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)
The best way to experience Las Vegas is to get off the Strip. The unusual makeup of the town’s populace — heavy on entertainment workers and retirees wealthy enough to move there from somewhere else — spawns local restaurant, nightlife and arts scenes that exceed those in most other burgs its size.
For example, a recent round of gallery hopping during one of Vegas’ monthly First Friday street fairs was eye-opening. The Las Vegas arts district is housed in a few blocks of industrial spaces and ratty storefronts set just the beyond the north end of the Strip, within walking distance — if you like a good walk — of the Stratosphere and old downtown. With the streets closed to traffic for the evening, a First Friday stroll amid food carts, street vendors and live bands would be fun even if the art was ordinary.
It’s not. Recent visitors — regulars at Thursday nights in Manhattan’s Chelsea gallery district, Chicago’s art Fridays and Los Angeles’ scattered weekend openings — were impressed by the vibrancy of Vegas’ compact arts community. There may not be as much work on display in Vegas, but what’s there is universally competent and intermittently thrilling. Vegas are holds its own against its bigger rivals.
Like any city in the southwest, good eating in Vegas is spread all over town. Fortunately for First Friday-goers, one of the local Vegas eateries worth a visit is in the arts district: Tinoco’s Bistro (103 E Charleston Blvd; 702-464-5008), in the arts factory building itself, is a friendly Italian place, with low ceilings, tables shaped like artists’ palettes, and lots of art on the walls. In a town where millions of dollars are spent creating ambience, Tinoco’s stands out for its feeling of authenticity. By the comparison to the Strip, the prices are low, low and low for both lunch and dinner, and the food’s terrific.
Most of the other eateries in the area are Latin-flavored. At Casa Don Juan (1204 S Main Street; 702-384-8070) an authentic enchilada platter will cost you less than a movie ticket and huge overstuffed tacos packed with carne asada and guacamole can be had for the price of a bag of theater popcorn (their claim to the title “Best Margarita in Las Vegas” would be hard to challenge). As you travel back toward the Strip on South Las Vegas Blvd, you’ll come upon a Howard Johnson’s that holds a surprise: the Florida Cafe Cuban Bar & Grill (1401 S Las Vegas Blvd; 702-385-3013 ) attracts a mostly Spanish-speaking crowd for downhome Cuban specialties like ropa vieja and classic Cubano sandwiches (one of the steaming, cheesy foot-long creations could feed a small village in the Sierra Maestra).
Other art district hangs: the pricier, more Vegas-ie Ice House Lounge (650 S Main Street; 702-315-2570) is a good place to hear live local music; on the other hand, so is Dino’s (1516 S Las Vegas Blvd; 702-382-3894), calling itself “the last neighborhood bar in Las Vegas,” the sort of dive where you might expect to find a (pretty good) polish sausage to go with your karaoke.
Like countless Bohemian communities before it, the Vegas art district is a fragile thing. Great galleries and clubs have already come and gone and experience shows developers love art scenes to death. Now is probably the time to visit, before it goes the way of the Soho, Wicker Park, Venice Beach and countless other artists’ havens that have been abandoned to the bourgeoisie. It won’t be as much fun after the artists are forced to move to the corner of Nellis and Lake Mead (or wherever) to find affordable space.