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Posted by on Jun 24, 2018 in Blog, Essays, Politics, Restaurant Reviews, What's Left | 16 comments

The Fine Line Between Civility and Civil Disobedience

 

 

Should public figures, including people we despise, always be entitled to normal common courtesies?  For example — what if the most offensive human being you can think of suddenly walked into your place of business?  Would you serve him/her?

 

I’m torn down the middle by the Sarah Huckabee Sanders-Red Hen restaurant controversy.

In case you didn’t hear, President Trump’s federally-funded falsifier and simpleton stonewaller, otherwise known as Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, planned to dine out over the weekend at a posh restaurant in Virginia’s Shenandoah Mountains.  When Sanders arrived, she was firmly but politely told she wasn’t welcome by the establishment.  The Red Hen’s owner steadfastly refused to serve Sanders.  The decision was based purely on politics.  In other words, Sanders would have been welcome at the Red Hen had she been any lower-level employee, someone anonymous, or just about anyone else in the universe.  She was refused service for one simple reason — because she holds a high-profile position in the Trump Administration, which is viewed by millions of Americans as the epitome of evil and incompetence.

I’ll veer around the legal debate and skip obvious comparisons to wedding cakes.  Recall the recent Supreme Court decision which effectively now allows any business to openly discriminate against customers based on personal objections to their lifestyle (a gay couple was refused service at a bakery, leading to a lawsuit).  It seems that if a bakery owner can tell someone to “leave” because of some confusion about where certain body parts belong, then a restaurant owner can say “goodbye” to someone who’s unremitting lies to the press and the public have turned the White House into a laughing stock that’s no longer funny.

Predictably, Trump supporters were outraged by what happened.  Right-wing media bubbled over like an overflowing toilet.  No one would even have even known about the isolated incident, except that Sanders blasted out the following tweet:

That’s one perspective.  The other side had quite a different interpretation of events.  The restaurant owner called the refusal to accommodate Sanders an act of civil disobedience.  The owner-citizen had become so fed up with Sanders’ serial lies and constant deflection that he felt a moral obligation to take a stand given the unique opportunity presented when Sanders unexpectantly walked into his restaurant on Friday night.

Was Sanders treated unfairly?

How you answer is likely based on tribal reflexes rather than an objective evaluation of what refusing service to someone really means and most certainly ignores much broader and far more serious implications of carrying out such measures to the extreme.  Not only is humiliating people wrong in most cases, disturbances of the kind could very likely result in an escalation of hostilities and open season in what’s become a culture war.

So, if lines are to be drawn, where should we draw them?

I think most will agree that just about everyone should be entitled to fair treatment.  Otherwise, society can’t function.  The Sanders controversy aside, I can’t imagine any successful business owner refusing to serve a customer based solely on politics.  The reason for broad acceptance of differences and collective tolerance is simple:  Banning a customer is bad for business.

We’re also likely to agree that public figures, including political leaders, should be treated with common courtesy in everyday life.  This fundamental tenet is bipartisan.  No matter what we may think of an elected (or appointed) public official, governing in a civil society demands some degree of decorum.  People should enjoy the right to private time with their families and friends.  They should be extended the same level of service and professional courtesies as any typical patron.

But wait.  Are there limits to normal expectations of civility?  We’re about to pressure test them, now.

What if you’re a restaurant owner and this man walks in and asks for a table?

That’s David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan leader, an avowed White supremacist, and the former Republican gubernatorial candidate in Louisiana.

Would you allow him to dine at your place of business?

Proving this is a non-ideological exercise, instead, let’s suppose this man walks in and requests a table.  Would you serve him?

That’s Louis Farrakhan, an anti-Semite, a Black Nationalist, and leader of the Nation of Islam.

Would you permit him to dine at your place of business?

Duke and Farrakhan may be on opposite sides of the political spectrum.  But consistency rather than hypocrisy probably demands that your answers be the same.  If you refuse to serve Duke, then you probably should also refuse to serve Farrakahn, and vice versa.

Here’s one more prospective “guest” to ponder:

That’s Martin Shkreli, the douchebag punk (and now a convicted felon) who bought a patent to a rare pharmaceutical drug prescribed as a matter of life and death for its patients and then hiked the drug’s cost 56 times the original price.  A few years ago, Shkreli even “won” a poll asking “who’s the most hated man in America?”  Obviously, that poll came out before Trump became a serious presidential candidate.

If you owned a restaurant and Shkreli walked in wanting a table, would you serve him?

What about Harvey Weinstein?  What about Bill Cosby?  What about the jackass who takes Safari selfies after shooting a giraffe?  Would they be welcome at your place of business?

Indeed, there are many cretins, crooks, and con men who go through daily life unmolested in public places.  There are countless racists and rapists who frequent fancy boutiques and upscale restaurants and receive impeccable treatment.  There are some moral and ethical ambiguities at work here when we admonish a partisan political figure and then give a free pass to others who have committed well-documented disgusting acts.

Of course, doing nothing is always the easiest option.  Non-confrontation is the easy way out.  Ignoring the evil deeds of the wicked and overlooking the terrible harm they do — often at the expense of the helpless who have no power nor voice — is a natural human instinct.  We’ve become subject to mass desensitization, to not only to our basic human responsibilities of decency but also willfully blind to awareness of misdeeds.  Sometimes, scandal has even become a cause for celebration.  We covet meeting anyone who’s famous — be they a mob boss or a Kardashian.  O.J. Simpson can’t go out in public without being hounded by gawkers waving smartphones.  Fact is — famous people never get turned away at restaurants.  It doesn’t happen.

Except now, for Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

I do wish we could return to a much healthier and more productive time when political differences weren’t obstacles, but opportunities.  Perhaps after the Trump nightmare ends, we can return to a culture of civility and cooperation.  I hope it’s not too late.

Unfortunately, Trump and his supporters have gutted all the rules as to how the political game is played.  Starting at the very top with a constant bombardment of impulsive tweets and petty personal attacks on just about everyone, from movie stars to Gold Star families, he and his sycophantic personality cult have annihilated the traditions of common civility.  Defaming, dividing, and ultimately destroying all opposition is Trump’s modus operandi.

Call what happened at the Red Hen what it is — a small payback.

