Some words trigger the same emotional reaction whenever you hear them. Words like death penalty. Dodgers. Rush Limbaugh. Tattoos and piercings. Broccoli. You’re never going to feel differently about them. No explanations needed. No explanations accepted.
Here’s another word that sets off its own jumble of reflexive predispositions: Vegas.
Odds are you’re now picturing the stip. Neon. Casinos. Showgirls. Maybe Elvis impersonators and drive-through weddings. Maybe throngs of heat-exposed, shorts-clad tourists dragging themselves up and down Las Vegas Boulevard like the barely reanimated walking undead.
Or maybe you’re visualizing Las Vegas’ world-class celebrity chefs offering breathtaking indulgences with prices to match.
While no one can convince non-believers to love the Dodgers or broccoli (or Charlie Sheen or rap music, for that matter), I think I have a shot at showing you a Las Vegas that may defy your assumptions.
Because there are parts of town where the food is great and the prices reasonable. Where neighborhoods are not overrun by trudging zombies or high rollers. You just need to know where to look.
So drive with me a while. I’ll take you to a couple restaurants that don’t require fancy clothes or big expense accounts. These are family-run places surviving away from the glitter year after year because they serve food-like-mama-makes-it. (If your mama is Italian or Thai).
Our favorite is Nora’s Cuisine, a mile or so west of the strip. It’s a must-stop for us. A recent visit reminds me why. Our waiter delivers what I consider the perfect meal – precisely what I am in the mood for, prepared precisely the way I hope it will be.
I’m talking about Nora’s baked ziti, a blissful combination of red sauce, pasta and cheeses served bubbly hot from the oven. This is Italian food as it should be. Opened in 1991 by Nora and Gino Mauro. Son Marcello is general manager.
The menu has all your favorites – including tasty arancini, garlic bread with slivers of shaved garlic, and chicken, pork and seafood pasta dishes. You won’t leave hungry or disappointed. And for your time in this homey, family-run restaurant, you will forget you are in the land of overhype and underwhelm.
Our other stop is Lotus of Siam. Hidden in a tentative looking shopping center that appears to be losing the battle against sand, sun and economic trauma, LOS is turning out James Beard Award winning Thai cuisine described by Gourmet Magazine as the best in America.
Saipan Chutima, the chef responsible for the awards and the food, is from northern Thailand. Her first restaurant was in Norwalk, California. She and her husband relocated to Vegas in 1999, opened Lotus and still specialize in northern Thai* dishes.
You will find a huge menu and vast wine selection. My favorite dish was crispy duck in red curry sauce. And like Nora’s, you will lose your sense of place as you dine. This is not the Las Vegas you were picturing. It’s better.
Which brings me to the moral of this story. It’s OK to grimace when you hear the word “Dodgers.” No matter who plays for them or owns them, even if they move, they’re still the Dodgers.
But don’t assume what you know about Las Vegas can never change. A little scouting will reveal attractions you don’t read about in the tourist books. (Plus, the Toronto Blue Jays’ Triple-A farm team, the Las Vegas 51’s).
Nora’s Cuisine is at 6020 W Flamingo Rd, Ste. 10, Las Vegas, NV 89103. The phone number is (702) 873-8990. And the web site is www.norascuisine.com.
Lotus of Siam is at 953 E Sahara Ave., Las Vegas, NV 89104. The phone number is (702) 735-3033. The web site is www.saipinchutima.com.
Author’s note: This article is in memory of Jim Tabilio, a gentleman, friend, food aficionado, and one of the original co-hosts at atlarrys.com, the restaurant recommendation web site. Jim, who died a year and a half ago, introduced me to both Nora’s and Lotus of Siam.
*Editor’s note: Northern Thai food differs from the cuisine of the nation’s other three regions in several ways. Although it is spicy and salty, it is not as much so as the other regions. Coconuts are not grown in the North, so water or broth are used instead of coconut milk to moisten dishes. Grilling, long-cooking and braising are more common in the north. Locally grown bitter herbs influence the cuisine and pork is more commonly used than elsewhere.