Since Vegas is an insanely popular tourist destination, most big name chefs have an outpost somewhere on the Strip: Daniel Boulud (DB Brasserie), Wolfgang Puck (CUT, Cucina, and quite a few more), Gordon Ramsey (Pub & Grill, Burgr, and Steak), Mario Carbone/Rich Torrisi (Carbone at the ARIA), Scott Conant (Scarpetta at the Cosmopolitan). The list goes on. Do any of these places offer the ambiance or impeccable food that the originals do? No. Of course not. This is Vegas. Everything is bigger and glossier. That doesn't mean the food isn't good. It's just not AS good, and it's sometimes way more expensive. So if you're visiting from anywhere that's not New York or LA, here's a chance to experience your favorite celebrity chef's food. If you are from New York or LA, it's not really worth it, and you're probably not feeling the celeb chefs back home anyway. There is one exception.
Rao's Las Vegas is the outpost of a legendary NYC family–owned red sauce joint that holds what some consider to be the world's most unattainable reservation. The place is tiny, and some of the city's most powerful players hold standing reservations, making it impossible for norms like me and you to get in. Rao's Las Vegas at Caesar's Palace, however, has plenty of availability. The Rao family is very much involved with the Vegas operation, so the food is pretty fucking good. The restaurant does have a "business casual" dress code, but as an underdressed tourist accompanied by his wife and young children recently told us before walking in, "They sell their sauce in my local supermarket. Fuck them. I'm wearing my shorts." From what we could tell, no one kicked him out.
A note about Las Vegas buffets: They are everywhere, expensive, expansive, and rarely any good. Buy in at your own risk. If you find one that's not expensive, be twice as wary. However, because casinos want you to stick around and gamble away your hard earned cash, it's pretty easy to come across discount or free buffet vouchers. If you're broke or don't want to interrupt your winning streak for too long, go ahead and put those vouchers to use.
If you're in town for more than a couple days, you'll eventually be jonesing to leave the Strip. That's where this list comes in. Don't be thrown off by how many decent places exist in strip malls. Vegas, like so many other rapidly growing cities, has occasionally fallen victim to cheap cookie-cutter construction.
Yes, the lowercase letters and the period are intentional. So is the delicious food cooked up by Chef Natalie Young. This downtown breakfast and lunch joint is only open until 3 PM during the week and until 2 PM on the weekend, and it does sometimes run out of the more popular dishes, so get there early (by Vegas standards, of course). The deviled eggs and the truffled egg sandwich are life.
Last September, celebrity chef Kerry Simon passed away from multiple-system atrophy. The staff at Carson Kitchen works hard to preserve his memory, and they're doing a hell of a job because the food is really, really good. The space is small with an open kitchen concept, but in the summer, the outdoor patio increases the size. Standouts on a recent visit included the veal meatballs, gyro tacos, and the mac 'n' cheese. Plates are designed to be shared, so take advantage.
Downtown Container Park
Architects are super into making green structures out of giant recycled containers these days. We're not sure why. The acoustics seem terrible and controlling the temperature seems like a daily struggle. Still, we have to admit, they did a decent job with the Downtown Container Park. There's a dope playground in the center that is often overrun by small children (and the occasional drunk adults), so if kids aren't your thing, you might have trouble relaxing around here. But the place has a bunch of decent eats. Some of the better ones include Pinches Tacos, Stoned N Baked, and Cheffini's Hot Dogs.
Pinches Tacos, a small California chain making its way through Vegas, has a sign outside its shop that reads "Real Mexican food by real Mexicans," and the smell inside validates the claim. The tortillas are all homemade, but they do tend to fall apart, so encourage the taco-makers to double wrap those delicious al pastor tacos. The agua fresca and horchata are sweet, but not nausea inducing. Micheladas are made with a choice of Dos Equis, amber, or lager. Just remember that "pinche" is considered a Mexican swear word in most households, so don't go throwing it around like a chingón.
Next door to Pinches Tacos, Cheffini's Hot Dogs is working the specialty hot dog angle. The signature sauces are where it's at, but as an unapologetic carnivore, we were surprised by how much we enjoyed the vegan dog too. If you're really in the mood to give yourself a heart attack, try the salchipapa (deep fried hot dog bits of your choice mixed with some fries and the signature fry sauce).
Newcomer to the Container Park, Stoned N Baked specializes in pizza and brownies (GET IT???). The pizzas range from $7–$10 and cook in five minutes thanks to a tiny oven-of-the-future imported from Naples that blasts the suckers in 800-degree heat. They come out surprisingly light and crispy, and there's a decent selection of fresh toppings. The brownies have stoner names like Heavenly Hash and Magic Bar, but they are, sadly, hash-free. Even so, they sell pretty fast, especially since Container Park employees make repeat visits throughout the day. The brownie flavors change daily, but if you come across the lemon bars or peanut butter brownies, pounce.
