Last November, I was plotting a path through CityCenter and all its scrumptious treasures. My first visit to the Strip's latest restaurant wonderland found me at Julian Serrano, and the food was so good, I got stuck. The acclaimed Sage is a few feet away, the neighboring Mandarin Oriental houses twin jewels Twist and MOzen Bistro, and yet I couldn't seem to pull myself away from this Spanish stronghold. Certainly, the food was excellent, but the secret ingredient was friends.
The driving force behind this big boom in foodie culture isn't eating. It's sharing, discussing and occasionally raving about the best you ever had -- and for that you need other people. A summer dinner with friends -- a couple just back in Vegas after two years in Korea -- was the most memorable of many trips to Serrano. We listened to stories of a hectic, compromised life in a foreign land, where it's almost impossible to keep up with the all-important NFL season. We passed plates of béchamel-laced chicken croquetas, goat cheese-stuffed piquillo peppers and sharp ceviches, beaming with Vegas pride as our guests enjoyed every recommended bite. Then we walked CityCenter, showing off the architecture and the visuals by artists Tim Bavington and Jenny Holzer.
It was a quintessential Vegas night, if unapologetically touristy. While our food was flawless, the experience was no more memorable than the dinner one of those friends cooked in our home, weeks later. After a quick trip to the Greenland market, the westernmost point of Chinatown, she prepared a feast of tofu and potato soup, glass noodles with black mushrooms and crisp vegetable pancakes. It was punctuated by truly terrible, headache-inducing Korean beer (she nicknamed the popular brand Hite as "Shite") but we had to drink it, because she had to drink it for two years. Fair is fair.
I spent the better part of the year scouring the valley for tremendous Mexican food and barbecue, two cuisines frequently maligned by locals, and found some great fare: panuchos at Frank & Fina's Cocina, tender brisket at Buzz BBQ. But the search yielded nothing as rewarding as my mother-in-law's impromptu salsa fest during a weekend visit, when she took her time filling my house with the smells of roasting tomatoes, garlic and jalapenos, or my brother admitting during a phone call that my baby backs are the best, begging for my recipe. (And they are wonderful ribs, tender meat with a sticky, almost crispy hickory-hoisin sauce coating.) But I know the truth, extracted from emotional attachment. It takes years, not to perfect a recipe, but to construct the sentiments that come with each bite. My patio-dwellers are quick with the compliments about my barbecue, but in my mind I have to pay it back to the old friend who taught me his rib technique, perfect every time.
We all love to eat, to try something new or lovingly return to something reliably delicious. Isn't it all comfort food? And yet it's never just the food that stamps the experience unforgettable. It might be the company, or your mood, your surroundings, or the way crunching a guacamole-covered corn chip can transport you to that Mexican beach you've been missing.
Smell and taste, you may run this brain, but once the gestalt of that warm chocolate chip cookie hits the hippocampus, watch out. These are powerful thoughts, but they are not food memories. It's just that when you think of the best times, food just happens to be involved. Always.
Food critic Brock Radke writes for the Las Vegas Weekly and blogs at www.brockradke.com.