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Pho Saigon 8 by Vegas Food Nerd

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PHO SAIGON 8
By Vegas Food Nerd

Our small, yet prolific corner of our city, located just a few steps away from the madness of the Las Vegas Strip, which we all know as “China Town,” has many eclectic offerings for those looking for dynamic flavor and unique tastes. Traveling down Spring Mountain Road can be overwhelming in terms of choosing a restaurant to dine in. On the night in question, my friend and I stopped in a small, unassuming place called Pho Saigon 8. It is a simple, no frills place that churns out Vietnamese comfort food. The interior is pretty stark, yet feels very clean.  

It’s a little embarrassing as a food writer to admit this, but I’d never had Pho. I had heard the tales of this big bowl of noodles that the diner can customize to their heart’s content, but had yet to experience it for myself. So the mission for our meal that night was to try the Pho. But, as I’m never one to discriminate when it comes to sampling a menu, we tried a few other things, as well.  

We ordered a few different plates and big bowls of Pho Tai (noodles in a broth served with rare eye round steak). First to hit the table were their Egg Rolls, which are crispy, flavorful, and stuffed very generously with beef and pork. They come with crispy green lettuce to wrap them in, which gives a bright crunch to the deep fried treats when you eat them. Next up we tried one of their Rice Plates with Sliced Pork. The pork had a BBQ flavor to it and was very tender. Finally came the dish we had come to try—our Pho Tai was served: big steaming bowls of broth with rice noodles and the rare beef that was quickly cooking down from the heat of the broth. With the soups, they also offered two plates of ingredients that you could add to customize your Pho, such as crispy bean sprouts, sliced jalapeños, Thai basil, mint leaves, cilantro, lime wedges, and a chili sauce. Then you grab your chopsticks in one hand, and your soupspoon with the other, and dig right in. I’d recommend trying the broth first before doctoring your bowl up too much. I found it velvety smooth with a nice flavor and added flavors as I ate. It was good, really good… like a big, warm hug for your insides. The restaurant is open from 9am-10pm everyday, due in part to Pho being a great hangover cure. I haven’t tested that theory just yet, but I can imagine if you were feeling a little under the weather, a bowl of this stuff would bring you the comfort you might be seeking. So I came, tried, and finally downed some Pho. Only problem now is that I seem to crave it everyday.

TASTE THE ROCK
Red Rock Casino has been advertising this new promotion quite a bit. Participating restaurants at the resort will be offering tasting menus starting at $5 from 5pm-7pm Monday-Friday. Sounds fun, right? A chance to restaurant hop and try different flavors for a couple of hours sounded like a perfect way to dine out, and I couldn’t wait to try it. We went on a Friday night early enough to beat dinner rush and take-out time, trying different places. First up: Hearthstone Kitchen. I had heard great things about this place, and walking in, we loved the design and feel to the place. Our server heads over and we ask what they have for Taste The Rock menu. She had no clue that they were running the promotion and had to ask a manager. Then she came back to the table with a small menu with only four items to choose from. Nothing appealed to us on the menu except for their draft white wine for $7, so we decided to share the Chickpea Chopped Salad to start. The salad was good, but not the deal that had beckoned to us from the marquees, and the pour on the wine was very low, almost ¼ of a glass. For the price—not a deal at all!  

Next we headed over to Mercadito to see what tastes they had to offer. Our server at this stop did at least know about the promotion, but once again, we were a bit disappointed by the lack of selection offered. We decided to try their Surf and Turf Tacos off the Taste menu, along with their house Margarita that was on it, as well. We liked both items very much, though the portions were small. The tacos featured seared rib eye with a tequila-infused hash of asparagus and cauliflower, topped with a tempura shrimp and a grilled Serrano pepper. It was the best “taste” of the night, hands down, and the Margaritas were very well done, as well.  

