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Asian Restaurant of the Year: Pho So 1

2018 Restaurant Awards

Desert Companion

The Year that Local Restaurants Outshined the Strip

Let’s skip straight to dessert with this spoiler: There’s a paradigm shift in the pages ahead. Our 2018 Restaurant Awards capture the year when the scales tipped, when the cosmic balance changed. This is the year that local restaurants snatched the Promethean flame from Las Vegas Boulevard. As marquee Strip brands retreated to safety in a post-recession era of caution, local chefs asked, “What have we got to lose?” The result of such gambles is a testament to noble risk, relentless precision, restless innovation, and a
spirit of adventure. 2018 is the year of the local restaurant revolution, and a culinary coup never tasted so good.

Hidden Gem of the Year

Bajamar Seafood & Tacos

This modest Downtown spot serves some of the valley’s most vibrant and bold seafood tacos

Tucked away in a parking lot shared by the infamous (and closed) Olympic Garden and the famous (and thankfully open) Luv-It Frozen Custard, Bajamar is not your typical carnitas y asada restaurante. Instead, it offers an almost solely seafood-centric selection. Hints abound about its true colors, from the bright aqua-blue storefront on the northern reaches of the Strip to the surfer-inspired interiors. If The Deuce wasn’t passing right by your window, you’d swear you were in SoCal. Menu items include an incredibly tender octopus enchilada, the cheese-smothered shrimp gobernador, and the Lucas, an amalgam of a chile relleno and a taco, along with more traditional rockfish in the eponymous Bajamar fish tacos. There’s not an al pastor in sight, but with sharp sauces and fresh garnishes complementing quality ocean proteins atop housemade tortillas, you won’t even miss the meats.

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Don’t worry if tacos aren’t your thing. The menu offers hearty soups, spicy ceviches, seafood-laden tostadas, and even fish chicharrones, lightly battered fish chunks served with a spicy chipotle crème. With Bajamar, fresh ocean flavors are just a short drive away. Jim Begley

1615 Las Vegas Blvd. S., bajamarbajastyle.com

Restaurateur of the Year

Khai Vu, of District One, Le Pho, Mordeo

He’s building a small empire out of transcendent takes on traditional dishes

Khai Vu had his first big hit with the Vietnamese fusion spot District One Kitchen and Bar after working in the family business, Pho So 1, since he was a teen. District One redefined Vietnamese food in Vegas, introducing diners to ambitious dishes that either tweaked or transcended the old standbys of pho and banh mi, from giant bowls of pho centered around some massive protein (like a one-and-a half-pound lobster or the massive distal end of a cow femur!) to uniquely challenging items like sea snails in lemongrass. 

After pairing up with some popular restaurant financiers, Khai opened his second spot, Le Pho. Here, Khai was able to let loose, pulling some deep cuts from Ho Chi Minh City street food. The menu is like stepping into the Ben Thanh market, a place where food vendors have been cooking up regional specialties and imported classics for hundreds of years. In this way, Khai transitioned from being a chef-owner to more of a managing partner — the brains rather than the hands. At his newest place, Mordeo Boutique Wine Bar, he is fully an idea man, bringing in chefs to build a menu that fits his vision. Mordeo is a fusion of Asian, Spanish, and South American culinary styles, along with a world-class bottle list and affordable wines by the glass. Not only is Mordeo the most refined dining experience from Khai, it’s also the biggest departure from his repertoire. This kind of gamble, this confidence in his own abilities, is precisely the kind of spirit that local restaurateurs need to succeed — not just for the sake of success, but for the long arc of Las Vegas’ ultimate place in global culinary culture. Mitchell Wilburn

Mordeo: 5420 W. Spring Mountain Road, #108, mordeolv.com; Le Pho: 353 E. Bonneville Ave. #115, lephodtlv.com; District One: 3400 S. Jones Blvd. #8, districtonelv.com

Dish of the Year

Japanese Fried Chicken at Other Mama

It embodies Other Mama’s talent for simple dishes that scream perfection

There are numerous reasons to visit Dan Krohmer and his crew at Other Mama: fresh, flavorful sashimi from a chef who cut his teeth under Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto; arguably the valley’s best off-Strip steak, drizzled with a rich miso hollandaise sauce and paired with crisp, togarashi-dusted waffle fries; and inventive cocktails that morph masterfully depending upon seasonal ingredients. But the best current reason to visit the Durango strip mall where the izakaya-cum-seafood restaurant resides is the irresistible Japanese fried chicken. It’s Krohmer’s take on traditional izakaya chicken karaage, and it’s a destination dish.