Those, like Sanders, who not only carry out acts which debase the culture and willfully deceive an entire nation must be subject to the consequences of what they are doing.  Political protest isn’t pretty.  It’s not polite.  It’s not meant to be pretty and polite.  Political protest, through peaceful acts of civil disobedience, is intended to entice a broader debate and inspire others to take similar action.

Let the civil disobedience begin.  And let’s also remember — to keep things civil.

 

 

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Posted by on Mar 11, 2018 in Blog, Essays, Las Vegas, Personal, Restaurant Reviews, Travel | 2 comments

More Great Comfort Meals in Las Vegas — for Under $20

 

 

Taste is subjective.

Especially when it comes to food and eating out.

I love classic French cooking but hate nouveau cuisine.  I love cheap local eateries but loathe fast food.  I adore butter bombs, spices, onions, and garlic and garlic and more garlic, but won’t touch a green pea or a mushroom.  I drink wine daily but never order wine in restaurants.  I demand everything to be fresh and try to avoid frozen or processed foods, but I can devour a half gallon of ice cream in a single sitting.  I go through spells where I eat strict vegetarian and then turn into a werewolf the next week.

I’m willing to spend good money on fine food.  But I’m always cost-conscious.  In fact, every culinary decision I make is based on value.  Is this worth the money?  Do I feel like I got the best end of the bargain?  If so, that’s a restaurant I’ll return to many times.  You can always find a good meal for $50.  You can always find a great meal for $100.  But find me a fantastic meal for $20.  That’s where I want to go.

Yesterday in PART 1, I listed five great comfort meals in Las Vegas — priced at less than $20. Continuing on with PART 2 here are five more recommended lunches and dinners….and then some:

 

Sliced Smoked Beef Brisket at Rollin’ Smoke Barbecue

Wherever I go, I’ve discovered great barbecue joints are often located in the shittiest areas of town.  Las Vegas is no exception.

Rollin’ Smoke is off Industrial Road, on Highland Drive, two arteries in the bowels the casino district.  Nestled in dingy strip mall beneath a busy expressway, Rollin’ Smoke opened for business about ten years ago and has since become one of those hidden food havens everyone seeks out.  It’s now a locals’ favorite.  This isn’t a hangout where you’ll find tourists.

Instead, expect to see casino executives and construction workers lining up faithfully at a busy lunch counter to place their orders.  Rollin’ Smoke offers the standard barbecue options — consisting of pork, beef, chicken, sausage.  Drinks are serve-yourself, with the added southern charm of pre-sweetened ice tea.  Lunch/dinner platters are served on metal trays with wax paper.  Seating is mostly picnic tables, with thick rolls of paper towels at the centerpiece.  The floors are concrete.  Not a great place for a first date, unless you’re from Little Rock.  But what great barbecue.

Rollin’ Smoke serves meats cooked up Texas-style, although ownership would bristle at the slanderous classification.  Indeed, restaurant walls are saturated with Arkansas memorabilia, including a giant state flag and trophies of real (dead) Razorbacks.  A Razorback is a feral pig and the proud nickname of the University of Arkansas football team.

I’ve sung the “pig sooie” battle cry many times after eating at Rollin’ Smoke.  My favorite entre is the Sliced Smoked Beef Brisket, priced at $10.99 for a half pound of heaven.  The full pound costs $18.99.  Each entre includes a side dish and the baked beans make for the perfect kicker.  Rollin’ Smoke’s brisket is unique in taste because it’s given a dry rub of peppery spices before many hours of slow heat and smoke.  After it’s been sliced and served, the peppery edges make a merely good barbecue divine.  It’s one of the best beef briskets I’ve ever enjoyed.  You’ll be picking peppercorns out of your teeth two hours later.  Ah, the memories.

The rest of the menu (including ribs) is a very good show, but not quite at the pinnacle of the brisket, which is the undeniable superstar.

Overall, this a joint where you go to eat and expect nothing else.  A deliciously-satisfying meal with a drink plus tax rounds up to about $17, and that’s with a buck tip to the nice young man who takes away your tray and wipes down the picnic table for the next hungry customer.

[Note:  Rollin’ Smoke took over Billy’s Barbecue on West Tropicana, which was also very good.  I have not had the chance to try this location since Rollin’ Smoke bought them out, but I presume it’s equal to what’s served at the flagship location next to The Strip]

 

Kibbi Platter at Khoury’s Mediterranean

Khoury’s Mediterranean is a popular Lebanese restaurant in Village Square, at the corner of West Sahara and Fort Apache.  This location has been open slightly more than a year after spending a decade hidden away in the far southwest corner of Las Vegas.  This is another local gem, virtually unknown by tourists.

Khoury is one of the most popular surnames in Lebanon.  The Khoury’s are a local Las Vegas family and can often be seen them working side by side in the kitchen or running the floor.  Pictures of the smiling Khoury family decorate the walls.  This isn’t just a restaurant.  It is a display of pride.

Marieta and I have dined at Khoury’s 60-70 times over the past decade, including celebratory New Years Eve dinners.  We’ve enjoyed just about everything listed on the menu.  For those unfamiliar with Lebanese cooking, two highly-recommended dishes are the Kafta Kabob and/or the Kafta sandwich served with fresh cut fries.

My favorite dish is the Kibbi platter.  This classic recipe consists of spiced ground beef rolled into a golf ball-sized clump sprinkled with fresh pine nuts.  Next, an outer cask of bulger wheat engulfs the tasty treat inside and then the entire fist-sized ball is deep fried.  The wheat, pine nuts, beef, and spices blend to absolute perfection.  If that’s not enough flavor, then a house-made yogurt side sauce makes for dipping.

Kibbi platters are served with a side of whole grain rice, with a tinge of olive oil and a fresh salad of your choice.  The Tabbouleh is marvelous here, but I usually opt instead for the house Khoury’s salad, which is ecstasy for garlic lovers.  This is a tongue-burning joy.  All entrees also include a generous pie-dough sized portion of Lebanese pita, which is freshly-baked in a brick oven.  The bread always comes out piping hot and is puffed out like a balloon.  Khoury’s even serves fresh butter (no cheap margarine).  Add a tall glass of fresh-squeezed lemonade as the perfect topper.

