Six reasons why Vegas is one of the most exciting food cities of 2019. 

Las Vegas Chosun Hwaro Gukbap
Credit: Chosun Hwaro

If you’re looking for dinner and a show in Las Vegas, you might want to visit Water Grill. The main attractions at this new seafood restaurant inside The Forum Shops are the tanks filled with gargantuan crustaceans. There are Santa Barbara spot prawns and California spiny lobsters and Barents Sea red king crabs, and guests are taking pictures and filming the action on their phones. If you want, an employee will let you hold an eight-pound king crab and pose for photos.

As you might have guessed, Water Grill is a restaurant for over-the-top seafood feasts, a destination where you’ll pay more than $50 per pound for the most premium shellfish. It’s an ideal restaurant for the Vegas Strip, a place that prides itself on excess.

But what we really love about Vegas is its range. You don’t have to be a baller with an expense account to eat tremendously well. At the Best Ice Cream counter off the Strip, $4 gets you a scoop of ethereal flavors like peach-ricotta and the best mint chip we’ve ever had (made with fresh mint and Valrhona Guanaja 70-percent dark chocolate). And Best Ice Cream is inside Ada’s, a restaurant where all the pastas and pizzas, except for the decadent and delicious $27 foie gras pizza, are under $20.

So let's get to it. Here are six excellent new reasons to eat in Las Vegas right now.

Off-Strip Italian is dominating

At La Strega in Summerlin, chef Gina Marinelli stuffs arancini with soul-warming duck risotto. Her stellar rigatoni Bolognese, with wild boar, ricotta, and the beautiful funk and pleasant spiciness of ’nduja, is another example of how she’s reinterpreting trattoria food. La Strega is very much a neighborhood restaurant (where families bring young children and the friendly staff remembers the preferences of regulars), but it’s also a destination where out-of-towners enjoy steak-tartare bruschetta before a wonderful seafood pasta loaded with lobster, rock shrimp, and calamari in a spicy tomato sauce.

Credit: Ryan Hafey Courtesy of La Strega

At Ada’s in the Tivoli Village complex, chef James Trees serves the same perfect spaghetti pomodoro (with the option of adding excellent meatballs) that he has at his popular Esther’s Kitchen in the Arts District. Other standout pastas at Ada’s include a comforting short-rib rigatoni enhanced with creamy, rich chicken liver. Summer-corn arancini is cleverly made with both rice and polenta, and Ada’s also showcases seasonal cooking in a glorious green gemelli with pistachio pesto and peas. A “butcher board” pizza with mortadella, spicy coppa, and smoked cheese will make meat lovers smile. The foie gras pizza, meanwhile, comes with duck confit, truffle cheese, and pistachio butter.

Every meal here should end with something from the on-site Best Ice Cream counter, which uses Nevada milk and cream to make seasonal flavors: There are Harry’s Berries strawberries from California in the balsamic strawberry and buttermilk flavor. A spumoni sundae, featuring a waffle cone and scoops of pistachio ice cream (vegan, made with oat milk), Morello cherry-almond sorbet, and Amazonian milk-chocolate ice cream, topped with pistachios, cherries, and hot fudge, is one of the most show-stopping desserts in town.

Between La Strega, Ada’s, Esther’s Kitchen, and Locale, where former Carnevino chef Nicole Brisson is showcasing her pasta and pizza prowess while also adding meaty options like a 16-ounce bison rib eye for two, off-Strip Italian food might be the best new reason to dine in Vegas at the moment.

The Japanese empire that Raku started

Chef Mitsuo Endo and restaurant stylist Martin Koleff opened Aburiya Raku on Spring Mountain Road in 2008, and the success of that izakaya institution has spawned off-Strip Japanese restaurants around the city.

This past March, Endo opened Tatsujin X, a high-end teppanyaki restaurant/Japanese steakhouse that serves gorgeously marbled Kobe-style beef from Oregon. This isn’t Benihana, so there are no cooks flipping shrimp. Instead, your tasting menu at this Flamingo Road chef’s counter includes your choice of two appetizers like a big oyster that’s grilled in front of you and served with crunchy kelp that nicely absorbs the dish’s ponzu sauce. An umami-rich and luxurious seafood ajillo, with a base of boiled white sesame oil and anchovies, features oyster, scallop, shrimp, octopus, maitake mushrooms, and avocado.

For your main course, you can compare steaks like a rib eye and a New York strip side-by-side and decide which one you want. On the night we visit, the New York strip has more intense marbling. The steak is grilled medium-rare, and it’s beefy bliss that rivals what’s at the best traditional steakhouses in Vegas casinos.

Tatsujin X is owned by Koutatsu Kanda, the renowned pastry chef who runs L’Automne in Tokyo and is known for edible fashion accessories that models have worn on catwalks. Kanda has been friends with Endo since they were teenagers learning how to bake and make yakitori in Japan. There’s a lot of history here, and we hope Vegas will see a future where those two chefs collaborate on more restaurants.

Koleff, meanwhile, helped open Katsuya Ton Ton, in the Vegas neighborhood known as Southwest. Ton Ton, which debuted in September, specializes in Berkshire-pork katsu cutlets. This is a restaurant that focuses on every little detail like the fresh panko coating it gets from Japan, the miso and pickles it makes in-house, and the pineapple in its sweet and spicy dipping sauces. There’s also Maldon salt, yuzu salt, and wasabi salt, and you’re probably going to want a side of curry sauce for your pork and rice. Chef Yutaka Kude also fries sushi-grade seafood like jumbo scallops.

The “set menu” options at Ton Ton come with unlimited servings of rice, cabbage, and miso soup, and the restaurant will turn leftovers into a lovely bento box. Masa Ide, who owns the restaurant with Masayuki Kobayashi and also has Tonkatsu Ginza Bairin in Waikiki, says he plans to add katsu sandwiches in the near future.

