Desert Companion

The dish: I know thisone place...

I know this one placeNext time you’re playing tour guide on short notice, consider these Strip gems hidden in plain sight

It’s a true rite of passage, one of those singular experiences that naturalizes you as a citizen of Vegas. Friends are in town or, worse, relatives. Of course you’re entertaining. No, you’re concierging. You’re dragging yourself down to the Strip on a weeknight, spending time in a big, crazy, blinking casino. Have you ever stepped foot in here before? You’re not sure. And then, the “loved ones” hit you with it:

So where’s the best place to eat around here?

That’s where it begins. After sapping the joy from what could have been an all-out amazing dinner, it ends hours later, when you’re regretting the never-ending buffet trip, or the steak-and-fried-shrimp combo from the casino coffee shop you conceded to because “loved ones” don’t like tapas. Or “fancy” French food. Or Japanese. Or Mexican. Or anything interesting that tastes good.

Don’t feel guilty because you haven’t memorized the dining lineups of every megaresort. (That’s my job.) And don’t let one obnoxious experience define dining on the Strip. With dozens of restaurants in a single resort, the options can be overwhelming, especially with the added pressure of pleasing your peeps. It’s always best to plan ahead, if you can, and feel confident when sticking to your favorite spots.

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But if it’s time to branch out, understand there is great food everywhere on Las Vegas Boulevard. Over the last two years, I’ve been eating the Strip at a furious pace: places I always wanted to visit, and even more I never wanted to visit. And from corny themed restaurants to top-notch tasting menus, there’s always a surprise.

Taking time to appreciate these overlooked culinary wonders, whether casual or formal, also is a rite of passage, an evolution of your Vegas food education. So let’s go: We’re starting at Spring Mountain Road and working our way south, stopping for a quick taste of the lesser-known restaurants of the Strip. These are places you missed or ignored, places you haven’t hit yet, and places to add to your mental inventory next time the “loved ones” ask that ridiculous question.

Zooza Benedict

Wynn. I’m a sucker for a great deli. Who isn’t? The fact that Zoozacrackers (770-3463) is a great deli right by the sports book inside what is still the most luxurious casino on the Strip is, to me, Vegas perfection. And unlike the famous imports across the street (Canter’s at TI, Carnegie at Mirage), everything here is made in-house: slightly smoky pastrami, corned beef, latkes, everything. It breaks my heart that it’s not open 24 hours.

Salmon from Table 10

Palazzo. Location, location, location. It’s the key ingredient for any successful restaurant, and that includes those cornered in giant casinos. The Palazzo chose to stick an Emeril Lagasse restaurant on the library-quiet retail level upstairs from the casino, and it hasn’t exactly thrived. But it deserves to, especially since longtime Lagasse chef Sean Roe took over at Table 10 (607-6363). It’s a beautifully consistent American menu, driven by seasonal ingredients and favorite flavors. My picks are the Dungeness crab salad, suckling pig “porchetta” and wild salmon with Brussels sprouts and lobster sauce ($32).

Venetian. When we think of great pizza, we think of neighborhood takeout spots. But on the Strip, there is truly awesome pizza to be found in fine Italian restaurants, hiding on appetizer lists or masquerading as “flatbreads.” It’s only been a couple years since uber-famous Mario Batali’s local shop changed its name to focus on our favorite food, and while there are tons of terrific pasta dishes, cured meats, artisan cheeses and great wines to sample at Enoteca Otto (677-3390), the friendly prices ($17 to $20 for a pie) and tasty options make this the Orange-clogged One’s most accessible eatery. Try the Pizza Romana, with anchovies, capers and red chili flakes.

Mirage. Literally hiding in a corner near the massive buffet, Onda (531-3825) combines a neat, modern Italian wine lounge with an ultra-cozy, old-fashioned Italian restaurant. I love the sunken floor of the main dining room; it’s like a secret, golden batcave of hearty classics like Spaghetti Carbonara, Veal Marsala and a knockout osso bucco. The Mirage has re-done itself several times since changing the game when it opened 22 years ago, and when it was refashioned in 2006, this restaurant got lost in the mix. It has such a warm atmosphere, and the food is always satisfying.

The RangeHarrah’s. You don’t really “go” to The Range (369-5000), you kinda sneak up there. I’m not sure if it’s stuck in the ’70s, ’80s or ’90s, but it’s a sweet escape all the same. Exit the elevator and be aware that the cowboy statue at the host stand is a real person. Then there’s jazz in the huge lounge, views of the Strip, succulent steaks and chops, and some of the best crab cakes around.

Bellagio. Of course you’ve never eaten at or even heard of Noodles (693-7223). This laidback-but-brilliant Asian bazaar is across the whole casino from Bellagio’s big name, dancing-fountain-fronting restaurants. But it’s so good: soothing wonton soup or spicy Thai tom yum, weekend dim sum, great red barbecued pork and roasted duck, and infinite noodles. No reservations required at a Bellagio restaurant? Yep.

Excalibur. I’ve never advised anyone to visit Excalibur. I’d never recommend anyone should dine at a restaurant themed around a Southern rock band. But if you want the best barbecue on the Strip, suck it up and hit Lynyrd Skynyrd BBQ & Beer (597-7818). It’s actually a lot of fun, a wild roadhouse/cafeteria dropped into a casino. Grab a tray, take your pick from Texas-style smoked meats (try the beef shoulder and prime rib) and well-flavored side dishes like braised collard greens, order a cold beer and go to work.

BaccioTropicana. There are so many decent Italian eats on the Strip. It makes it hard to find a fresh approach. Part of the Trop’s refreshening was bringing in Chef Carla Pellegrino to create Bacio (739-2222), where she’s doing a killer cold seafood-and-citrus salad and rustic, artsy pasta dishes like Orecchiette Pugliese with sausage and broccoli rabe. Bacio is quickly becoming the new Trop’s signature dining experience, and it’s a friendly one.

Luxor. Someday your mom might come to town and maybe she likes to eat Peking duck, and maybe she’d like to eat it inside a huge black pyramid with a laser beam shooting out the top. It’s possible. Rice & Company (262-4852), though oddly named, has got your mom’s duck, served with mushu pancakes and crisp vegetables, not to mention spring rolls, lobster Cantonese and lots of other shockingly tasty Chinese standards. 

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