Desert Companion

Best of the City: Food & Drink

esthers_kitchen_winter_2021-1970.jpg

Photo by Christopher Smith

Esther's Kitchen continues to serve up indulgent classics with contemporary flair.

 

Best Tacos

Los Arcos Birrieria
What is it we like in a “perfect” taco? Savory, juicy, slow-cooked meat, with a balance of spices and oil, lime and salt, and a whole mess of cheese? Okay. Take that idea, crank the flavors up by a factor of 10, and make the whole experience an orgy of decadent, belly-bursting intensity. Now you have a better idea of why birria tacos have become such a craze. The meat (beef or goat for the true connoisseur) is cooked for hours in a broth of spices, vegetables, and chilies, stuffed into a corn shell filled with melted cheese, and griddled in its own spicy, neon-red oil. Served with the usual sides of onion, cilantro, and lime wedges, along with a big cup of “consommé” (the meat- and spice-infused broth it was cooked in), Los Arcos’ tacos are not for the faint of heart — or the easily stained of shirt. MW
2201 S. Maryland Parkway, 702-586-6020, birrierialosarcos.com

Best Pizza

Monzú Italian
Oven + Bar
It’s nice when a wine bar has really good charcuterie, right? And when they have homemade bread from their own curated wild yeast strain? Oh, and there’s fancy craft cocktails? And huge, innovative, imaginative wood-fired pizzas? Antipasti? Fancy entrees too? Some of the finest pizzas in town (with dipping sauces for the crusts)? What on earth kind of wine bar is this?  Some kind of magical, utopian wine bar? That’s Monzú, and it’s about to be your new favorite restaurant, let alone your new favorite pizzeria. MW
6020 W. Flamingo Road #10, 702-749-5959, monzulv.com

Best Burger

Nevada Brew Works
This homegrown Arts District ale house might bristle at the idea of being boosted for its burger rather than its beer, but this is no backhanded backslap. The suds selection (much of it brewed on-site) is top notch, and the expansive Main Street patio a joy. But it’s the Brew Works Classic Cheeseburger that keeps beckoning us back. Fans of sandy-floored SoCal seaside joints (think TK Burger) will feel right at home scarfing this double-stacked delight sloppy with special sauce. Plus, on Wednesdays it’s half-price (seven bucks!) with a side of hand-cut fries. Righteous, bruh. JPR
1327 S. Main St., 702-664-1500, nevadabrewworks.com

Best Wings

Naked City Pizza
Some of us have misty-eyed memories of when hot wings first flew into Las Vegas. It was back in the ’70s, when Dad had to fire up the Pontiac and trek a good seven miles to pick up that hot, vinegary bag of Buffalo badness. Not anymore. Wings are now inescapable. They are (almost literally) everywhere — something that, counterintuitively, makes good wings hard to find, and great ones near impossible. Never fear, Chris Palmeri and his brother, Michael, are here — two Buffalo brothers doing the Nickel City proper. Yeah, they have barbeque and Sicilian style. But you want them hot and old-school. Right? What? You think you’re some kind of tough guy or somethin’? Order them Suicide-style.
We dare you. JPR
4608 Paradise Road, 702-222-2241, nakedcitylv.com

Best Steak

Cleaver
Tucked away off Paradise Road, Herbs & Rye’s lesser-known twin sister, Cleaver, offers the same hole-in-the-wall ambiance but with a more classic steakhouse feel. The dim lighting, oversized booths, and floral wallpaper set a speakeasy scene, letting guests in on their best-kept secret: Happy hour steaks, all night long. Steak connoisseurs will find their preferred cuts along with the tastiest crusts, sauces, and butters that lift and enhance the flavors of expertly prepared meat. Cleaver offers upscale, steakhouse dining but at a slightly more accessible price point, transforming any regular weeknight into a special occasion. Add in some happy hour appetizers and Cleaver’s extensive bar menu — you’ll have no choice but to do chophouse dining the right way, prolonged over several courses, cocktails, and cutleries. BB
3900 Paradise Road, #D-1, 702-538-9888, cleaverlasvegas.com

