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Fifth Street

August 5, 2021

In this issue: The Bacchanal Buffet is Back, and Tasty Variety Reigns | The Yokel News: HBO's New Series on Pahrump News | Malls Are Dead. Long Live the Meadows Mall

DURING THE PANDEMIC, one of the biggest questions for the Las Vegas culinary scene — and the city’s economy — was, “Will this be the death of the hotel buffet?” No city is more synonymous with over-the-top, all-you-can-eat dining than Sin City. Vegas buffets are culinary centerpieces, dining destinations that warrant repeat business and encourage visitors to explore other resort restaurants. The death of the buffet would be the death of much more than just that. It would be the end of something essential to the Las Vegas experience.

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Get in line at 4 p.m. at the Bacchanal Buffet at Caesars Palace now, and any concern about the long-term future of buffets will quickly vanish. Instead, your worries will turn immediate — as in, worrying about how long you’ll have to wait to get in. (Executive Chef Josh Grimes tells me that wait times are currently one to two hours, even with a reservation system.)

The buffet is alive and well, which is excellent for our city. But that fact says something more about the average diner. COVID is threatening a resurgence, to be sure, but you wouldn’t know that as you wait for freshly carved prime rib at Bacchanal’s American station or a Nutella crepe with whipped cream made to order at the dessert station. There’s something more than just food attracting people to the Las Vegas buffet. There’s something deeply American about it. “It resonates with the customer,” Grimes says. “People are overjoyed that they can fill their own plate. It brings back the charisma and excitement that comes with the buffet.”

Grimes and his team, along with Caesars Entertainment Executive Chef Jennifer Murphy, have done a noteworthy job overhauling the Bacchanal. An eight-month refresh was already in the cards for the enormous dining space, but that was extended due to the pandemic. The extra time gave the culinary team more freedom to think about how food is served, to tinker with new items, and to remake the look and feel of certain stations.

The beloved seafood station has a more open feel to it, with some of the dour architecture replaced with user-friendly views. More items are now on display in ice bins, emphasizing freshness. A rotating grill cooks up oysters a la minute. King crab legs can now be ordered hot or cold. And three mini-plates are there for individuals who want to grab and go: corn clam chowder, grilled octopus, and cedar-plank salmon.

The ever-popular American area is now easier for diners as well, as the two meat carving stations currently mirror each other, which, theoretically should cut down on wait time (though it still seems confusing to diners looking for fresh slabs of wagyu steamship and 12-hour cooked brisket.) An Argentinian-style grill is the cooking vessel of choice, with peach and oak wood burning off, their embers dropping  to help cook the rotating meats. It’s a sight to behold for carnivores.

For vegans, there are supposedly around 100 options to choose from. It seems as if each specific type of dining offers an item or two — roasted purple cauliflower with sautéed broccolini with Calabrian Chili or tomato tartare — to be had at the ready. However, it might be confusing to vegans to find where to go and what to choose. With so many new stations built in, a dedicated area for non-meat eaters would be helpful.

Of the new stations, the most impressive is dedicated to Korean street food. Could old-school Vegas buffet eaters have imagined a day when Korean fried chicken, gochujang rice noodles, japchae, and kalbi short ribs were all at the ready? Another cool new spin on things is at the Mexican station, where the rotating taco bar has been replaced by an elote bar. Mexican street corn can be customized with toppings including Takis and Hot Cheetos.

The dessert station is as much a centerpiece now as it was before the remodel. A bevy of new treats awaits eaters looking to satisfy their sweet tooth: Ube chiffon cake, hot s’mores bars and yuzu flavored tarts now join the house-made gelato and crepes.

As impressive as the new Bacchanal Buffet is, one questions remains: How is it adjusting to a post COVID world? The answer is murky. On the hand, it can boast about how many “minis” are offered throughout the buffet that diners can pick up without others touching them. On the other hand, the aguas frescas (Mexican mixed juices) could easily be individually jarred, but instead sit in a large water cooler where diners have to touch the handle, one after the next, and put their cups under the spigot, one after the next, to get their drinks. It’s easy to say it’s fine to do since COVID restrictions have been lifted, but it doesn’t exactly help showcase new hygiene measures. But by the looks of the long lines waiting to get in, hungry diners really don’t care about that.