Incredibly, the Kibbi platter with all the accompaniments is priced at a marvelously affordable $13 for lunch and $18 for dinner (which consists of a much larger portion).  Either option is a slam dunk bargain and a great meal.  You will become a regular, for sure.  Give Khoury’s a try.

Here’s my write-up, “The Best (and Worst) Mediterranean Restaurants in Las Vegas,” published in 2015.

 

Trout Almondine at Kings Fish House (Green Valley Ranch)

Trout Almondine is my favorite dish.  I’ve had it hundreds of times in far too many restaurants to count.  The best Trout Almondine is served in the very finest restaurants in New Orleans, and I’ve been to every one of them (some multiple time).  If I have a foodie fetish, you can probably tell — it’s for Trout Almondine.

[Note: Almondine is also commonly spelled “Amandine” or “Almandine”]

The classic French-Louisiana recipe calls for fresh rainbow trout (commonly shipped from Idaho in this part of the country).  The fish is seasoned, then doused in flour (or cornmeal), and then pan seared in olive oil and sprinkled with toasted almonds (sometimes it’s fried).  Finally, the fully cooked boneless trout filet is basted in a Beurre Blanc sauce, which means “white butter.”

The downside to being a hopeless food snob Trout Almondine aficionado is maturing into a spoiled-rotten brat.  Guilty as charged.  There are many unacceptable Trout Almondine options around the country, and Las Vegas offers only a few choices which I grade as passable.  Put this way, I can count them on one hand.

The very best Trout Almondine priced at less than $20 is served at King’s Fish House, in the Green Vally Ranch retail district, next to the casino in Henderson.  Large and often noisy, with optional outdoor patio seating, King’s appeals to just about everyone.

Coastal dwellers won’t be impressed, perhaps.  But given we’re in the middle of the desert, it’s tough to find fresh fish and decent seafood, unless you’re willing to shell out $100 someplace on The Strip.  King’s is the far more accessible and affordable option, which includes the widest variety of foods from the sea.

King’s does Trout Almondine right.  It’s the best recipe (for the money) I’ve tasted outside of New Orleans.  For $18 (lunch), a nice portion of fresh fish is served, along with the two side dishes (no ala carte here — nice to see a restaurant refusing to nickel and dime guests for the extras).  My favorite accompaniments include the buttered corn, which is sliced right off the cob and then seasoned, along with garlic spinach served in a small iron ramekin.  That way, I can order the spinach and brag that I tried to eat a healthy meal.

King’s also offers the best San Francisco-style sourdough bread in the city, which is airy fresh and served with real butter.  I’m also quite fond of their house specialty drinks, best of all the Agave Sting — silver tequila, fresh lime, Jalapeño, basil, and pineapple….poured on the rocks with a chili salt rim.  It’s amazing.

Read more about my obsession with Rainbow Trout here:  “Who’s Been Pilfering my Rainbow Trouts?”

 

Enchiladas (or Tacos) at El Segundo Sol

El Segundo Sol is the creative brainchild of master chef Terry Lynch, responsible for making Mon Ami Gabi  (Paris Casino) one of the most popular restaurants in Las  Vegas.  Lynch’s attention to the slightest detail is self-evident in every drink or bite or taste.  I’ve listened to Lynch talk affectionately about food for hours, going into painstaking detail as to why he selected a specific type of rice to accompany a dish.  His cooking classes aren’t just fun foodie events. They are spiritually-infused sermons, transformational experiences filled with culinary and cultural enrichment.

Lynch departed Las Vegas about a year ago to launch a new restaurant in Japan, but his mark remains indelible.  El Segundo Sol is a Mexican restaurant located right underneath Maggiono’s, at Fashion Show Mall across the street from the Wynn/Encore. But don’t look for Tex-Mex and margaritas made with an industrial powder mixer.  Instead, El Segundo Sol uses classic recipes and natural ingredients popular in Jalisco and Yucatan.

I remember Lynch once ranting about the depreciated peppers grown in the United States and served in most traditional Mexican restaurants.  So, his kitchen insisted on the far zestier peppers imported from central Mexico shipped to flag-plant authenticity.  Homemade cheeses and sauces served here don’t rely on the cheapest local dairy.  This restaurant relies on a fresh supply of superior products from the great Straus Dairy in Sonoma (California).  Yes, you can taste the difference.

Everything on the menu is excellent.  For $7.95, two homemade corn tamales with a creme fraiche sauce nearly lifts the bar of expectation to an impossible height.  However, if forced to pick and chose, I’d go with any enchilada dish (cheese, chicken breast, or slow-braised beef), which offers a spectacular combination of flavors at a reasonable cost of $17.95.

Enchiladas are served on an oval-shaped platter and come with an original black bean recipe combined with their signature cilantro rice — which is the best rice I’ve ever tasted.  Thanks again, Terry Lynch for sampling 40 different rice varieties first before settling on this gem of a taste.  What really pushes this dish over the top are the two sauces, one red and one green.  They are served in small tin cups and can be applied sparingly or generously, according to taste.  It’s a waltz for the taste buds.

If enchiladas aren’t your thing, then go for the tacos instead, which are served roll-your-own style.  It’s just about as good.

El Segundo Sol is the best Mexican-themed restaurant in Las Vegas and a definite reason to drive down to The Strip.  Parking beneath the mall is free and just steps away from the front entrance.  Moreover, the restaurant continues its tradition of monthly cooking classes (Saturday mornings) and special dinners, which are a bargain since a four-course meal and multiple margaritas are always included.

One more helpful hint:  Request a table inside, since the music can be loud on the terrace and it gets hot in the summer.  It’s much nicer in the back.

Addendum:  This dish would be my favorite, but it’s not regularly on the menu.  It’s shrimp basted in achiote, with rice, beans, and homemade corn tortillas.   Read more about El Segundo Sol in my review with lots more photos I took, published in 2014:  Restaurant Review:  El Segundo Sol

 

 

 

Andre’s Burger (Hamburger) at Andre’s Bistro and Bar 

I can hear the laughter now.  I’m recommending a visit to famed chef André Rochat’s restaurant — and suggesting a hamburger?

Yes, I am.

The trick is to visit Andre’s between 3 pm and 6 pm on Monday through Friday, which is the Happy Hour.  Many outstanding dinner items are discounted, some as low as half price.  Specialty cocktails are also discounted.

