I'm not a big fan of the Vegas Strip. It's always full of people desperately trying to have a good time, whether they're weekenders in Los Angeles' largest, most remote suburb or there for a spectacularly poorly thought-out family vacation. The Strip is where decency goes to die surrounded by fawning club managers wielding $300 bottles of $30 vodka, cocktail waitresses with their breasts hinched up to chin-rest height, and bachelor parties puking all over themselves. It sucks, and it's not my idea of a vacation. The restaurants, too, are sad: semi-franchised outposts of the greatest hits back home, where celebrity chefs consult on the menu and then return once every six months to wave their hands in the kitchen and make ranting noises. It's the kind of place where restaurant reviews pay as much or more attention to the physical beauty of the waitresses than they do the food.
Fortunately, though, there's much more to Vegas than the Strip. Your blackjack dealer, cocktail waitress, outlet mall clerk, buffet line cook and
whore escort have to live somewhere, and I guarantee you they're not eating $200 steaks at fancy casino restaurants and drinking in host bars every time they go out. There's a whole city out there, one with a burgeoning eating culture. There's a "Chinatown" two minutes off the Strip that's got just about every Asian cuisine you could want; there are breweries and beer bars and cocktail bars and taco joints, just like any other major city. Bonus: they're almost completely full of locals, so prices are extremely reasonable and quality is high, since they rely on repeat business.
There are dozens of spots, but here are ten spots to get you started and leave some jangle in your pocket for gas money for the long slog home on the 15.
1. Aburiya Raku
Aburiya Raku is technically a charcoal grill restaurant, and you can do that if you like, grilled meats, fish and vegetables washed down with a stunningly good list of sakes. But if you've hit it a bit rich at the tables, drop $100 and have omakase. Course after course of deceptively simple yet jaw-droppingly flavorful food comes to the table. Homemade tofu; a whole grilled fish with mushrooms (dig out the fish cheeks, we promise it's worth the undignified effort); oysters with caviar and lime; scallop on the half-shell; wagyu beef with wasabi. It goes on and on. Given that you could spend $100 just on a mediocre steak and two sides at a Strip casino, this is well worth the cab ride.
5030 W. Spring Mountain Rd., Las Vegas; 702-367-3511; raku-grill.com.
2. Aces and Ales
Vegas is just dipping its toes into the craft brewing scene, but the city's thirst for craft brew extends far east of the MGM. Aces and Ales is the archetypal dive bar, dark and smoky, with regulars hunched over the video poker machines embedded at each seat at the bar, but the beer menu has dozens of taps of craft beer from all over the West. The menu is typical bar food taken one notch higher--I dare you to order the Eddie Spaghetti pizza.
3740 S. Nellis Blvd., Las Vegas; 702-436-7600; acesandales.com. Also at 2801 N. Tenaya Way, Las Vegas; 702-638-BEER.
3. Art of Flavors
First of all, the Las Vegas Boulevard address notwithstanding, this is nowhere near the Strip. It's in the run-down area between the Stratosphere and downtown's ugly Fremont Street Experience, just north of the Pawn Stars' shop. Inside, you'll find Desyree Alberganti, an Italian-speaking Venezuelan, offering samples of incredibly good gelato. There's a core cast of flavors (hazelnut, raspberry sorbet, etc.), and then there are the daily flavors. Some of the flavors are... uh... well, let's say purple ribbon for participation (Cheetos gelato? Spicy tuna roll gelato?), but many of them are absolutely amazing.
1616 S. Las Vegas Blvd., Las Vegas; 702-676-1027; no website.
4. Atomic Liquor Store and Bar
The new hotels springing up along the Strip are obviously trying to outdo each other in over-the-top decorations; the pinnacle of self-aggrandizing architectural masturbation has to be the enormous chandelier at the Cosmopolitan, which is so immense it contains an entire bar. It's enough to make anyone sick. Fortunately, there's Atomic Liquors on Fremont Street, a throwback to when Boulder Highway was all there was to Vegas. You can't buy a bottle to go unless they know and trust you enough not to crack it open inside, but you can belly up for a great beer list and a deft hand with cocktails both classic and reinvented (rye, Earl Grey tea, apple butter, lemon, bitters, and rye beer--fantastic). Don't let the fancy drinks fool you; it's still got years of nicotine oozing from its pores and crusty old desert rats drinking boilermakers.
