Despite lots of glitzy local openings, 2008 wasn’t a banner year for Vegas restaurants. But in this down economy, it seems fitting that lower-priced entrees such as sandwiches and Asian dishes ranked high on my yearly list. Nothing here costs more than $20.
I cover items that have appeared in this column, but several that did not should be mentioned, such as the Reuben stuffed knish at Lavo, the amazing bucatini carbonara at Café Martorano and the suckling pig on Michael Mina’s new menu at Nobhill. Based on when they appeared in this space, here are 10 dishes you’ll want to experience soon.
Barbecue Pastrami Sandwich at The Rub, inside the Rio, 777-7777. $13.75.
Credit lean meat and a trusty JR Oyler smoker for this nicely stuffed sandwich, which would be sheer poetry if the good rye bread were steamed to order. Pastrami’s holy grail, still at Langer’s in Los Angeles, isn’t getting serious competition, but if you can’t make it there, or to Carnegie Deli in the Mirage, this spice-crusted beauty fills the bill adequately.
Classic Croque Monsieur at Payard Patisserie & Bistro, inside Caesars Palace, 731-7751. $14.
Everything pastry genius Francois Payard does elevates Vegas’ dessert scene, from his olive savory macaroon to a roasted pear with maple syrup and brown-butter ice cream. Croque Monsieur is sort of an upscale grilled cheese with Bechamel sauce coating the bread, and sliced ham inside. Top it with a fried egg and voila!—it’s a croque Madame.
Tandoori Mix Grill at Mantra Masala, 8330 Warm Springs Road, 598-3663. $18.95.
Even those who disdain Indian food generally like meats broiled in a tandoor, or cylindrical clay oven, and Mantra Masala’standoori mix grill, crusty and perfectly cooked at high heat, may be the best in the city. This platter contains tandoori chicken plus bara kabab, or rack of lamb, chicken tikka, made from white meat, and bazari chicken, like tikka, but with an added coat of fresh ginger and garlic.
Gelato at Le Golosita, 9500 S. Eastern Ave., 216-4088. $8.
Giuliano Berto, who also owns Zeffirino in the Canal Shops at the Venetian, simply makes the best gelato, or Italian ice cream, I’ve had anywhere outside Italy. What makes gelato special is the process of pumping the mixture with compressed air, producing an ice cream that is denser, and tastes creamier, than comparable products. Standout flavors here include fig, hazelnut and stracciatella, Italian for chocolate chip. Read full review.
Hot Roast Beef Po’ Boy at New Orleans Connection, 9711 S. Eastern Ave., 492-1650. $6.99-$8.99.
If there’s one thing I crave from the Big Easy, it is Ferdi’s Special, a hot roast beef sandwich topped with debris gravy, pan drippings laced with tiny shards of meat. All of the food at New Orleans Connection is made from scratch by owner Carmel Frederick and her daughter, and this po’ boy is the closest thing to a Ferdi’s you’ll find in the West. Read full review.
Pappa al Pomodoro at La Focaccia, 8975 S. Eastern Ave., 650-9800. $3.95.
Giacomo Zarcone makes delicious oven-baked flatbreads at his cozy cafe, but I’ve never had pappa al pomodoro like the one he serves here. The soup, a soothing bread-and-tomato emulsion, is chock-full of chunky tomatoes and house-made croutons, and though it is made to order, it tastes like it has been simmering for hours on a stove. Read full review.
Firecracker Shrimp Roll at Noodle Exchange, inside the Gold Coast, 367-7111. $5.75.
Two of the city’s best Chinese restaurants, Ping Pang Pong and Noodle Exchange, are found inside the Gold Coast, of all places, and both belong to Taiwan-born Kevin Wu. One of the most popular dishes in Taiwan is called shrimp roll, a fried pastry cylinder with crisp skin and shrimp forcemeat inside. An uncompromising side chili sauce provides the heat. Read full review.
Aguadito de Pollo at Mi Peru, 1450 W. Horizon Ridge Parkway, 220-4652. $8.95.
The underappreciated cuisine of Peru should be, according to national food magazines such as Bon Appetit, a hot trend in 2009. That’s good news for Mi Peru, and one of their best dishes is this hearty potage, pale-green broth stocked with chicken, spinach, cilantro, garlic and vegetables. Thickened with rice and diced potato, the soup is a meal in itself. Read full review.
Agedashi-dofu at Raku, 5030 Spring Mountain Road, 367-3511. $5.
This Japanese pub has been a favorite with local chefs since it opened, and owner Mitsuo Endo’s original take on often mundane dishes can be dazzling. Fried tofu served in cubes can be a snoozer, but this dish, a large disc of silken tofu crowned with salmon roe and a daub of fiery red sauce, would make the staunchest tofu hater a convert. Read full review.
Steamed Juicy Pork Buns at China Mama, 3420 Jones Blvd., 873-1977. $7.25.
These buns, with a name that actually translates to “little dragon dumplings,” are a religion in Shanghai and other Chinese cities, and until this restaurant opened, were not up to snuff in the Valley. Now they are, and then some. Bite the bottom and slurp out a delicious soup, then finish the rest in two or three bites. Even LA can’t do better. Read full review.