The secret chefs of Las Vegas

Away from the Strip, local talents are cooking up great food stories

Google “Las Vegas chef,” and the results will take you in a flashy direction. Famous chefs. Celebrity chefs. Chefs with big, fancy restaurants in casinos on the Strip. All that flash is important; it attracts diners from all over the world and fuels our evolving restaurant scene. But it also sucks up almost all of the attention. The talented professionals and culinary artists who feed locals every day deserve a spotlight of their own.

Do you know who’s cooking at your go-to neighborhood restaurant? Maybe it’s time to find out. We checked in at a few of our favorite local spots, along with a few new restaurants serving some of the most exciting food in the city, and spent some time in the kitchen getting to know the chefs of this other Las Vegas. And now we love their food even more.

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      I was in on the secret first, because it happened in my neighborhood. After operating other nearby restaurants for a few years, Nittaya Parawong opened something special in 2010 on a quiet Summerlin corner behind a Starbucks and a bank—a place to cook her own food.

      Parawong, who’s from northeast Thailand and grew up in Bangkok, came to town as a student in 1997. Those previous restaurants served Thai and Chinese dishes, which worked well for diners but less so for the chef. “We had pepper steak and sweet and sour chicken, things I never ate but had on the menu because people wanted to eat it,” she says. “That’s why this one is named Nittaya’s Secret Kitchen, because this food is my food.”

      Nittaya’s blends family recipes with modern twists, incorporates traditional Thai flavors into a fun, shareable, tapas-style menu and rounds it all out with an impressive, affordable wine list. And Parawong is creating food she can be proud of. One of my all-time favorites is green curry with steak and avocado, an unlikely combination that just works. “I was surprised how smoothly the avocado really blends with the coconut, and it tones down the spice of the curry,” she says. New for the fall: braised beef shortribs with panang sauce, which shows off Parawong’s love of American comfort food.

      Always known as a tiny gem in the neighborhood, Nittaya’s was able to expand this year, nearly doubling its seating capacity. But Parawong and her team are still making magic from a super-small kitchen space.

      “My main concern is, I want to make sure my food comes out the way I want it, the way I would eat it,” she says. “When you get bigger and have more people helping you, you have to jump back and forth a lot more to make sure and taste it and control it.”

      Keeping each dish perfect and personal is the most important thing when you cook your heart out every day. For Parawong it’s the only thing. “People used to ask, ‘Is there really a person named Nittaya back there?’” she laughs. “I prefer not to come out. I get a little shy. I prefer people to just know I’m cooking their food.” –Brock Radke

      Nittaya's Secret Kitchen 2110 N. Rampart Blvd. #110, 702-360-8885. Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m.; Sunday, 4-10 p.m.

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      When Hurricane Rita hit Louisiana in 2005, Brandon Trahan lost everything—the business he’d owned and managed for 10 years, his retirement plans, his home. “It wiped out the whole lower part of Louisiana,” he says. Despite the tragedy, he somehow found a way to see at it as an opportunity. “I always wanted to be a chef, so I decided to go to culinary school.”

      Then 37, he moved to San Francisco to attend the California Culinary Academy before coming to Las Vegas for a cooking externship at Emeril’s New Orleans Fish House at MGM Grand. From there he worked at Lagasse’s Table 10 restaurant at Palazzo and then the neighborhood favorite Marché Bacchus before teaming with Downtown Project to open his own Downtown Vegas restaurant, Zydeco Po-Boys.

      “I’m Cajun,” Trahan says proudly inside his Carson Street space, next to VegeNation and Glutton. “I can trace my family roots all the way back to Nova Scotia and France. My ancestors came to Spanish Louisiana and settled in the swamps and the bayous. That’s where we’ve been since the 1700s.”

      His heritage is woven throughout Zydeco, the name taken from the popular style of accordion-blues of Louisiana. From chicken and sausage gumbo to fried catfish and shrimp po-boy sandwiches on real Louisiana Leidenheimer bread, Trahan serves up true Cajun flavors in a city without an abundance of that beloved regional cuisine.

      “I learned at a young age that Cajun culture revolved around food—food and happiness went together,” Trahan says. “Back home, you never went to someone’s house without them offering you something to eat.”

      He makes almost everything in-house, like boudin sausage, jalapeño jelly and Creole ranch dressing. Whenever Trahan sinks his teeth into one of his signature po-boys, “I’m reminded of home,” he says. “There are a lot of stories in this food,” he continues, pointing to a cup-full of banana pudding—the kind with vanilla wafers. “My mother made this growing up.”

      Cooking his food in his restaurant is more than a labor of love. “It’s mine and my staff’s heart and soul,” he says. –Leslie Ventura

      Zydeco Po-Boys 616 E. Carson Ave. #140, 702-982-1889. Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.

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      Yuri Szarzewski began his professional cooking career in Béziers, France, at age 17. It took seven more years until he earned the right to use the stove, after completing classical training in everything from recipes to intricate techniques for slicing vegetables.

      Szarzewski worked his way up to positions at multiple Michelin-starred restaurants in France before coming to Vegas to create Eatt with executive pastry chef Vincent Pellerin and manager Nicolas Kalpokdjian. The West Sahara restaurant, which opened over the summer, focuses on healthy, beautifully presented dishes at approachable prices. “We wanted to bring this concept to Las Vegas of combining fast food and healthy food,” Szarzewski says.

