Monday, August 5, 2013

FoodTrek: Skip the Strip, It's Downtown Vegas, Baby

Glitz and glamour, a fortune at the press of a button, the playground for legendary stars like Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and the spiritual home of Elvis Presley -- without even speaking the city's name, we know this to be Las Vegas. You would think Nevada would just cease to exist, because its famously infamous city is a place where you don't have to name the region or the state, you simply mention what happens here, stays here. All-night mega-club parties hosted by the latest (pseudo) celebrity. Beers in bong-sized glasses and cocktails with alarming neon hues. Every headline show is Cirque du Something-or-Other. High end luxury shops seeming to have more locations than Starbucks. It's a place that seems literally made of diamonds, which leads one to think, if we're surrounded by such profane wealth, is it even special anymore? I decided to track down my own diamonds in the rough, and stayed away from the Strip for the most part -- my fortune was made in old-school Downtown Las Vegas.

Keeping in real in Las Vegas, Downtown Style - Photo by Wasabi Prime

It's not to say I dislike the Las Vegas Strip, quite the opposite. It's eye candy gone wild, and I appreciate the fact that many of the hotels are based upon prison architecture design. Everything is perfectly kept and manicured, the shopping is mind-boggling, and the wealth of celebrity chef restaurants is super-duper extra mind-boggling. Apparently Gordon Ramsay is the latest as-seen-on-TV chef/restaurateur to take Vegas by storm, opening up three restaurants: a pub-style place in Caesar's Palace, a high end steakhouse in the Paris and a gourmet burger joint at Planet Hollywood. I'm sure they're great, and while I was tempted to grab a Scotch egg at his pub, I didn't indulge, because I was already overwhelmed. My go-to Las Vegas Strip delight is to visit the Bellagio and see their seasonal garden display in a gigantic atrium. I like gardens, and yes, I'm a dork. They always do a lovely job, it's a great free attraction to get the crowds into the hotel, and it's got me hooked. After the garden geekery and admiring the pretty sparkly stuff in the Fred Leighton store windows, I'm pretty much done with the Strip; my mind is literally tired out. It's all delightfully famous and gorgeous, but frankly, very little of it feels genuine, as most gorgeous famous things are. This Vegas trip required real sustenance.

The Strip is made out of dreams. Crazy dreams. - Photos by Wasabi Prime
This trip had me making different choices from the moment I was airborne, which I think helped get me in the mindframe of making the most of a long weekend. I could tell Lady Luck was favoring me, as I decided to order a drink on the plane -- oddly, I never do this. But I thought, what the hell? Since I'd be meeting up with my parents who were in Vegas for a reunion, I thought I'd prefunc with one of my dad's favorites, Scotch. I got a single Glenlivet 12 on the rocks, and even when I showed my receipt that it was just a single, not a double, the flight attendant manning the cocktail cart insisted I take two and make sure I behave myself. My Facebook joke was that I was experiencing two weapons of mass destruction, passing over Mt. St. Helens and getting a double when I only ordered a single. Ba-dum-bump! I'll be here all week! It just made the emergency landing card all the more entertaining, wondering why small children are drawn semi-realistically, but infants must look like Cabbage Patch dolls.

My winning streak begins in the air - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I did keep with family-meetup-in-Vegas tradition by getting the most insane thing to eat in the desert heat, the spicy kimchee saimin at Aloha Specialties at the Calfornia Hotel. A winner every time. I always crash at least one night of my dad's reunion potluck/buffet dinners full of local/Hawaiian food. Las Vegas was truly channeling its Ninth Island status, having its own bizarre monsoon weather of high winds and scary stormclouds, while Hawaii was awaiting the landfall of Hurricane Flossie (now Hurricane Floozy, as it was quite the tease, but thankfully no serious storm damage).

Making sure to pay homage to the Ninth Island - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I decided to make an extra effort on this trip to fully explore the vintage downtown area of Las Vegas -- Old Vegas -- which is a few minutes by car (from the Strip), maybe 35-40 minutes (during average traffic; nearly an hour if it's during rush hour) if you take The Deuce bus between Downtown and the Strip, or $20+ in cabfare. Downtown Vegas had the less than pleasant reputation for being the truly seedy side of Las Vegas -- I always joked that walking around, even in the light of day, exponentially improved my chances of becoming a morbid statistic. But over the last few years, Downtown has been getting a major renovation from the inside-out. The Project Downtown gentrification is coming from a genuine place, from its residents and businesses, most notably the CEO of, Tony Hsieh. The bold entrepreneur has invested in the reformation of Downtown Vegas to the tune of $350 million by buying up dead/dying businesses like the Gold Spike lounge/hotel and the old City Hall building, renovating it to become's new headquarters, bringing in hundreds of commuting professionals and potential residents into the city. No longer a slummy sprawl, Downtown is developing its own identity as a quirky urban gem, populated with small/local businesses and invigorated with the energy of a nostalgia-hungry, forward-thinking hipster culture.

