This time of year, conversations at Chow Bella staff meetings tend to turn to who's eaten what and where. With the summer travel season in full swing, we bring you Food Tours, our writers' suggestions of what to eat and drink out of town.
I keep meaning to travel around the world. There's one problem: I'm spoiled by Las Vegas. It's an easy drive (or a short hop in a plane), and four-star hotels spoil me with ridiculously low rates to offset the considerable spending I do elsewhere. I think the food scene in Vegas is one of the best in the world. Strip restaurants offer big-name Michelin-star dining. Thanks to hospitality staff coming from around the world for work, outlying areas have a staggering array of amazing international eats.
Dining choices in Vegas are almost too many to imagine. I'm here to help. In no particular order, here's what you simply have to eat when you're in Las Vegas.
Arepas at Viva Las Arepas 1616 Las Vegas Blvd S (at Oakey Blvd) It's a shame most Americans aren't familiar with arepas. The thick griddled corn cakes, native to Colombia and Venezuela, are one of my favorite foods. Dare I say, they're even better than great Sonoran green corn tamales. Viva Las Arepas is a great stop between the Strip and downtown Las Vegas, offering some of the best dirt-cheap eats in the entire Las Vegas area. I've tried most of the arepa fillings on offer, and they are all outstanding. If you made me pick just one, I think I'd go for Reina Pepiada, creamy chicken salad laced with avocado.
Wash down your arepas with agua de panela, a luscious Venezuelan drink made from unrefined cane sugar and lime juice. Afterward, long-time Vegas guilty pleasure Luv-It Frozen Custard is practically across the street.
Gazpacho at Julian Serrano inside Aria Resort & Casino I adore great gazpacho. Pity that good ones are so few and far between, more resembling liquid salsa. Julian Serrano's gazpacho is one of the best I've had. How good is it? After one sip, I wanted to go to one of the Strip's frozen drink vendors, buy a ridiculously huge drink, dump the contents, then take the cup to Julian Serrano and tell them "Fill 'er up!" Seriously, it's that good. The rest of the menu is also outstanding, but I can't stop thinking about that gazpacho.
Turkey Club Sandwich at MOzen Bistro inside Mandarin Oriental Hotel The humble club sandwich is a mainstay of hotel café menus nationwide. I'd be willing to bet that nobody does a club sandwich better than MOzen at the Mandarin Oriental. It stays true to tradition, with turkey, bacon, two kinds of cheese, lettuce, and tomato on toasted sourdough. The only obvious upgrades are a smear of mashed avocado and some pesto in the mayonnaise.
The devil is in the details. MOzen thought of everything; every aspect of the sandwich is prepared to its absolute zenith. It's incredibly expensive at $18 (including fries and salad, but still, yikes). But when has the price of perfection ever been so low? Tonkotsu Ramen at Monta Japanese Noodle House 5030 Spring Mountain Rd (at Decatur Blvd) I wish we had ramen this good in Phoenix; nobody's here comes even close. Monta's tonkotsu broth is lush and rich. The noodles are pleasantly chewy, cooked just so. Chashu pork floating on top is a succulent dream. Nitamago (seasoned hard-boiled egg) is an optional add-on, but you're a fool if you pass it up. Add some terrific homemade gyoza, and you have one killer lunch.
Fresh Fruit (or Nachos Nachos Nachos) at Peppermill 2985 Las Vegas Blvd S (just south of Riviera Casino & Hotel) The Peppermill is one of my favorite coffee shops anywhere. It's one of the last great bastions of old-school Neon Vegas left on the Strip. It was built in 1972, remodeled once in the early 1980s, and has since become a living time capsule of glitz. Inside, the dining room tables are all U-shaped booths, save the counter and a couple of big-group banquettes. Anything that didn't run away fast enough got covered in neon, mirrors, and twinkly lights.
To me, nothing says Vegas more than the Fresh Fruit on Peppermill's dinner menu. It's fun to watch heads turn as the plate comes to your table. When they set it down, it looks less like a meal and more like Carmen Miranda's hat. The whole thing makes a nice light breakfast for three or four. Add a cup of some of the best coffee on the planet and I'm one very happy camper.
If you want something with more heft, the nachos are terrific and staggeringly large. I tried to tackle it with four hungry diners, and we still couldn't finish it. In case you somehow have room after dinner, their hot fudge sundae is a gooey masterpiece. Too much of a good thing can be wonderful, and the amount of hot fudge and whipped cream on Peppermill's sundae is just the right amount of too much.