Krohmer lets the ingredients speak for themselves, preparing free-range Jidori chicken thighs in a simple marinade, including garlic, ginger, shoyu, and mirin (Japanese rice wine). Breaded in cornstarch and tenderly fried, the chopstick-ready bites are served alongside a daily-prepared housemade remoulade sauce and a lemon wedge for a squeeze of citrus. The result is an epiphany, melding the fowl’s savoriness with the remoulade’s richness. It’s not a fancy dish; it’s a simple dish prepared to perfection. Jim Begley

3655 S. Durango Drive #6, othermamalv.com

Asian Restaurant of the Year

Pho So 1

Vietnamese classics get a loving upgrade at this longtime family restaurant

There’s a lot of Vu in Las Vegas’ 2018 restaurant scene. It all started in 1993, when emigrant Viet Vu moved to Las Vegas with his young family — including his son, Khai Vu — to open a branch of Pho So 1, a Vietnamese restaurant mini-empire started in Los Angeles. Back then, there was just a scant handful of Vietnamese eateries in our rapidly growing city, and Chinatown proper had yet to take root on Spring Mountain Road. Decatur Boulevard was on the ragged western edge of Las Vegas, with plenty of undeveloped desert land nearby.

“There was nothing,” Viet Vu says, interpreted by Tammy Nguyen, his niece, who also works at Pho So 1. Despite the risk, the restaurant took hold and prospered. It was refurbished inside earlier this year, and its menu was upgraded with higher-quality ingredients, like beef tenderloin replacing flank steak. It’s still a fairly plain, wide-open space that prefers to keep the focus on superb food at a reasonable price. For festive gatherings, shared dishes like bo nuong vi (tabletop beef barbecue) and bo nhung dam (vinegar hot pot) are served with vibrantly fresh mounds of herbs and vegetables, especially basil. Other standouts include co bo luc lac (tomato rice with filet mignon) and phan panh hoi (vermicelli noodles with add-ons including charbroiled pork, beef, chicken, shrimp, and meatballs). One of the more surprising treats is chao tom, house-ground shrimp paste that’s hand-formed around skewers of sugarcane and then grilled. They’re fragrant tropical seafood kebabs. But the all-time favorite that Vu loves to serve is none other than Vietnam’s national dish.

“Pho,” he says, naming the versatile noodle soup that needs no translation these days. Niece Tammy adds that all the broths served at Pho So 1 — pho and beyond — are made in-house from roasted bones and aromatics.

All the rest of Pho So 1’s dishes, like perfectly well-formed spring roll appetizers, are also exceptional renditions of Vietnam’s culinary genius. But, perhaps best of all, Pho So 1 is a flavorful exemplar of the American Dream: It shares one family’s home-country traditions excellently in their new homeland. Greg Thilmont

4745 Spring Mountain Road #A, 702-252-3934

Pastry Chef of the Year

Vincent Pellerin, of Partage, EATT

His rolling dessert cart is a virtuoso display of classic pastries and contemporary magic

Vincent Pellerin performs something of a magic act nightly at Partage: He creates a dessert program that is very modern, but also a throwback. The old-school part is his rolling dessert cart — presented to every table at meal’s end — where you’ll find such classics as rhum baba (each with its own alcohol injection tube), flaming baked Alaska, and French macarons so good you’ll think you’re on the Champs-Élysées. More modern are his caramel, Earl Grey, and chocolate candy bar, kalamansi cheesecake, and a sour apple pie with green apple foam. If those don’t leave you awestruck, there are peaches with white chocolate mousse on a lemon crumble, or pumpkin with mandarin/saffron jam. These are not “neighborhood restaurant desserts”; these are Michelin star-worthy creations that would be right at home at any top Strip address, and Pellerin, classically trained in France, churns them out nightly (and seasonally) for two restaurants: Partage and EATT. Pastry chefs may be an endangered species these days, but Pellerin’s creations remind us that while dessert may come last, it should hardly be an afterthought. John Curtas

