Monday, August 3, 2015

FoodTrek: From Vegas to Seattle - To There and Back Again

It had been too long since I'd had a proper adventure, and what other place is fit for adventuring than Sin City itself, Las Vegas? The last time I was there, I made it a point to Skip the Strip (Aug 2013 post), and I continue this very satisfying pattern of avoiding the bright lights, big city, celeb-chef-land of trendy restaurants and frankly everything imported, but nothing truly local. I've spent many years enjoying that part of the city, and it will always draw crowds and endless fascination. And pools that catch on fire. Yes, I was in town during the Cosmopolitan Cabana Party From Hell, but only heard about it via Facebook and personal texts asking if I could see the smoke. I had no idea what the hell anyone was talking about. What could possibly be more exciting than a mother-effin' pool on mother-effin' FIRE? This latest jaunt to Vegas, Downtown-Local Style and lovin' it!

"Deconstructed" carrot cake at Therapy - the dessert I wish to marry - Photo by Wasabi Prime

I'm sure you're wondering what would compel me to visit Nevada during the hellish time of year that is summer. Every year, my dad has a reunion with his old engineering college pals -- most live in California now, a few fly in from Hawaii. They've been gathering for a weekend of nostalgia and a huge local Hawaiian food potluck for almost 10 years, and I've crashed nearly all of them. It's nice of them to let me party-crash; they know a flight from Washington to Nevada is easier than one to Hawaii, and I also have the chance to visit my very sweet BFF, Anne, who I call The Angry Peanut. Long story, I don't even know why we have our nicknames (I'm Denise the Beast Sakaki - I think because it sounds good at a Monster Truck Rally) -- Anne, I assure you, is neither angry, nor a legume of any sort. Anyways, she's become a localized Las Vegan over the years, and she always finds cool local spots since she works Downtown. And, like most locals, avoids the Strip at all costs. Wisdom.

You never forget where you are in this town - Photos by Wasabi Prime
It's tough to ignore the fact that you're in glitzy Las Vegas. You've got slot machines in the airport to greet you. They'd put a keno screen in the bathrooms if they could. And even staying in the older Downtown part of the city, you still see plenty of the shiny-shiny madness, like the nightly Fremont Experience light show, the costumed buskers, and vendors selling everything you could possibly bedazzle from top to bottom. Walk past all that, brave the heat, and venture towards the Fremont East neighborhood, which is at the end of the covered canopy, and you'll see a genuine side of Vegas that frankly, feels like Seattle. Just a lot hotter. And less trees.

Head towards the giant martini! Best directions ever - Photo by Wasabi Prime
Peanut introduced me to my new favorite restaurant in Las Vegas. And it doesn't even have a Food Network's chef name plastered all over it -- yes, Virginia, those actually exist! Anne said, "I'm taking you to Therapy." To which I replied, "But my doctor said I'm getting better!" Therapy. is a brand-spankin'-new gastropub-style restaurant that opened right along Fremont Street. Not even open a year, but it's got the comfortable swagger of a place familiar with culinary trends, rustic presentation, local-as-possible ingredients, and just letting the food speak for itself. No gold-leaf-truffled-fussiness on this menu, it's simple, elegant fare that's offered in delectable bite-sized portions. They have traditional meal-sized dishes, but small plates allow you to try many things versus committing to a single dish. Also, it was damn hot and I didn't fancy a pork chop at the time.

Refreshing cocktails and crispy pig ears - what more does one need?? - Photos by Wasabi Prime
We nibbled on crispy fried pig's ears in a sweet dijon honey dipping sauce, crispy empanadas stuffed with slow braised oxtail, a beautiful cheese plate composed of many different hard and soft cheeses as well as a fruit jam with local honey, and sipped cooling, much-needed cocktails. I got the mobster-themed, but tropical flavored "Fuhgeddaboutit," and Peanut got their house red sangria, which was perfect for cutting the day's heat. It was surprisingly filling for small plates, but we saved room for dessert, the must-have, hop-on-a-plane-right-now-to-order-it, Therapy's deconstructed carrot cake. Beautifully presented in a crumbled crescent shape, it's a mix of soft, tender cake, crispy crumble topping, dabs of cream cheese icing and a quenelle of house made ice cream. Carrot cake doesn't seem like a showcase dessert, but it has the potential for such complex flavors with spices and textures, and Therapy. nails it with the right balance of sweet with savory. The deconstructed presentation allows you to customize each bite, trying just the cake, having some icing and ice cream in another bite. You savor the experience, and frankly, this whole meal felt like something I'd have enjoyed in either Seattle or Portland. I can't say enough how lovely this place is, and if you happen to be in Vegas anytime soon, put Therapy. on your list of must-visits for a genuine taste of the city.

