Fifth Street

October 21, 2021

In this issue: Witch way to the latest escape room | A love letter to Mount Charleston Lodge | Vegas Unstripped takes the crown as reigning local food fest

SUSHI BURRITO JOINTS. CBD stores. Boba cafes. First it’s one, then it’s 50. Do you visit the one two blocks east or two blocks south? In Las Vegas, you can never have too much of a good or even pretty-standard-really thing. It’s where one entrepreneur strikes gold with a business idea — often pilfered from their last trip to Austin or Venice Beach — and then 10 others immediately say to themselves: “But is there one in Centennial Hills?”

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A few years back, escape rooms became the new attraction du jour, popping up in strip malls across the valley. Part of their popularity stemmed from anyone who grew up playing video games needing maximum interactivity and (incoming buzzword) immersion in their adult amusements. Another part came from some marketing whiz’s idea to sell these walk-through Dell Puzzle Books to companies for team-building exercises — because nothing demonstrates office synergy like the personnel department breaking out of a basement with only a combination lock and a conspicuously dog-eared phone book.

Escape room concepts run the gamut, but one themed after a horror flick seemed like a natural evolutionary stage. So, Jason Egan — father of the now-kaput Fright Dome overlay at the Adventuredome — fashioned one after the Saw movies. If you’ve never seen one, imagine a more macabre version of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. Which meant a hard pass from me, be it the films or their indoor-playground equivalent. In fact, until this assignment, I’d never rounded up a group for any escape room.

But when Egan recently doubled down and licensed The Blair Witch Project for another escape room at his Naked City compound, I was on board. The 1999 movie ranks high on the legit-fearsome scale; I recall opening weekend and walking with numb briskness to my car after watching that ending. Egan clearly saw maximum creepage in the movie’s old cemeteries, abandoned cabins, and disquieting woods. And since I needed a new haunt-like experience for this Halloween season — last year’s was Egan’s inspired, socially distanced Fright Ride — I talked a couple of pals into spending their Friday night sleuthing through a fake Maryland forest. 

After signing waivers telling us we might die — especially if we even thought about taking out our phones — our experience began at what looked like a ranger’s station. We were encouraged to (gently!) touch everything, as desk drawers, lockers, and heavy doors provide numerous gateways through the multi-room experience, provided you can identify the clues and solve their puzzles.

What’s the mission, besides excessive surface touching during a pandemic and making you feel occasionally stupid? Some students have gone missing in the woods, and you must find them before the Blair Witch finds you. So, you nose around for codes — but they aren’t always numbers or letters. And sometimes it’s not a code that gets you through to the next scene, but a life-sized puzzle that you have to solve. This isn’t merely a touch-and-go haunted house; it’s a $46 IQ test, albeit one fashioned by Knott’s Berry Farm. Not only are parts of this gumshoe ghoul hunt genuinely shuddersome — more than once did someone in our group say, “You put your hand in there!” — but the attention to detail is of theme-park caliber. Both trigger a suspension of disbelief that makes for an amusing adventure. And each code cracked boosts that satisfaction level even further.

The biggest delights are the surprise pathways and surprise props and even surprise spaces that may or may not contain surprises themselves, all leading to an old house in the woods that eventually summons the spirit of that ending. And if you avoid the same fate that befell Heather, Mike, and Josh in the original movie, then you’ll end up unscathed and in the most inevitable of finish lines: the gift shop. (Hey Jason Egan: Maybe trouble the County for a liquor license and install a bar instead? I guarantee better profits from spooky cocktails than Hot Topic-esque souvenirs.)

All told, it takes the average group a little over an hour, which is the time it took mine to successfully navigate the horror course. There were three of us, and the minimum number recommended for groups is four, but teamwork made the bad-dream-work, and I’d do it again.

 

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BACK IN 2018, while the corporate machine of Condé Nast Publications was running a food festival on the Strip called Vegas Uncork’d, churning out bites sponsored by Fortune 500 businesses, what would become the premier local food fest was actually being birthed on the back parking lot of Esther’s Kitchen. On Oct. 18, that food fest had its debutante ball on Main Street, coming into its own as a culinary calendar staple. 