We wanted another go round at Mercadito, but decided that we might as well round out our tasting with a final restaurant and headed over Red Rock’s latest Italian place called Salute. Upon reaching the hostess stand, our greeter informed us that the promotion had just ended. We were confused and said the sign said: “‘Til 7pm,” and it was only just now 6pm. She went back to speak with a manager and miraculously found that it was indeed still going on and brought back the menu to show us. Once again, the offerings were slim, but we figured we’d give it a chance anyway. Then, when we asked for a table, she told us that if we were ordering from the discount menu, then we could not sit at a table in their pretty much empty dining room. This did not sit well with us, but we tried to keep an open mind and sat at the bar ordering a couple of glasses of their discounted Pinot Grigio ($8 a glass), and split the discounted Chicken Picatta ($13). The wine pour was a little better this time around and the chicken came quickly to the bar. It was a lackluster attempt at Picatta. The chicken wasn’t tender enough, and the sauce was just mediocre at best. I know of restaurants around the corner with much more reasonable price points that make much better versions of this dish. Disappointed with our evening, we wrapped up the bill and left for the night. Taste the Rock is a great idea in theory, yet it was executed in such a poor manner that it will be quite some time before I visit Red Rock Casino. As a local, I expect jacked up prices on the Strip, but not around the corner from my home.  

RAINFOREST CAFÉ
Writing about food is fun, and generally, it is an adult’s only experience. I was offered the unique opportunity to try the new Aloha Adventures menu at Rainforest Café on Harmon here in town, and couldn’t resist asking to see if my three young boys might be able to tag along on this little culinary adventure. Rainforest was gracious enough to let the whole family get in on the action, and my boys couldn’t have been more thrilled. It actually really helped having them along with me on this assignment. As adults, we tend to venture to places like Rainforest, which generally are on the outskirts of pricey outdoor amusement parks, with a cynical viewpoint. Kids, on the other hand, walk in the doors with big saucer cup eyes of pure wonder, as they venture into this jungle full of moving creatures and fun light show. We came at a somewhat quiet time for the restaurant, and were able to tour the animals and see its amazing view of the bustling Las Vegas Strip.  

When we sat down at our table, the manager brought over one of the new menu items from Aloha Adventures, the Ahi Poke Tower: fresh, raw Ahi Tuna mixed with spicy soy and sesame seeds stacked on avocado and tomatoes. It was served with wonton chips and a wasabi aioli. Fresh, with a bit of a kick from the wasabi, it was a hit with not just the adults at the table, but the kids, as well. Then they brought out the Awesome Appetizer Adventure, which was a big plate full of Chicken Tenders, Cheese Sticks, Spinach Artichoke Dip, Southwestern Egg Rolls, and Guacamole. Nothing earth-shattering in terms of culinary inventiveness, but if someone doesn’t tell you that from time to time they enjoy a good platter like this, then I’d say they were lying.  

We wrapped up our meal by sharing three of their dinner platters from the new menu: The Paradise Combo, which had sesame-crusted raw Ahi Tuna with more of their tasty wasabi aioli, plus Coconut Shrimp and Pineapple Teriyaki Chicken. The Taste of The Islands had Coconut Shrimp again, with Dynamite Scallops and Shrimp, along with a Blackened Tilapia with mango salsa, and finally, the Jungle Steak and Shrimp, which had yes, more of those crispy Coconut Shrimp, Shrimp Scampi, and a Flat Iron Steak with steak butter. All three platters were good. The Dynamite Scallops and Shrimp was a table favorite, for sure. Was it mind-blowing? No, not really. That’s generally not what places like this are like. Was it a fun outing and a memorable night for the family? Yes, it was! There are finer and much more inventive places to visit in our town, but there aren’t many that you can visit and go on a safari at the same time. Thank you, Rainforest—for the experience, and Aloha.

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Annie B's Gourmet Caramels by Vegas Food Nerd

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ANNIE B'S GOURMET CARAMELS
By Vegas Food Nerd

For over 30 years, family-owned caramel company, Annie B’s, has been handcrafting their treats. Each caramel is individually wrapped and is made using simple, local ingredients, like brown sugar, water, cornstarch, butter, corn syrup, sweetened condensed milk, inverted sugar, and natural flavors. 

There are a few perks that go into being a food nerd, because when I humbly asked Annie B’s for a taste test, they sent me five different flavors to try in the mail—much to the delight of all those that live with me.  

