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.