Adventure in the Vegas Time Machine and crashing parties at the Gold Spike - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I hear about this stuff because I go to Vegas to hang out with my BFF since college, who has very happily worked for Zappos for many years and seen the company grow. I lovingly call her the Angry Peanut. It's a good nickname, no? Peanut and I get along well because I can send her texts about a hotel room number that makes me sound like I'm in a time machine. She was nice enough to let me crash her morale event, over the Gold Spike. It's been nicely renovated by Hseih's Project Downtown and despite the Zappos ownership, it's open to the public; ignore all its official channels like the website and Facebook page saying they're closed. You can read more about its facelift from this post on Vegas Chatter. And apparently, I just missed seeing actor Nicolas Cage that night. He wasn't there for the party, he was just hanging out, since he's a Downtown resident. Peanut can confirm this -- she's seen him shopping with his kids at Target. But he's also a big proponent for Downtown Vegas to rise like a rhinestone-covered phoenix from the ashes, and frankly, I just couldn't imagine him grabbing a beer at the "clothing optional" poolside lounges on the Strip. Go Downtown Vegas!

Discovering the mythical, boozy Griffin - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I couldn't be distracted by possible celebrity encounters -- Downtown Exploration awaited! I had heard The Griffin Bar and Lounge was a cool local spot. "Cool" being the operative word, since I walked a couple of city blocks in the 100+ degree heat and was in dire need of A/C and a cold drink. It's a dimly-lit, dark wood bar with a cool, laid-back 70s vibe. I had one of their specials, the Dark and Stormy, a rum drink with lime and a ginger beer float -- almost like a rum/beer punch -- but it's definitely more of a whiskey/beer bar. They can mix drinks, but most of the orders are beer and shots, and when the bar gets busy with after work crowds, if only one person's on the rail, the complicated drinks can take time. Keep it simple, have a beer. The beer selection is a mix of standard ale-style macrobrews, but they have some rare birds like Dlerium Tremens. They do live music on some days, but they also have a pretty badass jukebox towards the back of the room, so keep some spare dollars handy.

Fancy cocktailing at the Downtown Cocktail Room - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I found my cocktail spirit guide at the Downtown Cocktail Room, just outside of the covered Fremont Experience, along Las Vegas Boulevard. I went pretty late on a Saturday night, or rather, Sunday morning -- thank heavens they stay open till 2am, I must have walked in around 1. They're closed on Sundays, so I knew Saturday night was my last chance to check them out, as I'd heard they were the place for original craft cocktails since opening in 2006. They did not disappoint. Even at the dawn of Vegas Witching Hour, I had two amazing drinks, the Mezcalculation, a mezcal, aperol, lavender drink, rimmed with sumac for a savory tartness to balance the smokiness of the mezcal; it was rightly described as being a bit like a summer barbecue. Then I had the Apple of Discord, a zesty and creamy drink made with gin, apple, parsley and Greek yogurt. That was pretty unique, as the yogurt acts almost like an egg foam, giving it a rich mouth-feel, with the parsley and apple keeping the drink bright and fresh. I got to bend the ear of Jeff, one of the bartenders manning the crowds on a late Saturday night. He makes a damn fine drink and was very cool to talk to, as were some of the regulars who have fine palates for distilled spirits. I sampled some locally made stuff from Las Vegas Distillery, a Henderson-headquartered small-batch spirit-maker putting out some tasty stuff. Jeff was kind enough to give me one of their schmancy tasting tokens, which I'll definitely use on my next trip, when I have more time to head out to the distillery, although from their Facebook page, it looks like they do plenty of tastings around town at local stores. It was a grand night, to be sure, but one thing to note -- when you enter the Downtown Cocktail Room, the entrance is a big, flat metal door on your left, that looks like a wall. If there's no one manning the handle-absent door, you sort of have to curl your fingers around the metal edge and swing the easily-swung door outwards to open. I looked like a stupid drunk, trying to claw at the glass floor-to-ceiling windows that look out onto the street, before the DJ inside was kind enough to mime that the metal wall was, in fact, a door. You can thank me later for looking like a stupid drunk, so you don't have to.

