Ah, the breathing room. If there was one takeaway from the second LuckyRice Night Market at Cosmopolitan it was the wonderful lack of crowds. Which is not to say the Boulevard Pool was empty for the touring Asian food fest’s October 5 Vegas stop—far from it. But where last year’s event saw a crush of people queuing up in front of booths, fighting their way toward the bar and the bao, this year the layout seemed to spread a somewhat sparser crowd out across the ample real estate. That meant no lines to sample the fragrant steamed snapper in banana leaf from Tuk Tuk Taproom or Cedric Vongerichten’s ridiculous lemongrass kaffir broth with butter poached shrimp and potato garlic ravioli, and no lines to sidle up to the bar for an impromptu cocktail tasting. Curry coconut milk with peanut butter? Why not?
Bold flavors abounded across the Boulevard Pool deck, but nowhere did those flavors find a more innovative presentation than at the main bar, where Cosmo property mixologist (and possible wizard) Mariena Mercer served a bowl of “drunken noodles” that could actually get you drunk. A dead ringer for real soup, Mercer’s dish was actually a cocktail of sorts—wide, hand-cut noodles made with Bacardi Rock Coconut, coconut cream, lemongrass and ginger; cubes of “meat” created with Thai iced tea and D’usse Cognac; gastrovac’d cucumbers with St. Germain; freeze-dried pineapple; toasted coconut and kaffir lime leaf threads; Szechuan flower dust and a “broth” of Bombay Sapphire East, calamansi, yuzu and ginger. Topping the whole thing was a single egg, hand-constructed with the flavors of birdseye chili, garam masala and pink peppercorn. A drink in name only, eating Mercer’s incredible creation required chopsticks and an open mind, which was richly rewarded with every sip—er, bite. -Sarah Feldberg
After a run of camera-ready architectural odes to Asian food, I was stoked to see a bowl of yakisoba noodles smothered in unassuming brown sauce, maybe because chef Jet Tila was standing behind it. I always wish big food festivals could be more like hitting your favorite chefs’ houses for something they would make for themselves, and his Thai curry ramen tasted just that way. The noodles were tender, but with enough chew to support the gravy-like mash-up of red and yellow curry. That would have been a satisfying bite without further embellishment, but the sauce was thick with brisket and lusciously gelatinous beef tendon, those deep flavors brightened with kaffir lime leaf, Thai basil and the sour-sweetness of tamarind. For garnish, the chef scattered fried shallots and fresh green onion, cilantro and micro bull’s blood, a beautiful green that kept the dish from looking like your aunt’s stroganoff. It was the best thing I ate all night. I used a serious expletive to tell Tila how good his dish was. He smiled and said, “What was that?” So I said it again. -Erin Ryan
As I made the rounds at the LuckyRice circuit, one dish from Michael Mina’s Stripsteak continued to stay on my mind long after my stomach was full. Prepared by executive chef Gerald Chin, one fun-sized portion of velvety coconut-pumpkin soup was enough to win me over. I could easily curl up with a bowl on a chilly fall night. It seemed effortless, yet a perfect five-spice duck salad gave the traditional Thai soup an elevated twist. Tuscan kale, water chestnuts, toasted pumpkin seeds, duck confit and ginger dressing sat atop the creamy blend of coconut, pumpkin and spice. Each bite melted away with a delicate softness, but tender morsels of duck and crunchy water chestnuts added layers of complexity, flavor and texture. Unlike some dishes that overwhelmed with too much spice, the soup had a sweet but hearty balance. My only complaint was the itty-bitty portion size. I’ll be going to Stripsteak hoping for seconds. -Leslie Ventura
You know how taco shops usually have a line of dispensers for crazy-colored drinks? LuckyRice had the super-classy version, almost like a cocktail buffet to sip or swill with abandon. The Thai of the Tiger was a boozed-up version of Thai iced tea, with ginger-infused 42Below vodka, Tuaca’s vanilla-citrus notes and fancy maple syrup. It was intensely sweet, but after going too far with Pok Pok’s fiery chili paste—like, way too far—it was a welcome soother. Next to it, the Honey to the Bee looked like a glass of milk on ice, but it tasted like lavender and cream and honey whiskey. Yum. But the drink I could have nursed for hours was the Ever-Lasting Summer, anchored by Bombay Sapphire East Gin and frolicking on my taste buds with Aperol’s floral loveliness, fresh lemon, soda bubbles and a syrup of strawberry, rhubarb and rose. Why stop to smell the garden when you can drink it? -ER
I was aiming for the out-of-towners during my LuckyRice romp. I know and love local eats by Raku, Monta, Chada and the like, and was excited to get a sampling from chefs visiting Vegas for this fest, like Rene Ortiz and Laura Sawicki from Cochisuperstar in Austin, Texas, or the brilliant Kristen Kish from Top Chef and Menton in Boston. Kish’s subtle, sweet lobster dish with melon, celery and smoked brioche was delightful, a light contrast to the hearty, soulful rice congee with rich, sour duck laab from chef Erik Bruner-Yang of Washington, D.C.’s Toki Underground. But despite my intentions, it was a local bite that took top honors. Comme Ça’s unbelievable open-face take on banh mi set charred pork belly, paté, crunchy chicharonne, pickled veggies and green curry aioli atop a slab of squid-ink potato bread. It was rich, meaty and saucy, undeniably over-the-top in the best possible way. -Brock Radke
A girl can only take so much pork belly and fermented soybean before she needs some refreshment, and the Cosmo’s Neapolitan had me covered with booze-kicked ice creams and ice pops. The La Bamba pop (Modelo Especial, lime juice, Pop Rocks) was nice, but it got its ass kicked by the Watermelon Patch, a watermelon margarita with chunks of fresh cucumber and chili salt—on a stick! The subtle-sweet (and mercifully tiny) pop was the only reasonable dessert after so much decadence. -ER