The tapas train

Small plates take over the world’s restaurants

Smalls Balls: cheesy risotto, deep-fried and plated on a bed of short ribs with a bit of Parmesan fondue.
Photo: Beverly Poppe

Tapas is no longer a word with a simple definition. It’s a trend, one approaching full bloom in Vegas. Long-beloved local Firefly is growing to three locations this year, the Strip finally got a proper Spanish outpost (sorry, Café Ba Ba Reeba fans) in Julian Serrano at CityCenter, and the great chef José Andrés plans to bring Jaleo to the Cosmopolitan when it opens at the end of this year.

These eateries all focus on authentic tapas: hot or cold Spanish appetizers or snacks served with wine or the cocktail of your choice. But the tapas trend has exploded, perhaps because of cost-cutting potential — and the fact that it’s just so fun to sample tiny portions of many different dishes while drinking.

Regional variations, including Japanese izakaya, are basically the same thing. Almost every restaurant now has a small-plate menu, and some are completely based on this concept, including Caña Latin Kitchen & Bar at Town Square and Johnny Smalls inside the Hard Rock Hotel. While Caña plays it close, blending a handful of everyone’s favorite tapas with specialty ceviches and tiraditos, Johnny Smalls is all over the place, borrowing flavors from every genre to varying success.

Cana's halibut tiradito.

Restaurant Guide

At Town Square, 6599 Las Vegas Blvd. S., #210, 722-6060.
Open daily 5 p.m.-2 a.m.
Suggested dishes: Mac & Cheese, $8; Hamachi Tiradito, $16; Churros, $7.
Johnny Smalls
At Hard Rock Hotel, 4455 Paradise Road, 693-4414.
Open Wed-Thur 5-11 p.m., Fri 5 pm.-12 a.m., Sat 11 a.m.-12 a.m., Sun 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Suggested dishes: Smalls Balls, $7; Lettuce Cups, $12; Crispy Pork Belly, $13.

Caña, governed by local chef and former Bradley Ogden cook Kevin Lew, is new enough to still be making changes. Two standout dishes from our first visit were off the menu a couple months later. The refreshing raw-fish-and-citrus offerings are a great way to go, particularly the “classic” ceviche with halibut and the juicy, jalapeño-flecked hamachi tiradito.

Soon, every restaurant in the world will serve bacon-wrapped dates. Caña’s version, Piggy Back Dates, is just as good as you want it to be, crispy and savory on the outside and well-roasted, soft and sweet inside. Other Spanish familiars such as roasted potatoes with that spicy orange sauce and doughy empanadas with a smooth avocado puree also are available, but my favorites are the short ribs, tender beef in a nice guava-carrot glaze, and the mac & cheese, rich and secretly spicy — and now my favorite mac & cheese in town.

The best part about Caña is its refined atmosphere, exactly what the Town Square scene needs. It’s more upscale yet also more relaxed than the party-ready moods at neighboring bars.

People-watching is the best thing to do at Johnny Smalls, where you can sit at the bar or share a table in a small bordello-ish dining room while you watch clubgoers enter and exit Vanity. On our first visit, fueled by Corona and deep-fried mac & cheese sliders, we noticed that while the clubbers seemed fashionable and generally hot, they all seemed either too young or too old to be partying in Vegas. Hmm. Even more puzzling: Why would you fry macaroni and cheese into a patty and put it on a mini-sandwich?

The questions will continue as you work your way through the Johnny Smalls menu, but try not to think so hard — the only way to eat here is while you’re drinking. Only then can you appreciate the beer-friendly saltiness of fried alligator bites (yes, actual gator) or the whimsy of mini chili dogs or grilled peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Chicken and waffles is actually crazy-crunchy wings and waffle-cut fries drizzled with maple syrup, with peppered gravy for dipping.

The best bite here has the worst name. Smalls Balls are good-sized globes of tasty, cheesy risotto, deep-fried so they’re crispy on the outside, and plated on a bed of short ribs with a bit of parmesan fondue. It’s not easy to eat and not polite to order, but actually tastes really good. Just think how good it will be after a night at the club.

Photo of Brock Radke

Brock is an award-winning writer and reporter who has been documenting life in Las Vegas for 20 years. He currently ...

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