The ho-hum casino food court is going the way of the 99-cent shrimp cocktail. Case study: the ambitious menu at the Red Rock
It’s a good time to be hungry on the West side of Las Vegas. It’s been a jam-packed year of restaurant openings, including the rollout of Downtown Summerlin (upcoming: Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill, an as-yet-unnamed restaurant by Elizabeth Blau and Kim Canteenwalla), promising changes at Tivoli Village (Made L.V.), and now Red Rock Resort is in the midst of a $35 million renovation of its dining mix.
How much foodie cred can $35 million buy? Stations Casinos is hoping it’s a lot. Forget the standard stable of usual suspects: the steakhouse, the 24-hour coffee shop, the buffet and the food court slinging cheap pizza and burgers. The restaurant remix at the Red Rock signals serious ambition for a locals casino — and perhaps (wishful thinking ahead) marks a larger trend in which casino cuisine caters to good taste rather than panders to the lowest common denominator. On tap so far at the Red Rock: an upscale Mexican eatery, a real-deal hot dog joint straight out of Chicago, a casual Asian noodle shop and a neighborhood-style restaurant serving up comfort classics like cozy rotisserie chicken and made-to-order stone-oven pizzas.
The upgrades are partly about keeping up with the Joneses — in this case, Downtown Summerlin. “Just having them in our backyard is going to bring more people to the area,” says Red Rock General Manager Mark Tricano. He also notes that the Red Rock is eight years old — middle age in casino years — and an uptick in the economy marks the perfect time to spruce up the place.
The food is only half the story. A redesign is part of the equation, too, one that spurns the typical formula of keeping the customer on the casino floor. The most significant change will be a facelift of the exterior of Red Rock with the addition of Restaurant Row, along with a pedestrian walkway that connects the resort with the new neighbors in the yard, The Shops at Summerlin. In the same way that the Strip is pushing its restaurants closer to foot traffic on Las Vegas Boulevard so guests don’t have to navigate a casino floor to find a spot to eat, so will the dining options at Red Rock, with patios for nearly all the dining rooms on that side. It was also the addition of national chain Yardhouse almost four years ago that helped shape the look.
“Yardhouse is the restaurant that opened our eyes to doing things a little differently in the casino business,” says Tricano. “There’s access directly from the parking lot, which you don’t traditionally see, and that patio is always busy.” Tricano is hoping the other restaurants’ patios add to the bustle and buzz.
T-Bones Chophouse, with its fire pits and lounge seating, is one of the patios that’s been in action since the property opened in 2006, but recently underwent a renovation to brighten up the steak house. Dark red booths and heavy curtains have been redone in white to lighten up the space. The menu isn’t changing, but that’s a good thing: Its meat program still rivals those on the Strip, without the Strip prices. Carnivores like myself rejoice over the steak selection: T-Bones not only features designer-name beef such as Niman Ranch or Colorado Wagyu, but hooks in serious meat-eaters with its dry-aging game on cuts such as the 22-ounce prime ribeye that’s flavorful with the appropriate mineral funk. (And, of course, they play well to their base, with Vegas favorites of King and Queen’s Cuts of prime rib.)
One of the new patios on Restaurant Row belongs to Mercadito, the Chicago-based Mexican restaurant that opened in August. Mercadito is a taste of what authentic but creative Mexican fare can be, from the juiced-up guacamoles that eschew fancy tableside prep to focus more on flavor, to — my personal favorite — traditional fish tacos made lighter and brighter than anything you’d get in Baja. Also open is Chicago institution The Wiener’s Circle. It’s the first of its kind outside of the Windy City (minus the late night, rowdy and drunken antics for which the hot dog shack is famous). If you appreciate a proper Chicago-style hot dog, “dragged through the garden” with onions, relish, sport peppers, celery salt and mustard (put the ketchup down, heathens!), this spot has the real thing. And, upcoming, 8 Noodle Bar will start serving dim sum, noodle bowls and fancy fried rice near the high-limit room in early December.
Of the restaurants still on the slate, high on my list — and perhaps the one that best reflects Red Rock’s intentions — is the Light Group’s Hearthstone, set to open at the end of the month. On the Strip, the Light Group’s restaurants, including Stack, Fix and Kumi, are already a big draw for locals, but landing at Red Rock marks new territory for the hospitality group that built its empire on nightlife. The new concept has all the elements of a trendy neighborhood restaurant: small plates, communal dining and a wine program, along with casual comfort food coming from the charcuterie bar, rotisserie and pizza counter. Previously, Light Group restaurants worked in tandem with their nearby nightclubs to create a night-out experience. In their first foray off the Strip, Hearthstone’s homey vibe aims to encourage a night in, so to speak, making the restaurant the destination rather than a first stop. It’s another promising — even unusual — inclusion for a locals casino brand that’s trading food-court familiarity for a bit of culinary daring.
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Breakfast sandwich at The Wiener’s Circle
A high-intensity grill gives the Vienna Beef dogs — and Polish sausage, and burgers — the right amount of char to enhance the snap and flavor of the franks imported from Chicago. But the Vegas-only options give the guilty pleasures a run for the money, including a bacon, egg and cheese breakfast sandwich built on a bun of Krispy Kreme donuts and a New Jersey-born Taylor ham, egg and cheese sandwich on a Kaiser roll.
Fish tacos at Mercadito
While the tortillas are great and made in-house, the Baja-style, battered fish tacos topped with chipotle aioli and Mexican-style slaw should be ordered on butter lettuce — a personal favorite of Mercadito owner Alfredo Sandoval. Mexican side dishes are usually relegated to rice and refried beans, but the fried plantains, mini, barely-sweet bananas served with a spicy ginger dressing, make an entrée pop in a way rice and beans never could.