Desert Companion

The Dish: Spring cleaning

These dishes featuring grains, greens and great flavors let you start the season light


Commercials for quinoa air on football Sundays, kale gets chopped into Starbucks salads, and Meatless Mondays is a legitimate movement. Has rabbit food really gone mainstream? Well, yes and no. Meat-free cooking is definitely having a moment, and chefs both on and off the Strip are on board with the trend. But for those who equate vegetarianism with sliced tofurkey and sprout sandwiches, brace yourself for food with — gasp! — real flavor. These six dishes may not stand in for a rack of ribs, but they challenge the notion that meatless eating has to be monotonous.


Twenty vegetable fried rice at China Poblano

Vegetable friend riceAt Chef Jose Andres’ ever-bustling Chino-Latino mash-up, this colorful bowl of fried rice is what I imagine would happen if Alice Waters staged a coup at her local Panda Express. “This is one of my favorite recipes,” says Andres. “We wanted to create a fried rice that had all of the traditional flavors, but also incorporated the lightness and sexiness of vegetables.”

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Short-grain white rice, tinged tan with salty soy sauce, is tossed with 20 veggies, including watermelon radishes, sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts. Edamame, ginger and snow peas rep the Asian half of the equation, while crunchy chayote and jicama add a Latin flair. Tip: Keep it vegan by requesting it without eggs and oyster sauce.

(The Cosmopolitan, 702-698-7900,


Grain power salad at Honey Salt

Honey SaltSummerlin has claimed a Strip chef for itself at this farm-to-table restaurant, where Society Café alum Kim Canteenwalla provides a creative alternative to the predictable lunchtime Cobb or Caesar salad. “My wife (co-owner and restaurant consultant Elizabeth Blau) was instrumental in getting this salad on the menu,” he says. “The idea was to provide an option that was healthy and yet very flavorful. If you add chicken, it makes a hearty entrée.”

It also stands perfectly fine on its own. Chewy Beluga lentils and nutty red and white quinoa — or, as Canteenwalla calls it, “the brain grain” — mingle with nuggets of creamy avocado, crunchy ribbons of shaved fennel and a sharp citrus vinaigrette.

“Quinoa is on its way to being mainstream, but right now it’s still costly,” says the chef. Still, he encourages cooks to tackle it at home with a few tips. “Always wash and rinse it with cold water first. If you want it firm, cook it with salt; without it, you’ll get a softer, fluffier grain.”

(1031 S. Rampart Blvd., 702-445-6100,


Fried spinach salad at Echo & Rig

Five visits, five orders. This salad has been a requisite first course at every one of my visits to this new Tivoli Village steakhouse. Of course, deep-frying plays no small part in its greatness. Spinach leaves are baptized in a bath of hot oil until shiny and crunchy, and then tossed with raw broccoli and cauliflower. Looking like shrapnel from a crudité bomb, the tiny and bitter florets offset the guilt of eating those crispy greens. Beware of tongue-numbing chiles, which hide at the bottom of the bowl. A single sliver for every two or three bites is enough to pack a punch. The salad is finally dressed with a lime-spiked vinaigrette — so tasty that chef/owner Sam Marvin should consider bottling it for his take-out butcher shop downstairs.

(Tivoli Village, 702-489-3525,


Avocado tacos at Border Grill

Avocado tacos

Don’t deny it. A hunger for anything deep-fried lies somewhere in all of us —even the health-conscious. At Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken’s upscale Mexican chain restaurant, these outrageously decadent tacos hide under the guise of being good for you. Slices of buttery avocado are crusted with quinoa (yeah, again), amaranth and black sesame seeds, then tucked between warm, hand-pressed masa tortillas. Grilled corn relish is sweet and smoky, chipotle crema adds depth, and the briny zing of pickled red onions cuts through all of the richness. It’s like chicken-fried steak for the cruelty-free. Just note that this lunch menu item is only available by special request at dinner.

(Mandalay Bay, 702-632-7403,


Whole wheat spaghetti with pesto, green beans and potatoes at Otto

Whole wheat spaghetti with pesto, green beans and potatoesAs a former devotee of the original Otto in New York, I often suggested that visitors skip the pizza for pasta. For this version, Atkins acolytes and Paleo proponents need not apply. The starch-on-starch dish is a delicious and oh-so-garlicky middle finger to the carb-counting lifestyle. Based on a recipe from Genoa, it marries whole wheat spaghetti — a firmer and nuttier alternative to traditional semolina pasta — with plain boiled potatoes. Sounds bland, but the addition of green beans and a pungent pesto heighten the flavor. Just remember to share a bite with your tablemate, lest you be the lone victim of dragon breath.

(The Venetian, 702-677-3390,


Vegan paella at Julian Serrano

For a different but equally tasty take on rice, invest an hour of your day while this traditional family-style dish is made to order. The usual ingredients, which include rabbit, chicken and snails, are replaced with a colorful cornucopia of seasonal vegetables — during a springtime visit, this included silky slivers of piquillo peppers, tender asparagus and green peas. Although it’s meatless, Serrano stays true to original cooking techniques. Short-grain white rice is infused with heady saffron and then simmered to the tooth in an authentic paella pan. Designed with a large, flat surface, it’s perfect for creating socarrat, or that giant web of scorched rice that forms on the bottom of the vessel. Trust me — just like the burned bits left in the pan after cooking a steak, it’s where you’ll find lots of flavor.  

(Aria, 702-590-8520,

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