These caramels were simply over-the-top. They were smooth, creamy, and just plain delightful. The dark chocolate sea salt was the resounding favorite, but there wasn’t one flavor found to be anything but amazing. For the fall season, they appropriately have a pumpkin spice flavor, which they executed to perfection. They made the list for “Oprah’s Favorite Things” last year, and make amazing gifts to send over the holidays. Order on their website at: AnnieBs.com.

MARKET GRILLE CAFE
By Vegas Food Nerd

You take an Italian guy from Buffalo, NY, who comes to our town to study hospitality at UNLV, and that same guy falls in love with a nice Greek girl—and a great family is born. The guy I am speaking of is Joey Pierro, and his family is the heart behind Market Grill Café. He and his wife, Rhonda, along with their two children and Joe’s mom, Rose, are very active at their two restaurant locations in Vegas. Joey had always dreamed of opening up a restaurant and he and his family made that come true in 2009 when Market Grill first opened. They decided to take family recipes from both the Greek side and the Italian side, making it a nice Mediterranean mash-up of a menu.

I had tried their food back when they first opened and it was more of a fast, casual type of eatery. I remembered liking it then, but was very excited to go back after they opened in a bigger space where your food is served to you. The atmosphere when you walk in feels like a nice garden villa that exists in Europe, somewhere probably owned by Johnny Depp. In the center of the restaurant, you can see some of the desserts being prepared, already tempting you into trying some.  

Our group was quickly seated and then we waited. I overheard that one of the other servers had called in sick. This made for a little less than stellar service that day, but having waited tables myself, I understood this dilemma all too well and took it in stride.  

First, we tried their take on Lentil Soup. It was made with red and brown lentils, potatoes, onion and tomatoes, and topped with feta cheese and fresh parsley, and it was very good. After happily munching on their crisp, fresh Greek salad, we moved onto the main dishes. At our servers urging, my friend ordered the Pomegranate Chicken with a Spinach Salad. This was an amazing dish. Generally, at a restaurant, the last thing you want to order is the chicken, but this entrée was tender and covered in a sweet pomegranate glaze and topped off with crunchy, salty pecans. We also sampled their Greek Trio, which gave us samplings of their Spanakopita, Pastitsio, and Mousaka. All three were tasty, but the Mousaka was the favorite on the plate, bathed in a rich, creamy béchamel sauce. This is true Greek comfort food, my friends. You must try it. My other friend at the table opted to go Italian and tried their Meatball Pizza. I didn’t get a bite, but I did hear him groan and say, “Oh, my God.” So I’m guessing that was pretty high on the tasty scale, as well.  

We were pretty full at this point, but as you recall, those desserts were very tempting to look at, so we tried a couple of their Cannolis, which were a perfect combination of the crispy shell and the creamy filling.  

The love that this family shares seems to come across in their food. I loved how the menu had “Their Story” in it, so I could learn about them before enjoying their food. This is a great place for the family, but with an atmosphere that would make for a nice date night, too. Now that you’ve learned a bit about them, I hope you will venture there for a taste. I know I will be back soon.

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Rao's by Vegas Food Nerd

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RAO'S
By Vegas Food Nerd

As far as restaurant legends go, Rao’s is probably one of the biggest. An Italian family dining establishment in New York City turned into the restaurant only a few are blessed to experience. Only those invited by others with table real estate at this place are allowed to enter and enjoy the food. It’s not just a ‘hard to get reservation’—you can’t even make a reservation until now. Rao’s have opened two outposts: one in Los Angeles, and one right here in Las Vegas that are now available to those that aren’t Rao’s insiders. 

Located in Caesars Palace, the Vegas Rao’s looks a lot like the original location. You can dine semi al fresco at a patio in front of the restaurant, but I recommend you request a table on the interior. The inside décor transports you back to the original restaurant, which opened in 1896 with traditional family recipes from the Pellegrino family. The recipes, which continue to be handed down from generation to generation, are pure Southern Italian comfort food. Diners can be part of the family at home now, as well. Rao’s specialty foods will deliver jars of sauce, roasted peppers, and can buy a cookbook to get the family recipes to prepare some of their more popular dishes in your own home.