The jackpot - Downtown Vegas Farmers Market - Photo by Wasabi Prime
Vegas is all about gambling, and I gambled expectations on the local bars, which rewarded me with jackpot delights, and I took the biggest gamble of all: what's a farmers market in the desert like?? I saw the big sign on the old bus depot building on Casino Center Drive saying "Farmers Market Friday." What-whaaaat? Farmers market in the desert? I thought it would be mostly crafts and tourist stuff made in Taiwan -- no way, this was a jackpot! At least if you're a farmers market nerd!

Fresh goods abound at the Vegas Farmers Market - Photos by Wasabi Prime
The Downtown 3rd Farmers Market is quite a sight to behold. They're open every Friday, from 9am to 3pm. It's a mix of fresh produce and other edibles like bread, jams, dried fruit and honey, along with handmade goods like specialty skincare products and jewelry. I sampled the handcrafted shea butter skin cream from Garden of Ikeda, which was all-natural loveliness. I also got some mango jam from Jazzy Jam and Juicy Pickle, who also had a unique lavender jelly that had the color of stormy skies and frankly had me immediately craving an Aviation cocktail.

More than just bags of greens at the farmers market - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Several of the produce vendors come from California like Kerry Clasby's Intuitive Forager, which is a few hours' drive, but no further than a lot of vendors in Washington State, who have to drive from Central or Eastern Washington to bring their goods to the Seattle side. But there are a surprising number of local Nevada producers, like Crossfire Ranch Produce, who are able to do heirloom tomatoes, fresh herbs and leafy greens like kale and chard.

Keep it freshy-phresh - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I picked up a bunch of fresh goodies, like cherry heirloom tomatoes, figs, raspberries and strawberries, along with a loaf of delicious feta spinach bread from Great Harvest Bread. I even picked up a package of coffee from local roaster, Frankly Good Coffee, for the Mister, so he didn't miss out on my market spree.

Plenty of good eats and tasty finds in an old bus depot - Photos by Wasabi Prime
The fresh fruit was a nice treat to counteract the Deep Fried Twinkies signs I see all over the Fremont Experience stretch, and this bounty of product was the only quality roughage to be had on my Vegas trip. Seeing the market busy with residents doing their weekly shopping, supplied by local and as-local-as-possible producers made me very happy. There's no reason a sun-scorched asphalt jungle like Las Vegas should be bereft of quality fresh ingredients and access to the growers themselves. Many of the market vendors deliver their goods to the top hotel restaurants, so when you buy from the market, you're eating what Gordon Ramsay is shouting for his own cooks to prepare. Who says you can't eat like a celebrity in Downtown Vegas?

Double win - farmers market and arepa food truck! - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Even if you're not a fan of eating your veggies, heading to the farmers market is worth it for visiting the Rika Arepa Express truck that's parked outside every Friday, for the duration of the market. I love, love, love arepas. They're a popular Venezuelan dish that's a cross between a soft taco and a hamburger, with the soft cornmeal dough that's griddled till crisp, and then split and stuffed with meats, vegetables, cheese -- basically anything you want. Rika Arepa Express's arepas don't use lard, so they're vegan and yes, they're gluten free. They had chicken, beef, veggies and bean-filled options, but I went with their Pernil Arepa, which was filled with roasted, shredded pork and fresh tomato slices. They come with two sauces, a vinegary salsa and a creamy cilantro dressing; I used both as I very happily ate the good-sized arepa. One would be fine for a good lunch, two for the extra hungry.

Fukuburger - my Holy Grail, finally discovered! - Photos by Wasabi Prime
My food truck wanderings didn't end there -- my main Vegas find was the Fukuburger Truck. I heard about their Japanese/Hawaiian-style twist on the classic burger and have been following them on Facebook, even though I don't even live in Nevada or California, their original burger place. They're like my White Whale, my Grail that I was long-searching for, but thankfully found at 2am in the Fremont East neighborhood, the domain of all impossibly rare treasures. Finding Fukuburger was a somewhat tipsy, but endlessly delightful moment that I wished I could have shared with everyone on the planet -- likely the effect of the cocktails. I was drawn in by their waving banner atop their sticker-covered truck, and most notably, a siren song of 90s Boy Band karaoke going on in the front, blaring "I Want it That Way."  

