Friendliest Mom & Pop Joint of the Year: Frank & Fina’s Cocina. It’s a testament to the warmth of Frank & Fina’s Cocina that when it closed its original, more central location on West Charleston Boulevard about three years ago to focus on its larger restaurant near the Beltway on Flamingo Road, regulars followed their favorite Mexican cuisine into the tony ’burbs. But it makes sense: Once you find your favorite taquitos and rellenos in a comfortable environment with kind, quick service, it’s hard to give it up. Aside from the overwhelming deliciousness — particularly the fresh, robust salsa served as soon as you take your seat — there’s something lighter and easier about eating at Frank & Fina’s (4175 S. Grand Canyon Drive #100, 579-3017). It feels like a more healthful version of a family meal in your abuela’s kitchen.
Feels-Like-You’re-Practically-In-The-Actual-Country, Mind-Bogglingly Authentic Restaurant of the Year: HK Star. Authenticity is a tricky term when it comes to food because “authentic” doesn’t automatically equal “good.” But if someone suggests a great Chinese joint, and if you have communication issues while attempting to order, and if some of the dishes are a little scary, then you’ve probably found what you’re looking for. Our best Chinese joint that fits the bill is HK Star (3400 S. Jones Blvd. # 15, 220-3388), where big groups and families feast on salt and pepper pork chops, whole fried or steamed fish, oyster pancakes, pan fried noodles, and lots of other wondrous dishes that may or may not be on the huge menu. Service might be a challenge, as will some of the more exotic eats, but if you’re reading this, you’re ready to experiment. This is the place.
Hall of Fame Hanging In There Restaurant of the Year: Aureole. Fine dining is dead … are you sure? Times keep on changing and the recession may have lead to the Strip’s first Buca di Beppo, but luxury will always be part of the Vegas restaurant experience. Aureole, Charlie Palmer’s decadent destination at Mandalay Bay, turned 12 years old this year, and if you haven’t been (or haven’t been back lately), you’re still missing out on a grand experience. Chef Vincent Pouessel is still calling the shots in the palatial kitchen. Sommelier William Sherer is still blowing minds, and the wine tower angels are still flying up and down for the bottle of your choice. Just like the contents of that bottle, Aureole is only getting better with age, and you don’t need to wait for a special occasion to celebrate that.
Vegas is Way Better than New York Restaurant Experience of the Year: Rao’s. The reason why Vegas equals awesome is the same reason why locals rarely visit the Strip: convenience. What if you could somehow gain access to the most inaccessible, legendarily busy restaurant of all time, with a single phone call? Wouldn’t that be amazing? It is. Thank you, Vegas (and Caesars Palace), for making the iconic Rao’s of Harlem available to us all — the classic Neapolitan food, the festive experience, the whole package. You don’t have to pretend you’re Derek Jeter to get a taste of the lemon chicken or seafood salad around here. Extra bonus: best meatballs of all time.
The Dishes We Look Forward to Missing in 2012: Tie — Bradley Ogden and Wazuzu. Why look back and lament that we’ll never again enjoy barbecue shrimp and blue cheese coleslaw from the extinct Rosemary’s Restaurant when we can look ahead to the torment other departing tasty bites will bring? Consider this a heads-up: You have a very limited time to eat these, two of the best dishes I’ve ever sampled. Everybody talks about the burger at Bradley Ogden, but the bison filet (back on the block now that Ogden’s gone to a steakhouse menu) is one of the most flavorful, tender steaks ever noshed. This acclaimed Caesars Palace dining room will likely close in the first quarter of 2012, so get at it. Across the street at Encore’s Wazuzu, it remains to be seen if Vegas’ finest Panang curry will stay online now that chef Jet Tila is moving on. You can find me under the big crystal dragon hoarding this spicy Thai goodness while it lasts.
The Best Use of French Fries of the Year: Julian Serrano. I expect to see “Best Use of French Fries” in a permanent capacity in next year’s Restaurant Awards, especially with so many restaurants experimenting with, let’s face it, nature’s perfect food. But until then, nothing rises above one of the top tapas at Julian Serrano’s eponymous Aria restaurant. Huevos Estrellados may be a simple, traditional Spanish dish, but there’s nothing typical about these flavors. These fries — thin, crispy and almost creamy inside — are topped with fried eggs with runny yolks and bits of spicy pork chorizo. This restaurant should be open for breakfast and serve this dish alone, that’s how good it is. — Brock Radke