The Food Network
Wednesday, July 23, 2014 | 6 p.m.
As Robin Leach arrives for his annual summer vacation under the Tuscan sun in Italy — he also visited Lake Como and Lake Maggiore this year — many of our Las Vegas personalities have again stepped forward in his absence to pen their own words of wisdom. We continue today with World Food Championships host and Food Network star chef Ben Vaughn.
Downtown Las Vegas is certainly thought-provoking. It’s an area of town that has craved consideration for some time, and it is finally getting the attention it deserves. I will admit, I’m a little confused by sections of downtown Las Vegas — it looks and feels like what Las Vegas was 30 years ago.
I want to make sure this won’t sound overly critical, but leaving the airport and speeding past the Strip to head downtown was a little depressing. I’m not going to lie. I wasn’t exactly sure that I made the right choice.
The crowd is slightly different, as if they didn’t receive the memo about the Strip having everything you could ever want from the world all at once. The folks downtown don’t dress like they are eternally trapped in True Religion jeans and Affliction T-shirts. Despite that appeal, something is missing in a total overall experience in the day-to-day downtown Las Vegas.
It’s cool and all, but it may take more than people stopping every hour to look up at the ceiling and watch the animated, music light show on the Fremont Street Experience TV ceiling. I’m just saying. However, I can say the winnings paid downtown seem to definitely cast a shadow on the cash payouts of the Strip. I was killing the high-limit slot machines at 3 a.m. and from touch down the take was up. That’s rare … I mean that never happens.
It wasn’t a Las Vegas vacation that brought me to the desert; in fact, it was food, and Fremont Street specifically, that demanded my presence. I’d heard so many superb things about the revitalization happening downtown. Completely centric to local restaurants, shops, unique events and innovative businesses that Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh has made it his personal mission to rejuvenate.
The neighborhoods felt more alive with the Downtown Las Vegas Project, which is transforming downtown into a place for people and especially families with a passion for their community. You can see the fruits of their labor, from areas like Container Park, Fremont Street Experience, new restaurants and taverns like La Comida and the beautiful Fremont East District.
The revived community also encourages large events to host downtown instead of the Strip, like the Life is Beautiful festival, a serious celebration of the arts with hundreds of Billboard musicians and the World Food Championships, the Queen Mary of food, sport and competition that is making food a spectator sport and which I host.
I respect the idea of preserving the original Las Vegas, but in the same breath, I’m not the guy who writes an article about how the revitalization of downtown Las Vegas is creating a national blueprint for other U.S. cities. It’s cool, it is happening, and we all hope that it happens more often in more cities — maybe it could be a new standard to follow? I hope so because everything about the project is well-timed. But I digress … this is the landscape and backdrop for my food adventure, not the focal point.
Some of us enjoy the chase of discovering that lost antique for a dollar on an early Sunday morning yard-sale bender. I find enjoyment in discovering hidden-gem restaurants in the chaos of everyday cities large or small all over the country. Not every restaurateur can be Bobby Flay, but the chefs and proprietors who aren’t Bobby are no less capable of creating tasty meals.
They are just a little harder to find while flying under the radar and doing a spectacular job of supporting the backbone of the food and beverage industry that is a cluster of small guys. I’m all checked into the hotel and starved. It’s the nature of my job; wake up, work really hard at getting on my flight, fall asleep on the plane, then arrive and eat … pretty horrible, I know.
The phrase “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” should not apply for such interesting, small boutique, delicious eateries like the one I encountered at Asada Taco. This is certain. It’s a cluster of bright yellow, gold, red and green awnings that line this section of Fremont’s retail district. I carefully maneuver through the thick cloud of blue spray paint as the street vendors begin creating their masterpieces.
An entourage of off-the-clock cocktail waitresses follows a Michael Jackson lookalike sporting an above-average-sized head. And a very poised silver-painted man stands still. Yes, he just stands still. All this glitz and glam and before supper, the foot traffic is heavy, and I’m not insinuating that it’s heavy like the Strip, but there are enough people walking out of order without sleep that you'd better be prepared for anything.
