
Crossing the main aisle, you find yourself in among goods from all over Asia and the Pacific, from Hawaiian shoyu to Filipino pancit, Japanese tonkatsu sauce to Thai dessert-making ingredients. Moving back to the front of the store, you’ll find three rows of housewares: Cutting boards in every color of the rainbow, steamers of all sizes, and clever containers galore.
As you make your way to the checkstands, you’ll inevitably find it hard to resist a small detour through the collection of plates and bowls on offer. It’s enough to make you want to throw out your dirty undies to make room in the suitcase for a few tiny dishes.
5000 S. Decatur Blvd. (at Tropicana)
Las Vegas, NV 89118
Note: All prices on the shelves reflect a 5% member’s discount, but most items seemed competitively priced (presuming that you could find them elsewhere at all).
Happy Hallowe’en from Las Vegas, where everything has to be bigger and glitzier than back home — even the pumpkins.
I briefly mentioned the Bellagio Conservatory & Botanical Gardens harvest display last week, but as I thumbed through my Flickr photos looking for a seasonal shot, I got curious about this impressive tourist attraction. Here are a few (sort of food-related) facts:
- The garden is designed and maintained by a staff of 129 that creates five seasonal displays: Asian New Year, Spring, Summer, Harvest, and Holiday.
- Some of the tables at Cafe Bellagio face the gardens; the entrance to Restarurant Michael Mina is reached through the conservatory, as well.
- The large pumpkin shown above weighs 397 pounds. We saw more than one that topped 500 pounds. How many pies is that?!
- Right upstairs at Spa Bellagio, pamper yourself with a Pumpkin Bath Soak or a Pumpkin Honey Mask, available through the end of the year. Or perhaps a Pumpkin Spice Pedicure at the salon?
For future reference: Vegas.com offers a nice write-up of the Conservatory, including a sidebar that changes seasonally to reflect the current display.
Dad had a craving for Chinese food last night, so on our way back from visiting friends, Mom and I stopped by the local outpost of Pei Wei, a quick-service spinoff of the P.F. Chang’s megachain.
We slid into one of the parking spaces Pei Wei reserves right by the side door for folks who want to run in and get their grub. Once inside, we perused the menu and settled on three hard-to-fumble options: a Thai-style green chicken curry, orange-peel beef, and Pei Wei spicy chicken — their approximation of General Tso’s — plus a side of edamame. Each entree came with a choice of white or brown rice.
As we waited for our food, I remarked that the decor seemed unexpectedly pleasant, maybe even nice enough for a casual date. Whether you eat in or take out, you order at the counter, pay for your food and drinks up front, and bring a number-tag to your table. It’s the kind of place you can imagine popping into while shopping, a little more upscale than the food court, but not a ‘for-real’ restaurant.
After a short wait, the food came out, all boxed up in plastic clamshell containers that kept the food nice and hot during the quick drive home. We popped everything open, and — since we were planning to eat family style — were a little taken aback to find all the rice in the same containers as the entrees. Easily enough solved by putting scoops of rice on plates, I suppose, but not very conducive to sharing.
The edamame were served warmish, and tasted just like they do everywhere else. The Pei Wei chicken turned out to be everyone’s favorite, although I definitely wouldn’t call it spicy (even though the menu does). Mom and I enjoyed the green curry’s flavor, although the chicken turned out more like meat-jelly, probably the result of over-marinating. The beef was the disappointment of the bunch, a sitcky-sweet mess of strangely chewy meat garnished with with huge slices of carrot… huh? The accompanying white rice was fine, but the brown rice was seriously undercooked: It rattled like gravel when stirred.
I’ve only been to P.F. Chang’s once, with a big group of co-workers, and I remember thinking that the food there was fine, in a suburban-mall sort of way… like an Asian version of Chevy’s (before Chevy’s went downhill). But even though Pei Wei nails the sexy interior design and appealing assortment of pan-Asian entrees you’d want in this sort of place, the execution — at least at the local branch we tried — leaves a lot to be desired. For my money, I think I’ll keep waiting for Big Bowl to move west.
Pei Wei Asian Diner
10575 S. Eastern Avenue
Henderson, NV 89052
After a long afternoon of shopping, we picked up Dad from his appointment. As usual, he wanted a smoothie for his afternoon snack.
“Perfect,” said Mom. “Jamba Juice is right next door to Rubio’s.”
Dad and I sat outside in the afternoon sunshine, while Mom went into Jamba for Dad’s smoothie.
“Are you going to join us for fish tacos, Pops?” I asked.
“I’m not much of a fish guy,” he said, telling me nothing I don’t remember.
“Yeah, but these are good,” I countered. “They’re like fish-and-chips in a taco.”
He nodded, and said nothing. I figured he was just waiting patiently for his smoothie.
Rubio’s now styles itself a “Fresh Mexican Grill”, but everyone in Southern California — where the 150-plus chain started — still calls it by the original name: “Rubio’s Fish Tacos”. Their speciality, of course, is Baja-style fried fish wrapped in corn tortillas, shredded cabbage, and creamy salsa. Yummo.
When Mom finally came out, we made our way next door. We ordered two fish-taco combos, and joined Dad out on the patio. When the food came, he set down his smoothie… and promptly tucked into Mom’s tacos.
And he liked them.
Rubio’s #1 combo meal comes with two fish tacos, a small side of soupy pinto beans, and a few chips — the perfect size for a light lunch. Much like Burgerville, Rubio’s is unapologetically fast food, not health food. But it’s the kind of splurge-y meal that leaves you feeling comforted and happy, not bloated and gross.
Rubio’s Fresh Mexican Grill
1500 N. Green Valley Parkway
Henderson, NV 89014