We’ve enjoyed Andre’s only a handful of times (it’s still relatively new) and came away on each occasion with the satisfaction we received first-class food and service at economy prices.  It’s like dining at one of the snooty rip-off restaurants on The Strip at a fraction of the price, and with smiling waiters sans all the attitude.

The Cheese & Charcuterie Board normally priced at $22 is discounted to $15 during Happy Hour and is an exceptional appetizer to share.  This is a smorgasbord of tastes to be experienced.  In fact, everything we tasted here was either very good or great.  Presumably, excellence is consistent throughout.

Oh, but back the hamburger.  We ordered two burgers on the shiny brioche bun, topped with imported swiss cheese, red onion marmalade, and truffle mayonnaise.  We each inhaled our own small basket of duck fat fries (a house salad can be substituted instead).  The burgers were delicious.  Especially after scarfing down everything on the Cheese & Charcuterie Board.

The price of the Andre’s Burger, as shown in the photograph above?  Try this:  $7

Seven bucks.

It’s half-priced from the usual dinner cost — which is $14.  I asked the waiter what’s the difference between the $7 burger and fries and the $14 burger and fries.  He replied:  “Nothing — except $7.”

Obviously, Chef Andre makes almost no money on this deal.  But one expects that we loyal guests will order something else with a higher profit margin.  I’m certainly willing to oblige the generosity, by trying out and ordering more menu items, visiting repeatedly, and giving this new establishment my highest recommendation.

Also worth trying — for dessert, I strongly recommend the Chocolate Walnut Gateau which is a chocolate-glazed caramel walnut torte, with crème anglaise for $8.

I have some concerns about Andre’s due to its far-out location, in the same mall area where Khoury’s Mediterranean used to be.  This is a drive for most of us, even for those living in the southwest area of Las Vegas.  That said, Andre’s Bistro and Bar is worth driving the extra mile.

Note to Self:  In a future series of articles, make a list of the best Happy Hour bargains in Las Vegas. 

  _____

Foodie Lovers Encore:  Five More Great Comfort Meals in Las Vegas worth trying at least once:

 

Gumbo or Jambalaya at Lola’s — A Louisiana Kitchen (Arts District location)

Lola’s is the most authentic Creole-Cajon restaurant in Las Vegas (don’t be fooled by Emeril’s New Orleans Fish House at MGM-Grand, which is twice as expensive and not nearly as good).  A big bowl of hearty Gumbo ($12) with a side of hot Leidenheimer’s Garlic Bread ($2.50) is the very definition of the perfect comfort meal.  If you want to go a little spicier, then the Jambalaya will certainly make you return for more.  Top of the experience with Lola’s homemade banana pudding, which is made fresh daily ($5).  The perfect way to spend $20.  Note: Lola’s opened a second location a few years ago, on Town Center in Summerlin.  I’ve been there once and the menu appeared to be identical.

 

Chicken Francese (Northern Italian Style) at Pasta Mia

One of my favorite dishes is Chicken Francese which is served widely around the country and in most traditional Italian restaurants.  What most places miss, however, is the ideal pairing for the breaded chicken cutlet, which is atop capellini (angel hair) pasta.  Do not order this dish any other way!  It must be served “Northen Italian Style.”  I’m spending myself broke trying to educate America on how to make this dish correctly.  The unique blend of flavor and texture comes from the egg batter around the cutlet, which absorbs the tangy lemon and butter sauce.   When the cutlet is layered across the angel hair as the base, the cutlet remains firm (not soggy).  Moreover, the nest of angel hair absorbs all the flavors of the sauce and becomes a symphonic culmination of aroma, texture, and taste.  Pasta Mia, in the corner of a strip mall on Flamingo across from the Rio gets it right.  But give the waiter strict instructions so no mistakes are made.  The house salad with a thick garlic dressing is fabulous.  When I die, I want to be embalmed in that dressing.

 

Kubideh Kabob at Zaytoon’s

I wanted to include at least one restaurant which is ideal for carryout.  Zaytoon’s is a market and deli with a small restaurant attached, consisting of about ten tables.  The interior is pleasant, but it’s better suited for to go orders.  It’s located in the middle of a strip mall near the corner of Durango and Spring Mountain.

Zaytoon’s is Persian/Iranian.  Even though the kitchen is small, the menu is quite extensive, consisting of most classic Persian dishes.  Non-Middle Easterners are likely to opt for the beef kabob, known as Kubideh.  This popular specialty is served with two 10-inch ribbons of pressed and seasoned ground beef with parsley, after being skewered on metal rods over an open flame.  The kabobs are blanketed across a heaping pile of rice, with is slightly buttered and texturally ideal.  The charcoal-colored Persian seasoning sprinkled over the beef is highly recommended.  A  half grilled tomato and a quarter onion are served on the side.  All meals come with pita bread.  Kubideh costs $10.99.  Also recommended to order a Shirazi Salad, which is a delicious mix of cold cucumbers, fresh tomatoes, and parsley marinated in lemon and olive oil.  One of the best take-out meals in the city for around $15.

 

Clam Chowder at The Chart House (Golden Nugget)

Where should you go when you’re not really hungry, but still want something good to eat?  So far, I’ve tried to avoid chains and casino restaurants because they’re usually unoriginal and pricey.  One notable exception is The Chart House, an ideal Downtown Las Vegas seafood destination inside the Golden Nugget Casino.  Take a seat at the bar and order a big bowl of New England Clam Chowder, especially if you’re not too hungry but still want something filling.  The chowder is priced at just $7 at lunch — and $9 at dinner.  It’s a delight.  For me, great chowders are all about the three “T’s” — taste, temperature, and texture.  This classic New England specialty fires on all cylinders.  The diced potatoes are slightly firm.  The clam count is generous.  The broth isn’t too thick (often the sign of a cheap chowder).  It’s also slightly peppery.  I have no idea of this is by design, but each time I’ve ordered the chowder here, it seemed to contain tiny specs of sand, as if to subliminally suggest to diners — this is fresh right out of the sea!  It’s also a generous portion served steamy hot.  This is the best clam chowder in a city not known for many affordable seafood options.

 

?????