      The concept of fast food is a bit foreign to the Eatt team, which shares family traditions of home-cooked meals. As executive chef, Szarzewski puts love into every dish, the way his mother taught him when he was a child. Wild-caught salmon gets marinated in miso and served with beets, apples and soy sprouts. Desserts are made fresh and far less sugary than most; the cheesecake is filled with raspberry coulis, white chocolate bits and yuzu cream.

      “I dream and think of [new ideas], and in the morning I try them out,” Szarzewski says. “Sometimes, I just go to the store and see a vegetable and think, ‘Oh, yes, maybe tomorrow I’ll try this.’”

      In only a few months, Eatt has established itself as something different in Las Vegas, and its creators hope to expand to the Strip and California, while maintaining the homey feel of the original café. “The most important [aspect] is our team,” Szarzewski says. “If you have something solid, you can grow faster. And seeing the customers happy and the smiles on their faces—it’s the best for us.” –Rosalie Spear

      Eatt 7865 W. Sahara Ave. #104, 702-608-5233. Tuesday-Saturday, 10:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m.; Sunday, 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m.

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      Alert: We interrupt this story to bring you a special, off-menu dish you need to eat immediately. If you’re lucky, Sunset Station’s Oyster Bar will serve you a crawfish pie when you visit, a tender puff-pastry blanket concealing an impossibly rich, Creole-spiced stew highlighted by sweet chunks of seafood and reverberations of guilt. Go now.

      Now back to our regularly scheduled programming: learning about the New Orleans native who has brought that crawfish pie to Las Vegas, Britt Beeland. He’s been in Vegas for 16 years. (“People warned me, but I had to tell them I’ve had wilder weekends in New Orleans.”) He’s been cooking since he was a kid. (“My mom is a great cook, and I was more or less a latchkey kid, so she’d set things up for me to finish when she got home.”) And he’s been working at Station Casinos for three years, starting at Sunset’s Sonoma Cellar Steakhouse before also taking the reins at the Oyster Bar last year.

      Station’s oyster bar concept, of course, originated with the still wildly popular Palace Station location, highlighted by the iconic pan roast, a San Francisco-style seafood stew. “You won’t get a pan roast in New Orleans,” Beeland says. “But it’s our biggest seller, and if you go to our Oyster Bar or the one at Santa Fe Station, it’s the same recipe across the board.”

      What makes Sunset Station’s bar special: the New Orleans-style specials created by Beeland and his team, from charbroiled oysters topped with garlic and Parmesan cheese (or a new chipotle-cilantro version) to shrimp and crab-stuffed flounder to that decadent, unbelievable crawfish pie. “We’ll do a catfish fry on the weekends, just like they do at churches in Louisiana, with hush puppies and fried dill pickles,” he says. “I have yet to get fried green tomatoes here, but we’ll get there.”

      The Oyster Bar’s regulars—many of whom live much farther than Las Vegas or Henderson—come back not only for the specials but also the service and personalities, aspects not commonly associated with neighborhood casino spots. “They like the way certain people here cook for them, that we do it their way,” Beeland says. “You also get to watch. There aren’t a lot of restaurants that have open kitchens where you can really interact.” –Brock Radke

      The Oyster Bar Sunset Station, 702-547-7777. Sunday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday & Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.

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      Olivia’s Mexican Restaurant is at the forefront of a reinvention at the Boulevard Mall, which is interesting because the restaurant is so un-mall-like. “We’re right at the face of the Boulevard, and if you look around you can see this place didn’t come cheap,” general manager Roland Paz says.

      He’s right. Its black-and-white wood and stone decor and long, gleaming bar suggests it’s not your average bar and grill, and the menu proves it: charred octopus in a memorably spicy chimichurri sauce; mojarra frita, crispy-skinned white bass with smoked tomato and citrus vinaigrette; carne asada tortas; a fresh spin on the chile relleno.

      Further setting Olivia’s apart: Its entire menu is a true collaboration. Management has changed since the spot opened about eight months ago, and the team has adapted by getting more involved and sharing recipes and cooking techniques. “There’s no executive chef. It’s everybody sitting down at a table and collaborating, like a family,” Paz says.

      Cook José Marquez, who has been here since the opening, says the system reminds him of his time working at the Hotel Presidente in Mexico City. “Everybody puts something in. Little bit by little bit, we [made it into] something very fresh and more creative. It’s fun,” he says.

      The team’s flexibility has allowed the menu to shift toward diners’ favorites, still maintaining the mariscos (seafood) plates that have won acclaim for Olivia’s while offering other dishes for the varied mall audience. “You can come in for happy hour and find $2 Bud Lights and a $3 Tecate, but you’re also going to find seafood enchiladas and calamari and things you won’t find at the average Mexican or Mexican-American restaurant,” says Paz, who has helped open spots on the Strip and in casinos for more than 20 years.

      Olivia’s also focuses on the presentation of each dish. The paella, for example, looks like a fresh grilled seafood feast instead of a skillet of rice. “Our ingredients and presentation have evolved,” Paz says. “If it looks better, it’s going to taste better, and that’s also a team effort. Each plate is getting individual attention.” –Brock Radke

      Olivia’s Mexican Restaurant Mariscos & Bar Boulevard Mall, 3554 S. Maryland Parkway, 702-906-1700. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday & Saturday, 10 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m.

    Tags: Dining, Featured, Food
    Photo of Brock Radke

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

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    Photo of Leslie Ventura

    Leslie Ventura is a staff writer at Las Vegas Weekly and Industry Weekly. She’s picked the brains of rock stars ...

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