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EARLY IN THE first episode of the new HBO reality series Small Town News: KPVM Pahrump, there’s a sort of “Pahrump’s greatest hits” montage, with a quick succession of footage featuring Heidi Fleiss, the Chicken Ranch, donkey basketball, Dennis Hof, and alien abduction. It could set up the show as a mockery of the hicks and rubes of Pahrump, but it’s more like producers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato want to get all that out of the way as soon as possible. Yes, there’s such stuff in Pahrump, they acknowledge, but there’s more to the town than that, and KPVM is a big part of it.

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Small Town News doesn’t always find the right balance between the Pahrump grotesquerie and the human drama, but it’s still a watchable and sympathetic portrait of the scrappy independent TV station owned by Vernon Van Winkle. As the first episode notes, there are only about 95 independent TV stations left in the U.S., where the vast majority of local TV stations are owned by corporate conglomerates. Van Winkle has been running KPVM since 1997, and he embodies the independent/stubborn Wild West streak of Pahrump, for better or worse.

There’s a sitcom-style opening-credits sequence in each episode of Small Town News, and the mix of oddball characters at the station and in the town has a distinct Parks and Recreation vibe. Pahrump isn’t Pawnee, Indiana, but Small Town News makes it seem as close as possible, right down to the Ron Swanson-Leslie Knope dynamic between Van Winkle and his news director, Deanna O’Donnell. Van Winkle is a lot more emotionally open than Ron Swanson, but he’s a hardcore conservative who values independence and the free market, while O’Donnell is a Pahrump booster and a rare liberal in a red county.

The political divide becomes increasingly relevant over the course of the six-episode season, which starts with a January 2020 pilot episode then fast-forwards to September and beyond for the rest of the season, as KPVM deals with the pandemic and the impending presidential election. The show treats both of those serious events as fodder for goofy comedy at first, only getting to some somber reflections about the election at the end of the season. The pandemic seems mostly like a minor inconvenience for KPVM staffers and the residents of Pahrump, who are shown wearing masks far less frequently than they’re shown without them. And the clashing political viewpoints between Van Winkle and O’Donnell are also often played more for sitcom wackiness than as representative of the deep divide in American culture.

Pahrump is Trump country, and Small Town News treats that as just another Pahrump quirk, along with the brothels and the woman who buys airtime on KPVM in the middle of the night to broadcast her weird songs about alien encounters and dating Michael Jackson. Bailey and Barbato shy away from any true animosity, but they’re just following the lead of their subjects, who crack jokes with each other and clearly care deeply about the ragtag KPVM family, even when Van Winkle is spouting conservative conspiracy-theory talking points and O’Donnell is feebly protesting about the need for the news to remain unbiased.

Small Town News succeeds better when it focuses on the personal relationships among the staff and on the service that KPVM provides to the Pahrump community. Van Winkle is fixated on the station’s potential expansion to Las Vegas, which is set in motion in the first episode but then derailed by the pandemic. But it’s clear that KPVM’s greatest value is in the kind of local reporting that corporate-owned stations often lose sight of, and even the Pahrump ridiculousness highlighted in that opening-episode montage represents genuine community engagement. 

It’s easy to laugh at the low-budget ads that KPVM creates for clients like local lawyers and real estate agents, or at the threadbare studio that O’Donnell and the rest of the on-air talent broadcast from (complete with dogs roaming freely). Weatherman and reporter John Kohler wears cargo shorts under his jacket and tie because they won’t be seen on camera, and he dresses in his outfit from his days as an Elvis impersonator to deliver the weather, just because he can. 

But he’s also invested in the town that he and his wife and fellow on-air personality Missey have recently moved to, and they both take on multiple positions at KPVM to keep the station going. O’Donnell has been reporting on Pahrump news for 15 years, and she’s obviously a pillar of the community. Co-anchor Eunette Gentry commutes from Vegas (where she teaches journalism at CSN), but that doesn’t mean she takes Pahrump journalism less seriously.

All of these people are also entertaining characters to watch, and while Small Town News may carry the imprimatur of HBO Documentary Films, it can fit perfectly alongside Vegas-based reality shows like Pawn Stars or Counting Cars. Bailey and Barbato, who discovered KPVM while making a 2008 documentary about Heidi Fleiss, have a well-honed sense for the kind of personalities that make for good TV (they produce everything from RuPaul’s Drag Race to Million Dollar Listing). There are plenty of offbeat stories in Pahrump and at KPVM, and Small Town News’ first season just barely begins to explore them. If the show makes Pahrump look silly at times, that’s because Pahrump is silly — a trait that’s essential to its charm.