You'll look forward to going to Therapy. I promise. - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I got my nightowl time in on a Thursday night, before the weekend crowds really hit -- I made sure to visit my favorite cocktail bar, the Downtown Cocktail Room. And I managed to only fumble for a little bit, with its mystery no-handle door! I consider that a Vegas WIN. This was probably the only return-visit place I hit from the last time I was in town. I'd have revisited more spots, but seeing how I wanted to fit as much into a long weekend as possible, I resisted the urge to be a creature of habit. I do love DCR's ever-evolving drink menu, and its low-key, candlelit lounge interiors. It's quietly nestled against a side street off Fremont, the neon sign is purposely set to a low glare, the windows are darkened, and yes, there's the tricky metal door with no handle -- push, don't pull. And on this night, I settled in with a Little Bastard, a DCR original made with cachaca, bitters and tea. Not overly sweet, the bitters and tea provide a satisfying complexity, and you can just sit with the cocktail and happily savor it while you listen and join in on the conversations around you. It's a bar that I can feel comfortable walking in with a t-shirt and shorts, no obnoxious bling of any sort, sidle up to the bar, and trust that the bartenders will make some serious drink magic.

Weirdly wonderful Fremont East and my night owl favorite, the Downtown Cocktail Room - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Few people can speak to the mornings of Las Vegas, since they're usually sleeping off a hangover. I'm the weirdo who wakes up at 6am, goes for a quick jog or walk through the neighborhood before it gets too hot, and take in a quick recon of the 'hood to decide where to get my morning coffee. Or beer.

Who's yo' Nacho Daddy? Breakfast Beer is a must - Photos by Wasabi Prime
While making zero nutritional sense, I rewarded a morning workout with hearty huevos rancheros with bacon, and a breakfast beer at Nacho Daddy. They're one of the few places that are open all night and open early(ish) for breakfast -- 9am, if you're wondering. It's exactly what it sounds like, a Tex-Mex nacho-themed wonderland. I'd heard their gigantic nacho platters were epic and delicious -- who wouldn't want a Buffalo chicken nacho platter?! But I had a big day ahead and indigestion with a side of food coma wasn't a wise choice. Huevos rancheros with fresh pico de gallo, gooey poached eggs, stick-to-your-ribs refried beans and bacon to shovel up all the random bits was just what my morning needed. And a local Hefeweizen from Tenaya Creek Brewery because... hey, citrus. It's like orange juice.

We've got The Beat. And doughnuts - Photos by Wasabi Prime
For a more wanderlust breakfast, grab a latte to-go, or sit for a spell at The Beat Coffeehouse, a wonderfully quirky cafe and record shop, with an art museum and burlesque museum in the same building. Total Portlandia moment, and I loved it. It's full of locals in the morning hours, you can tell by the obvious security uniforms, or the walkie talkies attached to their belts -- it's a total local spot and the baristas easily know people by name. It's easy to settle in here for a bit and just forget that you're in the hustle-bustle of Vegas. Wander a little ways down from The Beat and visit The Market -- I know, they don't mess with names here; simple and direct. A newer addition to the Fremont East neighborhood, part of Downtown's revival as a place to both live and work, The Market is an urban grocer, a neighborhood bodega that offers fresh, organic produce, dry goods, basic household supplies, wine/beer, and a fresh deli area that makes sandwiches, pizzas, and pastries from local bakeries. I saw the cereal-topped doughnuts from local favorite, O-Face Doughnuts one morning. I did my typical shopping -- buying two bottles of wine at 10am, with the announcement, "No judgement," as I swing the bottles onto the counter to check out. Because...classy.

