Las Vegas Finally Gets the Neighborhood Restaurants It Deserves
There’s a trend in Las Vegas that’s making the off-Strip dining scene a lot more delicious. It’s called the neighborhood restaurant.
“There’s this restaurant in every neighborhood in Los Angeles,” says James Trees, the chef at Esther’s Kitchen, an Italian hot spot in the Vegas Arts District. “There’s no one else doing anything like this in Vegas. There’s a huge gap, and we’re just filling that gap, which is the reason we’re busy.”
Trees, who opened five restaurants for Michael Mina and cooked in L.A. as chef de cuisine at Ray Garcia’s FIG and executive chef for Paul Hibler’s Superba restaurant group, is one of several talented culinary operators who are running new off-Strip destinations in Vegas.
There’s Sheridan Su, who was just named a James Beard Award semifinalist for his world-class Hainan chicken at Flock & Fowl. Su, who grew up in L.A.’s San Gabriel Valley, previously cooked at Sona in L.A. Then in Vegas, he worked at Joël Robuchon at the Mansion before becoming executive chef at Comme Ça.
There’s Vincent Rotolo, a New York restaurant veteran who ran the front-of-the-house for The Meatball Shop’s Lower East Side and Williamsburg locations. Rotolo’s Good Pie in downtown Vegas slings Brooklyn-style pizza that’s more Brooklyn than a lot of what you’ll find in Brooklyn. On the afternoon we visit, Rotolo’s pal Nino Coniglio, the award-winning pizza-maker behind Williamsburg Pizza, is there to help ensure that the pies meet New York standards.
There’s Danielle Crouch and Allan Katz, the cocktail aces whose credits include the drinks at Here’s Looking at You, an L.A. restaurant that opened in 2016 and made so many local and national best-of lists. Crouch and Katz just opened Jammyland, a deeply personal bar inside an old garage in the Vegas Arts District.
Talk to any of these new-school operators for a little bit and they’ll likely tell you about how they want to create a community, how Vegas can feel like a small town where everybody knows everybody, and how the low cost of living and low cost of doing business here is attracting a lot of talented people from California and beyond. They’ll tell you they want to offer both locals and tourists an alternative to paying for parking on the Strip and then spending $100-per-person for dinner. And, perhaps most important of all, they’ll tell you that having their own spot allows them to break the rules while sweating every single detail themselves.
“The joke is just that I’m doing this whole thing wrong,” says Trees, who’s often at Esther’s Kitchen baking bread or cleaning his hood system when the restaurant is closed. “I wash dishes. That’s what I do. I’m that guy.”
Or consider Brian Howard, who was previously the executive chef at Comme Ça after cooking at Bouchon and Kerry Simon’s Cathouse. Howard opened Sparrow + Wolf in Chinatown last year, and his modern American cooking has made him the darling of local media. His restaurant is busy every night, with two-hour waits on some weekends. And yet, Howard is willing to tear apart his menu and start over. He tells us that he’s replaced 21 items (only the Chinatown clams casino and the campfire duck remain) and he’s ready to switch out ten more. He’s also in the process of adding some surprises as he expands the Sparrow + Wolf space.
Thanks to boundary-breaking chefs like Howard, eating and drinking off-Strip is a delight in 2018. It’s an experience that makes you believe anything can happen. Here are five spots bursting with pure possibility:
Esther’s Kitchen is a triumphant homecoming for chef James Trees, who was born and raised in Vegas and named his Arts District restaurant after his great-aunt.
“When we do the classics, we do the classics,” says Trees, who cures his own guanciale for transporting bucatini all’amatricana that tastes like Rome while being made with Bianco DiNapoli organic tomatoes from California.
All the pasta at Esther’s Kitchen is made in-house, and Trees is also adept at non-traditional and modern dishes like a bright ricotta gnudi with pistachio pesto, California beets (including delicious beet greens) from McGrath Family Farm and California sorrel from Fresh Origins. Whether you come for a leisurely dinner with porchetta and market fish or just pop over for a quick counter-service lunch of pizza and pasta, you can enjoy cocktails from bar director Sonia Stelea, who formerly ran the bar at Cotogna in San Francisco.
Trees and his team have succeeded in creating something like L.A.’s Bestia and Union, or San Francisco’s A16 and Cotogna, or New York’s Via Carota and Lilia. Esther’s Kitchen is a buzzing neighborhood restaurant that serves great Italian food while doing things its own way. Sometimes, you’ll see Trees’ dad playing music on the patio with honkytonk band The Rhyolite Sound. Most of the customers at Esther’s Kitchen have no idea where Trees has cooked before. They just think of him as a local guy with a new restaurant. He’s totally cool with that.
“It’s almost like another dimension, but if this was the Arts District in L.A., the only difference is that there would be more fucking people in weird hats and it’d be more expensive,” says Trees, who’s serving $16 amatriciana and making a point to keep everything on his menu under $30.
1130 S. Casino Center Blvd., 702-570-7864
Chef Brian Howard makes his own vegetable garum, his own gochujang and his own Sichuan chile oil. He cooks Brussels sprouts over binchotan charcoal and serves them with his jungle curry. He has a resplendent beet and green apple tartare that’s plated in a way that wouldn’t seem out of place at a spaceship-inspired tasting-menu joint. He repeatedly dazzles you with global flavors in dishes like an uni melt that includes burrata and blood orange kosho. Howard’s Chinatown clams casino with Chinese sausage, shiitake mushroom and uni hollandaise is a nod to Sparrow + Wolf’s Spring Mountain Road location in the heart of the Las Vegas Chinatown. But it’s also a beautifully original dish.