Best Mexican

La Mojarra Loca     
We have a wealth of perfectly fine Mexican restaurants that boast house-made chips and extensive menus, but La Mojarra Loca is in a different category altogether. The true gem of La Mojarra Loca’s is the molcajetes. You know the giant lava-stone mortars used for tableside guacamole? Imagine putting one of those into an oven until screaming hot, then using it to sear up meats, cheeses, cactus, and shrimp, before filling it with a spicy salsa and broth combination. It’s a kingly bowl of delights for a humble price. MW
2797 S. Maryland Parkway, 702-293-4444, lamojarralocagrill.com

Best Chinese

Chengdu Taste
China is big — roughly the size of Canada with about 30 times the population, and a diversity of language groups that rivals Europe. Chengdu is a city in the Sichuan region, almost in the dead center of China. The taste of Chengdu is shaped by a 2,000-year history at the heart of the Silk Road, comprising flavors from across India, Persia, Southeast Asia, Mongolia, and more. This menu is a snapshot of that, with items such as cumin-spiced lamb on toothpicks, cold spicy beef, fish boiled in pureed green peppers, diced rabbit in “younger sister’s secret recipe,” and many more. Not all the dishes are spicy, but the ones that describe themselves as “numbing” or have more than one little chili pepper next to the name — take them very seriously. MW
3950 Schiff Drive, 702-437-7888, chengdutastevegas.com

Best Japanese

Kaiseki Yuzu
There’s so much to Japanese cuisine that we don’t usually see in Las Vegas.  A kaiseki is Japan’s version of a degustation menu, a set of dishes curated to guide you through a world of the chef’s own creation. It’s all about the finest ingredients, the loving care, even the pageantry of it. A meal at Kaiseki Yuzu is not just an education in Japanese flavors and techniques, but a vision of a whole new way to appreciate the craft of food as an art. MW
3900 Spring Mountain Road #5, 702-778-8889, kaisekiyuzu.com

Best Italian

Esther’s Kitchen
Since opening in 2018, Esther’s Kitchen has become the true darling of the Arts District. Its house-made bread and pastas, bustling dining room, and seasonal selections offer the comforts of rustic Italian — spaghetti, bucatini — but with something new to sample on repeat visits. Despite its popularity, Esther’s hasn’t lost its local roots and gracefully maintains what can be a difficult balance: The intimacy of a local favorite with the prestige of culinary excellence. Drive by Esther’s floor-to-ceiling windows any night of the week to find a packed dining room and many patrons outside awaiting their turn at the tables (you’ll want a reservation). Listen close enough, and you’ll hear the buzz of locals, tourists, industry and non-industry people alike, all in perfect agreement: This is the place to eat. BB
1130 S. Casino Center Blvd. #110, 702-570-7864, estherslv.com

Best Appetizers

Estiatorio Milos
Really, the appetizer course at Estiatorio Milos begins as soon as you walk into the dining room and ogle the extravagant display of giant salmon steaks and whole halibut, as well as lobsters and crabs in glass tanks at an on-site fish market. On your plate, a wide array of sashimi ranges from opalescent loup de mer to ruby-red tuna, while charcoal-grilled octopus combines the flavor of fire with the taste of the sea. However, the Milos Special involves no seafood: It’s a sort of mille-feuille of lightly fried zucchini and eggplant slices in a creamy tzatziki sauce. As you clean the plate, you’ll feel the urge to order another, but remember: These are just the appetizers — you do want to leave room for dinner. LTR
In the Venetian, estiatoriomilos.com