Partage: 3839 Spring Mountain Road, partage.vegas;
EATT: 7865 W. Sahara Ave. #104, eattfood.com

Cocktail Bar of the Year

Jammyland Cocktail Bar & Reggae Kitchen

Rum and other spirits come to life at this refined tribute to a musical era

With its inviting patio, vibrant murals, and sophisticated cocktail menu, Jammyland quickly became one of Las Vegas’ go-to mixology destinations after it opened in a former auto-repair shop in February. Created by co-owners Allan Katz and Danielle Crouch, the Arts District nightspot’s potent concoctions have serious pedigrees. No frozen, slushy sugarbombs here. Rather, fine aged rums come to life with craft flavorings. An expert tweak on a classic, the Damn Close Mai Tai (pictured, left) unites oak-toned Appleton Estate Rare Blend 12-Year Rum from Jamaica with fragrant Clément V.S.O.P. Rhum Agricole Vieux from Martinique. There’s more icy rum in the Golden Misfit (pictured, right), a slapshot of fruity J.Wray Jamaica Rum and spicy Golden Falernum liqueur with Liquid Alchemist passionfruit syrup, lime juice, and Angostura bitters. The menu rotates seasonally, and this winter there’s even the sweet Pumpkin Colada based on Rittenhouse Straight Rye Whiskey and overproof Plantation O.F.T.D. Jammyland also serves elevated bar food, from succulent jerk chicken wings to Jasmine rice and kidney beans jazzed up with coconut and  habanero peppers. Add in stylish décor and classic reggae on the sound system, and there’s little wonder why Jammyland has made a splash as much more than a mere reggae-themed novelty spot. It’s a destination bar that’s quickly become one of the jewels of Main Street. Greg Thilmont

1121 S. Main Street, jammy.land

New Restaurant of the Year

Pizzeria Monzú

Born of a Las Vegas institution, Monzú is an exciting new chapter in a family culinary legacy

Nora’s Italian Cuisine is a Las Vegas institution, serving classic Italian fare from a Flamingo strip mall since the early ’90s. And after a successful run of more than 25 years, the family-run affair was able to move a bit down the road into a standalone spot custom-built to accommodate their continued growth, leaving the original space vacant.

Enter Pizzeria Monzú. Monzú is the labor of love from Giovanni “Gio” Mauro, son of Nora. After opening the successful Old School Pizzeria in North Las Vegas, Mauro returned to his roots in his family’s original tenant space. Pizzeria Monzú is both a fitting continuation of a Las Vegas culinary legacy and an ingenious tribute to a classic food form.

Pizza is the star at Monzú, where Mauro eschews commercial yeast for his crust, instead developing his own proprietary starter consisting of two strains: a local one developed from apricots, and a legacy mother strain from Ischia, an island in the Gulf of Naples. The attention to detail is obvious in the nutty, Sicilian-style crust, both thick and inexplicably airy.

Mauro serves his massive rectangular pies with both classic and contemporary ingredients. The straightforward Simple, topped with crushed tomatoes and basil, is a standard, while the Calabrese combines spice and salinity with salame Calabrese, hot peppers, and black olives. Edgier is the Pork Reigns with a sextet of pig products, including guanciale and pulled pork. But there are no wrong choices on this test.