That leaves just one more restaurant meal to chose, and I’m having a tough time making a decision because there are still quite a few great places to enjoy.  Maybe I’ll do a follow-up article later.

So, what did I miss?  What do you recommend?  Post your comments below or join the lively discussion on Facebook.

Bon Apetit! 

 

_____

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Posted by on Feb 7, 2018 in Blog, Essays, Las Vegas, Restaurant Reviews | 4 comments

Not So Well Done — My Review of Heritage Steakhouse (The Mirage)

 

 

Dining out on the Las Vegas Strip used to be a common experience.  This isn’t so true anymore, especially since “celebrity chefs” crashed the restaurant scene, jacked up prices to ridiculous heights, and casinos started charging for parking.  Now, most Las Vegas locals like myself avoid driving to The Strip at all costs.  It isn’t worth the time, the hassle, or the price when so many more alluring options and better values exist much closer to home.

So, when the rare opportunity to dine at an upscale casino steakhouse does come along, it’s anticipated as a special treat.  Such was case this past Monday evening when a longtime friend from out of town decided he wanted to dine at Tom Colicchio’s Heritage Steakhouse located on the casino floor beneath the atrium at The Mirage.

Book the the reservation.  Make it a table for two.

HERITAGE STEAKHOUSE DINNER MENU

The evening began on a sour note.  Reservations were made well in advance promptly for 7 pm.  Since this was a Monday, typically the slowest night of the week for casino restaurants, less tourist traffic would seem to bring about more efficient hands-on service and a more enjoyable overall dining experience.  Sadly, this was not the case.

At Heritage Steakhouse, the host stand is positioned outside the restaurant directly on the casino floor.  For those forced to wait for a table, there’s no comfortable place to stand, let alone sit, since the aisles are jammed with casino traffic.  And even though we arrived precisely at 7 pm, just in time for our reservation, we were instructed our table would be “just a few minutes.”

[Side Note:  This has become a somewhat underhanded tactic used by fancy restaurants to shovel diners into the bar area, so they will order a drink while waiting for what always seems to be about 20 minutes longer than necessary.]

No problem.

So, we stood off to the side, trying as best we could to dodge the hustle and bustle of casino action.  From afar, we could peak inside and see plenty of empty tables were available.  Staffing also seemed up to par.  This wait seemed unnecessary.

7:05 came….and passed.

7:10 came….and passed.

What in the hell was going on?  What’s taking so long?  We were trying to get a couple of seats in a restaurant, not fly stand-by to LaGuardia.  After 15 minutes of standing around, at 7:15 we approached the host stand a second time to “check in” or get some update on the status of our future.

“May I help you, Sir?”

Huh?

It was like we’d just walked in for the first time.  We didn’t exist.  Apparently, the host totally forgot about us and let us wait aimlessly for 15 minutes in the aisle like a couple of broke losers.  Gee, it’s really a good idea we got impatient and checked in a second time, or we might still be standing out there getting trampled by tourists lugging suitcases.

Okay, fine.  So, they dropped the ball while seating us.  No big deal.  Let’s forget about it and enjoy our dinner.

Heritage Steakhouse touts itself as “casual and stylish vibe, elegant and cool without pretense.  Perfect for a date, dining with colleagues, or a night out with old friends.”  I’ll go along with this official description, cut and pasted from the restaurant’s website.  Trouble is, the tables are positioned so uncomfortably close together that all conversations and intimacies might as well be broadcast to a room full of strangers.

On multiple occasions, I could hear every word spoken at the next table, estimated to be about three feet away, the distance of a quarterback sneak on 4th down and 1.  Unfortunately, this also meant the other party could hear every word I said the entire night.  At one point during our dinner, while ranting about the wicked ignorance of the current President, a portly Republican-looking man at the adjacent table cold-cocked his jowl-framed giant head and peered over at me, obviously annoyed, then frowned his displeasure.

Game on.

I must say that I took particular delight just short time later when the annoyed portly Republican man’s steak was served and (according to his tastes) had been hopelessly overcooked.  This caused a stir and a scene.  The singed piece of meat was sent back to the kitchen and after some arguing, the manager finally came over and spent what seemed like five minutes apologizing.  Aside from the joyous occasion of dining with my friend and enjoying his riveting conversation, the portly Republican’s misery was the highlight of my evening.

Then, things went downhill from there.  We’d been seated directly next to the kitchen at a corner table with our backs to a common breezeway used by a busy staff.  Midway through the meal, a waiter took a terrible tumble and crashed onto the floor.  Shaken up and laying flat on his back on a slick, over-varnished faux-paneled aisle, several waiters rushed over to help the unfortunate server who had fallen, and at least for a short time, couldn’t get up.

Finally, the dazed waiter rose slowly to his feet, appeared somewhat confused as though he didn’t know what century he was living in, and then wobbled back into the kitchen, presumably trying to save face.  Like an injured footballer being carted off to the locker room, I wasn’t sure if we spectators should have applauded, or not.

Dinners were a disappointment and a rip off.  My friend ordered what was alleged to have been a precooked 10-ounce filet — priced at $58.  Nothing else was included in the hefty price.  No extras.  That $58 was just for the steak, which cooked down was reduced to about the size of a well-worn hockey puck.  One abomination which has become customary in fancy casino steakhouses is up-charging for every single addition.  Every sauce costs extra.  Nothing comes with the meal.  The cheapest salad is priced $14.  So, we passed.  The least expensive side dish (mashed potatoes) is $11.  We agreed to share one side dish and it could have fit into a can of Purina Cat Chow.  Typically, I might have ordered more extras.  But I’m not fishing $14 out of pocket for a couple of sprigs of asparagus.

To be both fair and accurate, overcharging captive customers has become standard practice just about everywhere on The Strip.  Heritage Steakhouse isn’t the exception but the rule by simply adhering to the tendencies and trends that have transformed Las Vegas dining from what was once a relative bargain to a assembly line of constant greed.  Sure, restaurants need to generate a profit.  I just think for 58 bucks, I should be entitled to a salad or a vegetable.