Best Tapas

Valencian Gold
“Valencian Gold” is what Valencians call paella — their gift to the culinary world. You’ll find this traditional dish in many forms here cooked on a lively fire, creating the perfect socarrat (that deliciously crispy rice at bottom of pan). But don’t dare skip the tapas here either. Chef Jeff Weiss wrote the book on Spanish charcuterie — literally (and with a foreword by the king of Spanish cooking, José Andrés, no less). I’m a sucker for the foie gras rice krispie treats with goat cheese, the perfect balance of bougie and funky. Go at “Golden Hour” and get $10 sangria pitchers. Wear sweatpants for maximum food carnage. LBM
7960 S. Rainbow Blvd. #8000A, 702-776-7707, valenciangold.com

Best Buffet

Wicked Spoon
Las Vegas created the modern buffet — or should I say modern buffets. Our city boasts many buffet themes and price points, but the enduring standout is Wicked Spoon in the Cosmopolitan. The selection is always unique, and the dishes taste like they were cooked up by a chef rather than batched up in an industrial kitchen. The offerings change frequently, but I’ve had everything from banh mi-style salads to build-your-own ramen bowls, from mango panna cotta to canelés, from alligator risotto with etouffee to short-rib polenta. Also: squid ink pasta, rabbit pot pie, pumpkin ravioli, and even roasted bone marrow. Truly wicked. MW
In The Cosmopolitan, cosmopolitanlasvegas.com

Best Late-Night Dining

Ichiza
Japanese pub traditions are hundreds of years old, and for good reason: Even today, there’s nothing more satisfying after a long night of skulling jugs than gorging on a plate of marinated grilled squid with grated ginger. Ichiza is the place to carry on that noble tradition, and what a place: The atmosphere is cheerfully boisterous, the walls are papered with countless pages trumpeting specials, new items, and one-offs, and the menu itself has dozens more options, whether you’re looking for sushi rolls, grilled skewers, ramen, rice bowls, or even the traditional drinking snack that is “tako wasabi” (seasoned raw octopus with wasabi). MW
4355 Spring Mountain Road, 702-367-3151

Best Vegan Food

NoButcher
What is a deli with no meat? It’s NoButcher, where hearing the word no has never sounded so good. NoPepperoni, NoPastrami, NoTurkey, and creamy, Swiss NoCheese. For the meat-averse (and fake-meat-averse), NoButcher’s plant-based Italian cold cuts offer the flavor, texture, and juiciness you expect from a delicatessen, but without the hormones or preservatives that come with “real” meat. Vegans, aspiring vegans, and carnivores alike will find something to love in NoButcher’s wide selection of plant-based meats and cheeses. Start with the famous NoPork sandwich, then take home some frozen NoCrab cakes so you can say no again next week. (Finally, make sure to say yes at least once to a refreshing rosemary lemonade or a vegan cookie.) BB
3565 S. Rainbow Blvd. #110, 702-268-7488, nobutcher.com

Best Splurge

NoMad Library
The NoMad may sit in the middle of a Strip casino, but it feels far away, with its Victorian-esque lampshade chandeliers, deep-sea colors, and two-story library. The serene setting, elegant cocktails, and sumptuous food make a few hours at a two-top feel like a getaway. Along with the de rigueur seafood towers, there are extravagant “for two” chicken and prime rib dishes — or perhaps you’d prefer a juicy slab of suckling pig or pasta with chef-flourished truffles. If you want to feel indulgent but not stuffed, the hot and cold oyster plate is wonderfully decadent: on one side, oysters Rockefeller on hot rock; and on the other, oysters chilled with cucumber “snow” served atop ice. Loll on a banquette, pull a volume on Tiffany jewels off the shelf, and dawdle over that glass of bubbly. You deserve it. LTR
In Park MGM, nomadlasvegas.mgmresorts.com

