Chef Jimmy Li was the man behind two criminally overlooked, relatively short-lived Chinese restaurants on Spring Mountain Road—Three Villages and 1900 Asian Cuisine. These were tucked-away places that didn’t necessarily go out of their way to appeal to non-Asian eaters, but the food was consistently glorious.
Li is back with a new location (still tucked away, though), a new name in Niu-Gu and a new partner in longtime local wine pro Joe Muscaglione. Located in the Chinatown-area Mountain View Plaza on Jones Boulevard, Niu-Gu has its work cut out, since its restaurant neighbors include China Mama, Chada Thai & Wine and District One, among others, but Li’s cuisine is just as delicious and satisfying as it has always been.
Niu-Gu is far from formal, but the food achieves a level of Chinese-restaurant sophistication usually found only within Strip casinos—and in traditional Chinatown fashion, Niu-Gu offers it for far less money. Beef tongue salad ($7), tender, funky coins of meat layered with crisp cucumber in a powerhouse XO sauce, is a must-order cold appetizer, reminiscent of a pork belly dish to which I became addicted at the former 1900. If you need a more familiar bite to get things going, opt for pan-fried pork dumplings ($5) or lightly steamed oysters in a savory garlic broth topped with scallions ($9).
Chinese menus are typically lacking in dish description, which can make eating at more authentic restaurants like this intimidating. You would never know that triple chili pork ($15) is actually a massive, fiery, garlicky stew, rich morsels of pork tenderloin swimming with red chili pods and slurpable veggies. Sometimes something that reads like an afterthought makes for the most memorable meal.
The slow-roasted beef shortrib ($18) is the signature house dish, but I prefer Niu-Gu’s more exotic, hard-to-find fare, like cumin-laced lamb chops ($16) or sautéed Chinese yam with black fungus ($12), a dish popping with freshness despite its funny name. Sichuan-style mapo doufu ($10) is done traditionally with super-soft tofu awash in chili oil with tender bits of pork, perhaps the best version of this dish I’ve tasted in Las Vegas.
Several specials are always in rotation depending what’s available, like the whole steamed fish of the day, which I enviously watched an entire family devour during my first visit, or a simple side of garlic vegetables—beautifully flavored pea greens—on that same visit. Black peppercorn beef tenderloin fried rice ($11) is a side that eats like a meal unto itself, and ditto for the spicy-sour shrimp fried rice in fish sauce ($11). When Niu-Gu opened a few months back, it was much more noodle-centric, so rest assured the hot and sour pork tenderloin noodle soup ($9) follows through on the flavors promised.
To further complement Li’s food, Muscaglione has installed one of the most intense tea programs in the city, including traditional tableside tea ceremonies. It’s a unique touch, another reason Niu-Gu deserves the attention its predecessors didn’t seem to receive.
Niu-Gu 3400 S. Jones Blvd. #16, 702-570-6363. Daily, 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.