917 Fremont St., Las Vegas; 702-982-3000; atomiclv.com. 5. Cugino's Italian Deli
So-called Italian delis get a big eyebrow raise of skepticism from me; I've lived in enough places that are not New York or Boston to know they're usually faking it. Not so at Cugino's, though. The location is wonky, in a part of the city most people ignore if they're not somehow affiliated with UNLV, but it's una vera cucina italo-americana. The accents are authentic, the sausage sandwich could have come straight from a pizzeria in North Jersey, and if that's not enough to convince you, you can order trippa alla siciliana. If they sold Taylor ham, I'd move in.
4550 S. Maryland Pkwy., Las Vegas; 702-895-7561; cuginositalian.com.
6. Frankie's Tiki Room
Any city worth its map font should have at least one den of rum, and Vegas's is Frankie's, a low-slung shack west of the 15 freeway with the most bizarre parking in the city. Once you're inside, though, it's as though Don the Beachcomber had never died. The lighting is right, the music is right, and most importantly, the bartenders know what they're doing; they can steer you to rum, rhum or cachaÃ§a, they make a fantastic 'ti punch, and three of the menu drinks will lay even a strong man out.
1712 W. Charleston Blvd., Las Vegas; 702-385-3110; frankiestikiroom.com.
7. Lotus of Siam
Any list of best off-Strip eats that doesn't include Lotus of Siam ought to be immediately disqualified as quackery. Saipin Chutima, who used to run Renu Nakorn in Norwalk, opened a tiny Northern Thai cafe in an ugly minimall in a shockingly seedy part of town, back when the concept of subdivisions of Thai food was unthinkable. Jonathan Gold called it the best Thai in America; it's still true, and what's amazing is that while it's expanded, it's still cheap. Call for reservations, though--the wait for tables is impossible if you don't.
953 E. Sahara Ave., Las Vegas; 702-735-3033; saipinchutima.com. 8. Sweets Raku
Why both Raku and Sweets Raku on the same list? They're in the same Chinatown plaza; they're related, but they're completely different. Sweets Raku is where you go for brunch when you can't handle the screaming families and hungover gamblers on the Strip. Choose a sandwich and one main dessert; you'll actually get a soup, a salad, your sandwich, and three courses of the most beautiful, painstakingly made dessert you've ever seen, all for $27. It's the best brunch value in the city and yet it was completely empty when we sat at the bar.
5040 W. Spring Mountain Rd., Las Vegas; 702-290-7181; raku-sweets.com.
9. Tacos el Gordo
See the "bc" in their web address below? That stands for Baja California; Tacos el Gordo is an outpost of a small Tijuana chain, the most visited of which is on SÃ¡nchez Taboada across from the central Mercado Hidalgo. While the chorizo is outstanding and they have an absolutely great-looking trompo of adobada (al pastor), the longest line is for tacos de carne asada, grilled over charcoal and tucked into tortillas hechas a mano with cilantro and onion, salsa and guacamole for $2 each--puro pinche pari in your mouth.
1724 E. Charleston Blvd., Las Vegas; 702-251-TACO; tacoselgordobc.com. Also at 3260 Losee Rd., North Las Vegas; 702-641-TACO.
10. The Goodwich
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Vegas isn't big on food trucks; something about 110ÂºF heat and asphalt just doesn't sound appealing. But the Goodwich is a food truck in all but physical structure; it's a tiny stand directly across the street from the Olympic Gardens (ahem, not that I would know what that is) that serves mindblowingly good sandwiches for reasonable prices. The menu rotates with the seasons, but of all the choices, the pulled squash was by far the best. (Yes. Pulled squash. Trust me.)
1516 S. Las Vegas Blvd., Las Vegas; 702-910-8681; the-goodwich.com.