WOO - we're in Vegas, let's go to the farmers market!!!! - Photos by Wasabi Prime
But hey, we're in Vegas, let's PARTY AND GO TO THE FARMERS MARKET! (says no one, like, ever) Despite eliciting confused looks from my family and their friends, and probably wondering where their parenting skills went awry to create such a hopeless nerd, I was excited to revisit the Downtown 3rd Farmers Market. Held every Friday from 9am-3pm, I first discovered it a couple of years ago, delighted to see so many local and local-as-possible produce vendors. To be clear, there's no acres of vegetables growing right off the Strip. These farms are a few hours outside of the city, close to the California border, or in California, and they drive out in the wee hours of the morning to deliver to the fancy Strip restaurants, and on market days, the extra produce is sold direct to the public. Hot weather farming isn't an easy life, but agriculture as a whole isn't an easy life. This is what "local" means to a place like Las Vegas, which as had to work towards making a desert easily habitable and vacationable. Produce doesn't grow to massive sizes you'll see in other places, but the heat makes for sweet tomatoes and plenty of peppers. Just being able to shop at a fresh farmers market in the asphalt jungle of Las Vegas is a major thing, and I celebrate that.

Cool local finds and hey, support your local Boys and Girls Clubs of America!! - Photos by Wasabi Prime
It's hard to bring back fresh produce as a souvenir, but I did pick up a bag of coffee from Aroma Coffee Roasters, a small-batch roaster that sells single origin and blends, all fair trade, and pretty much all the cool stuff a hipster nerd from Seattle would want in life. Also, coffee is easy to transport back when you're hand-carrying and don't want TSA to hassle you about 3 ounces of liquid and/or gel products.  I also got all my seeds for next year's vegetable garden, at the Boys and Girls Club of Southern Nevada table, which should be there every Friday if you happen to be there -- be sure to show your support; they're happy to give you fresh veggies from their city garden. And I spent some time talking with the folks at Energie Cycles, a really cool Vegas-owned/based company that manufactures electric bicycles and kits that you can mod your existing bike to use. Already being sold along the West Coast, even in Seattle, the motor-mod is pretty cool since you can use it with what you already have, and it makes going up those steep hills much easier, for those who bike everywhere around the city. Again, my NerdSense was tingling and I knew I had to share on the blog because I know so many people who either don't have a car or may as well not have one, since they use their bike to get around everywhere.

More prepared eats at the farmers market - plenty to om nom nom! - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I know, I know, this is a food blog, and I assure you, there was plenty of ready-to-eat goodness at the farmers market. I saw more vendors this time -- a Portuguese bolo (sandwich) maker, a snowcone truck, and a jerk chicken grill that smelled heavenly. The cook was nice enough to give me a sample of one of the sweet potatoes he was roasting -- it was bright purple, tasted amazing, and I'm pretty sure he was using some of the stuff from the market itself, judging from the potato bins nearby. Even if it's hot outside, it's worth the short trek from the Fremont Street canopy to wander the Friday market and sit for a spell under its many shaded spots.

Weirdly wonderful old-skool Vegas - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Despite the heat, I made it a point to walk around as much as possible. And I was so pleased to see how many places I had yet to visit and ones I'll save for a future visit. Walking around in the mornings affords a more hospitable outside temperature, and even when it's blazing hot, there's somewhere good to cool off, to bring your appetite back. That's what happened around lunchtime one day when I stopped by Pizza Rock for a cool beer and a wood-fired pie.

Yes, I ate the whole pizza. Don't judge - Photos by Wasabi Prime
The Peanut recommended Pizza Rock -- she and her workmates come here, since pizzas are easy to share with a group. They sell by the slice, but only for to-go orders, JFYI. I opted to cool down at the bar with another local brew, a citrus rye ale by Joseph James Brewing Company from Henderson, NV. I stuck with local beers as much as possible -- minus the many Bud Lights I drank with my dad at his reunion. I got a classic margherita pizza, which the bartender assured me it was something one hungry person could easily finish, no judgement. The Neapolitan-style thin, crispy crust was light, with a delicious calico char from their super-hot ovens. The simplicity of the margherita toppings was just what I needed after walking around in 100+ degree weather all afternoon. Well, and the beer helped. And I had noooooo problem finishing that pizza all by myself. 