My main course was swordfish, which tasted okay, but was a pittance given the lofty price.  Cut into about four bites, it was devoured within minutes, coming out to about $10 a bite, or 75 cents a chomp.  The swordfish was served with a boring sauce inside a tiny ramekin.  Good thing the sauce was so bland and I didn’t want any extra, or I might have been pissed.  Comparatively, for what I paid for the single sliver of swordfish at Heritage, I could have ordered TWO complete dinners of fresh Idaho rainbow trout at King’s Fish House, along with two vegetables with each dinner, plus a heaping basket of piping hot sourdough bread and real butter, and still have $5 to spare (I did the math).  Oh, and the rainbow trout at King’s tastes far better.

Speaking of feeling short-changed, we did receive a “basket of bread” which was complimentary.  Hooray!  The basket consisted of one small roll each about the size of a golf ball.  I think it was cheese bread, though I can’t really be sure.  Two grown hungry men were reduced to scrambling for what amounted to bread rations.   Again, using a comparative value scale — even Cracker Barrel supplies a generous basket of rolls and cornbread (which tastes much better).

Service was mediocre.  Though it’s not proper to judge any restaurant’s service staff based on a single visit (I won’t be going back), there were at least two miscues.  The first was simply trying to get re-fills on ice water.  We had to ask multiple times.  Perhaps this is a tactic to keep diners moving along so they can re-seat the table as quickly as possible.  The second miscue was less forgivable.  My friend asked for a second soda, which was totally forgotten by the waiter.  When I summoned over the busboy to beg for a re-fill of the water glass, my colleague made a second request for a soda.

“I’ll let the waiter know,” the busboy said.

Let the waiter know?  We’ve already done that once — and he forgot.  Hey, we’re not trying to get a re-fill on Xanax here.  Just bring us another goddamned Coke!

Given the overall mediocrity, high prices, and substandard service, we skipped on coffee and dessert.

The bill came:  $152 for one steak, one swordfish, one side dish of mashed potatoes, one bottle of Pellegrino mineral water, and two Cokes.  Add a somewhat undeserved $30 tip, and the damage amounted to $182 — or $91 a person.  No alcohol.  With a few drinks or wine, the cost would have been substantially higher.

I left hungry.

The two key metrics of my restaurant reviews are satisfaction and value.  [1] Was I satisfied?  [2] Was the meal a decent value for the price?  No and no.  On both counts Heritage Steakhouse failed the test.  In fact, I can’t think of a single positive thing to say about the meal or the experience.

After exchanging a few pleasantries and saying our goodbyes, I walked to the parking garage and dutifully paid another $12 at the kiosk to park my car for what amounted to about three hours.  A few weeks ago, MGM-Mirage properties announced they will increase the parking fees.  The maximum parking price soon will be raised to $18.

One more reason to dine elsewhere around town and one less reason to visit the Las Vegas Strip.

 

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Posted by on Sep 26, 2017 in Blog, Essays, Personal, Restaurant Reviews, Travel | 3 comments

Why I Love Kuby’s but Hate S.M.U.

 

 

Note:  This is the third and final article in a trilogy on my reminiscence of Dallas. Read PART 1 here.  Read PART 2 here.

 

When asked why I ended up enrolling in the University of Texas state school system, the truth is — my S.A.T. scores weren’t high enough to get into Rice.

Sure, I’m proud that I graduated from a state university.  But part of me still peaks across the imaginary crevasse separating the haves from have-nots, connivingly curious about life on the other side.  As with many kids who grew up working-class who spent our adolescence checking price tags and scrambling for lunch money, we couldn’t afford the high tuition to a private school.  Our parents weren’t rich enough.  We weren’t quite smart enough to get academic scholarships.  And, we lacked the talent to play sports or do something else creative to get the tuition-free ride.  So, stuck on the poor side of the tracks and frowned upon by trust-fund BMW-driving brats, that left some scars.  I admit this experience fueled a personal resentment and class awareness which remains to this day.

Wait — wasn’t this article supposed to be about “Why I hate SMU?”

Yep. I’ll get to this in just a moment.  Hang on.

I wanted badly to get into Rice University, which is located in Houston.  Rice was really super cool.  It had a small enrollment compared to most other major colleges — only about 5,000 students total.  But Rice produced many extraordinary graduates and also enjoyed a stellar academic reputation.  Rice was widely considered to be Texas’ version of an Ivy League school.  But what appealed to me most was Rice’s scandalous counterculture.  Sometime during the late 1970s at a college football halftime show, the Rice University marching band paraded into a formation in the shape of — now imagine the utter shock of this — a giant marijuana leaf.  Then, before 20,000 or so rain-spattered fans huddled in disbelief in an 80,000-seat stadium the Rice Owls marching band blasted out the song “Mary Jane,” by funk-rocker Rick James.  While bands elsewhere around the country played stale Broadway tunes and marched lock-step in strict military formation, Rice did the unthinkable.  I wasn’t part of the drug culture, but I still looked at that bravado as something that I wanted to be a part of.  Students being crazy and free-spirited and having the times of their lives — all while getting a first-class education.  That was for me.  Where do I sign up?   The movie Animal House should have been filmed at Rice.

Side Note:  Rice’s academic deeds are equally contentious.  Consider the controversial report issued a few years ago by the James Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, which obliterates the failed “War on Drugs.”  [READ MORE HERE]

Rive had two academic counterparts within the state of Texas.  TCU, in Fort Worth, was very much like Rice so far as size goes, but severely lacked its academic reputation.  Plus, TCU was Viagra hard for Bible-thumping Christianity.  TCU is, after all, Texas *Christian* University.  Even though the city was just 30 miles from Dallas, it might as well have been in the suburbs of Outer Mongolia.  I loathed everything about Fort Forth, as did just about everyone else from Dallas.  So, there was no way I’d ever go to TCU.  To me, Fort Worth was a stupid hick town.  No one from Dallas ever went to TCU.  Not even Christians.  It just didn’t happen.

The other upscale private university within Texas many of us wanted to attend was Southern Methodist University — “SMU” for short.  The red-bricked SMU campus is fortressed within the Highland Park and University Park sections of super-snooty North Dallas.  It’s Beverly Hills sans the palm trees smoking a crack pipe while riding a polo pony wearing an argyle sweater with a bow tie.  Envision SMU’s campus on Mockingbird Lane and every stately manner house and residency within a three-mile radius being worth at least a couple of million dollars — and way up.  It’s Dallas’ version of The Hamptons or Martha’s Vineyard or Palm Beach, only with far more ritzy homes and lots more right-wing rich assholes.  Indeed, even though Dallas is solidly Democratic politically speaking, this is one of the most conservative and uber-wealthy neighborhoods in America.  The musty homes and the musty people and the musty attitudes come straight out of the ’50s — the 1650’s.  That’s SMU.

