Monday, Jan. 23, 2012 | 6 p.m.
Leave it to Las Vegas to build a strip mall, call it “Chinatown” and wait for the community to catch up. But catch up it has. There are now approximately 60 restaurants along this three-mile stretch of West Spring Mountain Road, and even if no distinctly Chinese neighborhood has sprung up around it, Asians of all kinds flock here to sample the foods of their homelands.
While China still claims a plurality of eateries, Vietnam and Korea aren’t far behind, and anyone who loves fresh, tasty, healthful meals at bargain prices will find themselves in hog (or even vegetarian) heaven. The problem for a non-native, of course, is deciding where and how to take the plunge into this world of fascinating food. Despite menus in English and service staffs that are invariably welcoming, strangers to these cuisines don’t know what to make of dishes like “squid soft bone fritter” or “good taste chicken” and don’t know whom to ask to find out. It’s a 50-50 shot your server will be fluent enough to converse with you and answer your inevitable questions. So, as a service to your wallet, your diet and international good will, I hereby offer this entry-level guide to Chinatown’s wonderful array of delicious (and sometimes frightening) choices. I’ll highlight a mere handful of spots at which to begin your elementary education in Asian eats. Remember: The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. So dive in, learn to use those chopsticks, and enjoy your tasty trek, grasshopper.
Noodle Palace (5115 Spring Mountain Rd., Suite 203, 798-1113) Tucked into a second-floor corner of the Pacific Asian Plaza, Noodle Palace is the perfect place to wean yourself from the twin tyrannies of Kung Pao chicken and Panda Express. And you can do it without ordering anything that would frighten Aunt Edna. For an authentic eastern Chinese restaurant, it is surprisingly lao-wai- (non-Chinese) friendly. The staff is quite helpful, and there’s even a large window into the kitchen—something unheard of in most Chinese restaurants. It is also one of the cleanest, best-maintained restaurants on this avenue.
Begin with a won ton soup that is the apotheosis of this much-maligned treasure. Deceptively rich, with a clear, strongly flavored stock, it holds hand-made pork-filled dumplings that are a revelation and a meal unto themselves. That silky-sweet pork and green onion filling does double duty in the best pot stickers in town. Complete your meal with stir-fried green beans with XO sauce (sort of a spicy, dried seafood, Chinese ketchup) and some rice noodles with shrimp, and you will feel like a fellow traveler in no time. For dessert, order off the wall. Literally. Lining the walls are green sheets of paper on which various house specialties are announced in Chinese characters and in English. Point to the page that says “Egg Custard $1.99” (don tot in Cantonese), and three small cups of seemingly innocuous egg custard are brought to your table. Silky, egg-y and slightly sweet, one order won’t be enough for two.
China MaMa (3420 S. Jones Blvd., 873-1977) No noodle trek through Chinatown is complete without an obligatory stop at China MaMa for the soup dumplings. There are dozens of savory items on the long and confusing menu that demand attention, but everyone starts with the soup dumplings (item P23). Called “steamed juicy pork buns” by the management, they are a staple of Shanghai noodle parlors and are noteworthy for having a rich broth contained within the pork-filled dumplings. Mastering their consumption requires the ambidextrous use of chopsticks in one hand and a soup spoon in the other: Gently pluck the dumpling from the steamer tray with your chopsticks (being careful not to tear the dough), place it over the soup spoon, bite a corner off the bottom and carefully pour the soup from inside the dumpling onto the spoon. Slurp the soup from the spoon then pop the dumpling into your mouth. Voila! You’re eating like a native. (Anglo-American shortcut for those klutzes among us including yours truly: Use your fingers instead of chopsticks once the dumplings have cooled enough to handle them.)
Man does not live by dumplings alone, however, so be sure to order the crispy beef (sweet, hot and crunchy and H28 on the menu) and the spicy lamb with cumin (H39)—so good it will make you forget what you ever saw in a leg of lamb, or chops for that matter. For dessert, head back to Noodle Palace for those custard cups.
Extra Credit! Noodle Palace and China MaMa are perfect places to get comfortable with the real deals in Chinese cuisine, but when you want or need a higher education, head to Yunnan Garden (3934 Schiff Dr., 869-8885) for the pepper-infused cuisine of southwestern China. Consider its Yunnan dried beef your entry-level drug—tasting like salty, all-beef potato chips dusted with the (figuratively) addictive, slightly soapy, tongue-numbing drug that is the formerly illegal Szechuan peppercorn. From there, head west again, two miles down the road, right around the corner from China MaMa, where J&J Szechuan (5650 Spring Mountain Rd., 876-5983) presents a big, steaming plate of chile-smothered, deep-fried pork intestines to devour, or, as I like to think of it, work on my college degree in this food.