For some unknown reason, Rick Harrison, better known as "that guy from Pawn Stars" (Why do we always watch that show on planes? WHY?), decided to open his own mini-container park. The structure is... well... hideous. Hideous. But here are two reasons we can't totally hate on it: Pawn Donut and Coffee and Inna Gadda di Pizza. Pawn manages to fill the void left when O Face Doughnuts closed at the end of last year (RIP) by serving a mix of those fancy artisanal donuts that everyone's into these days (Love Me Tender, a chocolate, banana, and peanut butter concoction, would do Elvis proud) and classic donuts. A few doors down, Inna Gadda di Pizza is the closest thing Las Vegas has to a proper Brooklyn slice. Pro-tip: After Pawn closes for the day, the unsold donuts can be purchased at Inna Gadda for the whopping price of $2.00 for 3 donuts. We can, with some shame, confirm they still taste pretty damn good after 5:30 PM.
There are four locations of this increasingly popular pancake spot. The décor is unimpressive, but the specialty pancakes are on point. Surprisingly, the BabyStacks signature dish is not a pancake at all, but a dish called Lolo Rick's Adobo Fried Rice. The menu description calls it "a traditional Filipino dish made with marinated shredded chicken and rice. All wrapped up in omelette style eggs!" We would describe it as a fried rice burrito with an omelette in place of a tortilla. It's flavorful and enormous. Enhance the experience by upgrading to include a side of the best-selling red-velvet pancakes. It sounds like a disgusting combination. It's not.
The Egg and I/Egg Works
Remember when IHOP didn't serve food that looked like a someone sat on it before putting it in front of you? We don't either. Family owned breakfast joint the Egg and I and its sister restaurants, Egg Works, have been around since 1988 and 2005, respectively. There are six locations all over the city. The large menu features simple breakfast and lunch eats in the huge American portions people expect from Vegas. Some unexpected dishes are included, like Cincy chlli (that cinnamon flavored Cincinnati-style chili that gets served over spaghetti) along with some Hawaiian-inspired dishes. However, their strength is in—you guessed it—the egg dishes.
The Cornish Pasty Co.
Hidden in the desolate Village Square Shopping Center, perhaps best known for housing theGreen Door swingers club, the Arizona-born Cornish Pasty Co. specializes in, well, British pasties. The options are extensive, but the traditional (called the "Oggie"—steak, potatoes, onion, and rutabaga with a side of red wine gravy or ketchup) is a good starter choice. The Bangers and Mash Pasty features some homemade pork and sage sausage that goes down especially well with a cold beer. In addition, there are about 12 vegetarian/vegan options, so meat eaters and veg lovers can dine in harmony. The most expensive pasty is around $11, and there are always leftovers, so it's easy on the wallet.
Lotus of Siam
In the same desolate shopping center as the Cornish Pasty, Lotus of Siam is significantly easier to spot. The award-winning restaurant specializes in northern Thai cuisine and locals go seriously apeshit for the food. Yes, it has the ever-familiar pad thai and pad se-ew dishes, but are you really going to be THAT guy? Be proper and order just about any other dish. The chef, Saipin Chutima, has a James Beard Award for God's sake. Don't waste this opportunity.
This Chinatown sit-down restaurant features a selection of Chinese-American food (chicken and broccoli and those kinds of basics), but also traditional Hong Kong Chinese dishes that include varieties of shark fin soup and clay pot dishes. There are also plenty of seafood and vegetarian options. The imperial peking duck will set you back $48, but it can easily feed five or more people. That's a damn bargain, my friends. The place isn't 100 percent strictly Chinese. Other items on the menu nod to surrounding cultures. For example, you can get the imperial peking duck with tortillas instead of buns and wash the whole thing down with a Thai iced tea.
Down the road from Joyful House is Chinatown's Seoul Plaza (confusing, right?). Much like Chinatown isn't just Chinese businesses, Seoul Plaza isn't just Korean. The small strip mall comes hard with the food game. The best of the lot is a small Japanese ramen place called Monta. The service is super friendly, and the ramen might be the most authentic in Las Vegas. Most people gravitate to the tonkotsu-shoyu ramen (the broth is a mix of chicken and pork), but the shoyu ramen is just as good. If you take the ramen to go, the restaurant kindly leaves boiling instructions on the packaging so you don't fuck it up when you get home.
After all that salty ramen, you're gonna want something sweet. Walk over to Snowflake Shavery for shaved ice. Popular flavors include green tea, mango, coconut, and black sesame, and the toppings range from mochi to Cap'n Crunch. The "small" is huge. The "large" is ridiculous. The "monster" is off the charts, and if you can eat an entire one by yourself, you might want to consider a life as a competitive eater. Vegas is a great place to train for your newfound career.