To be fair, SMU has produced an interesting gaggle of graduates — from former first lady Laura Bush (who seems like a really nice person) to television mogul Aaron Spelling (who produced many of the shitty big-haired bimbo-brained television shows that most of us grew up loving and addicted to during the 70s and 80s)….from H.L. Hunt (once the richest man in the world) to his son Lamar Hunt (who founded the American Football League and owned the Kansas City Chiefs)….from actor Powers Boothe (who died recently — R.I.P.) to Oscar-winning actress Kathy Bates (who was cast in her first movie after someone saw her performing in a college play).   SMU also produced lots of great football players — from “Dandy” Don Meredith to Eric Dickerson, plus many more.

 

SMU wasn’t always despised as it is today.  During the 1970s, my father took me to most of their college football games, which were played then at the old blue and white striped Cotton Bowl until SMU illegally went pro and moved into the horrors of football warehousing — Texas Stadium.  The Mustangs were plenty terrible way back then.  But they were gutsy.  They were almost always competitive and wildly entertaining.  Seems like SMU lost every game I attended by a score of about 45-36, but we always sat comfortably 25 rows up on the 45-yard line since barely half of the cavernous stadium was filled with fans of a lousy losing football team.

Eventually, SMU and its corrupt alumni living in football-mad Dallas decided they were fed up with losing all the time and didn’t care any longer for playing in a stadium smack dab in the middle of a Black neighborhood, known as Fair Park.  So, they broke just about every rule in the college football rulebook in order to build themselves into a national title contender.  Before the conversion over to the dark side, no good athlete wanted to go to SMU, especially since the in-state powers Texas and Texas A&M were so strong and to the north Oklahoma basically used the entire state of Texas as it’s minor league football farm system.  So, SMU had to get super creative.  They slipped football players envelopes full of cash and gave others new cars to drive — just to play at a rich school in North Dallas.

The tipping point for my loathing of SMU and its horrible graduates (except for Kathy Bates) and the start of my declaration of class warfare came during, appropriately enough, during a football game.  While attending the annual SMU-Texas rivalry when both teams were legitimate national champion contenders, I experienced a true moment of personal and philosophical epiphany.

At that game, on the opposite side of the field (I was sitting in the University of Texas section), the SMU student section unfurled a huge banner like 50-feet long.  It was large enough for everyone in the stadium to see.  The banner was unfurled.  It read:  “Our maids and butlers went to Texas.”

What the fuck!  Hey, it was bad enough SMU openly cheated to recruit players.  Everyone knew those crimes were going on, which ultimately led to the hammer being thrown down called “the death penalty,” which all but obliterated SMU’s football program.  It was bad enough that the perfectly sculpted students who all looked like Tucker Calrson were all spoiled brats who never worked a day in their lives.  It was really bad that SMU was, academically speaking, an inferior school to Texas (quick — name anyone from SMU who’s ever done shit — except for Kathy Bates?).

I hate SMU.  I still hate SMU.  SMU sucks.  Unless I’m betting on SMU.  Then, I cheer for SMU and I become SMU’s biggest, fattest, poorest cheerleader.

______

I love Kuby’s.

Kuby’s is a German-themed restaurant that first opened in 1961.  The family-owned market and eatery nestled in the corner of Snider Plaza, due northwest of the SMU campus off Hillcrest, draws a steady clientele of both on and off campus loyalists — including me.  My first Kuby’s meal was sometime around 1978.  Since then, I estimate that I’ve eaten at Kuby’s at least 60-70 times, including this my most recent visit.

 

Here’s my meal, ordered for lunch.  Question:  What do you think this cost?

Try this — $7.95

Wanna’ know the difference between good versus great?  The Details.

The attention to details here is marvelous.  Three piping hot house-made sausages of your choice.  Two different kinds of mustard are served, including spicy.  Not just one generous side of sauerkraut, but two sides — cut fresh from white cabbage and red cabbage.  The German potato salad is warm and perfectly seasoned.  Rye bread quartered served with real butter.  A couple of pickles serve as garnish.  Plus, a handy steak knife to make shoveling easier.  This is absolute cheap meal perfection.

Dallas is the best city in the country for outstanding cheap eats (okay perhaps, Los Angeles ties for first).  This is a city packed with stupendously tasty meals.  Kuby’s is sort of the embodiment of affordable excellence, am out-of-the-way hermit for insider locals that many people probably have no idea exists, especially in restaurant-heavy Dallas, consistently melding high-quality ingredients with outstanding value.

The layout:  Kuby’s is divided into two sections.  There’s a neighborhood market with a butcher on the premises.  European products are sold here.  It was also something of a cultural center, for a while.  For many years before the Internet existed and made international news and foreign languages easily accessible, this was practically the only place in Dallas you could pick up fresh copies of Der Spiegel or Frankfurter Allgemeiner.  All the waitresses and staff spoke fluent German (and stil, from what I saw last week).

 

The restaurant — open for both lunch and early dinner — offers instant counter seating if things are too busy and heavy wooden lodge-style tables and chairs, as you might expect in the Bavarian Alps.  Lunches are typically bustling.  The counter is mostly stacked with people reading who pretty much keep to themselves.  Tables are filled with college students and Highland Park locals.

VISIT KUBY’S OFFICIAL WEBSITE AND SEE MENU HERE

My only disappointment with Kuby’s was the recent shocking discovery that they’d changed their traditional recipe for the classic German delicacy — Black Forest Cake.  For decades as long as I could remember, Kuby’s used to serve the best Black Forest Cake in America.  I usually ordered two slices.  Yes, it was that great.  The former cake used to be multi-layered with a perfect balance of white Bavarian cream, fresh tart cherries, chocolate sponge cake, and an unusual crunchy texture that made each bite of torte a screaming orgasm for the taste buds.