Nam Kao Tod at Lotus of Siam 953 E Sahara Ave (between Las Vegas Blvd and Maryland Pkwy) Volumes have been written about Lotus of Siam. Don't let the location in a run-down commercial center in an iffy area off-Strip deter you. Lotus is to Thai food what Pizzeria Bianco here is to pizza: An unassuming little place that happens to be one of the best in the country. The Northern Thai menu is where Lotus truly shines. The most noted gem on the northern menu is nam kao tod, crispy rice with sour sausage. It's crispy, tangy, fiery (want it Thai spicy? Order it at a 7 on their 1-to-10 scale), mind-blowing complex, and wonderful all around. Let your waiter help pick dinner, and pair it with a bottle of one of many killer Rieslings in their wine case. Yes, Riesling and Thai. You'll be blown away.
Everything In Sight at Wicked Spoon Buffet inside The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas I'm usually not a fan of buffets. There's a wide variety, but the food is inevitably prepared to a standard below your average casual restaurant chain. (Don't even get me started on the slop-fests at low-rent joints like Excalibur and Circus Circus.) At high-end hotels, there's a fierce race to the top. While Bellagio and Wynn both have outstanding buffets, my money is on Wicked Spoon at The Cosmopolitan. At most buffets, I can show at least some manner of tasteful restraint. At Wicked Spoon, all bets are off. I'm going to stuff myself silly to the point I'll need to call the bell desk to wheel me up to my room on a luggage cart.
Wicked Spoon is a Las Vegas buffet game-changer. Many of the items are served in individual dishes, helping control portion costs while creating a better presentation than a messy heap of shrimp cocktail. The fried chicken's adorable presentation in diminutive fry baskets is so charming that Caesars Palace outright stole the idea for their new Bacchanal Buffet.
And the food. Oh God, the food is glorious. I've had burrata and watercress salad. I could devour pork rillettes by the ton. They make some of the best kalbi I've had. At dinner, there's roasted bone marrow. Dessert is worth saving room, with macarons and enormous chocolate-covered strawberries. Yes, macarons on a buffet line. Go ahead, have another one, I won't tell anyone.
Pancakes at Du-par's inside Golden Gate Hotel & Casino I do my best to avoid chain restaurants when on vacation. I gleefully make an exception for Du-par's pancakes. These golden discs are possibly the best flapjacks on the planet. They're tall, fluffy, and almost the diameter of a regular dinner plate. The kitchen puts them over the top by giving them a dousing of melted butter before your waiter brings them. The short stack of 3 is enough for a serious carb coma; I couldn't imagine polishing off the 5-cake tall stack without assistance.
Du-par's is also where you can get the Golden Gate's famed shrimp cocktail. Sure, the price has gone up to $2.99 in recent years, but where else can you order pancakes and shrimp cocktail without anyone batting an eyelash?
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Late-Night Oxtail Soup at Market Street Cafe inside California Hotel and Casino Ever wonder where Hawaiians go on vacation? They head to Las Vegas. Hawaiians come to Sin City so much that islanders affectionately call it the Ninth Island. The capital of the Ninth Island is arguably the California hotel, downtown just off of Fremont Street. They clearly cater to Hawaiians, with island decor everywhere, aloha-shirted blackjack dealers, and plenty of authentic Hawaiian food.
The best offering at "The Cal" is on their 24-hour café's graveyard shift menu: Oxtail soup for ten bucks. It's exactly what the doctor ordered after an night of downtown's lurid excess. Just remember to come late; they start serving it at 11 PM.
Pizza at The Pizzeria inside The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas The Cosmopolitan's Pizzeria is my favorite spot on the entire Strip for quick eats. They serve up a serious New York-style slice, and the price is right. The folks at The Cosmopolitan made the place rather quirky by hiding it. There's no mention of it anywhere on their website, nor are there any signs in the hotel pointing the way. I could tell you where it is, but what's the fun of that? In The Cosmopolitan's spirit, I'll offer hints: It's near the game table with the lowest minimum in the entire hotel, and service hallways aren't often outfitted with pinball machines. Or, if it's late enough that the club crowd has let out, just look for the massive line of people who look like they're going nowhere in particular.