Food Court Heaven
Greenland Supermarket Food Court (6850 W. Spring Mountain Rd., 459-7878) The great thing about Korean cuisine is that Korean people love pictures of their food. Every Korean restaurant I have visited, in Las Vegas and elsewhere, has had big, glossy pictures of almost every dish on the menu. Many of them even decorate their walls (inside and out) with pictures of their food, so surprised is one thing you won’t be when confronting this cuisine. But what is one to make of all those pictures? And just what’s in all those steamy bowls of soup and stew anyway?
- Talk the Talk
- Sihk faahn (“Eat” in Cantonese)
- Itadakimasu (“Enjoy your meal” in Japanese)
- Jal meokkesseumnuida (“Have a good meal” in Korean)
- An ngon nhé (“Eat well” in Vietnamese)
Relax, pilgrim. Just head to Rainbow and Spring Mountain, at the far western edge of our Chinatown-that-isn’t, and walk into the huge Asian supermarket on the corner. Mosey over to the three food stalls in the modest food court and start with some fried dumplings (mandu)—made a little thicker and meatier here—from Chapaghetti, followed by its flash-fried chicken or shrimp in garlic pepper sauce. One bite and you’ll immediately proclaim it the best fried version you’ve ever had. Then stroll over to Island Style (a mere 10 feet away) and learn how Koreans butcher, marinate and spice their short ribs with a big order of kalbi ($12.95). An order of yukgaejang (a straightforward spicy beef soup, $8.95) will teach you in one slurp just how they weather those cold Korean nights: with lots of deeply hot food that warms you from the inside out.
Keep in mind, Koreans love putting everything but the kitchen sink in their soups. Chapaghetti’s jjambbong, which means “mix up” ($7.99), is a spicy mélange of seafood and vegetables and the essence of a one-dish meal. Right next door is Noodle Village, where a dozen or so vegetarian bowls of cold and hot noodles are offered, of which the spicy noodle with vegetable ($6.99) has the biggest variety of plants (as well as the biggest kick), and the spicy chicken ($10.99) takes no prisoners.
The great thing about this food court is you can take your time, or take a crowd, and easily experiment with the myriad combinations of meat, noodles and vegetables that make up the Korean diet. As best I can tell (and some Korean-American friends have confirmed), there’s no real order or courses in casual Korean meals, so pick your dishes and dive in. Your cash outlay will be minimal, and the return on your investment will be huge … especially if you like highly seasoned food.
Extra Credit! Those willing to move beyond the elementary would do well to try some of Noodle Village’s cold noodle concoctions like cold buckwheat (soba) noodles with vegetables ($6.99), or, on the warmer side, the famed jajangmyun ($6.99 at Chapaghetti—thick noodles with black bean sauce). Cold noodles may be anathema to Westerners, but they are a big part of this diet and sometimes bring as much heat as the warmer dishes. Looking to start work on your graduate degree? Venture out of the food court and begin with the dolsot bibimbap (a stone pot vegetarian rice dish where the rice caramelizes on the bottom of the cooking/serving vessel) at Korean Garden Barbecue (4355 Spring Mountain Rd., Suite 201, 383-3392) or the “Flower Pig Combo” at Honey Pig (4725 Spring Mountain Rd., 876-8308), where $39.99 for two brings you enough pork belly, baby octopus and assorted vegetables for four—all cooked on an upside-down wok (called a panchan) at your table.
Pho Sai Gon 8 (5650 Spring Mountain Rd., 248-6663, 9055 S. Eastern Ave., 629-3100) There is a certain, mind-numbing sameness to Vietnamese restaurants. Most feature pho (pronounced “fuh” not “foe”), plus almost identical appetizers and bun (vermicelli noodle) and com (rice) dishes. So over the years, I’ve based my Vietnamese eating on those restaurants that seem the busiest. The good news is Pho Sai Gon 8 is both the busiest and easiest restaurant for a non-Vietnamese person to navigate. The menu descriptions are simple and accurate and, even though you may be the only Westerner in the joint, your waiter will be bilingual enough to answer any questions you have.
