"I'M A VOID-FILLER," Jolene Mannina says of her latest project. In this instance, the project isn’t an after-hours chefs’ competition like Back of House Brawl, or a pop-up specialty menu on secretburger.com — two breakout projects from the culinary entrepreneur. No, Mannina’s latest project, Vegas Test Kitchen, fills an everyday void for both Las Vegas diners and chefs. It’s a Downtown food hall made for Vegas locals by Vegas locals.
The concept: Seven chefs share a building, each with their own space, each trying out concepts that may one day develop into their own brick-and-mortar restaurants. Or, they might flame out after their initial three-month run at Vegas Test Kitchen.
“The whole thing, overall, is a test,” Mannina says (pictured right). And she’s not just talking about the food; she’s talking about testing new ways of ordering, preparing, and serving food. For her, it’s a menu of possibilities. “Doing contactless and cashless ordering, you have to order from your phone, you have to pay from your phone — will that work? Can you have this number of chefs under one roof working cohesively and offer something unique to the public?” It’s rife with risks and rewards: The reward of a possible breakout concept that buoys the rest, or conversely, swallows up most of the customers.
It works like this: You walk into the “hall” to see what strikes your fancy. But unlike traditional food halls such as Grand Central Market in Los Angeles or St. Roch Market in New Orleans, you can’t really see what everybody is offering. The tiny space allotted for each outlet at Vegas Test Kitchen doesn’t allow for much eye candy. Instead, you scan a QR code on your phone, and the entire menu, with pictures, appears on your screen via the website vegastestkitchen.menu. The site also serves as a one-stop point of payment.
A small number of seats are available indoors, but the alley outside is a more preferable place to sit. It’s great for people-watching and, of course, provides a safer option for diners. Besides that, the alluring smells of Yukon Pizza might attract your attention as Yukon’s Alex White and crew put out pies from their oven in the alley.
White has been a Downtown mainstay for years. He upped his presence and fan base during the quarantine, cooking pies from anywhere he could, whether out of his home or pop-ups at Fergusons next door. He uses a sourdough starter that’s been in his family since 1897 to create his base dough, and his pies riff on Neapolitan and New York-style pizza. White is thrilled to have his feet, and his oven, finally planted somewhere.
“Jolene approached us last fall and offered us this awesome spot, and the opportunity to come into the kitchen space and legitimize the last part of the business, which was proper permitting, licensing with the health department, and stuff like that.” he says. “Having the area to do everything and work out of is pretty awesome.”
Nina Manchev, owner of Forte European Tapas Bar and Bistro, had already established Forte as a destination dining spot that’s been spotlighted by Guy Fieri on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Still, Manchev leaped at the opportunity to take a chance at Vegas Test Kitchen. “If I wanted to do this (myself), I'd have to find a place, I’d have to get the licenses, I’d have to go through this whole process,” she says. Here, all she has to do is focus on baniza, a dish from Bulgaria getting some real focus in Vegas. Her corner of the kitchen, Banichka, exclusively sells varieties of European stuffed pastries. Manchev and her team are currently offering eight different types of baniza, sofiiska and zakuski, which feature multiple shapes, fillings and doughs. (Her most popular so far is The Buldog, a roll stuffed with bacon-wrapped hot dogs and cheese.) It’s not just a business opportunity for her, but a cultural one as well.
“People are just figuring out that Bulgaria has all these different things that maybe they’ve tried in other cultures,” Manchev says. “I want to share these different parts, just show it and let people experience it.”
Sticking with the dough theme, Sonia El-Nawal introduced her version of a New York bagel sandwich in 2020 at her Desert Shores eatery, Rooster Boy Café. Upon arrival, it immediately became one of the best bagels in Las Vegas. She’s now moved all of her bagel sales to her Bodega Bagel kiosk at Vegas Test Kitchen.
Three concepts with Asian flair round out the savory options. Lanny Chin, who ran the kitchen at The Slanted Door in The Forum Shops at Caesars, has taken his love of ramen and righteously crunchy egg rolls and created Slurp Society. Crystina Nguyen is showcasing superb Vietnamese crepes and banh mi at This Mama’s House. And Sung Park, former executive chef at Sake Rok at T-Mobile Arena, expands his home-catering sushi game at Sliced, where the poke bowl alone is worth repeat visits. Finally, Chef Andrea McClain hits the sweet spot with her varieties of homemade pies at Pop’n’Pies.
So, how does this all play out? Will this one day be looked back upon as a wild idea that had a nice run, or does Vegas Test Kitchen have legs? Mannina is betting on the latter. “My creative side pushed this forward in this time of need,” she says. “I think that this is amazing and can definitely live on beyond quarantine.” She says she’s fielding emails from numerous chefs pitching concepts for the test kitchen, and she’s had discussions about bringing the test-kitchen idea to other parts of the city. The concept is novel, but to her, the spirit is simple. “It's just about having an amazing restaurant with great food.”
Vegas Test Kitchen is located at 1020 Fremont St. #120.