Listen

News 88.9 KNPR
Classical 89.7 KCNV
'Jazz'

member station

Desert Companion

Best of the City 2020: Food & Drink

taco_el_gordo-8365.jpg

Tacos El Gordo
Photo by Christopher Smith

Tacos El Gordo

Whoa. It’s Best of the City 2020. Sorry. We’re a bit frozen with awe by the momentousness of it all — the compressed hype packed into the “best” premise, the gravid ta-da of the year 2020. Indeed, what better way to kick off a new decade than by celebrating Las Vegas’ most excellent people, food, places, and experiences? Happy best year!

 

Best Tacos

Tacos El Gordo

It’s almost criminal how good Tacos El Gordo is. You could forego the famous, cumin-laced adobada and you’d still have a killer lineup of tacos to choose from. Savory saudero — think flank steak — comes from a bubbling vat of witch’s brew in the center of the serving line, marinating with a medley of other assorted cow parts, while their lengua (that’s tongue) is as tender a rendition as you’ll find of the sinewy organ. Less challenging but equally as appealing are a semi-spicy chorizo and carne asada, ordered at the farthest end of the carnival show otherwise known as El Gordo’s serving line. And if you want to gild the lily, order your favorite meat vampiro-style, in which a heap is sandwiched between fried tortillas layered with griddle-browned cheese. As if El Gordo could get any better! JB

Multiple locations, tacoselgordobc.com

Support comes from

 

Best Pizza

Good Pie

We take pizza for granted. We feed cardboard franchise versions to kids; we feed the frozen kind to ourselves when we’re tired, or settle for a greasy leftover slice when working late. It’s easy to forget how damn delicious a well-made pizza can be. And there is no other kind at Good Pie, New York native Vincent Rotolo’s new-style celebration of the old-school slice.

Good Pie starts with multiple crust options — the classic Brooklyn round, the light and crispy Grandma square, the you’d-never-know gluten-free version, or the Detroit, whose thick, caramelized crust adds extra layers of flavor and texture even to their basic cheese pie. Of course, their basic cheese pie is more like a platonic ideal of the cheese pie, with a slightly spicy tomato sauce and fresh basil. The specialty pies are made with a balance of classic and unexpected ingredients, such as the It’s All Good, with sausage, caramelized onions, and hot honey; or a white pizza slathered with two kinds of mozzarella and dotted with dollops of ricotta. How good is Good Pie? Good enough to make even the crankiest local brave the tourists of Pawn Plaza — in other words, the best. LTR

725 S. Las Vegas Blvd. #140, 702-844-2700, goodpie.com

 

Best Wings

Pok Pok Wing

Wings, that traditionally blue-collar bar staple, get a Southeast Asian makeover by a James Beard Award-winning chef at Pok Pok in the Cosmopolitan. They’re called Ike’s Famous Vietnamese Chicken Wings, and they’re marinated in fish sauce, tossed in a sticky, savory, umami dressing, and then rolled in crispy fried garlic. Little wonder that these wings helped spawn a culinary empire out of Portland, Oregon, where Pok Pok chef/owner Andy Ricker also runs Pok Pok Som, a drinking vinegar company, and Pok Pok Thaan, a charcoal importing business. These deservedly famous wings are well worth the trek through the Cosmopolitan any night of the week. MW

The Cosmopolitan, cosmopolitanlasvegas.com

 

Best Burger

Fat Choy

Fat ChoySet in a tight corner of the Eureka Casino on Sahara avenue, Fat Choy is as American a diner as you will ever eat at. Think Buffalo wings right alongside pork belly bao, and duck rice next to short-rib grilled cheese in a throwback room complete with red vinyl banquets. The one thing you can say about Sheridan Su’s brilliant take on the complexity and diversity of Americana is that every dish is big, rich, priced reasonably, and just a little over the top. Which is why the Fat Choy Burger is legendary among locals. It’s a half-pound of Angus beef and short rib, a melty slab of cheddar, bacon, a drippy, messy, runny fried egg, onion jam — plus all the condiments available that can be on a burger, including the required secret sauce. But this monster is not for the waist-conscious. You’ll need to loosen the old belt a notch or two to get this burger down, which is part of the fun. And very much a part of Americana. KF

Eureka Casino, 595 E. Sahara Ave., 702-794-0829, fatchoylv.com

 

