Desert Companion’s 2019 Restaurant Awards
There’s a wry adage that goes something like, “Stick around long enough and you become an institution.” It has a particularly curious relevance in Las Vegas, a young city with lots of potential for getting in on the ground floor, so to speak. That spirit of building histories and establishing legacies figures significantly into 2019’s Restaurant Awards. This year’s winners include many longtime Strip restaurants that have only refined with time — but also relative newcomers whose devotion to a tradition of quality puts them on a path to great futures. Whether they’re Vegas classics or new arrivals to Downtown, this year’s honorees deserve to be culinary institutions for a long time to come.
Hidden Gems of the Year
What happens when a serious chef crafts a menu for a sports bar?
Fried bologna sandwich for the win! Fresh from launching Starboard Tack, a retro rum palace in central Vegas, Bryant Jane and Lyle Cervenka have taken their formidable F&B game to Henderson with Hardway 8, a lively sports bar with a championship-level menu designed by consulting chef Johnny Church. To complement a fantastic craft beer and cocktail program, the kitchen’s bench is deep with savory creations such as zesty Buffalo-style fried oysters (pictured below) and umami-rich Jägerschnitzel, a succulent pork cutlet with mushroom sauce and sided with vibrant red sauerkraut and creamy potato salad. And yeah, that bologna sandwich (pictured above)! Plenty of veggie-forward options are on the roster, too, like a gorgeous, Technicolor trio of hummus with toasted naan and a house salad bursting with Bibb lettuce, roasted tomatoes, and drunken onions. The decor scores, too. Taking its name from the superstar ’77 Runnin’ Rebels basketball squad, Hardway 8 is filled with Vegas athletic memorabilia, like a jai alai mural and a wooden bartop made from reclaimed stadium bleachers. Even better, it’s a family-friendly, non-smoking, and laid-back establishment complete with open-air seating in front to take in the historic Water Street vibe outside. Greg Thilmont
• 46 South Water St.
Welcome to the valley’s best restaurant you probably haven’t been to
If you’re looking for a literal hidden gem, then Tres Cazuelas definitely fits the bill. A labor of love by former Marché Bacchus GM Angelo Reyes, the intimate Latin American restaurant is innocuously tucked away in the same Polaris strip mall as the Sand Dollar Lounge. And while the area bustles with the denizens of late-night Las Vegas, it’s a bit sleepier during daylight hours unless you’re in the know.
Tres Cazuelas is an amalgamation of cuisines from Reyes’ youth, beginning with housemade chips and salsa typical of Mexican restaurants, served with a chipotle aioli more akin to Spanish cuisine. Southern American influences appear in the sharp Peruvian ceviche and smoky churrasco Argentino short rib skewers, while more Spanish influences arise with sweet-and-savory Ibérico dates and pork belly pintxos (both pictured above). (Better yet, the handpicked wine selection is just as eclectic as the menu.) And don’t forget the decidedly Mexican cazuelas. In this instance, cazuelas — a catch-all term for typically casual Spanish dishes cooked in a pot — refers to the rotating trio of weekday lunch dishes where you’ll find some of the more intriguing items, including the complex, layered moles. Best of all, Tres Cazuelas’ dynamic menu makes for a good excuse to return frequently — ideally with friends — to sample the many facets of this richly diverse restaurant. Jim Begley
• 3355 Spring Mountain Road #35
Restaurateur of the Year
Other Mama, Hatsumi, La Monjá
In a mere four years, he’s become a respected fixture — and restless innovator — in the dining scene
It seems like restaurateur/chef Dan Krohmer has been a Vegas fixture forever, but it was only four years ago when the Morimoto alumnus opened his Japanese raw bar-slash-modern American brasserie Other Mama in a nondescript westside strip mall. With clean presentations, an intriguing cocktail list, and a welcoming vibe, it immediately became a darling of valley dining.
