Local culinary tours are banking on our bellies for business. But what exactly does a “taste of Vegas” taste like?
It’s a toasty Tuesday morning in June and I’m dipping into a wicker basket of edible goodies at The Beef Jerky Store, the starting point for Vegas Valley Food Tours’ daily downtown food crawl. My dining partners in crime include Larry and Sherry Curling, a retired couple from Princeton, Kentucky, and Jennifer Huie, a massage therapist visiting from the Bay Area. The $59, two-and-a-half-hour journey on foot, led by affable local and owner Vickie Wilson, promises to reveal the untold history of the city with plenty of grazing along the way.
Standing in the back corner of the store, I munch on an okra chip sample with ambivalence. Mention the term “culinary tourism” and a montage of Pinterest-worthy images comes to mind: fresh pasta and dusty bottles of Chianti in Tuscany, exotic fruit piled in pyramids at a bustling Thai night market, precious pastel macarons on a Parisian pastry crawl. Even destinations on our own soil can provide meals with a sense of history and place. You can toss fish at Pike Place Market, pound the pavement for New York City’s oldest pizzerias, or spend a budget-busting weekend sipping the best wines in Sonoma County (those cherry and black pepper notes are a direct result of the terroir, darling).
Las Vegas is a different animal. It’s a relatively young city, and one without a significant food history (unfortunately, Mormon cuisine never really took off in a big way.) Boasting on its website that it’s been family owned and operated for more than 20 years, The Beef Jerky Store is our closest equivalent to a relic.
But that hasn’t deterred ambitious entrepreneurs from believing that a grand buffet can outshine the Grand Canyon. And why shouldn’t it? According to a 2013 “American Culinary Traveler Report,” published by Mandala Research, more than 39 million leisure travelers qualify as “deliberate” culinary travelers (defined as anyone who “travels to learn about or enjoy unique and memorable eating and drinking experiences.”) We are living in a “chefs are the new rock stars” era, where anyone with basic cable has at least one favorite food personality or reality-based cooking show.
Wilson, 38, established Vegas Valley Food Tours after her own experience on a culinary daytrip through Chicago. The UNLV alumna, who holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in sociology and special education, respectively, worked for the Clark County Department of Family Services for 12 years before leaping into the high-risk world of small business ownership.
“The business needed me full-time to grow,” says Wilson. “Prior to leaving, I had my first full year of operation under my belt, so that was helpful in the decision-making process. But three months in and there are no regrets yet.”
And so far, her tour participants seem pleased with her decision. At Cous Cous Mediterranean Café on Fremont St., the third of six stops on this tour, Sherry Curling studies a plastic shot glass of hummus served with a chicken kebab. This will be her first time tasting the dip.
“It’s good,” says her husband. “Kind of like cheese, really.” Her face lights up at first bite.
“How do they get it so creamy?” she asks with a Southern lilt.
While Vegas Valley Food Tours focuses on Downtown, other tour operators are using a similar approach on the Strip. Donald Contursi, 31, is the founder of Lip Smacking Foodie Tours, an eight-month old company whose “Savors of the Strip” package ($199) allows diners to sample five current hot spots in a span of three hours. (Discounted afternoon crawls and custom-designed private group tours are also available.)
Coincidentally, the business was conceived in a similar fashion as Vegas Valley Food Tours.
“I’m originally from Chicago and I was taking a girlfriend to visit,” Contursi says. “I wanted to show her all of these things like where I grew up but all she cared about was deep dish pizza. So I had to do my due diligence and found that there are pizza tours throughout the city. I thought it was an awesome concept.”
Contursi, who has a degree in business management from UNLV, uses his former experience and connections as a Strip server to secure an impressive rotating selection of restaurants in his line-up. (A recent itinerary included Bardot Brasserie, Jaleo, and Sage.)
But if the main goal of culinary tourism is to offer insight into a specific place, what does an octopus salad at Estiatorio Milos teach us about Las Vegas?
“That it’s not all about slot machines,” he says. “And that we’ve come a long way from shrimp cocktails and buffets.”
Even non-locals are taking advantage of this niche market. Bite San Diego, a California company, launched Nosh Las Vegas in November 2013. For $59, guests can choose to explore the trendy restaurants of Downtown (Carson Kitchen, Itsy Bitsy, The Perch) or SLS Las Vegas (Umami Burger, Katsuya by Starck.) Guest and restaurant relations manager Jered Martin says the city’s growing dining scene was hard for Bite’s owner to ignore, and that even though they're headquartered by the beach, knowledgeable Las Vegans are employed to conduct the tours. He also reveals an interesting statistic: more than half of the visitors who participate in the Downtown tour are local.
“This is a place that not many people would have ever considered going to five or 10 years ago,” says Martin. “It’s a great way to see how the area has changed, and it’s a great way to get away from the Strip while still having a quality dining experience.”
Sometimes eating well isn’t even a priority. Larry Curling, who found the downtown food tour on TripAdvisor, says his presence is not about satisfying his hunger but sticking to his principles. For him, the highlight of the tour was learning about the Downtown Project and retail incubators at the Container Park.
“I think more and more people my age want to see locally owned businesses come back,” says the 59-year-old. “People don’t understand that when you shop and eat at chains, your money is going straight to Wall Street. We want to spend it on things so that our money stays in the local economy.”
Of course other people’s needs aren’t quite so complicated. Jennifer Huie, a self-proclaimed foodie, says her only goal was to eat tasty food and that Wilson delivered. But at the end of the day, it didn’t have any bearing on her impression of the neighborhood. “It was nice to see the Gold Spike and it was great to see the Container Park,” she says. “I still just think of Downtown as the place to go for the better odds when you gamble.”
After our final Vegas Valley Food Tour stop for a puckery passion fruit ice pop at ChillSpot by SasaSweets, I take a six-block walk back to my car to ponder the deeper cultural significance of eating penne from Rachel’s Kitchen. Much of the food hasn’t blown me away, but that doesn’t mean Wilson’s efforts are without value. Her knowledge of the neighborhood is thorough, and her information about Downtown’s evolution credits Tony Hsieh while sparing us the usual blind worship or bitter criticism that follows the mere mention of his name.
My initial skepticism wanes. I think back to The Beef Jerky Store — its shelves chock full of Asian and Pacific Island snacks — and realize that it’s actually the perfect starting point for the tour. Las Vegas isn’t rich in culinary traditions and history; rather it’s a place where we import those things from elsewhere. And given the transient nature of its dwellers and businesses, a tour might actually be a smart way to seize a fleeting moment in this ever-changing city.