At Vegas Test Kitchen, fresh concepts (and brave chefs) make the menu
“I’m a void-filler,” Jolene Mannina says of her latest project. In this instance, the project isn’t an after-hours chefs’ competition like Back of House Brawl, or a pop-up specialty menu on secretburger.com — two breakout projects from the culinary entrepreneur. No, Mannina’s latest project, Vegas Test Kitchen, fills an everyday void for both Las Vegas diners and chefs. It’s a Downtown food hall made for Vegas locals by Vegas locals, a place where foodies and culinary professionals can regularly be seen tasting and talking, exchanges bites and ideas.
The concept: Seven chefs share a building, each with their own space, each trying out dining concepts that may one day develop into their own brick-and-mortar restaurants. Or, they might flame out after their initial three-month run.
It works like this. You walk into the “hall” to see what strikes your fancy. But unlike traditional food halls such as Grand Central Market in Los Angeles or St. Roch Market in New Orleans, you don’t really see what everybody is offering. (The tiny space allotted for each outlet at Vegas Test Kitchen doesn’t allow for much eye candy.) Instead, you scan a QR code on your phone, and the entire menu, with pictures, appears on your screen via the website vegastestkitchen.menu. The site also serves as a one-stop point of payment.
“The whole thing, overall, is a test,” Mannina says. And she’s not just talking about chefs experimenting with menu concepts; she’s talking about testing new ways of ordering, preparing, and serving food. For her, it’s a menu of possibilities. “Doing contactless and cashless ordering, you have to order from your phone, you have to pay from your phone — will that work? Can you have this number of chefs under one roof working cohesively and offering something unique to the public?” It’s rife with risks and rewards: The reward of a possible breakout concept that buoys the rest, or conversely, swallows up most of the customers.
Nina Manchev, owner of the popular Forte European Tapas Bar and Bistro, leaped at the opportunity to take a chance at Vegas Test Kitchen with a new concept that’s decidedly Old World. Her corner of the venue, Banichka, exclusively sells varieties of European stuffed pastries. Vegas Test Kitchen provided a welcome laboratory for the experiment.
“If I wanted to do this (myself), I’d have to find a place, I’d have to get the licenses, I’d have to go through this whole process,” she says. Here, all she has to do is focus on making baniza, a pastry dish from Bulgaria. Manchev and her team are currently offering eight different types of baniza, sofiiska, and zakuski, which feature multiple shapes, fillings, and doughs. (Her most popular so far is The Buldog, a roll stuffed with bacon-wrapped hot dogs and cheese.) It’s not just a business opportunity for her, but a cultural one as well.
“People are just figuring out that Bulgaria has all these different things that maybe they’ve tried in other cultures,” Manchev says. “I want to share these different parts, just show it and let people experience it.”
Sonia El-Nawal, best known for Rooster Boy Café in Desert Shores, is also using Vegas Test Kitchen as a launch pad for a spinoff specialty. When El-Nawal unveiled her version of a New York bagel sandwich in 2020 at Rooster Boy, her bagels were quickly acclaimed as some of the best in Las Vegas. It inspired her to launch her new Bodega Bagel kiosk at Vegas Test Kitchen.
Serving up pies in the alley, Alex White’s Yukon Pizza is another breakout success. White uses a sourdough starter that’s been in his family since 1897 to create his base dough, and his pies riff on Neapolitan and New York-style pizza. After years of cooking pies anywhere he could — whether out of his own house or at pop-ups at Fergusons Downtown — Vegas Test Kitchen gave him a place to land.
“Jolene approached us last fall and offered us this awesome spot, and the opportunity to come into the kitchen space and legitimize the last part of the business, which was proper permitting, licensing with the health department, and stuff like that.”
Along with the regular offerings, a slate of pop-up eateries brings new flavors to the Test Kitchen each week. Taco Tuesdays, a collaboration between Mariana Alvarado of Masazul and Gary LaMorte of Honest Hospitality, has found a groove serving tacos focused on fresh, high-quality ingredients. LaMorte points out that having so many chefs under one roof makes Vegas Test Kitchen a lively culinary workshop as well. “The opportunity to get feedback from some of the industry’s best chefs and restaurateurs is truly a blessing,” he says.
Vegas Test Kitchen seems to be taking off — not just among adventurous diners, but among entrepreneurial chefs, too. Mannina says she’s fielding emails from chefs pitching new concepts, and she’s had discussions about bringing the test-kitchen idea to other parts of the city as well. The concept is novel, but to her, the spirit is simple. “It’s just about having an amazing restaurant with great food.” Make that seven amazing restaurants — all under one roof.
Vegas Test Kitchen
1020 Fremont St. #120