Asian Restaurant of the Year
This Asian gem takes typically theatrical teppanyaki to new heights of subtlety and refinement
Nestled modestly in a strip mall across from the Palms, Tatsujin X is a showcase for teppanyaki, a traditional form of Japanese flattop cooking in which chefs prepare the food in front of diners with a bit of flair. While most Americans are familiar with this (Benihana, anyone?), Tatsujin X has more in common with elevated edomae sushi destinations such as Yui and Kabuto than with the acrobatic shrimp emporium. It’s a unique representation of an authentic dining style not seen elsewhere in the valley.
Dashimaki tamago (Japanese omelet with king crab and uni).
So it should come as no surprise that Las Vegas’ most renowned Japanese chef — Mitsuo Endo of Aburiya Raku and Raku Sweets fame — is involved. The opening of Raku (a 2017 Desert Companion Restaurant Awards Hall of Fame honoree) marked a seismic shift in the dining scene that inspired waves of innovative chefs and restaurateurs from Japan to look West for new horizons. As with most successful Japanese restaurants, Tatsujin X’s focus on quality ingredients and clean preparations is paramount. Menu highlights include dashimaki tamago, a savory Japanese omelet saddling a mix of king crab and uni, and a Brobdingnagian grilled oyster bathed in ponzu situated atop edible marinated kombu and savory okonomiyaki, a thick Japanese pancake. But these dishes are just a precursor to the crescendo in which lightly seasoned cuts of steak (or buttery fish, if you’re so inclined) are painstakingly seared with surgical precision. The accompanying trio of dipping sauces is practically unnecessary, as the simply prepared meat itself is the star (although a pairing with the namesake Tatsujin fried rice laden with shiso is a must). Very much like the sleek, contemporary restaurant itself, Tatsujin’s presentation is strikingly simple, eschewing adornment in favor of showcasing the ingredients themselves. It’s never ostentatious or showy, yet it’s dazzling in a way that makes Tatsujin X right at home in Las Vegas. Jim Begley
Dessert plate with dorayaki (red bean pancake)
• 4439 W. Flamingo Road
Pastry Chef of the Year
He’s chef and owner of his own café. But his main role: artist
• 3555 S. Fort Apache Road #141,
New Restaurant of the Year
Vetri Cucina in the Palms
Uncompromising sophistication reigns in this high-rise shrine to modern Italian cuisine
Vetri will take your breath away — if you let it. That qualifier is important because, magnificent as it is, Vetri isn’t for everyone. Crowd-pleasing isn’t in its vocabulary, and pizza and chicken parm are nowhere to be found on the menu. This is sophisticated Italian fare, the kind well-heeled northern Italians eat. All of it is served in a nonpareil setting — 56 floors up, without a doubt the most spectacular of any Italian restaurant in the country — a location that disproves the cynical adage that the higher you get off the ground, the worse the food is. Marc Vetri made his name in Philadelphia, running what many consider the best Italian spot in America. With this offshoot, he’s bestowed upon Las Vegas a jewel box of a restaurant loaded with Piemonte gems that may seem foreign to many — casoncelli, foie gras pastrami, tonnarelli cacio e pepe, and Swiss chard gnocchi, not to mention smoked roasted goat — all of it unique, and every bite a revelation in modern Italian cooking. No restaurant enhanced Vegas’ foodie cred more than Vetri did in the past year and, at a time when everyone is announcing the death of fine dining, The Palms brought a dose of big-city sass to our scene. You don’t have to get dressed to the nines to go to Vetri, but the food on your plate — and the view — will make you feel like a million. Quite a splash for something residing so high in the sky. J ohn Curtas
Smoked Goat with Polenta
Swiss Chard Gnocchi
Saffron Fusilli with lobster
Cocktail Bar of the Year
The Sand Dollar
The storied blues bar’s latest incarnation is its best
The cocktail menu is packed with elaborate concoctions that shift with the seasons. This summer featured the Black Magic Woman, a mix of mezcal, aloe liqueur, bitters, and pepper for a spicy, slow-heating sipper. The cooler weather has brought out drinks such as the Legalize It (pictured), a blend of Ketel One orange vodka, Cachaca, Amaro, horchata and matcha, creating a drink that’s creamy, yet not cloying. There’s also a stash of personal whiskey bottles behind the bar, which owners decorate with their own artwork. (“Some people make something really nice out of it, some people just draw dicks all over it,” quips a bartender, an observation that could be applied to life in general.) If that’s too posh, help yourself to the beer vending machine, stocked with cans of chilled brew, including a “mystery beer” that could be Colt 45 or White Claw, depending on your luck. Another lure is the pizzas, which come loaded with offbeat toppings, like the Frank’s Red Hot-doused Buffalo Soldier or the Boars on Parade, with pepperoni, sausage, and salami.
