The spice (and wine) must flow
Chada Thai, Chada Street
Bank Atcharawan made his name at the beloved Lotus of Siam, a Commercial Center fixture that, largely thanks to him, is known as much for its Riesling selection as for its rich, complex Northern Thai cuisine. If wine and Thai food are an unlikely pairing, Bank upped the ante in his second act. Today at Chada Thai & Wine (3400 S. Jones Blvd.), the co-owner focuses the menu on a subset of strong, spicy Southern Thai dishes that he says are rarely seen in Las Vegas.
“Our crab curry with vermicelli noodles is the best dish we do, a classic southern dish,” Atcharawan writes in an email. “It lacks the sweetness found in other curries. It’s spicy, with a lot of cumin and lemongrass flavors.” And, of course, at Chada Thai, he continues the tradition of offering fine wines for cooling down the spice level in sophisticated fashion. Meanwhile, at the more informal Chada Street (3839 Spring Mountain Road), the street food of Bangkok gets a playful makeover. But both restaurants, he says, reflect not only his roots in Thailand (which he left at 11 years old), but his American experience as well.
“From Thailand, I arrived in Hollywood to join my family who had opened a restaurant there.” That would be Ruen Pair, a Thai Town classic. “I basically grew up in a restaurant, but really got my true experience at Lotus of Siam.” In other words, Las Vegas is part of those roots, too. Andrew Kiraly
Saying Forte European Tapas Bar & Bistro’s menu is eclectic is an understatement. As it draws upon countries across Eurasia, you’d need an extensive collection of visas and a lot of frequent flier miles to visit them all.
But it also reflects a more personal geography: The menu offers a glimpse into owner Nina Manchev’s childhood, when family meals could be Russian one evening and Serbian the next — all in a Bulgarian household right here in Vegas. When conceiving Forte, Manchev wanted to be able to introduce people to the eclectic food of her youth — a youth made particularly memorable by parents with open minds and adventurous palates.
“So many different cultures have left a footprint on Bulgaria,” Manchev says, explaining the menu’s dizzying breadth. And yet, she says with pride, “Everything is as true as it can be.” Forte (4180 S. Rainbow Blvd.) doesn’t compromise on authenticity, educating diners on ingredients and preparation methods they may not be familiar with. In that sense, Manchev is more than a mere restaurateur or chef. Instead, think of her as a culinary ambassador for Eastern Europe, exposing Americans to cultures and flavors they wouldn’t otherwise encounter.
“It makes me really proud, because you don’t see that part of the world in a positive light.” Leave it to Manchev to craft a menu that can change your entire impression of a small European country — and beyond. Jim Begley
It’s a winding tale, how Shawn Giordano arrived to a Las Vegas kitchen from New York (twice) and London — one told from his latest stop, East Fremont’s unexpectedly cosmopolitan cafe, PublicUs (1126 Fremont St.). Arriving via the University of Nebraska in the mid-1980s to play UNLV football, Giordano augmented his studies with the culinary program at what is now CSN. Being “competitive and creative,” he soon hustled for a kitchen job at the Excalibur.
It wasn’t yet to be. Given his physique and long hair, the Excalibur redirected Giordano from the fare to the faire, and a stint as a “Tournament of Kings” sword fighter. But a passionate Giordano angled a second job: a bottom-rung kitchen position at the granddaddy of the Vegas dining renaissance, Wolfgang Puck’s Spago. “I’d work my ass off all day for nothing, then go work four hours at night (at Excalibur) and make money,” he says. Success led him to the launch of Puck’s Trattoria del Lupo at Mandalay Bay.
After eight years in Vegas, Giordano bounced around (London, back to Vegas, then Maui) before settling in New York. He worked on the celebrated Smith & Mills, and was Annie Leibovitz’s chef from 2009-2014. Raising a new family in the city proved a chore, so the Giordanos returned for the launch of Henderson’s Lucky Foo’s.
At PublicUs since December, Giordano works with The Intuitive Forager and regional producers to bring a farm-to-table sensibility to simple food. Those rich, flavorful eggs on the Brekkie Sandwich? From Caliente. The bread? Baked in-house. Recently, Giordano sliced local tomatoes, sprinkled them with salt, pepper and olive oil, and offered them to delighted guests — a perfect metaphor for an understated Downtown café that surprises with simplicity. James P. Reza
Tradition meets ambition
Road Kill Grill
Chuck Frommer is practically basted, coated, slathered in a sense of place. Consider: He’s the owner of John Mull’s Meats and Deer Processing (3730 Thom Blvd.), a specialty meat shop and processing site that’s been in business in the north valley since 1954. Chuck is Mull’s grandson, the third generation in the family to own the business, and only its fourth owner. But while his roots go deep, he’s also got an entrepreneur’s instinct. Most significantly, Frommer parlayed his expertise on meat, and his passion for barbecue, into a successful on-site eatery, Road Kill Grill, where he serves buzzed-about dishes such as his 16-hour smoked barbecue suffused with slow-roasted chiles. (Somehow, Frommer also finds time in his busy schedule to make a name for himself on the competitive-barbecue circuit.)
The relationship between the two distinct businesses has made him appreciate both tradition and ambition. At various times, one side has helped the other. “We change with the trends when it’s smart. We got into catering to increase our margins, because otherwise, (as a meat-processing business), we’d be a dying breed,” Frommer says. “But at the same time, we give game hunters free meals to say thank you. That’s because they kept us in business during the tough times of the recession.” Honoring the past while keeping an eye on future opportunities is clearly a recipe for success. Andrew Kiraly
Asian flavor innovator
When Gregg Fortunato would get home after school, he did what a lot of teenagers do — raid the fridge. But not to eat all the string cheese and peanut butter. Fortunado would also crack open an Asian cookbook and fire up the electric wok: Several nights a week, the budding chef was cooking dinner for his hard-working parents. “I’d make things like stir fries, stuffed peppers, pasta,” he says. “That period was when I really started learning those basic cooking techniques.”
And perhaps Fortunato didn’t know it at the time, but switch-hitting from Asian to Italian primed his imagination for mashing up contrasting culinary traditions. It’s a practice he honed while a chef at Roy’s, fusing Hawaiian with Thai, Chinese and Japanese flavors, and it’s his calling card today at Inyo Asian Variety Restaurant, where he’s executive chef. Take his duck jam, a confit duck pressed into a jar, but drizzled with pho broth and served with a rice cracker. “It’s like a French-style rilette, but with a Thai element, with the pho broth and the Thai basil, mint and bean sprouts.” Or his prosciutto made with dry-aged wagyu beef, served with Stilton cheese and honey-soy mustard seeds. “It’s a classic carpaccio dish with an Asian twist,” he says. “I love doing dishes like that — traditional, but not so traditional.”
Given the continued acclaim showered on Inyo (Desert Companion’s 2015 Ethnic Restaurant of the Year), right in between seems like a good place to be. Andrew Kiraly