Despite boasting the blinking-lights spectacle of the Strip, a plethora of all-you-can-eat buffets (more on that later), endless glitzy entertainment ,and a well-earned reputation as Sin City, Las Vegas hasn't historically been very hospitable to pot smokers. In 1971, when Hunter S. Thompson came here to take his savage journey into the heart of the American dream, Nevada boasted perhaps the nation's most punitive marijuana laws. As recently as 2001, possession of a single joint remained a felony, good for up to a year in prison.
Recently, however, the powers-that-be in Las Vegas have begun quietly positioning the city to be the next Amsterdam. Already Nevada's become the first jurisdiction to offer medical marijuana "reciprocity," meaning tourists can now buy cannabis at the Silver State's growing number of dispensaries with proper ID and a valid medical recommendation from their home state. And this November, voters will decide on full legalization, with polls showing they'll likely approve letting any adult from anywhere in the world buy, possess, and consume cannabis statewide.
Naturally, The Weed Eater set out on a savage journey of his own, in search of the best places in Lost Wages to be stoned and hungry.
"In some ways, we're still a meat-and-potatoes, shrimp-cocktail-and-Caesar-salad town, especially on the Strip," chef Bryan Howard says over lunch at Makers & Finders, a local coffee bar that serves innovative Latin comfort food. "So if pot legalization brings in tourists with more adventurous palates, that's only going to benefit us by allowing chefs to experiment, and serve the food we really want to cook."
At 33, the Michigan native made his bones working in the kitchens of top Vegas restaurants like Lutéce, Bouchon, Kerry Simon's CatHouse, and Town Square's Nu Sanctuary before taking a widely lauded turn as head chef at Comme Ça inside the Cosmopolitan Hotel. Asked for suggestions on where to dine locally while under the herbal influence, Howard suggests either Raku (a Japanese charcoal grill-style restaurant that's open till 3 AM, serving "simple preparations of minimalistic ingredients" amid an austere decor of wood and stone) or the "hustle and bustle" of Hash House a Go-Go, for its massive portions of self-described "twisted farm food."
If pot legalization brings in tourists with more adventurous palates, that's only going to benefit us by allowing chefs to experiment, and serve the food we really want to cook.
Howard believes hip areas off The Strip like the Las Vegas Arts District—where he'll open two new restaurants this year—will immediately embrace the city's coming post-legalization wave of red-eyed tourists, but predicts the big corporate-owned casino spots won't start incorporating cannabis alongside their legendary wine lists anytime soon. And so, for the foreseeable future, the closest things to a controlled substance you'll find on the menu at a high-end Vegas restaurant are rare imported truffles—a grey market nobody knows better than Brett Ottolenghi, better known around town as the Truffle Kid.
Ottolenghi first started slanging culinary 'shrooms as a 13-year-old, and by college was regularly taking the bus from his dorm room at UNLV down to The Strip with a box of truffles under one arm, ready to go kitchen-to-kitchen selling his wares directly to fungus-hungry chefs. Now in his late twenties, Ottolenghi operates out of his own shop, Artisanal Foods, located conveniently close to the airport, where he can easily access far-flung shipments of fine caviar, seafood, charcuterie, truffles, oils, vinegars, spices, fromage, and whatever else his clientele desires. The New Yorker described him as specializing in "the small run, the vaguely regulated, the hard to come by, and the near-banned—the medical marijuana of the food world."
Naturally, The Weed Eater didn't turn down a chance to take a tour of Artisanal Foods and share lunch at the shop's newly opened cafe with the proprietor.
"I'm not naming names, but it's no secret that a lot of chefs smoke marijuana," Ottolenghi confirms, while remaining noncommittal regarding the weed habits of fine food purveyors. "And I think a lot of those chefs would at least privately accredit cannabis with helping them be more creative in the kitchen, and visualize combinations of ingredients they might not have otherwise thought up."
As if to make this point incarnate, our first course arrives in the form of lion fish ceviche with tempura wasabi leaf chips. Native to the South East Pacific Ocean, lion fish has mild, firm flesh that's "similar to other white fish such as halibut and grouper," according to Ottolenghi. They're also an invasive species that gobbles up small fish vital to reef health, so in the name of both flavor and sustainability, Artisanal Foods is helping lead an effort to commercialize the species, which can only be harvested by spearing them one by one.