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Vegas Unstripped was originally a kind of cheeky, punk-rock version of a food festival masterminded by Eric Gladstone, who’s had careers as a music journalist and food critic, and is now a public relations entrepreneur. “Someone’s gotta do it!” says Gladstone. “Why not us?” On top of those roles, he’s now creator of the greatest show of local Vegas flavor of 2021.

The mission of Vegas Unstripped is simple but ambitious: Gather the best local chefs, challenge them to experiment with a brand-new dish, and provide some hefty competition to the Strip culinary regime. That mission is clearly getting some traction; this year marks the first Vegas Unstripped outside of that back parking lot, now taking over a chunk of Main Street. A larger footprint and a bigger crowd meant higher stakes for these chefs serving up special, one-night-only dishes. To my palate, every culinary gamble paid off.

Justin Kingsley Hall (Main St. Provisions, Peyote) had a thick, char-grilled slice of kingfish loin, wrapped in a betel leaf (similar to a shiso), with creamy smoked shellfish sauce and roasted peanuts. Another standout dish was by Jackson Stamper of Ada’s Wine Bar. He served up a Mediterranean-inspired lamb tartare with olive, mint, shallot, and preserved lemon, on a za’atar cracker. Unstripped was also the first look at Half Bird, a new Chinatown spot from Chef Brian Howard (Sparrow + Wolf). Anthony La Mantia, the chef of Half Bird, made what he called a “Spring Mountain-style” hot chicken, similar to a Nashville hot chicken, prepared with a Thai green curry ranch, garlic chili crisp, and house-made pickles. Chef Johnny Church also had a novel take on “chicken and waffles”: chicken fried foie gras, cornbread waffles, and Johnny C’s Vermont maple pepper gastrique. Little wonder Church’s Johnny C’s Diner has become one of the best breakfast/lunch spots in town.

Among the desserts, the plant-based sundaes by Paradise City Creamery took the metaphorical cake. Operated by Downtown entrepreneur Valerie Stunning, Paradise served up a top-notch salted vanilla and brandied balsamic fig sundae that would fit right in on a fine-dining restaurant’s dessert menu.

But most refreshingly, there were simply so many wonderful, inspired, unique dishes — and so little of the big-budget, oversold nonsense that typically comes with massive corporate food fests. Perhaps that’s because of Vegas Unstripped’s deceptively deep roots. Ten years ago, there was a spiritual predecessor of sorts to Unstripped: As a food writer, Gladstone had put together the “Feast of Friends” for his Vegas Star Chefs website. Meant to be a sort of guild of the Vegas chef scene, many of the current heavy-hitters of our city were there: Brian Howard, Daniel Ontiveros, Johnny Church, Geno Bernardo, Jacques Van Staden, and more.

The tradition of a group of passionate chefs being hand-selected to create unique bites continued this year on Main Street — but, happily, this friendly feast boasts a much bigger table. If this is the caliber of food festival we can expect in a post-COVID world, next year’s Vegas Unstripped should be at the top of any food lover’s must-go list.

 

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AS I CAME IN out of the first snow of the season, the Mount Charleston Lodge on a Friday night buzzed with activity — the tinkling of glasses, the murmur of familiar voices at the end of a long work week. Through the big picture window, snowflakes caught the moonlight, turning the view of upper Kyle Canyon into a postcard-perfect image befitting one of the great natural gifts of living in Southern Nevada. Locals mingled with gawking visitors as the bar and restaurant filled up, and a musician began strumming out classic rock tunes on his acoustic guitar. 

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Many of my memories of the lodge, destroyed by fire on Sept. 17, start that way. It’s the kind of scene many visitors experienced when they made the 22-mile drive up State Route 157 from the Las Vegas Valley’s desert greasewood and Joshua, above the juniper and pinyon, and into the subalpine elevation and tall trees of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. At nearly 8,000 feet above the valley, lodge newcomers sometimes found themselves dizzy before they ordered their first Irish coffee.

