The lunchtime line at The Golden Gate shrimp bar is always long and moves fast. And it makes sense: There’s plenty of decent grub to eyeball as you slide down the line, morning-packaged salads or slices of pie, jumbo all-beef hot dogs or large deli sandwiches.
But this is the Golden Gate (1 Fremont St.), and if it’s famous for anything besides being in business since 1906, it’s the shrimp cocktails served in parfait glasses in the back of the casino. The recession may have bumped the price from 99 cents to $1.99, but it’s still the best—fresh bay shrimp, spicy cocktail sauce, no filler. You can get one with larger shrimp for $3.99 or a combo cocktail, baby shrimp with fake crab meat, for $2.99. (The original can still be enjoyed for 99 cents if you’re a member of the casino’s rewards club.)
The Golden Gate’s website claims it introduced the shrimp cocktail to Vegas in 1959. Regardless of its origins, this tradition was once iconic, as big a part of casino culture—especially Downtown—as free drinks, neon and buffets. In the current era, when you can’t drive down Fremont anymore and the main action is at the hipster bars east of the Boulevard, there just doesn’t seem to be a place for the campy, kitschy shrimp cocktail. It’s kind of sad.
At the Fremont (200 E. Fremont St.), the Lanai Express snack bar’s got it for 99 cents, a 10-ounce plastic cup full of tiny, questionable sea morsels doused with a sauce that tastes like Tabasco and not much else. It was all right until I caught a bite of something crunchy, and there’s no celery in this sucker. The Fremont is one of the least interesting casinos Downtown, and the same can be said for its shrimp cocktail. It’s not even the most appetizing pink thing in the casino; there’s a Dunkin’ Donuts nearby.
The presentation is much improved at the snack bar at Binion’s (128 E. Fremont St.), where you get a nice-sized tub of bland cocktail sauce and a cute plastic bowl full of shrimp and lettuce. The problem is, there is more lettuce than shrimp, so at $1.99 it’s not much of a deal. Most shrimp cocktails taste the same, and this one was fresh enough and had obviously been packaged earlier that day. But at this counter, you’re better off getting a fresh burger from the flat top.
I was excited and scared to get a shrimp cocktail from Mermaid’s (32 E. Fremont St.), a casino with outdoor advertising for everything from chicken fingers to chocolate-dipped bananas. But alas, no shrimp at this bar, where Vegas-hater Anthony Bourdain infamously ruined himself with a deep-fried Twinkie. There’s no sign of shrimp cocktails at the Las Vegas Club or the Plaza, either. In fact, other than the Golden Gate, there are none on the south side of Fremont. What the hell? I guess the nicest casino Downtown, the Golden Nugget, is too cool. Shameful.
The Cal Club snack bar, right inside the glass doors at 1st Street and Ogden, has a pretty good one. It’s got the same large shrimp as the Golden Gate’s upgraded cocktail, it costs $2.50 and it’s got some crisp cabbage underneath. Unfortunately, it’s served with little packets of Kraft cocktail sauce, which may as well be ketchup. But the shrimp are colder than the other places and the portion is nice, so you’re in good shape at the California (12 E. Ogden Ave.).
The Golden Gate remains the shrimp cocktail capital of Vegas, but it needs some competition. Downtown food should be revitalized, too, and we shouldn’t make improvements without a wink and nod to our cheesy—no, make that shrimpy—past.