Howard makes ultra-creative food that’s simultaneously ultra-comforting: His showstopping wood-fired lasagna with lamb bolognese, miso bechamel and burrata comes with furikake garlic bread. The dish is Italian and Japanese and utterly American, made with fresh pasta, Elysian Fields lamb, Red Wattle pork, chicken liver, red wine and a little togarashi. There are few restaurants pushing as hard and coming up with combinations as revelatory as what Sparrow + Wolf is doing again and again.
But remember, this is a Vegas neighborhood restaurant, so you can come at happy hour and get cheese, charcuterie and a bottle of rosé for $28. Another happy hour special is a $400 ounce of Jacques Hardy 1848 cognac. (It costs $500 after happy hour.) You’ve got a lot of options here.
4480 Spring Mountain Road, suite 100, 702-790-2147
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about chef Sheridan Su’s James Beard Award semifinalist nod is that he got it for a tiny, lunch-only, five-days-a-week off-Strip restaurant in a year when no Strip chef was named a semifinalist. (The only other Vegas-based James Beard Award semifinalist this year is Lotus of Siam, a longtime off-Strip sensation that recently reopened at a new location on East Flamingo Road.) But Su’s Hainan chicken rice, with add-ons like exemplary Chinese sausage and soul-stirring broth, is just that good.
Su and Jenny Wong recently opened a larger Flock & Fowl in downtown Vegas that serves lunch and dinner, has a full cocktail program and has added dishes like laksa. Su is truly a master of elevating Asian hawker-stand food. His glistening laksa is a hearty, herbaceous and balanced coconut curry noodle soup with a big prawn, pulled Mary’s chicken, tofu puffs and a one-hour egg. Su merges fine dining with street food as he tops kaya toast with foie gras. Drinks like mezcal milk punch and the Lychee’s Knees with Tanqueray gin, lychee-honey and lemon pair well with Su’s big flavors.
Pro tip: If you can’t decide how to customize your chicken rice, ask for the off-menu “everything,” which gets you traditional Hainan chicken, roasted chicken, fried chicken and every add-on available. This could include wonderful fried chicken skins and market vegetables along with sausage, two servings of broth, a fried organic egg and a one-hour egg. The price can vary, but it’s a tremendous shareable feast that won’t even run you $30. That’s less expensive than a lot of much smaller entrées on the Strip.
150 N. Las Vegas Blvd., #100, 702-983-4880
Vincent Rotolo would like you to know that he sincerely believes that the water in Vegas is better for pizza-making than the water in New York.
“Because of the mountainous area and the climate and the mineral content in the soil, the water in Vegas is ideal for pizza,” he says. “We had it analyzed in a lab. It’s almost identical to the water in Naples. It’s time to demystify the idea that New York water is better for pizza.”
These sound like fighting words, but Rotolo is, in many ways, as New York pizza as it gets. His Neapolitan grandmother and Sicilian grandfather lived above John’s of Bleecker Street, and a young Rotolo worked at that iconic New York pizzeria. Rotolo, who grew up in Brooklyn and has a dog named Brooklyn, gets his cheese from 47th Street in Brooklyn.
“I wouldn’t serve anything my grandma wouldn’t serve,” Rotolo says.
Beyond Brooklyn-worthy slices and pies, Rotolo’s making grandma slices and pies, Detroit-style pies and even gluten-free pies that are good enough to fool pizza purists. His signature pie is the Good Good, with a perfect combination of sausage and artichoke hearts. It’s inspired by how Rotolo’s father used to cook sausage-stuffed artichokes at home.
Good Pie also has Brooklyn-worthy beef-and-pork meatballs. For a pie called The Good, the Rad and the Gnarly with sausage, jalapeno, Mike’s Hot Honey and fresh garlic, Rotolo puts together a killer hot sauce: What he calls “gnarly sauce” has jalapeno, habanero and Calabrian chile. Rotolo, who started making pizza when he was 12, has spent decades working on a gluten-free crust. It’s great that "Good" can mean a lot of different things in Vegas.
725 S. Las Vegas Blvd., #140, 702-844-2700
No, pajamas aren’t involved at Jammyland, the Jamaican-inspired bar that Danielle Crouch and Allan Katz opened in the Vegas Arts District last Friday.
It’s frigid when we pop by on opening night, but that doesn’t stop multiple groups from sitting outside by some fire pits. Inside, the bar is standing-room-only. The neighborhood clearly has been waiting for a place like this.
In the future, chef John Grayer will serve bar bites and brunch at this cocktail lounge meets “reggae kitchen.” In the meantime, guests can enjoy expertly made drinks like the Natural Daiquiri with Plantation 3 Stars rum. The Shotgun Shack (Mellow Corn bonded whiskey, lemon, spiced vanilla syrup and aquafaba) is a habit-forming concoction that the menu describes as: “We distilled champurrado down to its essences so you can responsibly enjoy as many as you like.” There’s a story behind every cocktail. The First Rodeo, which is made with “a melange of bourbons,” is inspired by “the inimitable mixtress Julie Reiner,” the drinks wizard behind New York bars like Flatiron Lounge and Clover Club.
Crouch and Katz are beloved fixtures of L.A.’s cocktail scene, where their credits include Here’s Looking at You and Caña Rum Bar. Before that, they bartended all over New York. During our brief chat, Katz mentions his time working with chef Zak Pelaccio. Point is, this is a crew that’s been around and is ready to give Vegas a bar informed by a diverse array of experiences.
Jammyland’s initial cocktail menu is called First Mix Tape, and it’s a got a corresponding Spotify playlist you can load onto your phone. Come in and feel a different kind of groove than what you’re accustomed to in Vegas. We’re happy that we did.
1121 S. Main St., 702-800-9098