Best Neighborhood Stalwart

Vintner Grill
Do you remember where you were scarfing and sipping in 2006? It seems implausible — impossible, even — given all we’ve been through as a city, but if you were a west side socialite, an adventurous foodie, or somebody seeking out the next trendy, upscale bar vibe, chances are you were seated somewhere at this Summerlin hotspot. Hard to find and easy to miss, Vintner’s rabbit-hole location in a nondescript business park initially seemed a handicap to Michael Corrigan’s ambitious venture. But the right people found it, making its lounge seating a cozy, coveted spot for after-work canoodling. As the Summerlin scene arose around it, and with a flash of Vegas magic, Vintner’s underground location may have saved it from being just another hot-and-fast burn in the annals of Vegas dining and nightlife. Instead, Vintner continues to fill its seats — 15 years later! — with the kind of varied, loyal, and discerning crowd any restaurant would be proud to welcome. Credit Vintner’s “secret” vibe and its exceptional selection of flatbreads, pasta, and modern faves — seared halibut with couscous, Moroccan spiced lamb, grilled octopus with baby potatoes — as well as a curated wine list and decidedly upscale scene for its longevity. JPR
10100 W. Charleston Blvd., 702-214-5590

Best Nostalgic Adult Beverage

The Dole Whip Float at The Golden Tiki
Who’s waited forever in that long line at Disneyland for the ultimate frozen pineapple treat? I’ve sweated that queue dozens of times for a creamy, tart Dole Whip. At The Golden Tiki in Chinatown, you can snap a “shellfie” in their massive shell while downing an adult version with dark rum or house-made pineapple vodka. It’s a taste of your childhood with a serious grown-up kick. (Just make sure a ghost doesn’t steal your drink. This kitschy tiki hangout is also known for its unexplained haunts.) LBM
3939 Spring Mountain Road, 702-222-3196, thegoldentiki.com

Best Wine Program

Garagiste Wine Room & Merchant
I’ll confess up front that my method of navigating Garagiste’s ever-evolving wine menu is decidedly unconventional. It goes something like this: I’ll collar Eric or Mario and fumble through an annoying, free-associative description of some imaginary wine I’m craving (“I’m in the mood for a chewy but subtle red” or “I feel like my taste buds need woken up with something tart and challenging” or, simply, “Surprise ma mouf!”) and, a few minutes later, a redolent glass of magic is swirling before me. It’s a testament to their precise, discerning wine palates, and not a surprising one: Garagiste founders Eric Prato and Mario Enriquez are former Strip somms who worked in some of Vegas’ finest dining rooms. At Garagiste, they’ve imported their expertise into a lively, casual corner wine bar that’s deservedly become an Arts District hit. AK
197 E. California Ave. #140, 702-954-3658, garagistelv.com

Best Cocktails

Superfrico
Superfrico is the first restaurant offering from the Spiegelworld production company and, while the dining room may share their shows’ goofy, over-the-top aesthetic, the kitchen and the bar are serious business. James Beard Award-winner Leo Robitschek’s cocktail program brings a sophistication to the classic drinks and high-proof potables a Vegas party crowd wants. There’s a Porn Star Martini that levels up tequila with falernum and vanilla, while their Cosmonaut kicks a conventional Cosmopolitan with chai and vermouth; other inventions include the light, frothy Machine Dazzle with Amaretto and Campari, as well as Penguins Take Manhattan, a black-tie shake of bourbon, rum, sherry and black sesame in a white chocolate-dipped glass. The Negroni selections include pizza or strawberry, and there’s a selection of snazzy mocktails — “psychedelic Italian-American” indeed. LTR
In The Cosmopolitan, superfrico.com

Best Beer Program

Beer Zombies
In three westside locations many miles away from Downtown’s new beer district, Beer Zombies has built the ultimate destinations for those who hail the almighty ale. And the all-local crew, headed by artist and horror-movie enthusiast Chris Jacobs, haven’t accomplished this with bragworthy inventory numbers, but rather clubhouse vibes, a fine-tuned radar for the most current beer trends, a meticulously curated tap list and bottle selection, and anti-corporate chutzpah. If you’ve come looking for a Miller High Life or even a Goose Island, you won’t be disappointed — because you’ll be recommended something much better. MP
Various locations, thebeerzombies.com