Highlights are hardly limited to pizza. There’s the olives Ascolane (sausage-stuffed, deep-fried olives that are much lighter than you might imagine), along with sweet and savory bacon-wrapped dates. And on the healthier side, an antipasto salad as massive as the pizzas themselves — generously strewn with mozzarella, peppers, and chickpeas — will help offset any carb guilt. We cannot live off pizza alone, but Monzú might convince you otherwise. Jim Begley

6020 W. Flamingo Road #10, monzulv.com

Hall of Fame Award

Joël Robuchon

Robuchon taught two generations of chefs just how flawless — and yet fun — restaurant cooking can be

Joël Robuchon’s coming to Las Vegas in 2005 represented something much bigger than the opening of two restaurants. It stood for legitimacy, validation, and culinary cred. There were great restaurants here before he showed up, and there would be wonderful ones after, but his arrival in the spring of that year got everyone’s attention. Food writers from London to Los Angeles suddenly were booking flights to see what his food tasted like on English-speaking soil, and well-heeled Asians, South Americans, Europeans, wine writers, and gourmet gawkers everywhere were agog at the prospect that Las Vegas, the Town That Taste Forgot, had an epicurean scene too prominent to ignore.

We were the first American location of his L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon. And for a while, we were the only place on earth where Robuchon, the “Chef of the Century” in France, had a re-imagined fine dining destination named after him. It was here (not Paris, New York, Hong Kong or Tokyo) where people could see and taste the creative, almost balletically precise food that made him famous before his retirement in 1995. Soon enough, he opened branches of both around the world, but it was here that he first planted his flag. What did these bona fides mean for Las Vegas? Besides giving high-rollers and the well-financed someplace to sustain themselves, Robuchon’s namesake restaurants challenged the competition. No longer could chefs and restaurants be just good enough to satisfy the credulous hordes. Now, they were playing on an international scale, a contest in which discriminating diners of all nationalities would be in our backyard, judging us by the highest standards. Very few restaurants measured up, but no matter what your skill level, if a 1992 Michael Jordan or 1999 Tiger Woods comes to play in your arena, you snap to attention and try harder.

With his L’Ateliers, he made finely tuned food fun, casual, and accessible, and with his dedication to perfection, he taught two generations of chefs just how flawless restaurant cooking can be. But Robuchon’s legacy to Las Vegas (and the world) is more significant than the restaurants he leaves behind. He took a dining scene that was merely great and made it world-class. No other chef could have had the impact on the Las Vegas Strip that Joël Robuchon did, and it is doubtful we will ever see a culinary titan of his stature pass this way again.
John Curtas

Joël Robuchon: in the MGM Grand, 702-891-7925; L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon: in the MGM Grand, 702-891-7358

Strip Restaurant of the Year

Michael Mina in Bellagio

To reinvent or return to roots? Michael Mina has managed to do both

Restaurants grow old in one of two ways: They either stick with a formula that works or they reinvent themselves. Somehow, the new Michael Mina has managed to do both. It is a testament to Mina as a chef, and his team, that it’s been able to do so both seamlessly and swimmingly. In doing so, Michael Mina the chef has returned to his roots, and his restaurant has re-announced itself as our finest seafood emporium.

At first glance, you can be excused for thinking that not a lot has changed. It’s always been one of the prettiest restaurants in Las Vegas (thank designer Tony Chi for that) with lighting that flatters both the customers and the food. Mina made his name by treating big hunks of pristine fish like land-locked proteins. He popularized pairing pinot noir wine sauce with salmon, and marrying tuna and foie gras. These sorts of land-sea fusions are everywhere these days, but they were a very big deal in the 1990s, and Mina’s Aqua (first in San Francisco, then in Bellagio) was an early trendsetter. Even now, he and his crew see marine proteins as umami-rich sea meat, rather than as delicate swimmers barely to be trifled with.  Where the Italians and Greeks dress their seafood with little more than a squeeze of lemon, and the French subtly nap theirs with wine and butter, Mina looks at a fish as something to be celebrated with sauces and spices.

The new Michael Mina has gone large-format, and it’s a sight to behold. Every night, six to eight whole fish are displayed before you, each begging to be grilled over applewood, broiled and draped with black beans, or deep-fried and adorned with coconut-green curry. The lighter-fleshed varieties (snapper, sea bass, and striped bass) do well with this spicy coating, while fresh-off-the-boat John Dory and kampachi get dressed in more intense ways. In keeping with the times, things have lightened up a bit — the only French sauce offered is the mustard beurre blanc (with the phyllo-crusted sole), but Mina can’t resist coating a strongly-smoked trout with a river of Meyer lemon-caviar cream. If those aren’t filling enough, his old-school (and justifiably famous) lobster pot pie awaits, bathed in a truffled brandy cream sauce.

