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Desert Companion

You drank what?!

An intrepid tippler takes on some of the toughest drinks in town

The Durian Smoothie at Lee’s Sandwiches

You can tell yourself all day long that you’re open-minded about trying foreign cuisine, but appreciating durian clearly takes more than mere cultural goodwill.

At a glance, Durian strikes you as a natural dessert fruit. First, it's covered in spikes and a leathery rind, and the innards of a ripe durian are fibrous and custardy, with big, inedible seeds. Also, durian has such a smelly reputation that hotels and airports throughout southern Asia have signs banning guests and travelers from carrying it. So, naturally, street stalls throughout the region serve durian in an array of dishes ranging from a tapioca-like mixture of sticky rice and coconut milk to a handmade toffee candy called dodol.

Here in Las Vegas, you can find durian smoothies in many Thai and Vietnamese restaurants, but most such offerings are weak, using pinches of frozen durian in what basically amounts to a vanilla milkshake.

At Lee's Sandwiches, however, the durian smoothie is authentic and powerful. Order one, and you immediately get sized up by the cashier. It's just the slightest pause, perhaps to see if you're really serious, but the cashier quickly recovers and cheerfully rings you up.

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Once your number is called, as you approach the pickup counter, you run into a curiously strong odor of chopped sweet onions. It's not enough to make your eyes water, but you notice that you're not the only one furrowing your brow and scrunching up your nose. The girl who hands you your smoothie does so with narrowed eyes and pursed lips, though you're not sure if she disapproves of your order or if she just thinks there's no way you're up to it.

As you bring your tray back to your table, you begin to realize that, yes, that incredibly cutting aroma is indeed wafting from your smoothie. It looks innocent enough: just a large plastic cup of yellow milkshake with a domed lid and one of those fat straws you can suck boba through.

To an unaccustomed palate, the first few sips aren't completely unpleasant.

That strong smell, a mix of sugary melon and astringent onions, is reflected directly in the smoothie's taste, but it's suspended beautifully in a thick, cold, lemon-colored custard that brings its own notes of sweetness.

It's a flavor combination largely unknown in American cuisine, and this exoticism — the sheer alien joy of the experience — can carry you through the first few inches of your durian smoothie with something approaching actual enjoyment. After all, who doesn't love a cold, creamy dessert at the end of a meal?

But then you realize that the aftertaste, which can only be described as onions on steroids, never fades. Indeed, with each subsequent sip, it just keeps building. Sure, each new mouthful brings a refreshing frisson of sweetness and cold, but it also feels like the onions are actually building up in the back of your throat and filling your sinuses. The mounting power of this aftertaste morphs from onions to something approaching turpentine.

You can only blame yourself for not finishing. After all, generations of Asians have embraced the durian. How could something so beloved be so treacherously awful?

Still, better men than you won't touch the stuff. Andrew Zimmern, a man made famous by hosting “Bizarre Foods,” a TV show in which he travels the world eating weird things like bugs and odd viscera, can't abide durian at all. Author and raconteur Anthony Bourdain said on his own TV show that eating durian will leave your breath smelling "as if you've been french-kissing your dead grandmother."

And so you surrender. As your head reels with the fumes of durian’s aftertaste, you admit defeat. Call it culinary parochialism. Call it lack of spine. Whatever you call it, the result is that two-thirds of your durian smoothie ends up in the trash as you stumble out of Lee's Sandwiches, gripped by nausea and shame.

But you'll be back. You swear it. You will return. And next time, you might even finish. (Lee's Sandwiches, 3989 Spring Mountain Road, 331-9999)


The Bacon Martini at the Double Down Saloon

Nowadays, people make martinis out of everything. There are martinis made with chocolate and pomegranates. You can even get a martini made with eggnog. So it only seems natural that we should also make martinis with bacon. After all, this is America.

At the Double Down Saloon, they serve a $6, no-nonsense bacon martini. No special glass with a pig etched into it, no tossed-in handfuls of gourmet bacon bits. They start with their own bacon-infused vodka, which sits innocently in an unlabeled bottle just under the bar. When asked what brand of vodka they use, more than one bartender professes ignorance. Another bartender admits they use “whatever’s on sale.”

In any case, their method of infusion is simple: they stuff three or four slices of cooked bacon into the bottle of vodka and let it sit for a couple of weeks before serving. The process leaches the color out of the bacon, so that the slices take on a ghostly appearance as they float vertically in the center of the bottle, like kelp made of pork.

