I‘ve spent more time in Las Vegas than I’d like to admit. Besides a few lost weekends with friends, we shot the finale of Top Chef’s very first season here back in 2006, as well as all of Season 6 (for which we WON AN EMMY!). And I‘ve hosted several culinary festivals over the years with Food & Wine here too. Suffice to say, I’ve done my share of Vegas eating and drinking. Maybe because we spent so much time filling ourselves with decadent food on camera during the Season 13 finale, this time around I found most of my “off-duty” exploration happening off the strip. These days, in addition to the world-renowned chef power in every major casino, there’s a ton of great food and fun to be had, if you're willing to drive just a few minutes away from the flashing lights. Here, a few of my favorites:
Lotus of Siam
Arguably the best Thai restaurant in America, and for good reason: It’s spicy, authentic and has one of the greatest Riesling wine lists ever complied (I am full of superlatives today). My absolute must-haves include the Nua Dad Deaw (Issan-style beef jerky—deep-fried marinated beef served with homemade spicy sauce) and an off-menu, inexplicably delicious, purple coconut rice with papaya salad and shredded pork sausage (both pictured above)! Photos by Gail Simmons.
I've been obsessed with this perfect, off-the-beaten-path Japanese robata joint since Season 6, when I was first brought here by local friends. Since then it has certainly become more popular. Everything on the charcoal grill is creative and full of smoky flavor, from the tuna collar to the marinated shrimp. The homemade tofu is exceptionally fresh and creamy too. And I can’t get enough of the simple salad, served with salty, savory homemade sardine chips (look closely at your plate; those sardines have eyes!).
Chef Kerry Simon was a Las Vegas pioneer, credited with starting the celebrity chef migration to Vegas with his first restaurant, Simon, at the Palms in 2002. He was not just a brilliant chef, but also a vibrant industry personality. Tragically, Chef Simon died last year from a rare brain disease at the age of 60. But before his passing, he opened one last restaurant, which may just be his best. It’s located all the way downtown in a beautiful stand-alone space, stripped of all bedazzled showgirls and noisy slot machines, allowing his creative American food to shine. I went with Tom and a few of our crew, and we had a blast, sharing big platters of juicy burgers, bacon with baked brie, creamy mac and cheese and a slew of fresh veggies and salads (hard to come by in this town!).
By far my favorite place for lunch on the strip! Somehow Chef Jose Andres has created a hyper-modern place that combines the best tacos and Mexican treats with creative Chinese dim sum, and it works brilliantly. On my day off, I spent several hours here, slurping his famous Salt Air margaritas and devouring cochinita tacos, sticky lamb pot stickers and a stunning bowl of Twenty Vegetable Fried Rice (pictured). Photo by Gail Simmons.
Regardless of how severe your hangover may be you can’t leave Vegas without breakfast at the Peppermill. It’s the ultimate diner experience, complete with colored sugar, flamingo napkins and the largest portions of omelettes and pancakes you have ever seen. Or go late night to their Fireside Lounge for a cocktail around one of the kitschy fire pits. It doesn’t get more Vegas than this. Photo by Gail Simmons.
I couldn’t stay at the MGM and not eat at Tom’s place, Craftsteak. It’s as great as ever (although it doesn’t hurt when you eat with the boss). Rib-Eye, Braised Beef Short Ribs and lots of classic steakhouse sides, all cooked to perfection.
And in case you thought all I did was eat in Vegas:
Neon Sign Museum
This is my all-time favorite Vegas attraction, a bone yard of gorgeous, almost-forgotten neon signs from decades of casinos, hotels, motels, lounges and shows that together retell the glamorous history of this very unique town. Most of the signs are housed outdoors and are in varying degrees of refurbishment. They are at once derelict and grand, a study in American style and design. Take the hour tour and book in advance. Well worth it! Photo by Gail Simmons.
Life is Beautiful Festival
It was by total coincidence that we shot our finale the same weekend as this enormous music, art and food festival that takes over downtown Las Vegas every year. So one night, we jumped onboard with the masses and wandered the downtown streets, most of which are still somewhat dilapidated but slowly being restored, and we explored the dizzying array of street art installations and food stalls. We joined a few impromptu dance parties and then, around midnight, went to an insanely fun outdoor Kendrick Lamar concert. Easily one of the most unexpected and energizing Vegas nights I’ve had to date. Photo by Gail Simmons.
And that’s a wrap for Season 13!
Photo by Gail Simmons
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