Some of Sin City’s best restaurants aren’t in hotels.
Most of America knows the strip mall as that random and anonymous assortment of chain stores, outlets, and fast food joints given cohesion by its giant parking lot, and anchored by its Starbucks. Rarely do we think of it as a natural cache for a city’s culinary genius.
Yet strip malls are precisely where you’ll find some of the most surprising—and best—cuisine in Las Vegas.
The gastronomes and food critics who now glut Las Vegas—all fiercely proud of their knowledge of the city’s "locals only" restaurants—will advise you to forget the big-name chefs for at least a few meals during your visit. Sure, the big names are all here; you can sample their food both on the Strip and from the trademarked boxes in the frozen foods section of your local grocery.
But head off the Strip, and you’re more likely to find chefs actually in their kitchens and changing Las Vegas from a town that relies on its chefs’ marquee names to a city that really cooks.
Still, as eager as Las Vegans are to impart their dining secrets, you should expect nearly every recommendation to be prefaced with the caveat, "Don’t let the fact that it’s in a strip mall put you off." Is it some kind of cosmic coincidence that the city’s best places happen to land on this side of a giant parking lot from a busy thoroughfare? No. It’s because most of Las Vegas is a strip mall.
You can grouse about these restaurants’ lack of atmosphere, or embrace them as an even more delicious secret for being shoehorned in between Old Navy and Dillard’s. But often, the seedier or more generic the strip mall, the better the surprise. For example, Commercial Center, a 50-year-old whitewashed collision of disparate storefronts on the fringes of downtown, holds Lotus of Siam, a Thai restaurant with a nationwide cult following (that may or may not look past its neighbors, some of whom practice a profession even older than cooking).
Sometimes these great restaurants require a short drive—and some sharp eyes. On the other side of town in Las Vegas’s Summerlin neighborhood is Rosemary’s. You might pass it several times before you spot it next door to the Stein Mart. But this is where you’ll find some of the Strip’s most renowned chefs on their nights off, digging into carefully crafted Creole and Midwest-influenced American dishes. Others, like French bistro Marche Bacchus, hold an entire secret landscape beyond their storefront portals.
Editor's Update 2011: jennj99738 points out correctly in the reader comments that Nora's Wine Bar and Rosemary's have unfortunately closed since we initially published this slideshow.
Nora's Wine Bar & Osteria
This property has closed.
The Scene: Opened in 2006, Nora's Wine Bar & Osteria brought wine-bar culture to Vegas. It's the younger, hipper sibling of the original Nora's, a 15-year-old neighborhood restaurant on Flamingo Road whose scrumptious thin-crust pizzas and fresh pasta have inspired a cultlike following. You'll find similarly homey, simple food at the osteria, but the draw here is the Enomatic Wine Dispenser, which pours temperature-controlled wines in one, three-, and six-ounce servings. The metal contraption affords you the luxury of tasting nearly 60 wines by the glass without committing to some expensive bottles (a three-ounce taste of the 2003 Sassicaia from Bulgheri is $47).
What to Order: The best way we've found to eat here is to sit at the broad granite bar and order some cicchetti (small plates) to share, including Parmesan-stuffed dates and polpette agro dolce (sweet and sour meatballs). Don't take the disinterested and downright inattentive service personally (the last time we visited, it took nearly 10 minutes to secure a menu at the bar). Just enjoy orchestrating your own flights; if you find a winner, you can purchase bottles to take home at 30 percent off.
Enter this airy, all-white modern dining room, which opened in 2006, and the only reminder that you are not eating in the Hamptons is the fact that you had to reach Vintner Grill through an office park. Close to Red Rock Casino (a 15-20 minute drive from the Strip), the Mediterranean-influenced American dishes include Moroccan-spiced lamb spareribs; crispy wood-fired flatbreads (try prosciutto with roasted peppers, fennel, micro arugula, and white truffle oil); and halibut with toasted orzo, lemon gremolata, and sweet tomatoes. Everything is well paired with a reasonably priced wine list of more than 200 bottles, half-bottles, and wines by the glass, from 10 different countries.
T.C.'s Rib Crib
The Scene: It's not uncommon to see chefs Paul Bartolotta and Alex Stratta parked at cafeteria tables under fluorescent lights at T.C.'s Rib Crib, savoring the moist pulled pork, spare ribs, baby backs, and beef ribs with sides like spicy collards and fried okra. In a town with its share of barbecue pretenders, this is Southern barbecue at its most authentic, from a man who left Katrina-ruined Louisiana with family recipes in his pocket.
What to Order: Ask for sweet tea or Kool-Aid, and check the chalkboard for the glazed-doughnut bread pudding. We like to order one of the giant "Lots O' Meat" meal deals, which come with sides named after various uncles and cousins, and take it back to our hotel room—the fancier the better—for a night of in-room, sticky-fingered indulgence.
This property has closed.
Sunday nights are the wrong time to dine on the Strip, since chefs and sommeliers usually put their places on autopilot and go elsewhere for dinner. You’ll likely find them at Rosemary’s Restaurant. At this locals-only spot, 10 minutes west of the Strip, every bottle of wine is half price on Sundays, the tables are free of rowdy conventioneers, and the service is warm and spot-on. The French-influenced menu draws from chefs Michael and Wendy Jordan’s southern and midwestern roots and changes seasonally, but some dishes thankfully never change, including Hugo’s Texas BBQ shrimp, served over Maytag blue cheese-laced coleslaw. Other standouts include thick pork chops with hopping John (rice and peas seasoned with fatback) and Creole mustard reduction; and striped bass with crispy skin atop a hash of andouille sausage, rock shrimp, and fingerling potatoes with a Creole meunière sauce.
Tip: Eat at the bar on Sundays, when you’ll overhear some of the best restaurant industry gossip in Las Vegas.
Lotus of Siam
Easy to overlook due to its ho-hum location, Lotus of Siam has nevertheless firmly entrenched itself in many folks’ minds as the foremost Thai eatery in the country. Once inside, the disparate design of the strip center gives way to the sleek sensibility of Eastern aesthetics, from the clean-lined geometry of the tables and chairs to the simplicity of the framed artwork. For chef-owner Saipin Chutima, cooking has been a life-long affair, and she’s certainly a master of the craft. Under her guidance, artfully presented Northern Thai specialties such as spicy kang-ka-noon (young jack fruit curry) and kang hung lay (sweet pork curry) leave lasting impressions on the palate and mind.