The only problem is there may now be too many great choices on this menu. Executive Chef Nicholas Sharpe and General Manager Jorge Pagani (who’s been with the operation for 17 years) suggest toggling back and forth between Mina’s famous dishes and these new fresh fish offerings to build your best meal. Pagani says there would be a revolt among his legions of regulars if certain standards (e.g., the tuna tartare, caviar parfait, that pot pie, or phyllo-wrapped sole) were taken off the menu. And why should they be? They are classics for a reason, and just like this superbly reimagined restaurant, they will never go out of style. John Curtas

In Bellagio, 702-693-7223

Chef of the Year

Brian Howard, Sparrow + Wolf

As head of the valley’s most interesting restaurant, Chef Howard expertly mixes and matches cultures and cuisines

Until Brian Howard had the foresight to place an American gastropub on Spring Mountain Road, this three-mile stretch of “Chinatown” was the exclusive province of all things Asian. Now, it’s where gastronauts go for boutique lettuce salads, beet and green apple tartare, and giant steaks served with a dozen side dishes. Those sides are an homage to the Korean banchan available up and down the avenue, and give a strong hint about how Howard loves to mix and match his meal metaphors. While one table is fighting over an Hamachi collar, another may be torn between the lamb neck with herb crêpes, scallop robata, or Chinatown Clams Casino. By making Sparrow + Wolf our most interesting restaurant, Brian Howard did more than just fuse a number of cuisines. He bridged a great divide between our various gastronomic cultures, inspired others (Partage, Mordeo Boutique Wine Bar, EDO Gastro Tapas & Wine) to follow suit, and turned this neighborhood into our number one dining destination. John Curtas

4480 Spring Mountain Road #100, sparrowandwolflv.com

 

Restaurants of the Year

Esther’s Kitchen, Partage, EDO Gastro Tapas & Wine

Three innovative, uncompromising local restaurants. Three reasons why the next culinary revolution is happening off the Strip.

There couldn’t be just one. Not this year. Not in a year that was a watershed for great kitchen talent emerging in the suburbs. For the first time since I can remember (which goes all the way back to 1981), more great restaurants opened off the Strip than on it. And for the first time since our restaurant revolution began in earnest — 20 years ago with the opening of Bellagio — all the serious foodies in town were not heading to a big hotel, but to Chinatown or Downtown — places previously dismissed as unworthy of serious consideration by galloping gastronomes.

It was 10 years in the making, this restaurant renaissance whose roots can be traced to the great recession of 2008, when real estate values nosedived, and countless chefs found themselves out of work. As the recession hung on in Las Vegas, two things happened: The hotels lost their nerve, and young chefs started getting some. The mojo that enticed everyone from Sirio Maccioni to Pierre Gagnaire to come here gave way to a Strip scene reduced to showcasing past-prime celebrities and licensing deals. Into this void stepped a few brave souls who wondered why Strip-quality cooking couldn’t succeed with locals. In a town of more than 2 million people, there’s no reason we shouldn’t have a thriving local restaurant scene, they thought, and with a wave of diners coming of age who wanted the good stuff without all the tourist trappings, it was time for our neighborhood food scene to explode.

Esther's Kitchen

In terms of progress, Downtown made the biggest leap with Esther’s Kitchen leading the pack. James Trees’ ode to Italy has become ground zero for a neighborhood, The Arts District, that went from being little more than a collection of junk shops to a walkable, eatable, and drinkable area all within the past year. Esther’s doesn’t sound very Italian, but that’s exactly what it is — bombarding you with antipasti, verduras, handmade pastas, and pizzas straight from a Roman’s playbook. Chef Trees even throws in a fish of the day (always worth it), brick chicken (a crowd favorite), and a thick, porky porchetta for mavens of meat. As good as those are, the pastas and pizzas are where the kitchen really shines. Trees is a veteran of the Los Angeles restaurant scene, and he knows a thing or two about how to grab a diner’s attention. The spaghetti pomodoro, chiatarra cacio e pepe (with pecorino cheese and black pepper), bucatini all’amatriciana, and rigatoni carbonara are the pinnacle of pasta porn. All of it amounts to updated Italian comfort food for the 21st century. It may not be like any Roman trattoria I’ve ever been in, but with a significant cocktail program, and a wine list where everything is $40 (by the bottle, not glass), it is most assuredly a modern American version that seeks to do the same thing: satisfy its customers in a way that will have them returning again and again.