Goi cuon (“mixed salad rolled,” $4.35) are the classic beginning to a Vietnamese meal. These tightly wrapped treasures contain shrimp, herbs, pork and rice vermicelli, and give a good introduction to the herbal freshness of this cuisine. They also come in a vegetarian version called goi cuon chay. Follow those with a big bowl of pho tai ($6.85)—a rich, beefy broth with thin sliced steak into which you add whatever rau song (raw vegetables and herbs) you desire. In Vietnam, pho is eaten morning, noon and night, with various cuts of beef and even meatballs being added to different versions of the soup. Not in the mood for soup? Scroll through the numeric menu to No. 69, bun tom thit nuong ($7.50), grilled shrimp and marinated, grilled sliced pork over noodles and vegetables. The nuc mam (a sweet/sour fish extract sauce that comes on the side) is either for dipping or mixing straight into the bowl.
Extra Credit! If you’re feeling like Ho Chi Minh, you might want to drive around the corner to Bosa 1 (3400 S. Jones Blvd., 418-1931) for the superior com (broken rice) dishes or a steaming bowl of bun bo Hue, the northern Vietnamese spicy beef soup made from beef bones, fermented shrimp paste, lemongrass and dried chilies. Thirsty? Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk (café sua), whether hot or cold, is justifiably famous. A close cousin of Turkish coffee, it drips into all its grainy goodness at your table, and the staff at PSG8 will gladly give you an instructional. If you truly want to post your flag to the mast in this food, you need to seek out and find balut—something of a holy grail in Southeast Asian food, where a fertilized duck egg with a fully developed embryo inside is boiled and eaten in the shell. Yum.
Shuseki (5115 W. Spring Mountain Rd., Suite 117, 222-2321) Across the Sea of Japan, but only a mile and a half east on Spring Mountain Road, another country tries to make its inscrutable cuisine understandable via photographs of its victuals. Shuseki is what I like to call Raku-Light—a casual, wood-paneled place that presents a panoply of Japanese izakaya eats. Izakaya are Japanese pubs where an assortment of fairly substantial food is offered—usually ranging from sushi and sashimi to soups, stews and yakitori (food grilled on skewers)—and that pretty much sums ups Shuseki’s 179-item menu. What makes Shuseki so cool and gaijin-friendly is the entire menu is in pictures. Even cooler—everything coming out of this kitchen looks almost exactly like it does in those pictures. Start with some Japanese pickles ($4), then some raw tuna tossed with a mildly spicy kim chi ($5.99) or a nice chirashi (mixed) sushi bowl ($13), before moving on to a steaming bowl of tan tan men (spicy pork ramen noodles, $7.99), or an omurice (rice omelet, $7.99).XXXXXXXX
Tunakimchi (that’s how it’s spelled on the menu) is the perfect introduction to the cult of sashimi appreciation, as the finely chopped cabbage, onion and peppers give the firm, raw fish a nice dimension that’s irresistible to all but the most ardent anti-seafood landlubber. Shuseki is directly across the street from Raku, and makes a nice, inexpensive alternative when you are craving the light, healthy cuisine of the Land of the Rising Sun and can’t score a table there.
Extra Credit! When it’s time to step it up a few notches, dive into a plate of takowasabi (raw, slimy octopus in a wasabi dressing) at Shuseki. Once you get past the difficulty of grabbing this barely opaque, green-grey slime with chopsticks (and the fact that it looks and feels like a phlegm ball), you’ll actually enjoy the wet, peppery sensations it leaves in your mouth. A bit more out there on the izakaya front is Ichiza (4355 Spring Mountain Rd., 367-3151), another pub—popular with the young Asian set—that’s just up the street and known for its wacky combinations of East-meets-West snacks. Any old eater can tackle some kushi-tan (broiled beef tongue on skewer), but it’s the squid soft bone (cartilage) fritter that really separates the men from the boys.
These suggestions haven’t even scratched the surface of the amazing eats available up and down this stretch of modest-yet-hyper-delicious restaurants. Besides the healthfulness of these cuisines, it is seriously difficult to spend more than $50 for two on any of them. Menus are the same for lunch and dinner, and day or night, weekday or weekend, there’s always a table waiting for you. Besides money, we also know we save major calories by dining the Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese way. That’s because there’s often no booze or wine to speak of, and desserts are, at best, forgettable. If you want a great dessert in a restaurant, go to a French one, but if you want some of the greatest food our town has to offer, go to Spring Mountain Road and dig in.