You have to be pretty far off the beaten path these days not to have access to gourmet dining. Not that regional and ethnic food doesn’t keep us well fed and happy, but it is reassuring to know that there is no longer a corner of the Union that doesn’t have at least one place offering high quality cuisine and a decent wine list.
In Escondido, CA that place is Tango, a full service eatery, lounge and wine bar. Nationally acclaimed chef Rico Bartolome offers a constantly changing array of fusion dishes, including on my last visit tempura oysters (on arugula with a remoulade), a duck comfit (rhubarb jam, strawberries, goat cheese and candied pecans), and an amazing korean hot pot (miso-marinated sea bass, shrimp, kimchee, bok choy and assorted mushrooms in dashi). Applying classic European kitchen techniques to Pacific Rim-influenced dishes made of fresh seasonal ingredients results in offbeat creations from chorizo-wrapped loin of venison with chimichanga and mole through osso bucco with panang curry to pistachio duck schnitzel with sweet and sour cabbage. The wine list is always well-selected. Desserts change daily (think sugar pumpkin and mascarpone cheesecake with spiced whipped cream or crêpe stuffed with chocolate, banana fritter and banana ice cream), and last visit fresh pies to go were by the cashier. Lunch Monday to Friday and dinner every day. Monday to Thursday, $25 sunset prix fixe dinners are available. Happy hour 4-7 every day but Monday, when it’s 4 to closing. Half price wine on Wednesdays. Events nightly in the lounge. There’s a private dining room for parties of 10-30, and you can dine on the patio weather permitting. Despite the sometimes brutal desert heat, this is one place worthy of abandoning the comforts of the coast. Tango is at 417 W Grand Ave in Escondido; 760-747-5000.
Some of Vegas’ best dining establishments are hidden from visitors in strip malls, on side streets and in neighborhood centers. On an extremely hot summer afternoon a couple of years ago I found one that has become among my favorite Vegas eateries. Moments after I thought, I need for some protein, I spotted, stretched across the facade of a nondescript cinder block building on a low-end commercial block on Spring Mountain Road, a hand-made banner announcing “Hot and Juicy Crawfish.” It goes without saying that spicy food and hot weather go hand and hand, and in the high desert heat ice cold beer sounded good.
Inside the modest building, aside perhaps for the fact that the staff appeared to have blown in from Vietnam rather than Arcadie, you’d have been forgiven for thinking you’d crossed from Nevada into Louisiana. Every table in the small establishment was stripped bare except for a heavy plastic sheet cover, lobster bibs, and a role of paper towels. The crawdads — your choice: hot, hotter and scorching — delivered by the pound in steaming plastic bags — no utensils: this is not a place where you eat without getting your hands dirty — were perfect, at least in the garlic and cajun versions with the spice level dialed up to volcanic. Order two pounds or more, and corn on the cob and potatoes are tossed in the bag with the creatures. I don’t want to think about the impact of all the plastic on the environment, but from an operational standpoint this restaurant is a model of efficiency: at the end of the meal, the staff balls up the plastic table cloth — shells, paper towels, styrofoam cups, et al, and carts it off. Talk about no fuss, no muss.
“Hot n Juicy Crawfish” — that’s it’s name as well as it’s game — had only been open a couple of weeks and its menu was limited, if that’s the proper word, to crawfish. Since then, besides adding some equally fine steamed shrimp, the menu has expanded unnecessarily to include crab, catfish, calamari, chicken wings and raw oysters, as well an étouffé that is unexpectedly tasty this far from a bayou. The seasonings are described as Louisiana Style, Juicy Cajun, Garlic Butter, Lemon Pepper, and Hot N Juicy Special, and the spice level now runs from mild through medium and spicy to extra spicy (you will be flagged off extra spicy because of the danger of third degree burns; pay the warnings no heed: have another beer and dig in). Hot n Juicy Crawfish, 4810 Spring Mountain Rd, Las Vegas, NV; 702-891-8889.
Tip: Although Las Vegas has a bus system and lots of cabs, the only way to really explore the town is by car. If you didn’t drive in, don’t forget that the best budget car rental companies, Advantage and Fox, both have shops at McCarren Airport; in general, McCarren is probably the easiest airport in the country to rent a car.
By the way, a hot new documentary on chile peppers, written, co-produced, and hosted by the Pope of Peppers, Dave DeWitt, and shot on location in Mexico, Guatemala, The Bahamas, Jamaica, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, and Florida, perfectly presents people’s powerful passion for peppers. Heat up Your Life – Peppers and People (YouTube)