I’d heard about Rao’s and had always wanted to try the place. Being part Italian with some treasured family recipes of my own, I was very excited to walk past the red overhang into this treasured place. If you have heard the tales of Rao’s like I had, then you’d know that the first dish our table had to try was their famous Meatballs: two big, baseball-sized balls of beef, veal, and pork, which arrived bathed in Marinara Sauce. They lived up to the hype and our table enjoyed them very much. Next, they have something called a Fried Mozzarella Sandwich, which was a crispy, oozing, moan-worthy creation. (Don’t think calories, people!) Then, another cheese, which I can never pass up, called Burrata. The cheese sits in the middle of the plate surrounded by heirloom tomatoes and basil, all of which is drizzled with garlic oil and aged balsamic vinegar—yet another hit with all of us sharing each dish. We next ordered a trio of their pasta dishes: Vodka Penne with Prosciutto, Angel Hair Pasta with Marinara, and their Linguini with Clams. All three were spot on, and we enjoyed them until we clutched our stuffed stomachs and begged for mercy.

Rao’s—famous for being one our nation’s oldest family restaurants—did not disappoint. The only downside really were the high prices, but you come to expect that from any restaurant located in the heart of mega-resort, Caesars. But to experience it—yeah, it was worth it, and boy, was I full. My sincerest thanks go out to the Pellegrino family. 

DIERKS BENTLEY’S WHISKEY ROW
Hitting our city with some cowboy flair is this gastropub that bears the name of a big country star. Country music and its undeniable grasp on the music buying public is now making its mark on the Strip when MGM opens the park next year. With items like Dierks Fried Chicken with Bacon Smashed Potatoes, and over 40 different options for a Boiler Maker (a shot of whiskey dropped in a beer). It is sure to be a drinking and dining destination that will please our fair tourists. Live musical acts and DJ’s will also be a part of the restaurant’s atmosphere, so you can boot scoot and boogie during your visit. 

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Emeril's New Orleans Fish House by Vegas Food Nerd

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In my last few columns, I went against the grain of all the hot, trendy spots that open in Las Vegas only to shutter their doors a few months into operation.  Instead, I’ve been revisiting some classic Las Vegas places that have stood the test of time and always are a treat to my taste buds each time I dine there.  Emeril’s New Orleans Fish House is one of those places for me.  Located in the heart of restaurant row inside the MGM Grand Casino and Resort, it’s smack dab in the middle of all the action, and they serve some fine food at the same time.  

If you haven’t visited the MGM Grand lately, I will warn you that the place is crowded.  Insanely crowded, tourists flood around in waves here like a school of fish.  Short ones, tall ones, fat ones, slutty-dress-wearing ones, drunk ones, about to be drunk ones, the species takes on many forms.  The positive part of this scenario is that by being in the heart of it all, Emeril’s makes for an ideal perch for people watching.  Sit at the bar for optimum viewing pleasure.  Then, I highly suggest an order of Oysters on the Half Shell with their Champagne Vinegar Mignonette Sauce and the traditional Cocktail Sauce, as well.  I always follow up that order with a bowl of their Okra, Sausage and Shrimp Gumbo.  They serve you a bowl of hot, steaming rice and then pour the gumbo over top of the rice, then you dig in.  Take my advice and ask for the Tabasco sauce—a couple of drops won’t take you over the edge, but adds a nice heat that warms you.  I’ve also tried their Lobster Soup, but that Gumbo always calls to me when we visit.  While they do have seasonal menus from time to time, I’ve tried almost every dish they serve.  Their Pork Chop is a standout dish, along with the Seafood Pan Roast which offers up Creole flavors in a way that makes you feel like you’ve been transported out of the loud and noisy casino directly into the Bayou.  Emeril really started the celebrity chef movement and secretly, many of us home cooks such as myself, like to shout out a “bam” or two when we make a killer presentation in our own kitchens.  The man is who he is for a reason.  Let me know when you eat there. 