Container Park, cocktails, and llamas welcome - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I couldn't leave Vegas without having another cocktail experience, nor taking in the majesty of a giant praying mantis sculpture from Burning Man. It's on everyone's to-do list, right? I spent some time at Downtown Container Park, an eclectic shopping mall of small stores that are -- you guessed it -- housed in reclaimed shipping containers. Before you think it's some Thunderdome setup, waiting for chain mail dress-wearing Tina Turner to show up with some scraggly apocalyptic orphans, it's a pretty awesome setup. It's got the industrial-cool look of a modern shopping mall, and it's not until you take a closer look do you notice old shipping logos still on the sides of some of the buildings. There's no lack of charming little boutiques, eateries and cafes, there's even a semi-shaded playground area for kids, so it's very family friendly. Evenings have concerts and movies, and since it's Las Vegas, you can wander around with beer or wine, just observe their open container laws and park rules.

I opted to stay inside and snuggle up to a spot at the cozy whiskey bar, Oak and Ivy. Wonderful place. Sure, the interiors are small, given the limits of a shipping container, but it's charming as hell, with its vintage decor and many shelves of tasty spirits. There's more room for the booze than the drinkers! There's seating outside, but as everyone knows, the best time you'll have is listening in and joining the barside conversation. The wonderfully talented Alverrie Pinto mixed up a delightful whiskey smash, which was just what my overheated self needed. It's a whiskey bar, and there's plenty of brown liquors to be had, but they're spirit-smart, and they're not going to push an Old Fashioned on someone when it's 114 degrees outside. They create their menu to fit the environment, and it's the perfect place for whiskey to take a desert holiday. I definitely recommend grabbing a seat at the Oak and Ivy bar, get there early before it fills up, and enjoy the best secret the locals don't want the rest of us to know!

The ID welcomes my return to the Pac NW - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I admit, I was sad to bid farewell to Vegas -- usually a weekend is more than enough, but when you experience its more genuine, local self, it's a city with personality, not just some adult theme park. I parted ways with Nevada early in the morning and made my way back north, to the evergreen lands of Washington. I hit the ground running once I got to Seattle, grabbing a late breakfast/lunch in the International District -- xiao long bao and ja jiang mein at Ping's Dumpling House -- and then a quick ride on the Link to a food event with friends.

Back in Seattle - how sweet it is! Local honey celebration at the Fairmont Olympic - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I assure you, my life is far from jet-set, this was just great timing. I happened to arrive back in Seattle just in time to attend a preview party at the Fairmont Olympic, celebrating a hefty harvest of honey from their rooftop hive. Say that ten times fast. The intense, complex flavor of urban honey is hard to describe -- it's like a really good wine blend; balanced and nothing overwhelming. Bees have a relatively small radius for gathering pollen, so the honey is very much Seattle-based. And because of the city's diversity, there's no dominating plant that they'll gather pollen from; it's not like the honey gathered where we live, in rural Duvall, which is mostly from blackberries, and the honey reflects that fragrant berry flavor. The honey from the Fairmont Olympic is almost savory, hard to pick out particular flavor notes, which makes it ideal for adding to all kinds of foods, like salads, roasted meats, cocktails, and even beer and ciders.

The party was to preview the new honey-themed menu at The Georgian, and the partnership with Seattle Cider Company, who used the Fairmont's honey to make a special honey cider now being served at the hotel and neighboring restaurant, Shuckers. That honey cider is GD good -- the honey is a very limited ingredient, it's worth drinking all you can of this magical, seasonal elixir. Seattle summer in a GLASS, yo.

A sweet celebration on the Georgian's honey-themed menu for summer - Photos by Wasabi Prime
And so this was my big summer vacation. A whirlwind weekend in Vegas, finished off with a honey-sweetened celebration in Seattle. Throughout all the eating and drinking, I couldn't help but feel fortunate to have discovered such local finds and to live in an area that seeks out regional makers. Seeing the transplanted commercialism of the Las Vegas Strip, compared to the genuine quirkiness of its Downtown neighborhoods, how can one seek anything less but the Real Deal of a city's heart and soul? The same can be said of Seattle, where it's easy to take for granted how easily we access the locavore lifestyle, and to have this honeyed homecoming made me feel like Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz -- there's no place like Home.

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