Nevada Taste Site celebrates a sense of place with a little Vegas camp — and a lot of flavor
Everyone’s gotta multitask these days. Your receptionist is also a dancer, dogwalker, and Uber driver. Your phone is a camera, computer, and form of crack. And Nevada Taste Site is equal parts bar, restaurant, and archive. The Main Street hangout is the latest establishment opened by Derek Stonebarger, one that refines his Silver State-centric aesthetic from thrift shop to museum.
“I’m originally from California, but I love Nevada,” Stonebarger says. “This is where I can just drink around the things that I love.” A collage of casino showroom menus from Don Rickles to Casino de Paris adorns one wall, alongside a portrait of Vegas legend Buffalo Jim and a set of crude police dispatch maps with flashing lights, props from a Kenny Rogers movie. The bar itself is constructed of woods repurposed from both the Nevada State Supreme Court building and the Palms casino, lined with stools made from beer kegs. But its most revered relic of vintage Vegas is the remains of the once-legendary Davy’s Locker sign, a neon fish that swam above a bar on East Desert Inn Road for decades.
“I read about it being thrown away — it was one or two in the morning, and I just couldn’t sleep,” Stonebarger recalls. “‘Maybe there’s a very small chance that there’s a dumpster it’s still sitting in.’ And I was like, ‘I have to go look, the dumpster could be gone in the morning.’ I show up and there’s a huge pile of garbage in the parking lot. I see a piece of the tail and I go, ‘No way!’” He packed up what he could in his truck and got a friend to rebuild and refurbish the remains with new neon, but, he says, “That’s the original face and shell and tail.”
The sign now glows above a row of beer taps that are a less obvious but equally potent product of Nevada — well, more potent if you have the Revision Dr. Lupulin Pale Ale at 11.3 percent APV. All the beers poured at Nevada Test Site are made in-state, from Reno to Henderson, porter to saison, Pigeon Head Black Lager to Imbibe Cucumber Key Lime. “We’ll have our standards that don’t change, about eight beers, but 12 to 20 we’ll change out regularly. Sometimes, even if we can only get one keg, we’ll go for it,” says Stonebarger. Can’t decide? Go for a flight, which comes on a tray shaped like Nevada and inset with a shiny Silver State quarter.
Of course, interesting surroundings and abundant brews cannot be fully appreciated without something on your plate. Taste Site’s kitchen is known as the Bunker Grill, which serves a small menu of Thai-inspired food courtesy of chef Nikki Hughes. The chicken wings put the basic bar version to shame. Baked wings can have a soggy texture and bland taste, but these are firm and satisfying. The salt-pepper rendition gets a flavor and crispy texture out of those simple spices, while the sweet chili will put any thoughts of Buffalo out of your mind. The chicken satay sliders are a welcome variation on the skewer staple, topped with a slice of cucumber and a smear of salty, slightly crunchy peanut sauce; vegan sliders feature a Ruse meat substitute, which has a satisfyingly garlicky-sweet taste, a bit like Korean barbecue.
All of the establishments Stonebarger has launched defy the usual Vegas drinking establishment rules of dimly lit spaces with au courant cocktail menus and stripped-down chic. “Millennials like us because they are able to take really good photos. This stuff is very Instagrammable. Neon always is,” he explains, adding, “We run the gamut of all kinds of people. One guy came into ReBar and said, ‘This is my grandmother’s favorite bar!’ I should put that on a T-shirt.”
Stonebarger’s latest project takes the tack of preserving a building, rather than filling it with relics: He’s taken over management of the venerable Hard Hat Lounge and its glorious Damon Runyon/James Cain nightworld mural of men in shirtsleeves drinking bourbon, playing poker, and ignoring the imprecations of the Salvation Army lasses to ogle the topless broad across the airshaft. Soul City Deli has taken over the kitchen, turning out spicy jerk chicken sandwiches and smoky pulled-pork tacos, as well as a satisfyingly creamy mac ’n’ cheese that will reward a hard day’s work or fuel a long night’s drinking. Stonebarger hopes to put the liquor store back in effect, as well as renovate the upstairs apartments into an Airbnb or event space.
Back at Nevada Taste Site, there’s still space on the walls — space that will be filled with more than just objects. The plan is to have notable Nevadans donate items of historic significance, then host a night devoted to explaining the new addition, with journalist and Area 51 expert George Knapp on tap. It fits in with Stonebarger’s view of bars and restaurants as part of the Downtown community, whether it’s partnering with local chefs, donating to local arts organizations, or even helping the City of Las Vegas kick off the newly upgraded Main Street. “Here, we have a lot of support,” he says. “I like to do what I like, and it turns out other people like it.”
Nevada Taste Site
1221 S. Main Street
Sun 11:30-10p; Mon-Thu 5a-10p