It was five years ago that we launched DEALicious Meals, our annual dine-o-pedia of amazing must-eat meals across the valley. Things were a bit different then: Desert Companion was a bimonthly magazine with an editorial staff of two, housed in a room that formerly hosted a classical music archive for 89.7 KCNV FM; we could have held touch football games in all the extra space. But there were also some fundamentals in place that haven’t changed since then, such as our commitment to honest, fun and forthright service journalism that explores, highlights and celebrates Las Vegas. Little wonder that DEALicious Meals quickly became an institution. In our various installments, we’ve served up everything from big, spicy and extreme food to ethnic specialties to breakout breakfasts and brunches on and off the Strip. This year, for our fifth anniversary, we decided to return to our original menu, noshing our way across the valley to dish up great tastes at every price point — you’ll find everything from killer $2 street tacos to upscale buffets that give the lie to that stubborn stereotype of a depressing heat-lamp pageant of baked ziti and rubbery steak. We also break out three classic casual eats — wings, burgers and hummus — and give these competing DEALicious Meals our own World Cup tourney twist. The valley’s changed over the last five years. For one thing, we have something resembling an economy again (hurray!), and our slow (and hopefully sensible) economic comeback is reflected in our ever-burgeoning food scene, which lately sees many Strip chefs going native, inspired by the promising comeback of Las Vegas’ urban core. In that sense, DEALicious Meals is more than a mere foodie scavenger hunt. What we’re eating is a barometer of the state of our collective psyche. Hey, you don’t eat chicken wings when you’re sad.
And while we’re returning to our roots in one department, in another we’re venturing into new territory. This issue of Desert Companion signals a journalistic mile marker: a long-form, in-depth story that’s our longest and most in-depth yet. In “Why did he do it?,” Heidi Kyser probes the troubling and complex case of Dr. Ralph Conti, a beloved Las Vegas Valley pediatrician who had a disturbing side job. From February to November 2006, after his pediatrics office closed for the day, he was a different kind of doctor entirely, performing stem-cell injections on sick people desperate to cure their multiple sclerosis, their cerebral palsy, their Alzheimer’s disease. Along with his partner Alfred Sapse — a conspiracy-minded Svengali who was convinced that stem cells were the cure for numerous debilitating diseases, and that the FDA was quashing these cures on behalf of Big Pharma — Conti was convicted of fraud in November 2012. Sapse is doing time in prison, but Conti died under curious circumstances before he could be sentenced. Questions linger, the most compelling of which have to do with Conti’s possible motives and what they might mean: Was Conti a noble rebel physician who truly believed he was curing the sick? A con man whose stem-cell therapies were mere snake oil? A well-meaning dupe who was as much a victim as his desperate patients? Heidi Kyser talks to the major players in the case, including Sapse, serving his prison sentence in California, to create a nuanced portrait of a complex man, remembered by many as a compassionate doctor to countless children, by others as a criminal driven by darker impulses.