It's no secret that a lot of chefs smoke marijuana.
In the center of the shop, a few live specimens swim languidly in a fish tank, blissfully unaware of their precarious position. While on the plate, they make for a tasty, guilt-free exotic ceviche. Also, pro tip: definitely say yes to the next tempura wasabi leaf you're offered.
"There's already a connoisseurship around cannabis that's going to eventually develop into something akin to that of wine, truffles, ham, cheese, or anything else," Ottolenghi says, while opening a bag of sriracha-flavored gourmet pork rinds, just one of dozens of craft foods he carries from small purveyors all over the world. "Certainly on the cultivation side there's been a lot of very talented botanists growing cannabis, and breeding new strains and flavors. While on the industry side, because it pays well, marijuana is drawing in some of the brightest minds in horticulture."
Ottolenghi won't comment directly on whether he'd one day like to source the finest Humbolt County Gold for a five-star restaurant making a weed-infused soufflé, but he is an insatiably curious food researcher, one who says, "For me, the best way to learn about something is to sell it." And he did have a few suggestions for where to go in Las Vegas when you've got the munchies.
For "a casual atmosphere with a very creative chef," check out Other Mama, a raw bar with lots of small plates, including spicy tuna tartare on waffle fries and pork belly kimchi fried rice. For an over-the-top Vegas-style extravaganza, there's Rose. Rabbit. Lie., a "spectacularly original" dinner theater with whimsical food and top-flight performers.
When talk inevitably turns to dessert, the Truffle Kid and the Weed Eater decide to leave academic discussion behind and spontaneously embark on a field trip to Gelatology, an artisan gelato shop where local pastry legend Desyree Alberganti works with savory flavors based on her favorite meals. Ottolenghi says he has a sneaking suspicion such offerings just might appeal to a stoned palate, a hunch your humble narrator confirms after sampling a cone of soy sauce, wasabi, and almond-flavored gelato.
And what a sweet way to end "Eating Las Vegas," except we can't exactly skip town without paying homage to the city's most iconic and enduring culinary tradition.
Once known for low-end fare designed to fatten up low-end tourists for the casino's killing floors, Las Vegas's buffets have lately upped their food game considerably. And by all accounts, there's currently no more decadent all-you-can-eat in town than the Bacchanal Buffet at Caesar's Palace. So the following day, now flying solo, The Weed Eater consumes a healthy dose of cannabis chocolate for breakfast, waits for the drugs to take hold, and then heads for the Bacchanal.
Marijuana is most definitely the all-you-can-eat equivalent of a performance-enhancing drug, particularly if you take a 'value' approach to buffet life.
Ironically, the counter where you pay $60 to gorge yourself on every kind of cuisine imaginable looks rather like an expensive health spa. Then, a middle-aged Eastern European hostess greets you on the other side of a magic turnstile and leads you past more than 500 daily offerings, rattling off everything from raw oysters to truffle scalloped potatoes. The decor is muted and classy, the lighting low (no doubt to obscure our collective sin of gluttony).
Of note to stoners, a server takes a drink order and returns before the cotton-mouthed Weed Eater even has a chance to sit down, and the iced tea never stops flowing from there. Additional pot-friendly charms of the buffet include not having to pick one thing and stick with it, getting to see all the food before you decide what you want to eat, getting to dig in right away, and boldly pairing flavors nobody's ever dreamed of intermingling.
Also, marijuana is most definitely the all-you-can-eat equivalent of a performance-enhancing drug, particularly if, like many at the Bacchanal, you take a "value" approach to buffet life. Sticking to high-ticket items like raw oysters, crab legs, sushi, fancy cheese, and charcuterie actually makes it easy to get your money's worth, and the food itself is of very high quality and uniformly well-prepared (if a tad soulless). But no amount of weed can obscure the fact that something about the experience turns grim around the time your appetite deserts you.
Only then, at least for a moment, all is redeemed when, in line for the dessert bar, The Weed Eater encounters the only other unambiguously baked person in the place, who heartily recommends the butterscotch churros, which taste even better if you dip them into a mini cheesecake.