Inexplicably, Kuby’s altered the dessert.  It wasn’t nearly as good.  So, I asked the waitress about this and she said desserts are now made out of house.  Perhaps it was the cost.  Perhaps it was a matter of space.  Perhaps it was the time it took to make fresh daily desserts for what amounts to a lowe profit margin.  Whatever the reason, changing that classic recipe and bringing in an outside supplier was a huge and a big letdown.  I wanted two slices.  This time, I ordered just one.  Mega-saddenz.

Even with the disappointment of dessert, my meal was almost as good as I remember.  Kuby’s receives my highest recommendation for German food lovers who are looking for quick service and extraordinary value.

Kuby’s the only thing about SMU I love — oh yes, and also Kathy Bates.

 

 

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Posted by on Sep 15, 2017 in Blog, Essays, Restaurant Reviews, Travel | 3 comments

Keller’s Drive-In (Dallas) — The Most Wonderfully Disgusting Burger Joint in the Universe

 

 

My unplanned detour off Northwest Highway onto the oil-stained parking slick fronting Keller’s Drive-In prompted a most peculiar of culinary quandaries.  Namely — should I risk my life for a hamburger?  

From the rusty dangling carports taunting wide-eyed anxiety of an imminent collapse….to the dreary landscape beguiling a knife fight between rival gangs….a pit stop at this East Dallas hamburger haven demands a divine leap of gargantuan faith, garnished with an intriguing sense of unease.

Keller’s Drive-In has been around since before I was born — which is to say when all the Kennedys were still alive.  Growing up in Dallas, I fondly remember Keller’s Drive-In as that last great American hamburger joint before the microwaved abomination of corporate fast-food chains conspired to destroy the world and all but obliterated these genuine small-time monuments to food art and guilty decadence.

All I can say is — thank fucking god this awful place is still around and remains so marvelously defiant.

While we’re now in the midst of a trendy faux-renaissance of the good old-fashioned era of the greasy burger, unfortunately, most of the forgers financed by quinoa-nibbling waifs charge at least quadruple the price of the most expensive menu item at Keller’s — and still aren’t even half as tasty.  Fuck them.  Fuck them with triple patty sideways.

See, Keller’s is the raw real deal.  Taste buds never lie.  Where else in this compromised day and age of mass copy-cat conformity can you wolf down a piping hot guilty pleasure and guzzle a cold beer in the front seat of your car (ALL LEGALLY!) for less than ten bucks?  Indeed, Keller’s isn’t just a teary throwback to bygone authenticity given that its days are probably numbered, memories destined to be bulldozed into an Applebee’s next to Chevron.  It’s a cenotaph to anti-political correctness.  Let me put it this way:  If Jesus ever did return and was an auto mechanic instead of a carpenter, and he wanted to re-do The Last Supper, he’d host it at Keller’s.

On this day, I didn’t plan on eating at Keller’s.  Hell, I wasn’t even hungry.  I was full, even.  But you only live once according to my spiritual leanings and if my time has indeed come to keel over from a heart attack or a switchblade thrust into the abdomen by the newest inductee into the Banditos — then so be it.  My friends, this is precisely how I want to go out — with a scrumptiously sinful artery blocker in one fist and some kind of alcoholic beverage in the other palm, all while mutinously singing The Internationale.

Here.  Check out the menu.  Look at these prices!  “The Best” Hamburger clocks in at $2.35.  Throw in some greasy fresh-cut fries for a buck fifty-five.  Then, kill those intestines with a hearty milkshake for $2.25 (not the corn syrup garbage served elsewhere, but the real dairy product where you can taste the cream).  You can also add a cold beer for $1.75.  Holy shit!  I need to rent an apartment next to this joint!  Or, be buried here.

The best burger, plus fries, plus a milkshake, plus a cold beer comes to — cha -ding! — a grand total of $8.90!

 

 

Allow me to become a bit philosophical.

Food is the most obvious revelation and the ultimate confirmation, that above all else, egalitarianism rules.  Screw everything else.  Fact:  We all want to eat well.  Food is the magnet that makes snooty rich people drive into shitty neighborhoods for no other pursuit than that uniquely scrumptious meal you simply can’t get anyplace else in the city, or the universe for that matter.  Food is the epicenter our most inherent of social and commercial bonds, often between the most disparate tribes.

My rental car pulled up next to a Tesla.  Across the breezeway was a lowrider, which looked to be a ’66 Chevy Impala, though I’m not a car guy (thanks Google).  To my left was a soccer mom with her too many kids in a Toyota SUV.  Behind me was an old paintless pickup truck with a bunch of lawnmowers in the back — presumably all “rapists and murderers” doing their part of keep Dallas green and beautiful.  See, lots more cunts live in Highland Park than Oak Cliff.

Where else but Keller’s Drive-In would I witness a solo visitor from Las Vegas parked right next to an asshole driving a $100,000 car, next to suburban soccer mom, next to a Cheech and Chong wannabee, next to illegal aliens on lunchbreak — all eating pretty much exactly the same incredible meal for the same price?  If that’s not egalitarian awesomeness, then nothing is.

Note, however.  Badass bikers have recently been banned.  [READ “EATER DALLAS” STORY HERE]

 

 

Not often does one accurately describe a popular eating establishment as a total shithole, yet also give it a glowing recommendation.  Well, here you go.  Keller’s Drive-In is a total shithole with fabulous food at ridiculously cheap prices.

Which now brings me to the close.  The culinary encore of this review can be expressed in either one word or perhaps two words.  I’m not sure which.  That word or those words are — POPPYSEEDS.  Ersatz POPPY SEEDS.  I’d crawl over broken glass to devour those poppy seeds.  They’re sewn into every bun at Keller’s Drive-In.  My new sick fetish is poppy seeds.

I’m not sure what exactly is the best thing about Keller’s Drive-In, but the poppy seeds in the bun are right there next to the free knife fight.  Then, there’s the burger.  The burger is so messy, napkins aren’t adequate.  More like you need a beach towel, and perhaps a shower.

Keller’s Drive-In reminds us all of what we once used to be and what can still be, given the will of taste over convenience, the popular demands of quality over quantity, and the indubitable love of great food over mass production.

This is badass greatness on a poppyseed bun slathered in a special sauce.  Blow your dick off perfection with a heart attack in your hand all washed down with a cold brew.

Keller’s Drive-In is absolute magnificence.

 

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