Los Angeles is taking over

Los Angeles restaurant operators clearly see the opportunities in Vegas, so it’s no surprise that L.A.-based Water Grill took the space vacated by Wolfgang Puck’s Spago in The Forum Shops at Caesars Palace. (Spago has relocated to Bellagio.) Water Grill is known for its grand raw-bar platters and its mind-bogglingly extravagant selection of fish and shellfish. This is where you can eat more than 15 different kinds of raw oysters before feasting on crab legs or Dover sole. Meanwhile, chef Paolo Bendezu’s composed dishes like a $31 plate of wild Alaskan black cod with soba noodles and spiced fish broth offer a nice value if you don’t feel like splurging.

Las Vegas Water Grill Chilled Seafood Platter
Credit: Kings Seafood Company

Over at The Venetian, chef Angelo Auriana’s L.A.-based pizza-and-pasta player Sixth + Mill has opened an outpost at the Grand Canal Shoppes. Sixth + Mill understands that being in Vegas means going big and expanding your menu, so one recent special was a gigantic bone-in veal parm. At $33, the tender veal chop, topped with stracciatella and a terrific tomato sauce, is a rare value on the Strip. Another good deal is the $30 lunch special, which gets you three courses, like an escarole salad, chicken parm or meatballs, and tiramisu. By the way, Sixth + Mill’s sister restaurant at The Venetian has been renamed: What was once The Factory Kitchen is now Matteo’s Italian Cucina, which still specializes in northern Italian food from Auriana and restaurateur Matteo Ferdinandi.

Over at Park MGM, Bricia Lopez, the restaurateur and mezcal queen who runs Oaxacan gem Guelaguetza with her family in Los Angeles, has opened the Mama Rabbit bar. Lopez, of course, is part of a Park MGM lineup that also includes Best Friend from L.A. chef Roy Choi and On the Record from L.A. nightlife veterans Mark and Johnnie Houston, so this feels like a full-on L.A. takeover on the Strip. Mama Rabbit offers more than 500 kinds of mezcal and tequila, and you can try your luck at blackjack, see live music, and eat queso fundido, guacamole, and carne asada tacos here. It’s a fun spot for a pre-game or post-game drink on nights when the Vegas Golden Knights play at the T-Mobile Arena that’s next to Park MGM.

Credit: MGM Resorts International

Dim sum and then sum

The culinary makeover at Palms, where new restaurants from Marc Vetri, Michael Symon, and Bobby Flay have recently opened, took a Cantonese turn when an outpost of Michelin-starred Hong Kong dim sum slinger Tim Ho Wan debuted in September. There are no carts with food being pushed around the restaurant because your rice rolls, barbecue pork buns, and shrimp dumplings are being freshly prepared in the kitchen. Tim Ho Wan is about accessible luxury, so you can get steamed abalone with chicken in a mantou cup for $6.25 and steamed rice rolls with lobster for $10.95. That’s a very 2019 kind of Vegas jackpot.

Fresh shrimp dumplings at Tim Ho Wan
| Credit: South China Morning Post/Getty Images

South China Morning Post/Getty Images

Nearby in Chinatown on Spring Mountain Road, chef Jimmy Li and restaurateur Joe Muscaglione are close to opening Shanghai Taste in the new Shanghai Plaza development. Expect marvelous sheng jian bao, the Shanghainese miracle of a pan-fried pork dumpling filled with gelatin that turns into liquid when it’s cooked. Expect delightfully chewy cold noodles with scallion oil and Shanghai soy sauce. Li and Muscaglione, the duo who recently sold their beloved Niu-Gu restaurant, have long been Chinatown fixtures, so you can expect the crowds to swarm for Shanghai Taste’s pork-and-crab soup dumplings, slow-roasted short rib, Shanghai duck, and magnificent fried rice when the restaurant debuts in the coming weeks.

Late-night and all-day Korean barbecue has hit the Strip

It’s midnight at the new Chosun Hwaro and Nara Teppan inside Planet Hollywood’s Miracle Mile Shops, and tables are covered with banchan (including japchae and white kimchi) and beef. There are two kinds of galbi, including an “empress” cut that’s fanned out so the short-rib meat is thin when it’s grilled. This is the first tabletop Korean barbecue restaurant on the Strip, and it’s here for late-night feasts in a colossal space that has room for nearly 500 guests. If you want to dine with a big group, you can reserve a private room. This restaurant is open from 9 a.m. to 2 a.m., so you can also come for a quick breakfast of kimchi jjigae, bulgogi, or bibimbap. And yes, there’s teppanyaki here, too, if you want dinner to be a combo of filet mignon, chicken, and lobster.

Downtown is booming

At La Monja, which opened at the Fergusons Downtown complex in September, chef Dan Krohmer is playing around with Baja-style seafood dishes like ceviche-topped oysters and a tostada made with Maine lobster and Nevada corn. He’s still sorting out his La Monja menu as he puts down serious roots at Fergusons Downtown, where he opened the crowd-pleasing Hatsumi robatayaki restaurant in May. Speaking of roots, Krohmer (who first made his name in Vegas at off-Strip sensation Other Mama) has bought his own farm about an hour away in Pahrump, so he’s clearly in this for the long haul.

Credit: Amelinda B. Lee Courtesy of La Monja

It helps that La Monja and Hatsumi are within walking distance of hot spots like indie music venue The Bunkhouse Saloon and its on-site Gaucho’s Sacred Flavors taco stand, coffeehouse/cafe PublicUs, and the Downtown Container Park with its boutique shopping, casual dining, and children’s play areas. Again, what we really love about Vegas is its range.