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Ben Vaughn: My best-of-the-best meals in Las Vegas in 2015

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Bardot’s brunch menu demands deep exploration.

McMullan's Irish Pub

Launch slideshow »
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Salmon Nicoise at the Henry, part of the special three-course Dinner and a Movie menu.

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An exterior view of the Peppermill Restaurant on Monday, July 15, 2013, on Las Vegas Boulevard South.

In Las Vegas, food, landscape of restaurants and talent change as quickly as casinos update headlining acts. This year, I spent the better part of 2015 eating my way through greater Las Vegas becoming familiar with some of the best food I’ve ever tasted.

From burgers to doughnuts and everything in between, I tasted it all. For that, I’m left with a larger pant size and also a better understanding of how amazing and diverse the food scene in Las Vegas has become — and how it’s happened in a relatively short amount of time.

It was an epic year for restaurants in Las Vegas, openings and closings, the constant chef shuffling. However, overall, Las Vegas has forever imprinted itself as one of the top food destinations in the country.

From a laundry list of celebrity chefs to the 40 million-plus tourists who zoom in and out of McCarran on an annual basis, it’s impressive. However, it’s the chefs who are the steady, day-in-and-day-out regulars and local culinarians who prove that Las Vegas is a top food destination.

Here is a recap from the best of the best in 2015, and as we near the end of a very delicious year, I thought it a perfect opportunity to share my favorites in the tasty food lane that Las Vegas offers.

I LIKE THE NIGHTLIFE, BABY

McMullan’s Irish Pub, 4650 W. Tropicana Ave., @McMullansPubLV

Sometimes you’re up for something a little Irish and hearty. McMullan’s is exactly what you think it is: an Irish Pub. It specializes in pub food, and it does it well. McMullan’s also serves the late-night customer well, as it’s open 24 hours.

Or “unless the earth splits open and we fall in,” as Darren from McMullan’s likes to say. The sticky toffee pudding is perfect for a late-night sweet craving, and the Irish Breakfast is great at any time of the day.

The Henry, The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, @Cosmopolitan_LV

If you’re looking for great late-night eats on the Strip, you’ve got dozens upon dozens of options, but the Henry is one of my favorites. In particular, the breakfast any time option is always a welcome companion to meet on your late-night journey.

The Henry is known for its signature short rib benedict, but I find it hard to steer away from corned beef hash and eggs, which is covered in a Hollandaise sauce that’s to die for. And if your sweet tooth is calling, the cinnamon roll French toast is three bites from diabetic coma good.

The Peppermill Restaurant, 2985 Las Vegas Blvd., @PeppermillVegas

A Las Vegas institution, the Peppermill is known far and wide for its diner approach to the late-night lexicon. The servers here are some of my favorite people. They’ve got years and years of likely dealing with unruly tourists and partygoers, so there’s no situation that they haven’t seen or managed.

DOUGHNUTS, ANYONE?

O Face Doughnuts, 124 S. 6th St., Suite 140, @OFaceDoughnuts (now closed)

Although we’ve lost this wonderful bakery, it remains a favorite of mine (O Face announced on its Facebook page that it was closing this month). The best-kept secret about downtown’s O Face Doughnuts was to get the Mexican Chocolate with Horchata Pudding (aka the El Guapo).

It was on the “Fork & Knife” selections, which were large and house specialties. I preferred the Maple Bacon at O Face to the one at Pink Box, but, honestly, I’m just splitting hairs. They’re both fabulous.

Donut Tyme, 4268 E. Charleston Blvd.

While O Face had a beautiful, hip and trendy storefront, Donut Tyme is a much simpler existence. But if you know me, you know that simple is not a slam. It’s a compliment. If you can do simple well, then you are really on to something. Donut Tyme harkens the old-time doughnut shop.

It doesn’t bog you down with a bunch of trendy doughnuts with crazy toppings and fillings (although it does have specials from time to time). It’s not about tomorrow’s doughnut. It’s about the doughnut that you already know and love. Donut Tyme is open 24 hours and has a mean cup of coffee. Some might argue that the best doughnuts are the ones you eat at 3 a.m. Who am I to argue with this sage logic?