Finding Fukuburger - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I ordered my Chicken Katsu Burger, wishing I had the appetite for the fried egg Tamago Burger or the pork-a-licious Buta-Burger, along with their gravy and "crack sauce" covered Jazz Fries. That was my only regret, not being ravenously hungry, but knowing how popular the Fukuburger truck is, and it sounds like they hit the Downtown 'hood every weekend, I will make it a point to trek out there earlier on my next family meet-up trip, with an empty stomach, and order the whole menu to share with my dad, as I think he would have loved everything, minus his daughter wandering the streets at 2am part. Let's just keep that one between you, me and the Interwebs, shall we?

Night and day, the Jeckyll/Hyde effect of Sin City - Photos by Wasabi Prime
That's something to note -- Vegas as a whole is very different from night to day. I woke up at the crack of dawn to get a quick run in, to pretend I actually gave a crap about my health. It's surreal to jog around the neon streets at 5:30am, when it's downright peaceful, save for the workers hosing down the previous night's party remnants. On Fremont, right across from the old El Cortez hotel and casino, the signs by night claim Elvis never left the building, but during the day, the neon fades and you can see a little 50s-style red arrow sign across the street reading "Le Thai Noodles and Bar." I'd heard Le Thai was awesome from locals in-the-know, but what I didn't hear was how small it is -- tiny seating area, even tinier bar, and there's a small shaded beer garden in back. There's a patio in the front, but it's not covered, so impractical in the heat of summer. But don't let a crowded space in dire need of a hostess stand fool you -- Le Thai's food is delicious, even from the small sampling I had. I got their Thai Pork Jerky, a twice-cooked (stir-fried then deep-fried) dish of seasoned pork, which I've had at other places, which sometimes call it sundried pork. It's on their appetizer menu, but it comes with a scoop of sticky rice and their Waterfall Sauce, which is basically scallions, cilantro and fish sauce. It gives the dish a nice herbal, pungent kick, brightening the flavor of the meat. I wanted something simple and small, to sample their flavoring. Even with the one dish, I was very pleased with the flavor, as well as the portion -- the appetizer really could be a whole lunch, and it's easier having that to-go than one of their soups or curries. I especially appreciate their bagging of the rice for to-go orders. You don't realize how incredibly dry the air in Las Vegas is until you realize the unbagged sticky rice becomes crunchy rice in an alarmingly short period of time. Things to note for Le Thai: get there early to snag one of their tables, lunch is probably the best time, as I heard dinner can be a challenge. If it's crowded, get a dish to-go; ideally call ahead so you're not waiting out in the hot sun like I was. Because the restaurant is so small, their to-go ordering spot is in the front patio. If you're familiar with their menu, call ahead - check their Facebook page or restaurant sites for menu photos.

And Bingo was his Name-O - Photos by Wasabi Prime
It wasn't a total food, drink and farmers market-binge, I did partake of the sin in Sin City. I played bingo. Peanut took me out with her pals for a wild night of bingo at one of the local casinos out in Henderson. We went to the Fiesta, which, like the name, is a nonstop partymonster. Well, only if you're like us, who get tipsy on too many margaritas, wine and whiskey, it's always a party, even with total bingo losses all around. We had to drown our Epic Bingo Fail with some lounge act acoustic renderings of Def Leppard's Pour Some Sugar on Me, JT's Sexy Back and of course, the anthem of all drunken nights, Sweet Caroline. Bah-bah-baaaaaaahhhhh... the good times truly never felt so good.

Binions' sweet ride, a sweet Capriottis sammich, and a Vegas Farewell - Photos by Wasabi Prime
It's somewhat startling to think all this got jam-packed into an extended weekend. I'm amazed my intestinal tract and liver both survived to tell the tale. Before I left, I made sure to heed the imploring cries on Facebook to get a sandwich from Capriotti's, a chain deli sandwich shop with locations dotted around the country, but one with die-hard fans. We don't have one in Washington and they came into Arizona after I'd left, so clearly I was destined to try this sandwich. Their Thanksgiving-themed Bobbie was the one to try -- roasted turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce, stuffed into a soft hoagie roll. Yes, it's an absolute carbo-h-bomb, but it was so worth the breadpocalypse. It was one of my curtain call meals before I had to wake up crazy-ass-early to catch my flight back home to the place where green stuff grows and it's not 100 degrees of crazy-heat. Despite the desert sun, I left feeling invigorated about Vegas, excited to see how Project Downtown works its gentrification magic, eager to visit the farmers market again, imbibe unique cocktails and hunt down more food trucks. And maybe, if I'm very lucky, I'll finally catch a glimpse of Nicolas Cage next time. A girl can dream, can't she?

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