The restaurant du moment in Southern California is a taco truck called Kogi. The truck’s movements can be tracked on Twitter.
Wherever Kogi goes, so goes the crowd, lining up to eat some of the more original cooking LA has seen in years. The specialty is—are you ready for this?—tacos of the Korean persuasion, stuffed with kalbi, sesame oil and garlic-marinated short ribs, Korean barbecued beef and even the notorious kimchee, stinky fermented cabbage.
The lesson learned may relate to the infallible popularity of the taco, but there is an object lesson for the Vegas food scene. Tacos are cheap, versatile and delicious, so there is always an audience for them, on- or off-Strip. The newest Mexican concept in town is called T&T, an acronym for tacos and tequila. Okay, get your mind out of the gutter.
Mexican food on the Strip has improved greatly during the last decade, when it’s evolved from unrecognizable glop buried under gobs of melted yellow cheese to tasty fare served at upscale venues like TI’s Isla, or Dos Caminos at the Palazzo.
Even our cheaper Mexican joints, such as Fausto’s, a small Henderson chain where one sees day laborers at 6 a.m. chowing down on menudo or chilaquiles, have acquired an air of respectability. At long last, Mexican food is enjoying its day in the bright Vegas sun.
Think of T&T as middle-of-the-road, then, at least price-wise. It’s located on the mezzanine at the Luxor, and has a menu and décor conceived by Craig Gilbert. Gilbert brought many terrific chefs to town during his tenure as a food-and-beverage veep at the Rio, and has just opened Rhumbar at the Mirage. From those who remember the Rio in its culinary heyday, welcome back, Gilby.
I won’t go into the mind-numbing number of tequilas and margaritas on the back page of the menu, so suffice it to say that they run from $9 to $250 a shot, and that most of the ones that matter hover around $10. If you’re worried about antioxidants, try the margarita made with pomegranate and acai. With all those healthy fruits, how can you go wrong?
The main part of the menu is divided into many sections, among them tacos, of course, soups and salads, ceviches, enchiladas and a grill menu. But the section that grabs me most is the small-plates one, where many of my favorite dishes here reside.
At the very bottom of the list is corn on the cob, but this isn’t just any old ear. First off, it is roasted, just like on the xocalo, or main square, of any Mexican city or town. Then, it is slathered with aioli (garlic mayo) and Cotija cheese, and dusted with cayenne pepper. I tasted it for miles down the freeway.
Also found here is the delicious huitlacoche quesadilla. That hard-to-pronounce Aztec word is a Mexican delicacy, a fungus that grows inside husks of corn. Do we care that the English name for huitlacoche is corn smut? Guess not.
If you have the stomach (and budget), order Shots & Shooters, sold at market price. Tuna, mahi mahi and shrimp ceviches are paired with a flight of tequilas.
The chopped salad is addictive, with mixed greens, chicken black beans, corn, pico de gallo salsa, tortilla strips and a spicy chipotle vinaigrette that gives it real zip.
Among the 13 tacos listed, I’d choose alambre, made with skirt steak, bacon, chile Poblano and Oaxaca cheese, or chilorio, spicy pulled pork with crema fresca, salsa verde, pickled onion and a flour tortilla holding it all together.
Since I’m not much of an enchilada or burrito person, I’ll skip to the heavy-hitter grills, slow-cooked spare ribs with a tamarind tequila barbecue sauce, a properly tender pescado a la Veracruzana, (marinated in a spicy tomato and olive sauce) and the fine carne asada.
Side dishes like beans and rice are acceptable, but pricey at $8, and the tamal, served in a corn husk, is soft, yielding and delicious.
If dessert is still an option, my suggestion is the gooey tres leches cake. You won’t burn it off chasing a taco truck for two weeks, but hey, it’s Vegas, baby.