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How Naked City Tavern’s Chris Palmeri claimed the Vegas bar-food crown

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Naked City Tavern’s Chris Palmeri brings pub grub to new heights.
Photo: Mikayla Whitmore

You’ve never imagined eating a foieco. It’s a foie gras and duck confit taco with a drizzle of sea urchin, but now that you know it exists, you’ll need to eat it. You certainly wouldn’t imagine eating a foieco in a video poker bar out past the airport, and yet the brand-new Naked City Tavern on Pecos Road is the only place to get one, far from the fancy fine food of the Strip or any hip, gourmet suburban enclave. But if you know Naked City food—Chris Palmeri food—you’re not surprised. You’re excited. Sharp Vegas foodies know Palmeri is the man. The unassuming chef and restaurateur has achieved more than critical acclaim for low-brow cuisine; four years ago, a single TV appearance brought his food international notoriety. Now, with Naked City Tavern, the time has come to truly pull back the curtain on this uncompromising, masterful chef.

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In 2003, Palmeri was executive chef at the Brierwood Country Club just outside his hometown of Buffalo, New York. “I had kind of plateaued at 22 years old,” he says. He was afraid of maybe never leaving town, “and I hate snow.” Exploration landed him at MGM Grand as a sous chef at the soon-to-be-opened Diego Mexican restaurant. He packed up his Chevy Cavalier and drove across the country to begin a chapter in Las Vegas.

Not long after taking the job, Palmeri moved up to become the youngest executive chef on the Strip at the time, working with celebrity chef Rick Bayless on Diego’s menu. The restaurant became a success, but corporate life proved to be a bad fit for Palmeri, who was spending more time behind a desk than in the kitchen. He jumped into high-end food distribution in 2008 but yearned for something else.

After scrounging up $500, Palmeri opened a cart serving Sabrett “dirty water” hot dogs outside Dino’s Downtown for the weekend karaoke crowd. Guinea Pigs wasn’t an ordinary hot dog cart—Palmeri’s hallmark everything-fresh-from-scratch approach was born there, applied to cheese sauce, chili and caramelized onions. “If I had an oven, I would’ve probably baked the buns, too,” he recalls.

Naked City Pizza's Guinea Pie.

Naked City Pizza's Guinea Pie.

Palmeri’s friendship with Dino’s owner Kristin Bartolo led to him taking over the former smoothie shop next door and converting it into a sandwich shop. That’s another Palmeri hallmark: making use of nontraditional spaces. “I work with chefs who are willing to create solutions and be in a tight situation. He’s definitely one,” says Jolene Mannina, who heads Relish consulting and event company. “If the power fails, he’ll still find a way. He’s got that drive and motivation.”

Palmeri drew from neighborhood history for the sandwich shop’s name—the area was dubbed Naked City for the showgirls who once sunbathed in the buff at apartment pools. But the business itself was a mess. Palmeri met Bobby McKinney, owner of Moon Doggies Bar on Arville, who was looking to fill his vacant kitchen. Palmeri had brainstormed a pizzeria highlighting the thick-crusted style of his hometown, so Naked City sandwiches morphed into Naked City Pizza, another delicious struggle.

“I was working literally every day for eight months straight without a day off and without paying myself,” Palmeri says. “We were scraping by. Some days we’d make 100 pizzas, but then others we’d serve 10.”

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Television saved the day for Palmeri. He was in the habit of not answering the phone (“Nine times out of 10 they’re trying to sell me something, or I owe them money”). But he took the call that counted, from a Food Network Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives scout. Guy Fieri’s popular production came to film in January 2012, shutting down Naked City Pizza Shop for a two-day shoot. But even with a ticket to Flavortown, it wasn’t clear how long Palmeri could last.

Chris Palmeri at Naked City Pizza Shop inside Moon Doggie's.

Chris Palmeri at Naked City Pizza Shop inside Moon Doggie's.

“The five months between filming and airing were tough,” he says. “The next day we had a line. Boom, like that—it was overnight. Four years later, with another location, I still have people coming in all the time saying they saw us on the show. I was this close to going out of business, and now we have 60 people working for us. I hit the restaurant lottery.”

A second pizza-shop location on Paradise Road afforded him the opportunity to expand the menu, though another venture—the short-lived Desnudo Tacos—never found an audience. Then eight months ago, McKinney came to Palmeri with another spot, the recently shuttered Blind Tiger on Pecos.

“This place is what I’ve always wanted,” the 35-year-old Palmeri says. “Gaming will afford me the cushion to not have to do 500 covers a day from day one, and also to do the cool sh*t I’ve been wanting to do forever, which has been sprinkled in through specials.”

Naked City Tavern has added a late-night menu featuring dishes like bacon risotto, maple porchetta and “hot mamas,” Palmeri’s Italian take on the croque madame. Rotating lunch and dinner menus will highlight seasonal ingredients and anything else he cares to cook.

“He’s been passionate about food since he was a kid,” says Chris’ younger brother Michael, now in Vegas to help run the business. “At a young age he was proven and had a job that he walked away from to do his own thing. Now he’s back up to the same level he was at before, maybe even more successful.”

Palmeri has shown restraint on the tavern’s inaugural menu. Ahi tuna crudo is adorned with fennel pollen, pickled blueberries and a dash of Calabrian chile oil. Smoky grilled zucchini is finished with a sublime radish-top pesto and decorated with charred heirloom cherry tomatoes and toasted sesame seeds. Less subdued are fig-slathered crostini topped with duck prosciutto and pickled ramps. A bacon candle burns on a metal tray, melting away in a meaty play on oil and vinegar, mingling with balsamic in a dish as creative and interactive as any in town.

And then there’s the foieco, about as subtle as a monster truck. A house-made corn tortilla swaddles duck breast confit and seared foie with diced radish and micro cilantro. A little lime arrives on the side, and the taco itself is finished with uni crema. It’s a decadent dream, spotlighting what Chris Palmeri wants to accomplish at Naked City Tavern. “This is 17 years in the making,” he says. “If I’m lucky, it’s the beginning of another 17.”

Naked City Tavern 6295 S. Pecos Road, 702-766-0991. 24/7.

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