That’s a mental scrapbook snapshot of the lodge, and I collected a lot of them in nearly three decades living on the mountain. There was an Ansel Adams moment in every sunrise, and a thrill in the change of every season.

The lodge has a solid place in Southern Nevada history. The first one was built in 1915, with a second constructed in the aftermath of a devastating fire in 1961. The lodge has attracted plenty of celebrities from the Strip and Hollywood, including Donny Osmond and Nicholas Cage in recent years. But, as locals and visitors know, the mountain itself is the star of the show, with its forest and wildlife, cool temperatures, and fragrantly fresh air. Protecting it against wildland fires, the effects of climate change, and its own popularity with visitors from the city gets more challenging each year.

Let me tell you a little about the lodge’s best feature, though: the mountain people who for decades made it their special place for community fundraisers, celebrations, weddings, and wakes, and ceremonies of every variety. In all weather, and for almost any good reason at all, neighbors turned out to pass the hat and share a meal in support of the volunteer fire department, Metro citizen volunteers, Lundy Elementary, school graduations, and birthday bashes. The buffet lines at times stretched the length of the room, and a seemingly endless parade of raffles and friendly auctions collected cash for almost any cause on the calendar.

Longtime mountain residents — although still aching at the loss of a watering hole and restaurant almost literally in their own back yard — will never forget Old Town matriarch Rose Meranto’s 80th birthday at the lodge. In addition to a capacity crowd and all the traditional fare, “Mountain Rose” stole the show as she sipped from a martini glass big enough to bathe twins. (I’m not saying that she finished the glorified goldfish bowl of vodka, but only because that part of the story is off the record.)

It was also the place I watched my daughter Amelia grow up in a community that wrapped its arms around our family when she was diagnosed with brain cancer. Through all her travails, the love and support my family received could never be repaid, and will never be forgotten. How could we not love the lodge that provided a setting for so many of those memories?

I want to paint the lodge in nostalgic colors, but it was far from perfect. The acoustics were terrible when the place was full. The ancient bathrooms left a lot to be desired. Its management improved sharply under the dedicated effort of Thomas Schneekloth, who had a genuine appreciation of the neighbors not only as a customer base, but as a community that held the whole mountain together.

That focus on community didn’t end at closing time. During wildland fires that, tragically, have occurred with increasing frequency in recent years, the lodge more than once was converted into a place of respite and recharge for firefighters from throughout the region, the buffet and cold drinks never ending, thanks to Thomas and his crew. It’s also true that we didn’t need a reason to have a celebration. The highlight of many evenings was catching up with friends and neighbors who shared in common a love of the mountain, its weather and forest and wildlife. Toast it one week, curse it the next — I think we all had a love-hate relationship with winter. Everyone admired the first and last snowstorm of the season. In between, a lot of grumbling could be heard as the snowblowers and broadfaced shovels came out — and stayed out — for months at a time. When it was time for an end-of-winter farewell to the snow, ice, and slush, it was the place to be.

The lodge was a comfortable cantina and restaurant that managed to maintain a family feel despite the weekend crush of visitors, whose habits were often a topic of our discussion. Throngs of vehicles lined the sides of SR 157 as tourists tested steep mountainsides not meant for easy sledding. Hey, they don’t call that icy incline on the edge of Old Town “Suicide Hill” for nothing. Upper Kyle Canyon is the site of enough broken bones each winter to fill an emergency room to overflowing.

Although not everyone had a lot in common, at the lodge they all came together to share common concerns, common complaints, and a common love for an uncommon place located just this side of heaven. The lodge hasn’t been gone long, but I already miss the echoes of laughter of neighbors and friends as they celebrated and savored a precious sense of community.

 

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Photos and art: Blair Witch Escape Room: courtesy; Vegas Unstripped: Christopher Smith; Mount Charleston Lodge: Kumar Sriskandan / Alamy Stock Photo 

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