For a long time, Japanese dining options in Las Vegas were very limited and barely broke the double digits.
And then, in 2008, Raku opened.
The small-plates restaurant quickly became a hit with chefs from the Strip and foodies from all over.
Food writer John Curtas said the opening of Raku was a big one for Japanese cuisine in Las Vegas.
"It elevated Japanese food in America, in Las Vegas specifically, to the level of what you would get in a bigger city like Los Angeles or San Francisco or New York," he said.
Curtas said chef Mitsuo Endo actually built the restaurant himself to echo the izakaya bars in Japan — and on the cheap, though it doesn't look cheap.
"The food was really, really authentic, pristine food and the chefs took notice all across the Strip," Curtas said.
A wave of new and unique Japanese dining experiences followed. The phenomenon not only began a revitalization of Chinatown, it also spread out into the suburbs.
Curtas said high-end sushi places like Kabuto and noodle houses like Monta followed.
"They're all very small," he said. "I think it was that downsizing that really came on the heels of the  recession. People realized that small is beautiful. The Japanese have known this for hundreds of thousands of years, but in America we want our restaurants to be big and oversized and flamboyant and these tiny little exquisite jewel boxes really appealed to the downsizing economy we were going through."
That wave has not stopped, even through the pandemic.
Endo recently opened Toridokoro Raku, which specializes in chicken dishes.
Curtas also recommends Kaiseki-Yuzu on Spring Mountain Road, Yu-or-Mi Sushi downtown, and Sushi Hiroyoshi on West Charleston Boulevard and Jones Boulevard.
He said the most recent spate of Japanese restaurants are different from the sushi places of yore.
"These newer restaurants are much more Japanese than the sushi bars of the 1990s and '80s that Vegas had, which were mainly owned by Korean restauranteurs, who did a good job of mimicking Japanese food — but the actual Japanese chefs who are trained in Japan do a much finer job than people who are just picking up the cuisine as a way to make money," he said.
One person who has helped with that shift is Martin Koleff. He's a restaurant stylist, which means helping chefs execute their visions. Curtas explained that Koleff helps bridge language and culture divides between Japanese chefs and American diners.
Koleff said he and Chef Endo decided to open Toridokoro Raku even in the middle of a pandemic because they knew the original Raku had a fan base.
"We just went on because Raku has fans. The customers are around something like 10,000 that are regulars and that's from all over the world. So, we thought we could do Toridokoro," Koleff said.
He helped Endo create the original Raku. Koleff explained that the chef had been working in corporate kitchens but wanted to create something simpler.
"He wanted to get out of corporate and just sit down and make good food and have everybody be happy," he said. "He wasn’t really thinking about expanding or anything. He just wanted to be relaxed and serve good food."
Yuki Yamamori is the area manager for Mon Restaurant Group, which owns the Monta restaurants in the valley. She said things like ramen and sushi are popular in Las Vegas for the same reason they're popular in Japan.
"People grab a couple of pieces of sushi and go to work," she said. "Originally both sushi and ramen were a working-class food in Japan. That's the reason why the Japanese restaurants work in Las Vegas, I believe."
Yamamori would like to see more upscale offerings in Las Vegas.
"I think the Japanese dining scene can grow up by introducing more high-end Japanese restaurants." she said, "There's a lot more to Japanese cuisine."
As for Curtas, he would like to see more places similar to small restaurant-bars that can be found all around Tokyo. Some only have a few seats and chefs only prepare food for a few people at a time.
Overall, Curtas credits the explosion of great Asian restaurants for reinvigorating Las Vegas' dining scene.
"These restaurants.... in small subtle ways are making our local dining scene a much more exciting place," he said.
Yuki Yamamori, Area Manager, Mon Restaurant Group; Martin Koleff, restaurant stylist; John Curtas, food writer, eatinglv.com
You won’t find a paywall here. Come as often as you like — we’re not counting. You’ve found a like-minded tribe that cherishes what a free press stands for. If you can spend another couple of minutes making a pledge of as little as $5, you’ll feel like a superhero defending democracy for less than the cost of a month of Netflix.