Best Vegan Restaurant

Garden Grill

The booth with the longest line at Vegas VegFest now has a brick-and-mortar location in Summerlin — an unpretentious fast-casual joint serving the same artisan street food that made it a cult favorite at farmers markets and festivals. If you’ve got a vegan-curious carnivore in your life, this is the place to take them for an education. With its crispy chicken and Philly cheese steak sandwiches, tacos, and cheesecake, it’s an all-around crowd pleaser whose plant-based creations are every bit as good as their traditional alternatives. You leave wondering: Why do we eat animals? HK

7550 W. Lake Mead Blvd. #8, 702-929-2244, gardengrilllv.com

 

Best Mexican

El Dorado Cantina

You call it Sammy Davis Jr. Drive, we call it Industrial Road. You call it a gentlemen’s club, we call it a strip joint. Nuh-vah-duh, Ne-VAD-uh. But the arguments all end when you get to El Dorado Cantina, the Vegas-born restaurant adjacent to Sapphire Gentlemen’s Club. That’s because El Dorado goes out of its way to please those with dietary restrictions, including calling out the vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free items on its menu. (They also offer a few of those trendy bowls.) Along with the expected fajitas, tacos, and enchiladas, El Dorado also has many wonderful entrees, including chile-rubbed steak, pineapple shrimp, and chipotle salmon. It’s dark, it’s sexy, it’s delicious, and it’s 24 hours. How Vegas is that? JPR

3025 S. Sammy Davis Jr. Dr., 702-722-2289, eldoradovegas.com

 

Best Japanese

Aburiya Raku

As the 2017 recipient of Desert Companion’s Hall of Fame Restaurant Award and a multiple-time James Bear-nominee, Mistuo Endo’s Aburiya Raku – better known as Raku – isn’t some kind of secret enclave. In fact, at 11 years old it’s a Vegas veteran, having opened at the forefront of our burgeoning Japanese dining scene. While quality Japanese restaurants are plentiful, Raku remains the Valley’s gold standard. Agedashi tofu remains just as silky as ever, robata-fired beef tendon just as smoky and savory. And with a picturesque patio expansion — the restaurant’s third expansion since its opening — dining options are better than ever. There’s never been a better time to revisit a classic. JB

5030 W. Spring Mountain Road #2, 702-367-3511, raku-grill.com

 

Best Chinese

Asian BBQ & Noodle

Asian BBQ & NoodleA small, spare, cash-only, no-booze joint called Asian BBQ & Noodle serves the best curry beef tendon I’ve had in ages. Think soft, melty, slow-cooked, fatty beef tendon in a curry gravy that is so unctuous and full of umami you will use every bit of rice to sop up the remains. This is a little taste of Hong Kong, in the back corner of a strip mall that also houses China Mama and District One. Cantonese food is about barbecue meat, so order the platter, with the roast duck, pork ribs and — my favorite — roasted pork belly in a sticky, sweet char siu sauce, under an almost cellophane-like, crunchy pork skin — for just $17.99. With prices like these, you’ll want to be adventurous, so order your usual wonton soup (theirs has perfectly chewy wonton noodles), but definitely dive into the offal. Try the intestines or the pig’s blood. You only live once! KF

3400 S. Jones Blvd. #5C, 702-202-3636, asianbbqnoodle.com

 

Best Appetizers

Born & Raised

With Las Vegas now a full-on dining mecca, it’s nice that those fancy five-star spots offer bar seating where one can easily craft a light (or not-so-light) dinner by sticking with starters. Now, with the city gone full-bore for sports, elevated pub fare is finding its way into every neighborhood. Credit Vegas’ original, native-owned Born & Raised for that. First opened in 2010, and now with three locations, Born & Raised plates 24 unique and affordable appetizers — including Korean-style steak tacos, steak poutine, and sweet corn tamale cakes — and that doesn’t include the 16 varieties of sliders. This is a true Vegas spot, so for those who like to graze while watching UNLV or the Golden Knights, B&R leads the way. JPR

Three locations, bornandraisedlv.com

 