Best Coffee

Vesta
So many things go into what a “good” coffee shop is. Some have great pastries, but no sandwiches. Others dive into fine coffee, but neglect their teas. Vesta tries to be all things to all people, and succeeds wildly. The coffee shop with two locations strikes the perfect balance, boasting good dishes (truffle parm gravy over an egg, in a croissant? Come on!), painstakingly curated seasonal tea and coffee drinks, and some of the finest coffee in town — roasted in house, no less. *Chef’s kiss* MW
1114 S. Casino Center Blvd.; 9031 W. Sahara Ave., vestacoffee.com


♦ HALL OF FAME ♦
Best Donuts

Ronald’s DonutsThe allure of a good donut shop is in its simplicity, and that’s been the secret to Ronald’s enduring popularity since 1973: dollar-fifty coffee, classic orange booths, straightforward menu, CASH ONLY sign, and a well-stocked display case filled with chocolate, twisted, sprinkled, glazed, jelly- and cream-filled donuts. Oh, and their timeless, comforting slogan: You deserve a donut. But surprise: The top two rows of Ronald’s display case are vegan, giving us all one more reason to indulge. Non-dairy folk will also delight in Ronald’s other vegan offerings, including vegan bagels and almond milk ice cream. Here’s to many more decades of Ronald’s guilt-free delights. BB 
4600 Spring Mountain Road, 702-873-1032


Best Breakfast

Vickie’s Diner
It’s a cliché that nothing lasts in Las Vegas, but it’s an accurate one. Fortunately, it doesn’t apply to the venerable Vickie’s Diner, which recently relocated from its former home of six decades at the storied White Cross drugstore to the equally legendary Commercial Center. The pink banquettes, “That Painting,” and Vickie herself are still here, and still serving Las Vegas’ favorite classic diner breakfasts. You can get pork chop and eggs, chicken-fried steak and eggs, or trout and eggs, as well as the classic three eggs any style. Thick and sticky French toast, big and fluffy pancakes, and overstuffed omelets are on the menu too. Vickie’s makes a great cup of coffee and, better yet, you never need to ask for your cup to be topped off. Because it isn’t just the food that makes Vickie’s breakfast the best — the setting and the service do just as much to send you into your day with a smile. LTR
953 E. Sahara Ave. #A-2, 702-444-4459

Best Brunch

DW Bistro
In a city inundated with brunches built on a tired formula of bottomless booze, photogenic desserts, and contrived Instagram moments, DW Bistro’s weekend bacchanalia stands apart as an authentic Vegas experience featuring fabulous food and friendly, inclusive vibes. Sure, brunch here may spotlight a surprise song from Debbie Gibson, or the best drag show you never expected to see (have that camera ready!), but the real reason to go is the food — a selection of items that has us drooling over the menu like a St. Bernard at Westminster: French toast soufflé! Jerk pork hash! Fresh fruit tart! It’s so good we may even leave our phone at home. Debbie was there, we swear! JPR
9275 W. Russell Road #190, 702-527-5200, dwbistro.com

Best Bakery

German Bread Bakery
With pumpernickel bread, pretzel croissants, poppy rolls, and sweet yeast raisin loaves, the German Bread Bakery spins flour into gold — or at least golden crusty deliciousness. The two locations in the Vegas Valley are as far from the world of low-carb, high-chemical, mass-production franchise foodstuffs as you can get: breads, rolls and pretzels baked fresh from traditional alte Deuwtschland recipes with no dyes, flavorings, or preservatives. Beyond bread, they also make some lovely old-school pastry, including apple strudel, lemon roll, and, natürlich, Black Forest cake. LTR
9255 S. Eastern Ave.; 2237 N. Rampart Blvd., germanbreadbakerylasvegas.com

Wings courtesy of Naked City Pizza; Esther’s Kitchen by Christopher Smith; Nomad: Benoit Linero; Garagiste and Vesta: Sabin Orr; Ronald’s Donuts: Brent Holmes

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