Pay too much attention to the flashy casinos and you could miss a restaurant revolution.
Chef Sheridan Su is proof that great Las Vegas dining isn’t just in flashy Strip casinos.
Su, who runs Fat Choy at the off-Strip Eureka casino and also presides over the tiny, lunch-only Flock & Fowl on West Sahara Avenue, has signed a lease to open a new restaurant in downtown Vegas. He plans to debut a larger version of Flock & Fowl, which is known for its excellent Hainan chicken rice, this fall.
Unlike the existing Flock & Fowl, which Su will continue to operate, the new restaurant will be a place where guests can hang out for a while.
“We’re able to accommodate groups and have a full bar,” he says. “We’ll be open seven days a week for lunch and dinner. There will be a few more items, probably aiming toward something like the current Flock & Fowl meets gastropub.”
The new Flock & Fowl is the culmination of Su and wife/business partner Jenny Wong’s years of hustle after they decided to make a big gamble on themselves.
Su knew it was time for a life change when he got laid off from his job as executive chef of Comme Ca at the Cosmopolitan in 2011. This was during the recession, and Su realized that he was lucky to have other job options. But he didn’t want another gig cooking in a casino.
“The day after, I got three offers for chef jobs on the Strip,” he says. “I didn’t take any of them. I just needed to take a step back and see where I wanted to go in my life. I was putting in seven days a week, easily 100 hours.”
Su had opened Comme Ca and was an experienced chef who had been part of the opening team at Joël Robuchon (which brought him to Vegas as a line cook in 2005), Social House and Wazuzu. But he was ready to do something on a smaller scale.
Su, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, was inspired by the success of Roy Choi’s Kogi food truck in L.A.
“We bought a truck for $6,000,” says Su, who adds that his young son Sterling basically grew up in the truck. “I probably put in another $10,000 to get it wrapped.”
Su opened the Great Bao truck but quickly discovered that it was a money pit.
“It kept breaking down,” he says. “My entire savings went into the truck. And it still didn’t work.”
So Su and Wong decided to open a tiny restaurant, also named Great Bao, at a space they found inside a hair salon. At first, Su thought the setup was “just too weird.” But Wong convinced him that if he made good food, customers would find him. Su trusted Wong’s intuition, but it was a grind in the beginning.
“My first day over there, we bought about $500 worth of product and did exactly $14 in sales,” Su says. “I cried that night. I said, ‘This is scary, I don’t know what I got myself into.’”
But Su started getting good reviews from the local media, and the crowds did indeed find him.
Flash forward to 2017 and Su is leading the charge of chefs with extensive Strip experience doing their own thing in Vegas.
Brian Howard, who was executive chef at Comme Ca after working at Bouchon and famed rock-’n’-roll chef Kerry Simon’s Cathouse, opened Sparrow + Wolf on Chinatown’s booming Spring Mountain Road in May. This is an of-the-moment American restaurant with lots of Asian influences (Howard’s wife is Cantonese) and crowd-pleasing original dishes.
Howard serves udon with a soul-warming lamb ragu.
“Two of my favorite things are udon noodles and a good Bolognese,” Howard says.
Another winning dish is Howard’s Chinatown clams casino, which are topped with Chinese sausage, uni hollandaise and shiitake mushrooms.
Sparrow + Wolf has quickly become an industry hangout, with casino executives as well as chefs and sommeliers from other restaurants popping by, especially late at night.
“We open until 1 a.m. Thursday through Saturday, and we get our third turn around 11:30, midnight, another 50 people,” says Howard, who serves a late-night burger starting at 11 p.m. “Right now, we’re selling 30 burgers in 15 minutes. It’s insane.”
Another new off-Strip restaurant/industry hangout is The Black Sheep, a Southwest Vegas spot that opened in May. At The Black Sheep, chef Jamie Tran is serving modern Vietnamese-American food like imperial rolls, bao sliders with housemade sausage, and braised Duroc pork belly with sticky rice. Tran was previously the executive chef at DB Brasserie and had also worked at Aureole.
And over in the Henderson suburbs, former Le Cirque executive pastry chef Jaret Blinn is making kouign amanns, short-rib hash and pretzel bagels with smoked salmon at buzzing brunch spot Craft Kitchen.
The fact that Flock & Fowl, Sparrow + Wolf. The Black Sheep and Craft Kitchen are all in different neighborhoods shows that Vegas is ready to embrace a diverse dining scene.
“For this restaurant, there are no boundaries,” says Howard, who cooks in a glassed-in “exhibition kitchen” at Sparrow + Wolf. “We’re cooking the way we feel, what we like to eat. We’re not reinventing the wheel, but it comes down to hospitality and filling a niche that’s been missing in Vegas.”
Unlike cooking at a big casino restaurant, “We’re not held down by anybody but ourselves,” says Howard, who has plans for whole-animal feasts and other communal-dining events. “We can easily change the theme of the restaurant for a week if we want.”
Both Howard and Su say their Strip experience gave them the confidence to open their own restaurant. But obviously, having your own place is a lot different than running the kitchen of a shiny expensive restaurant funded by somebody else.
“When you have a pre-opening budget at a casino restaurant, you might buy four prep mixers,” Su says. “With your own operation, you buy a $700 Vitamix and you go, ‘Holy shit, I might not be able to eat out for a couple months.’”
But you can’t put a price on the freedom you get working for yourself.
“A couple years ago on a trip to Taiwan, I had chicken rice that was so amazing I thought about it every day,” Su says.
So Su opened Flock & Fowl as a way to simulate this experience in Vegas.
“Vegas really deserves a food community,” Su says. “I think one of the things that got me off the Strip is I wanted to help create that, to bring what I know from other cities and try to develop that here. I think Vegas right now is probably where L.A. was 10 years ago. It’s kind of in that infancy stage. There are a lot of great people working on the Strip, itching to do their own thing now that people are supporting things off the Strip. It’s definitely been a long time coming.”