Best Bar Food

Hardway 8

Part of the essence of bar food is its predictability: You’re going to get nachos, mozzarella sticks, burgers, and beers in a sports-bar setting. And Hardway 8 offers what you expect, but takes it to the next level — rather like the 1977 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels finals team whose nickname inspired the bar/restaurant. Sure, it’s got the game on all the screens, but features comfy-yet-sleek design with a witty collection of memorabilia (Kung Fu Elvis, pizza-eating Charles Barkley). The beer list is expansive and well-curated, with a fun selection of cocktails displayed in trading-card style. But, really, it’s about the food. The nachos are topped with pork belly and dotted with chicharrones; the 8 Way Deep Fried Mozzarella — their version of mozzarella sticks — eschews breading to quick-fry a challah-sized slice of cheese that’s chopped into 8 pieces (get it?) for melted perfection. The turkey, ham, and Swiss meatballs are topped with slivers of prosciutto and a peppercorn sauce (and somehow shames both Italian restaurants and steakhouses), while the bacon-egg-cheddar Hardway 8 burger could fuel a team for an entire season. LTR

46 S. Water St., 702-410-5124, hardway8henderson.com

 

Best Cocktails

Herbs & Rye

Cocktailing has come quite a long way in the 10 years since native Las Vegan Nectaly Mendoza opened Herbs & Rye, and there are now some exceptional cocktail menus from the Strip to the Arts District to unexpected dive bars in dark corners of the valley. We celebrate them all, of course. But we won’t apologize for honoring this repeat winner for not only jump-starting the resurgence of cocktail nation, but also for holding fast to the classic concoctions that got them here. From the balanced Ford to the fun Ramos Gin Fizz, from the complex Lion’s Tail to the bender-ending Last Word, Herbs & Rye not only knows its cocktails, but trains its bar staff so well that every drink you order sips just like the last, no matter who made it. Globally respected and nationally honored, Herbs & Rye is a homegrown original that we’re lucky to have. JPR

3713  W. Sahara Ave., 702-982-8036, herbsandrye.com

 

Best Beer Selection

Beer Zombies Bottle Shop

Beer ZombiesThe Beer Zombies Bottle Shop just opened in July, but it’s already quickly established itself as one of the Valley’s foremost beer destinations. Much of this has to do with founder Chris Jacobs’ network of industry connections, forged over years of brewfest travels and brewery trips, resulting in a small shop with the most dynamic beer selection in the Valley. Tucked away in a vestigial, postage-stamp-tiny space next to the SkinnyFATS on Warm Springs, Jacobs’ 15 taps present an eclectic mix of brews for every palate. There’s typically a preponderance of IPAs — we are on the West Coast! — but he always aims to have stouts, easier-drinking beers, and even kombuchas in the mix for those not so crazy about hops. As if the taps aren’t enough, there are always the 58 other varieties of bottles and cans awaiting you in the coolers. Both cooler and draft brews rotate frequently, providing newcomers and regulars alike an ever-changing menu. For those on the hunt for something new in brews, rest assured you’ll find it at the Beer Zombies Bottle Shop. JB

8680 W. Warm Springs Road #170, 702-596-5167.

 

Best Wine Selection

Lamaii

Lamaii owner Bank Atcharawan originally made his mark in Vegas with wine, leading prestigious programs at hot spots such as Lotus of Siam, where the Rieslings are as renowned as the curries. At Lamaii, Atcharawan goes for depth over breadth. The wine list isn’t a phone book filled with three-digit bottles; rather, it’s a well-curated gallery, a distillation of a sommelier’s experience in the span of a couple dozen bottles — each one a distinct pleasure and a revelation. MW

4480 Spring Mountain Road #700, 702-238-0567, lamaiilv.com

 

Best Coffee

Vesta

Coffee can be either a useful beverage to get you through the morning, or a lifelong obsession marked by almost religious fervor. At Vesta, it’s definitely the latter. If you want to rediscover why coffee was something that inspired people to journey across oceans, fight pirates, pay fortunes, and explore (and exploit) jungles for, come to Vesta. Here you can get a single-origin, lovingly roasted, and perfectly brewed cup that exudes character and complexity. MW

1114 S. Casino Center Blvd., 702-685-1777, vestacoffee.com

 

Best Donuts

Saint Honoré

No sooner had we begun mourning the loss of Fractured Prune than another specialty donut shop quickly sprang up in the same exact location. Perhaps the owners of Saint Honoré knew that besting Fractured Prune’s toothsome friedcakes would be a tall order, so they whirred up some ambition and set out to create what they’ve billed as “the first couture donut and classic beignet shop.” And deliver the hauteness Saint Honoré does, most notably with artisanal yeast-based creations that even Freed’s would double-take—including the spire-sprouting Le Chocolat, which looks like a pastry Gotham City and tastes like sugary Chanel. For those who lean toward traditionalism, the cake-based vegan and gluten-free rounders both deftly avoid the flavor-free aridness associated with alt-donuts and rival any cornershop frosted sponge. Fret not, purists—Saint Honoré makes great leaps but lands squarely on perfection. MP