One constant through the years: live music every night. Much has been made of long-ago visits from Muddy Waters and the Rolling Stones, but the usual acts lean toward local blues, rockabilly, and classic rock. And if there’s a bar whose story is a blues song, it’s The Sand Dollar. Its history is a zigzag of zeniths and nadirs — legendary visits from Prince and B.B. King, as well as a dramatic Bar Rescue fail — but The Sand Dollar’s latest iteration is breathing new life into a Vegas classic. Lissa Townsend Rodgers
• 3355 Spring Mountain Road #30
Hall of Fame Award
Picasso in Bellagio
In a city known for imitations and knock-offs, Picasso remains an indisputably original work of art
Picasso's milk-fed veal chop
There are very few restaurants in the world that truly can be called unique, and Las Vegas — spiritual home of the absentee celebrity chef — is not the first place you’d expect to find one-of-a-kind dining. Picasso gave the lie to this reputation from the beginning. It wasn’t an offshoot of anything, and from the moment it swung open its doors at Bellagio in 1998, it offered something no other eatery in the world could match: a gallery of masterworks from Pablo himself hanging on the walls and filling the spaces — a mini-museum, if you will, where the art matched the food and vice versa. Those paintings and sculptures proved to be the perfect backdrop for Julian Serrano’s cuisine, and night after night the room is filled with knowledgeable patrons dividing their time between gazing at the art or becoming absorbed in the beauty on their plates. Serrano has always been the antithesis of the gallivanting media star, and his Spanish-inflected Mediterranean menu is as eye-catching as the cubism on display. Whatever alchemy brought him and those paintings together was sheer wizardry, and for 21 years it’s given Las Vegas a restaurant experience unlike any other, anywhere. John Curtas
Pistachio Souffle, and foie gras with candied walnuts and pear chutney
Excellence in Service and Management
Michael Mina in Bellagio
You won’t notice the brisk clockwork behind the experience — which is exactly how it should be
Strip Restaurant of the Year
Mott 32 in the Palazzo
Quintessentially Hong Kong, Mott 32’s luxuriant eclecticism has a perfect home in the neon pastiche of the Strip
Green Forest desert
This jewel of Hong Kong cuisine shines brightly in the Palazzo, and stepping inside is akin to being in a place out of time. Any moment feels equally like being in a century gone by and yet to come, bathed in neon and brocade, with a menu that uses traditional Chinese dining techniques as a broad palette. They rose from a warehouse, up a spiral staircase, in the Hong Kong Standard Chartered Bank building. Now, surrounded by opulence in the Entertainment Capital of the World, they’re among a greater pantheon, working such miracles as their Peking duck program. These behemoth ducks are selected in their prime, dry-aged and marinated for 48 hours, roasted in an applewood-fired brick oven, and finally carved tableside with all manner of accoutrements. This is, by far, the most lovingly, obsessively prepared (and quite possibly the largest) duck that money can buy.
Hot and sour dumpling
Mott 32’s cocktail menu takes just as much precedence as the desserts or wine, each of them being an expertly curated dive into a Chinese apothecary’s cabinet. Ginseng, shiso, tonka bean, osmanthus honey, and căoguŏ give the drinks soul. The wine program is developed by accomplished sommeliers, and boasts a curated list of bottles heavily drawing from Bordeaux and Burgundy.