Small Town News: KPVM Pahrump airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on HBO and is streaming on HBO Max.

HEAR MORE: Lights, Camera, Pahrump: Meet the HBO "Small Town News" Team

 

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WHEN MY DAUGHTERS were young, we often visited the Meadows Mall. It was a preferred destination for school clothes, pictures with Santa and the Easter bunny, and small bags of carefully selected candies from the Sweet Factory. We dressed up for family portraits at JCPenney.

For me, it was all about Waldenbooks and B. Dalton, the rival bookstores, one on the top floor, one on the bottom, both now absent from the planet. This was before Las Vegas had any big Borders or Barnes & Noble megastores, much less an independent book shop like The Writer’s Block. The selection at those mall stores was limited, but you usually could walk out with something worth reading.

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For these reasons and others, the Meadows Mall is woven into the fabric of our family’s history.

Conventional wisdom holds that the indoor shopping mall is dying, and that the pandemic dealt the final blow to this one-time juggernaut of retail commerce. But professional prognosticators love to paint portraits of impending ruin. They want you to envision piles of crumpled concrete and rusted steel, with flickering Foot Locker and Forever 21 signs jutting from the wreckage.

Reality tends to be more complicated. In fact, many malls are not dying, despite radical changes in the retail world. Rather, they are evolving, adapting to changing conditions. Malls may have lost a step amid competition from  Amazon, Walmart and Target, but reports of their death are greatly exaggerated.

Locally, this evolution is perhaps most evident at the Boulevard Mall on Maryland Parkway, with its SeaQuest aquarium and international food court. But a few recent visits to the Meadows Mall suggest that it, too, is responding to the new retail normal.

Meadows once was a regional shopping destination. It was big, clean, safe, and easy to get to, with US 95 exits at both ends. It was considered the suburban mall, believe it or not, a distinction it certainly cannot boast of today.

The days of Meadows’ regional supremacy are long over. The Galleria at Sunset conquered the southeast valley, while Downtown Summerlin grabbed the well-heeled west side. Meadows has endured these incursions, in part, by catering to Las Vegas’ growing diversity.

That diversity was on brilliant display during my recent mall runs. White, Black, Latino and Asian residents are all amply represented among the customers and employees alike, reflecting the population of surrounding neighborhoods.

What I detected at Meadows is a transition from regional shopping destination to neighborhood retail, entertainment and service complex. While stalwarts Macy’s, JCPenney and Spencer’s Gifts endure, they have been joined by nontraditional mall businesses: an insurance agency, dentist office, tattoo parlor. It makes sense to incorporate services into this retail environment. Who doesn’t want to pair a dental appointment with something fun?

To be sure, Meadows’ food court has some vacancies, but there is still variety. The neighborhood, I suspect, will dictate the food court’s direction, rather than corporate executives following a formula.

If Meadows fully embraces its trending neighborhood orientation, it has the potential to become a community resource in some fresh and interesting ways. Meadows has lots of space, both inside and in its vast parking lots. In addition to the nontraditional businesses that have already moved in, there are a few other ways Meadows could evolve.

It could lease office space, which would, in turn, bring potential customers to the stores and restaurants. It could host college classes. Much-needed rental housing is yet another option — not in the mall, necessarily, but around it.  Malls also are ideal venues for family-oriented entertainers. Santa and the Easter bunny are great for a couple of weeks in the spring and winter, but why not fill the whole year with reasons to take the kids to the mall?

The writer Bill Bryson once said, “We used to build civilizations. Now we build shopping malls.” Reimagining malls as community gathering places could contribute to rebuilding our civilization fractured by presidential politics and pummeled by the pandemic.F

Geoff Schumacher is the author of Sun, Sin & Suburbia: The History of Modern Las Vegas.

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Photos and art: Bacchanal Buffet: Courtesy Caesars Entertainment; Small Town News: Missey Kohler, Deanna O’Donnell: Gilles Mingasson/Courtesy HBO; John Kohler: Gilles Mingasson/Courtesy HBO; Eunette Gentry and Deanna O’Donnell: Courtesy of HBO; Meadows Mall: Christopher Smith

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