What a bizarre place Las Vegas is: an aberrant Disney World surrounded by schlocky suburban shopping strips and eerie gated housing developments. There's the Strip, a ridiculous, artificial fantasyland of mega-casino hotels ringing with the clang of slot machines, each filled with high-priced restaurants catering to high rollers who spend comps like play money. Beyond it, commercial streets stretch out with mile after mile of tacky strip malls, thrown up with no regard for aesthetics. Ranged in between, the walled-off residential areas, often closed off by locked gates, contain row after row of nearly identical fake-Spanish houses.
I had two trips to the area in as many weeks, with only moderate control over where I'd eat and little time for research ahead of time. I can't say I had a bad meal. A friend who's a big gambler took me out three times on comps. The least of these was Little Buddha in the Palms, a pan-Asian modeled after Buddha Bar in Paris. Appetizers were worthy, such as crispy shrimp with aromatic coconut basil sauce and tuna tartare, but the entrees disappointing. My duck was rubbery; its star anise-mango gastrique too sweet.
We also had brunch at Bally's, a fine version of a groaning-board buffet. It doesn't quite reach the heights of Chicago's Signature Room or the Ritz-Carlton Chicago, but featured excellent American caviar, loads of good shrimp and other seafood, very nice charcuterie and cheeses, somewhat dried-out lobster and pleasant desserts. At $60 a person, though, I'm glad I wasn't paying.
The best dinner we had was at Alize at the top of the Palms. Sauteed diver scallops with seared foie gras, wilted romaine, pink grapefruit and curry-yuzu vinaigrette were a dancing symphony of flavors. My entree, pan-seared Muscovy duck breast and spice-roasted duck leg with braised rhubarb and fava salad came out a little more well-done than I prefer, but the combination of tastes and textures was delicious. Unfortunately, by this time I was so affected by the Las Vegas summer heat that I had little appetite.
We lunched at the Carnegie Deli in the Mirage. I haven't been to the New York original, but if it's anything like this, I'll skip it. My sandwich was huge, as well it should be at $11.95, but I've never had blander pastrami. The chopped liver tasted quite strongly livery, rather than the balanced blend of liver-onion-egg-pepper-schmaltz flavors I prefer. The potato knish was large and mealy.
I had several meals in the suburb of Henderson, east of the Strip, in and around the Green Valley Ranch casino. Inside the casino, the food court's Fatburger serves up fine, juicy cheeseburgers. The skinny fries aren't anything special, though. The Cafe appears to be modeled after the Cheesecake Factory and the Grand Lux Cafe and offers comparable fare. I had an excellent lobster club sandwich and a lovely chocolate ganache tart. Both of these restaurants are open 24 hours.
In the District adjoining the casino, I had two meals at Lucille's, a barbecue place out of California. On the first occasion, a job-interview lunch, I was dressed up in business clothes including a white silk blouse and rather wondered if my lunchmates had chosen the place as some sort of test. Although the aromas were heavenly, and I watched delicious-looking barbecue being unloaded from the smoker in the dining room, I was too nervous to order anything that might be at all messy and contented myself with a smoked-chicken sandwich. It was very good.
The next time, a casual dinner with friends, I indulged in a more rigorous test, and tried both kinds of ribs, barbecued chicken, smoked tri-tip, macaroni and cheese, peanut slaw, cheese grits, jambalaya and strawberry lemonade. The ribs had good flavor but were just a little soft; since the smoker was empty at this point, I wondered whether they suffered from standing. The chicken, similarly, tasted fine, but its skin was soggy. The tri-tip was very dry and the macaroni was gloppy. The piquant peanut slaw made a good counterpoint to the 'que, while the grits were merely pleasantly bland.
The jambalaya is among the best I've had, though, just outstanding, with shrimp, smoked chicken, sausage and all kinds of good things in it. The lemonade, made with real strawberries and real lemons, makes the place worth a trip.
We ate two meals in the strip malls. A late-night venture into the "Chinatown" area along Spring Mountain Road turned up a spot serving Ten Ren teas, bubble teas and snacks till 2 a.m. Unfortunately, the carryout menu I took with me doesn't seem to have made it home and I can't recall the name or exact address. It had a neon bubble tea on the front, though, and my passion fruit jelly snow ice tea and tea-flavor dumplings were luscious.
And we made it to the vaunted Lotus of Siam. Our first effort was unsuccessful, since we were aiming at late lunch and it turns out they close between lunch and dinner. The next day, however, the friend we were lunching with greeted our cautious "There's this Thai place, but it's some distance away...." with "That's supposed to be the best Thai restaurant in the country! Let's go!" I had done just enough research to know that we should skip the buffet and order off the menu, and when the menu we were handed didn't feature any Northern Thai dishes to ask for the other menu.
We loved the spicy sai oua (Northern style sausage), studded with chilies and herbs, and the nam kao tod, minced sour sausage mixed with green onion, fresh chili, ginger, peanuts, crispy rice and lime juice -- a wonderful combination of flavors and textures. The koong tenn, grilled shrimp topped with chilies and herbs and served on a bed of shredded cabbage, also had plenty of flavor. There was excellent pad Thai, too, perhaps a tad too sweet. (Not quite to the heights of pad Thai at Siam's House in Niles, Ill., but very good.)
We were warned that nam-prik-hed (translated on the menu as "spicy mushroom dip") was very spicy, and we said that was OK. We were also told it wasn't really a dip but usually served over rice. However, when it came, it was accompanied by crudites, seemingly meant for dipping, and no rice came till I asked for some. I didn't really care for this dish; it seemed all slime and heat, without real flavor.
Kang hoh (dry pork curry with mixed vegetables) was nothing special and hha-nom-jean-ham-ngyow (rice vermicelli curry) was kind of odd: a plate of thin rice noodles and a plate of fried chilies, lime wedges and mung bean sprouts plus a bowl of tomato and ground pork sauce a little like runny sloppy joe with some boiled spare ribs mixed in. We were told to top the noodles with the chilies and sprouts and then top with the sauce. All right, but nothing I'd order again.
Good meals, but not enough to convince me to leave Chicago for this alien landscape. The relative economies may force me into it, though, so it's at least reassuring to know there are good, reasonably priced places to eat outside the hotels.
Thanks to those who responded to my request for relocation incentives.