CHIK-FIL-A WILL SOON BE HERE

Fried chicken-loving people rejoice as the first West Coast outpost of this wildly successful chain will soon have three locations here in our city.  They rank #8 in earnings, next to their other fast food competitors, and they also generate more revenue per restaurant than any other fast food chain.  The average Chik-Fil-A earns $3.1 million, as compared to the average KFC outpost, which on average earn $960,000 per restaurant.  The brand is known for its chicken sandwich, which is typically served with their signature waffle fries.  Though they themselves describe the popular sandwich and wrap that they sell as a “boneless breast of chicken seasoned to perfection, hand-breaded, pressure-cooked in 100% refined peanut oil, and served on a toasted bun with dill pickle chips.”  Their success surprises me in an era of extreme allergies, yet their profitability cannot be denied.

SIRANCHA VODKA?  YES, IT’S A THING

UV Vodka gives us the next best-flavored vodka to come out in quite some time. This spicy-infused vodka is sure to be your next Bloody Mary Bar’s best friend.  Infused with the spicy Asian condiment, your cocktails are sure to burn a few tongues and bring a little heat to your next brunch or whenever it is that you crave time with your Bloody Mary friends.

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Bob Taylor's Original Ranch House by Vegas Food Nerd

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BOB TAYLOR’S ORIGINAL RANCH HOUSE
By Vegas Food Nerd

Tucked away behind the now row after row of track housing is a place for mesquite grilled meats that has been serving Las Vegas for over 55 years. I first encountered this spot more than a decade ago when this Michigan native made the leap to live in this city that is now home to me. Their signage guided us with the promise of good prime rib, and we followed. Turn after turn, in what felt like a wild goose chase, the Bob’s was there—only a few cars in the parking lot, in a setting that seemed fit for an old Western, not the glitzy Vegas I had moved to. We almost didn’t go in because it seemed a bit odd, but thankfully we did and we had an amazing meal. I enjoyed one of the best French Dip sandwiches that I’d had since my Michigan beef house days, and my brother, who was with me at the time, had a big slice of Prime Rib that made him very happy, as well. Flash-forward to this decade, and Bob’s is still there, serving up some nicely charred steaks, and more.

When you drive up to the restaurant, which is now a little less out in the middle of nowhere, there are neighborhoods that have built up all around it. Though when you pull up, there is still a nice, rustic Old West-element feel to it. As you step through the door, the age of the building is evident, and its walls are adorned with numerous photos that pay homage to the Wild West movies and stars that were once the idols of young boys and girls back in the day. The best part for me however is once you are escorted to your seat, they temptingly walk you right past their big, mesquite burning grill with juicy hunks of meat searing—and the smell is just intoxicating. The interior is a little dilapidated, but clean. 

So what to order? I’ve tried many different items on their menu. A few of my favorites, aside from that French Dip, are their Crab Stuffed Mushrooms (basic white caps stuffed with crabmeat and covered in a rich creamy sauce). We also love getting a slab of Ribs on occasion. And when selecting your side for steaks or whatnot, I highly urge you to try their Ranch House Potatoes, an ooey gooey cheesy-styled hash brown potatoes that are worth bathing your taste buds with. They have other offerings on the menu, such as pastas, but I keep coming back to enjoy the mesquite grill that wafts and haven’t ordered any of those items yet. Our service is very consistent on each visit and the staff is attentive and friendly. It’s a great escape from the normal restaurant that you encounter here in town. If you are looking to mosey to a new fun spot to try hitching up your wagon and heading to, Bob’s isn’t a bad idea. 

BEAUTY & ESSEX IS COMING TO THE COSMOPOLITAN
Rumors have been swirling around about this restaurant opening here in Las Vegas for over two years. The concept will be opening in 2016 and will be the Vegas outpost of the restaurant that started in New York City by Food Network’s “Chopped” judge, Chris Santos. The space that will take over from the now shuttered Comme Ça, will be a brunch and dinner restaurant, featuring shared bites with an upscale take on food. The NYC location has a strict dress code which requests “upscale casual attire,” and asks diners not to wear “shorts, hats, flip-flops, ripped jeans, or tank tops.” The question is... if the code will be the same here in Las Vegas? 

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