applewood-roasted peking duck
Our city’s Chinese fine-dining scene has been middling for years, with many four-dollar-sign spots on Yelp being not much more than a patronizing tour through some Beijing-style basics and Imperial cuisine standards that substitute rarity over sensory pleasure. Mott 32, being quintessentially Hong Kong, distills many different styles and creates dishes that have elements of high and low, East and West. For example, the hot-and-sour soup dumplings combine a Szechuan-style soup, a Shanghai-style dumpling, and the vaunted Spanish Iberico pork to make a bite that pales all previous experiences of xiaolongbao. Just about every dish has something unique that makes Mott 32 different than the cavalcade of predictable high-end Chinese places. You could say Las Vegas is the Hong Kong of the West and, as such, we now have a port of entry for taking a culinary journey to the East. Mitchell Wilburn
Chef of the Year
Matthew Hurley, CUT by Wolfgang Puck in the Venetian
Hurley has transformed this destination steakhouse into a personal expression of culinary mastery
In the past few years, it’s become obvious that Wolfgang Puck’s CUT ought to be re-named Matthew Hurley’s CUT. We’re kidding, of course, because Puck’s gastronomic gravitas is what enables Las Vegas to host one of the world’s greatest steakhouses in the first place. But calling CUT just another celebrity chef beef boutique does it a grave injustice because, by flexing his own talent, Hurley has taken CUT to a level few fine steakhouses could dream of. No doubt his creations are highly vetted by the corporate masters, but they give him more than a little latitude to play with his food, and what he’s done with that freedom — with all the top-shelf ingredients at his disposal — is stunning. Hurley uses CUT like a painter uses a palette, gliding back and forth between the raw and the cooked like no steakhouse you’ve ever seen. Pulling off inventive vegetables, a cheese cart, a raw bar, world-class steaks, seafood, and pastas, is something few chefs have the chops for. The elegant fish preparations alone would be right at home in a fine French restaurant, and he and his colleagues are equally adept at slicing high-grade sashimi or various Italian carpaccios. If those aren’t enough, and you’ve got a craving for yukhoe (Korean steak tartare) or some maple-glazed pork belly, well, he’s got you covered there, too. It would be all too easy for a CIA graduate like Hurley (who’s been at the restaurant since its opening in 2008) to simply go through the motions and rake in the dough. Instead, his restless spirit has transformed CUT Las Vegas into an epicurean dreamland, and one of the best restaurants in America. John Curtas
Restaurant of the Year
Lotus of Siam
At its glamorous new home near the Strip, Lotus now has a worthy stage for its showstopping Northern Thai cuisine
Lotus of Siam
Lotus of Siam’s khao soi (crispy duck on rice noodles in curry);
koi soi (Northern Thai steak tartare)
When the roof literally caved in on Lotus of Siam two years ago after a deluge, many feared it would be the death knell for Las Vegas’ most famous restaurant. The previous 17 years had seen the Chutima family build an obscure Thai kitchen in a run-down shopping center into a Las Vegas institution. It had already been named “The Best Thai Restaurant in America” for more than a decade when Saipin Chutima won her James Beard Award in 2011, and once the recession subsided, it was the restaurant on every foodie’s lips the minute they landed at McCarran. Instead of throwing in the towel after that flood, the family quickly found a new location on East Flamingo, and faster than you can say koong char num plar, what had been a hole-in-the-wall was transformed into a sleek, modern restaurant that was suddenly as on-fire as one of Chutima’s roasted chili dips. Being closer to the heart of the Strip brought in a flood of new customers, and the new digs provided a fabulous, more fitting backdrop for this award-winning cuisine. What distinguishes Lotus from its competitors are its refined northern Thai dishes that retain the soulful authenticity (and pungent, pulsating electricity) that more Americanized Thai places sacrifice to please mainstream palates. Be it khao soi or koi soi, these recipes crackle with the energy (and chilies) for which Siamese food is known. (It’s a crime to order anything here below “medium spicy.”) Lotus’ grander stage seems to have inspired the whole operation to snap to attention, and it also befits the elegance of one of America’s greatest white wine lists. Maybe it was the flood, or the excitement of a new home, but everything from the service to the spicing is crisper and more consistent. Sometimes it takes a disaster to bring out the best in us. Because of one, Saipin Chutima finally found a space to match her transformative, one-of-a-kind cooking. It was the late, great Jonathan Gold who first bestowed “the best” accolades upon Lotus of Siam — and now, finally, it looks the part. John Curtas
• 620 E. Flamingo Road