Partage

While Downtown came of age in 2018, Chinatown took a European turn. If someone had told me three years ago that this three-mile stretch of pan-Pacific eats would be anchored by a French restaurant at one end and a Spanish one at the other (with an excellent American gastropub, Sparrow + Wolf, in the middle), I would’ve told them to get their head examined. What Executive Chef Yuri Szarzewski, Pastry Chef Vincent Pellerin, and General Manager Nicolas Kalpokdjian have done at Partage is nothing short of phenomenal: transplant a bit of sophisticated France to an all-Asian plaza with a beautiful dining room and gorgeous food. Partage means “share,” and the menu encourages you to do just that. Twenty small-plate options are offered, each amounting to no more than two or three bites of headliners like halibut ceviche (disguised to look like dragon fruit), or a perfect, meaty scallop swimming in a dashi broth with seaweed chutney and steamed leeks. For pure decadence though, nothing beats his oxtail croque monsieur — long-simmered meat, slicked with bone marrow, served between three batons of the world’s most luxurious fried bread. The menu varies between small bites and big proteins, with a significant nod given to vegetarians as well. Walking through this door transports you to a place I didn’t think could exist in Las Vegas: elevated French dining in a stunning, casual atmosphere, with a great bar and wine list, all served with flair at a fair price. Bon appetit, indeed.

EDO Gastro Tapas & Wine

Our milestone year ended with an olé! From its 40 cozy seats to the giant mural to the rolling gin-and-tonic cart, EDO Gastro Tapas & Wine is a jewel box designed to make you fall in love with it the moment you enter. It arrived at the western end of Spring Mountain in midsummer, and announced its serious intentions from the get-go. Things may look unassuming from the front, but there’s quite a pedigree behind that door. Chef/owner Oscar Edo is a Strip veteran, as is partner Roberto Liendo. Between them, they have a strong sense of the food and service a place like this needs to appeal to gastronauts who demand the new over the tried and true. And while the whole small plates/tapas trend may seem like old hat, they freshen the genre by blending the traditional with more than just a wink and a nod to their Asian surroundings.

When it comes to choosing those tapas, just pick and point. Chunky Maine lobster comes salpicón-style — dressed with “tiger’s milk” — which lightens the richness of the crustacean, while croquetas get that Asian spin with kimchi pisto. After those, the hits just keep on coming: pulpo viajero (octopus with tamarind mole), buñelos de bacalao (salt cod fritters with squid ink and lime), and something called “Bikini” — a wafer-thin, crispy compression of sobrasada and Mahon cheese — which might be the last word in tiny toast. You really can’t go wrong with any of the plates here; some are just more spectacular than others. One of the more eye-popping ones is huevos estrellados, a riff on a Spanish staple — assembling olive-oil fried eggs, piquillo peppers, and a mélange of mushrooms atop fried potatoes. The menu is nicely balanced between meat and seafood offerings, and the paella is worth a trip all by itself.

By Las Vegas Strip standards, these three gems may seem like small fry, but what they represent for the future of our neighborhoods is a very big deal. Cooking this good, with serious cocktail and wine intentions, was unheard of five years ago outside of Strip hotels. By opening their doors, these operators announced that Italy, France and Spain — the gastronomic capitals of the Western world — have arrived in our backyard. Eating out in local Las Vegas will never be the same, and we have these three to thank.
John Curtas

Esther’s Kitchen: 1130 S. Casino Center Blvd. #110, estherslv.com; Partage: 3839 Spring Mountain Road, partage.vegas; EDO: 3400 S. Jones Blvd. #11A, edotapas.com

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