9460 W. Flamingo Road #115, 702-840-3361, ilovesainthonore.com

 

Best Brunch

Rooster Boy Café

Eating at Rooster Boy Café is, I imagine, a little like sitting in Chef Sonia El-Nawal’s own kitchen. The café is small, intimate, with a comfortable and vine-filled outdoor space. You’ll make your own cup of coffee (that’s right, no baristas, just you) while you watch her and her small but symbiotic team make your chilaquiles in spicy salsa, with shredded chicken, cotija cheese, avocado, onion, tomato and crema, or your baked egg in brioche with arugula and white truffle oil. If brunch places can feel like chains, with their faux industrial pipes, their absentee chef-owners and their ubiquitous avocado toasts, this is real and personal eating. And because El-Nawal is so well-traveled and so familiar with global flavors, the world bleeds into your brunch: Belgium, Mexico, Lebanon. It’s all right there. KF

2620 Regatta Drive #113, 702-560-2453, roosterboycafe.com

 

Let Us Count the Ways

Best Italian

Esther’s Kitchen

1 Half price pasta with a drink during pasta happy hour.

2 Some of the best homemade bread in Vegas.

3 Pasta Puttanesca (note to self: Look up the translation).

4 Bartender Liatt giving me impromptu Hebrew lessons.

5 Plates made by Downtown pottery nerds.

6 Amaro Centerba (thank — or curse — me later).

7 Italian food with just the right amount of comfort MW 1130 S. Casino Center Blvd., 702-570-7864, estherslv.com

 

Best Tapas

EDO Gastro Tapas & Wine

1 A constantly rotating gazpacho amuse bouche to begin your meal. Do it like a shot!

2 Tweezers. You get to eat with tweezers.

3 The bikini. The absolute best panini you’ll have in your life, layered with mahón cheese and sobrasado drizzled with honey.

4 A gin and tonic cart that, while somewhat immobile in the tiny space, serves killer, clove-laced Monkey 47 G&T which go very well with …

5 Tuna tostadas, rillette highlighted by Rocoto chilies. 

6 Want dinner and a show? Order the montadito, house-smoked salmon adorned with truffled cream cheese and honey which arrives to your table under a glass dome, revealing itself in a puff of smoke. And watch as nearby tables leer with jealousy. 

7 Not-so-fishy boquerones atop a flaky pa amb tomàquet. That’s anchovies on tomato bread.

8 This place is like the Bubba Gump of Jamón ibérico. But …

9 Vegans are represented with showstoppers such as a pistachio-highlighted green tartare even carnivores will adore.

10 Did I mention the tweezers? JB 3400 S. Jones Blvd. #11A, 702-641-1345, edotapas.com

 

Best Bakery

Gäbi Coffee + Bakery

You can’t just eat and drink at this Korean bakery, you have to hang. Here’s why:

1 They bake pastries and desserts that merge cultures and influences. Everything at Gäbi is East meets West, but firmly rooted in Korean coffee culture.

2 You will drink good coffee. (Gäbi is Korean for coffee.) You will eat good desserts that are emblematic of that East-meets-West aesthetic, like Dan Mee Cake, a light-as-a-feather chiffon cake with orange blossom marscapone mousse and a blackberry-raspberry wine gelée. Or the Rose Lychee cake. Or one of my favorites, the Rainbow Roulade, a rainbow colored rolled cake with a scrumptious, airy whip cream filling. 

3 Is it modern or throwback? It’s both. It’s candles and old books and viney plants and rattan chairs and a wrought iron greenhouse where you can watch the bakers work their magic while you drink ristretto and eat their house-made cruffin with cream.

4 And you’ll want to climb up into the big wooden bleachers, kick your shoes off, and lounge with a thick book and drink your Monk’s Mead tea and eat your Oreo Roulade, and nothing will make you happier. KF  5808 Spring Mountain Road #104, 702-331-1144, gabicafe.com

 

 

 

 

If you’ve enjoyed this read, wait until you get your hands on a bunch of these reads from contemporary voices mining the good stuff from Las Vegas — all laid out in a gorgeous design experience. Subscribe. It comes to your house. For real!