[The Local Dining Issue]

How did our Japanese food get so good so fast?

I-Naba’s incredible chirashi bowl is just the beginning of Las Vegas’ amazing Japanese food scene.
Photo: Steve Marcus
Tonkatsu Kiyoshi's <em>rosu katsu</em> dinner.

Tonkatsu Kiyoshi's rosu katsu dinner.

I love I-Naba. I could eat there every day, and I want to. It’s a minimalist, peaceful little jewel hiding on Decatur Boulevard, and the food is equally soothing. A bowl of chilled soba noodles with a savory dipping sauce here is a calming yet invigorating experience, and there’s extra satisfaction from slices of pressed, cured mackerel over sushi rice, braised black pork belly and the seafood-laden egg custard known as chawanmushi.

I-Naba is a totally unique Japanese restaurant, but all of a sudden, we have a lot of those. Just a few years ago, there were sushi spots, a few teppan houses and that’s it. Today we seem to have it all: energetic izakayas like Yonaka, Kyara and Cocokala; Italian-inspired fusion at Trattoria Nakamura-Ya; curry houses Kaba and Zen; barbecue at Gyu-kaku; improved sushi and sashimi at Kabuto, Goyemon and Soho; deep-fried goodness at Tonkatsu Kiyoshi and Yu-Yu Kushiage; and a vast array of top-notch ramen houses including recent LA transplant Jinya.

Our Japanese culinary revolution began when chef Mitsuo Endo opened Raku on Spring Mountain Road in 2008. The chef notched several James Beard Award semifinalist credits and earned national attention for Raku, an unheard-of accomplishment for a neighborhood restaurant in Las Vegas. But that’s the thing—our expanding wave of great Japanese food has been an almost exclusively off-Strip phenomenon. (This year’s opening of Yusho at the Monte Carlo and the overlooked excellence of Mizumi at Wynn are exceptions.)

Raku arrived just before the genre-defining Monta ramen shop in the same small Chinatown strip mall, now a Japanese stronghold with Kabuto, Zen, Nakamura-Ya and the stunning dessert-focused offshoot Raku Sweets.

Martin Koleff, the restaurateur and consultant who helped launch many of these eateries, says the food is better in part because there are more Japanese people coming to Las Vegas, to live and to visit. “The local Japanese workforce has doubled in the last few years, and there are more people moving to Vegas, many from Los Angeles. They’re out there looking for great restaurants.”

Chef Mio Ogasawara shows off Angel Cream, a light cheese and pear mousse dessert on the (edible) menu at Raku Sweets.

Chef Mio Ogasawara shows off Angel Cream, a light cheese and pear mousse dessert on the (edible) menu at Raku Sweets.

That surge has diversified the offerings, he explains, because previously most Japanese restaurants were Korean-owned, with a tendency to focus on sushi or barbecue. Now we’re getting a bit of everything, including Koleff’s next project: an authentic tempura house.

Takeshi Omae is Las Vegas’ first Michelin-starred neighborhood chef. After building his rep in Tokyo at Morimoto XEX, he opened Japanese Cuisine by Omae on Decatur (near I-Naba!) this year with partner Shinichiro Tanaka. It’s a 12-seat fine dining restaurant with impeccably sourced and prepared meals, an experience hard to find in any city, let alone off-Strip Vegas.

Omae’s arrival further proves we have plenty of diners—local or visiting, Japanese or otherwise—with an adventurous appetite for this refined, soulful cuisine.

“Las Vegas has the largest number of famous and excellent restaurants in the world,” Tanaka says. “That is the most competitive place for any chef in the world. That is the reason why [we’re here]. Chef Omae likes the challenge.”

Tags: Dining, Featured, Food
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