“When they see that, a lot of customers ask if the bacon is raw,” says a bartender named Phil. “I like to let them believe it.”

The drink menu at the Double Down Saloon consists of posters handwritten in marker and taped to the wall. When a patron points to the Bacon Martini poster, the bartender takes a martini glass, lines it with a trace of vermouth, and then fills it with the infused vodka that’s been chilled with ice in a shaker. It then gets garnished with a lemon twist and served.

Upon sipping the bacon martini, what hits first is the emulsified bacon fat, which coats the tongue and mouth, sending your brain into a bacon-drenched universe from which you’re unlikely to return for at least an hour.

There is no way around it. The vodka has become a bacon-flavor delivery solution, adding fresh coats of pork fat to your palate with each sip. The vodka also keeps your throat from seizing shut with a grease clog, though one must fight the urge to constantly lick one’s own mouth like a dog eating peanut butter.

The best strategy is just to keep sipping and enjoy your fate. Baste in it. Endure your bacon martini’s abundance of flavor and lipids. Allow it to permeate you, and imagine what you’ll smell like once you start sweating it out.

And when you finish, resist ordering another. Or maybe not. Because only a pig would do that. (Double Down Saloon, 4640 Paradise Road, 791-5775)


Red Fox Russian Imperial Stout

Las Vegas is home to lots of unique things, but almost no one realizes that it has its own stout. After all, stout ales are largely imported, with Guinness from Ireland being perhaps the most famous stout in the world. But the Joseph James Brewing Company in Henderson has been brewing their Red Fox Russian Imperial Stout for several years.

What characterizes a stout ale is its dark color, coming from the use of roasted malt or barley in the brewing process, and its relatively high alcohol content. While the typical American lager has about 5 percent alcohol content, the typical stout ale is at least 7 percent alcohol.

The Red Fox Russian Imperial Stout from Joseph James Brewing Company is 9.3 percent alcohol (owing to the Russians needing to include more alcohol to keep their beer from freezing during winter), and brewer Alex Graham readily admits that he is still “tinkering” with the recipe.

“I’ve been concentrating on the flavor of the beer,” he says. “But now I’m working on its body.”

Currently, Red Fox is medium-bodied, making it lighter than Guinness. A heavier-bodied stout tends to hold its base flavor longer, though a lighter-bodied ale may present more flavors when it is initially poured and be more thirst-quenching to an American palate.

At first sip, Red Fox presents a bright flash of flavors, including notes of coffee and chocolate and even fruit. As it warms, this stout’s flavor settles into maltiness, and its alcohol content becomes more prevalent. This is strong stuff that requires a certain commitment from its drinker. No one’s pouring Red Fox into beer bongs at a frat party.

One could imagine diehard Las Vegans settling down to pints of this stout after a hard day, telling the waitress or the barkeep to send more pints of their “local” as they commiserate on how hard they work to keep the sin in Sin City.

Or not. But if you do get a hankering for a stout that’s a homegrown alternative to the Dublin-born brew that everybody already knows, then try a pint of Red Fox Imperial Stout. Alex Graham swears it’s improving, and he’s one of us. (available at Khoury’s Fine Wine & Spirits, 9915 S. Eastern Avenue #110, 735-9463)


The Steak & Eggs shot at Mango’s

“It’s a mind-bender,” says Rocco Russo, the manager who introduced me to this concoction, which is so notorious in-house that even the bouncer knows how to make it.

“I’ll tell you what’s in it once you drink it,” Russo says. The shot itself is bright red and accompanied by a slice of lemon that’s been dipped in something.

“Just close your eyes, down the shot, and suck on the lemon,” Russo tells me. “And, I swear, you’ll taste steak and eggs.”

The shot goes down easy, a nice blend of warmth and flavor. It’s whiskey and tomato juice. Then I suck the lemon slice, which delivers a clean wash of citrus mixed a bewildering array of spice.

I take a moment to let it all sink in. Then I open my eyes.

“I got it,” I tell Russo. He smiles and tells me the ingredients.

The smokiness and heft of the Jameson whiskey mixes nicely with the acidity of the tomato juice, and, when followed by the lemon slice that’s been dipped in a mix of Worcestershire and steak sauce, it creates an aftertaste that, indeed, recalls the flavor of steak and eggs. And not just any steak and eggs, but the kind of steak and eggs you eat after a long, late pub-crawl that ends in a casino coffee shop. (Mango’s Beach Bar, 6650 Vegas Drive #140, 631-4711)


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