And here it is: my choice, or the spot. It’s Asada Taco. It’s across from my hotel, open and very conveniently located near all the things you may need: a tattoo parlor, just in case, a pawnshop (not sure when my luck will run out), and a souvenir shop for postcards, shot glasses and Red Bull. Everything about this place is screaming, “Leave now and escape the 1982 Americana food court preserved in history and cigarette smoke.”
But like any other new experience, it demands an open mind and the ability to allow it to fail before you deem it a failure. Immediately I’m proved to be a judgmental prick because with a huge smile and some pretty tasty sounding Spanglish, my counter helper guides me to the menu on the wall. He welcomes me into his “home” with menus fresh from Kinko’s, laminated and in color (sparing no expense). I will know what my entree looks like before I order it. That’s a relief.
Have you ever walked through a doorway with one of those large air blowers above the door designed to keep flies out? It’s aggressively blows air straight down onto your head. When I walked into Asada Taco, it was as if the air blower was intended to keep Fremont Street out. And it worked, like being transported into a little counter-service taco bodega, where you seat yourself and clean up before you leave.
Red basket in hand, at the open counter a la Subway, we begin the building process with guidance. I like to take recommendations; this always allows the staffer to suggest the best. However, If I choose and it happens to suck, then it’s my choice that sucked.
I’m laughing out loud right now as I recall what I ordered: one asada taco, one al pastor and the asada fries, both tacos dressed with onion and cilantro mixture, pico de gallo and medium salsa verde. This was obviously a lot of food.
I promise you that the tacos at Asada Taco on Fremont Street are ridiculously good — the quality of the ingredients is not reflective in the price, and the style is authentic. From the double-corn tortillas slightly damp from being wrapped in foil while hot to the well-seasoned beef and lamb, there was not a single missed step on my taco journey.
Let me pause for a moment outside of the taco sweats and explain the asada fries, appropriately priced as the most expensive item on the menu at 12 bucks. The outrageous hand-cut potatoes and mountains of ingredients exhausted my palate (a good thing). I unbuttoned the top button, cleaned my place setting and set my watch for an evening snack because I was coming back, but with a friend.
Later that evening, Ray Lampe, aka Dr. BBQ, and I were filming a quick interview, and the production crew was still seeking a backdrop for the shoot. Asada Taco on Fremont became that backdrop. I also needed to hear Ray reaffirm that my taco discovery and new food crush wasn’t solely based on hunger.
Food guys think alike. We are wined and dined all the time, and bigger, better and more expensive ingredients seem to be the trend. But, in all honesty, we just truly appreciate simple and well executed the most. My wife laughs after I come home from a long trip and all I reach for in the refrigerator is a Hebrew National hot dog for the grill. It can be complicated sometimes eating complicated foods. And when I use the term complicated, I don’t mean that as a compliment. Simple wins every time.
As Ray hits the door at Asada Taco, he is chuckling as if I should have chosen a better location for this TV interview. The laughter is because he has been in Las Vegas for two days and has eaten three out of four meals at Asada Taco. This is perfect; I knew it from first bite. We both took the same chance and chose Asada Taco and won.
There are layers of different types of restaurants, and it is unfair to lump them all into one category (food). However, it takes a discerning eye to determine what is smoke and mirrors and what’s just plain ole good in any category.
At first glance, Asada Taco may not live up to your expectations. It’s not too pretty. But what is the new standard for restaurants? Expensive bells and whistles that only attempt to create a fabulous meal?
I think you must peel back the layers of B.S. and see what’s left. Most are an expensive shell with convenient, microwaved food garnished to the heavens and perfect lighting.
If you’re lucky and look past the cover to the book itself, you might find a place that has been carved out in a community by someone whose craft is creating authentic, memorable food.
I opt for option No. 2, and although I’m no Anthony Bourdain and this meal wasn’t eaten alongside a tribal chief using live piranhas in the main course, I did discover this for myself, shared with a friend and with you, so I’m feeling accomplished as a food adventurer.
Check out our other guest columns today by singer and Las Vegas resident Pia Zadora and Cory Harwell of Kerry Simon’s Carson Kitchen in downtown Las Vegas. On Thursday, three stars of “Jersey Boys” at Paris Las Vegas wax wisely in their guest columns.
Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.
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