Coco Donuts, 10040 W. Cheyenne Ave., Suite 145

Coco Donuts makes a quality doughnut. If you’re looking for the best option for the best price, then Coco is your place. Notable options are the Red Velvet, French Cruller and often under-appreciated Blueberry Cake.

The Blueberry Cake doughnut is a staple at every doughnut shop across the land, but at Coco, it makes a supremely moist and sweet version — but not too sweet where the sugar overpowers the fruit of the berry.

DINING OFF THE BEATEN PATH

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Fat Choy's bao stuffed with pork belly.

Fat Choy, Eureka Casino, 595 E. Sahara, FatChoyLV.com

With its 1950s-style dinner motif, it’s insanely out of place in Eureka. However, when you discover that chef Sheridan Su’s food is as amazing as any restaurant in Las Vegas, you will understand how this location tucked inside the casino is my absolute favorite.

My two recommendations, hands down, are the Peking duck bao with cucumbers, scallions and hoisin sauce and pork belly bao with pickled mustard greens, cilantro and crushed peanuts.

John Mull’s Meats, 3730 Thom Blvd., JohnMullsMeats.com

The name says it all: Meats. If you are in the business of eating meat, then this joint is for you. I have a favorite or two. First, the smoked pig ears — smoked, seasoned perfectly, crispy and out-of-this-world, unctuous meat-ness. Or, for just over 4 bucks, you can’t go wrong with filling your belly with house-made smoked brats.

There’s something for everyone on the menu, from offal cuts smoked and served to the standards. From turkey to pig, John Mull’s smokes it all. Bring an XL T-shirt because you will leave permeated and full.

Lola’s Louisiana Kitchen, 241 W. Charleston Blvd., LolasLasVegas.com

I’m a sucker for authentic Southern Cajun-blended food, ingredients and techniques. Lola’s executes exactly that, a locals’ favorite spot, and although it’s a new addition to my list, it’s a Las Vegas standard. I have two solid favorites that are difficult to find done correctly outside the Delta.

First are the low country greens. For less than 4 bucks, I could make a meal from these tender savory greens alone. And second is the bangin’ gumbo with a protein melting pot of chicken, sausage and shrimp and a roux that will make you question if eating anything else this trip is worth every bite.

BURGER TIME = HAPPY TIME

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“The Frenchie” at DB Brasserie in the Venetian.

“The Frenchie,” DB Brasserie, the Venetian, @dbBrasserie, @DanielBoulud, @TheVenetian

Daniel Boulud’s “The Frenchie” burger at his delicious DB Brasserie sports a 7-ounce house grind beef patty and cheese selection that is brave and sends this burger into godly status immediately — yes, Morbier cheese is in the house.

Why not elevate the burger with a confit of pork belly, you ask? No worries. Pork belly confit challenge accepted. It’s in there. I agree with every choice so far, but balance is everything, and you will need acidic balance as you bite through the unctuous meat celebration.

By adding peppery arugula, tomato, onion relish, perky house-made mustard, well-balanced black pepper brioche bun and thinly sliced zippy little cornichons, you can close the books on this masterpiece. It’s the best burger in Las Vegas.

“Drive-Thru Burger,” B&B Ristorante, the Venetian, @MarioBatali, @JBastianich, @BandBRistorante, @TheVenetian

Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich’s B&B Ristorante at the Venetian serves a rendition of a drive-thru classic with their four-star-take Drive-Thru Burger. Yes, it’s absolutely good enough to order two. In classic drive-thru form, the meat mountain enlists the help of two griddled patties, perfectly executed sesame seed bun, American cheese and homemade pickles.

Think of the B&B Drive-Thru Burger as a sucker punch because as you read the list of ingredients, and think this is going to be ordinary and uneventful, that’s when it smacks you in the mouth. It’s the understated ingredients that are familiar and perfectly executed combined with the years between the restaurateur duo executing on a high level of awesome.

The Drive-Thru Burger is a winner, and the fact that chefs are becoming brave and adding burgers to their menus or creating concepts exclusive to showcase the burger like B&B is proof to everyone that the burger is an American icon.

“Buta Burger,” Fukuburger, Hawaiian Marketplace, @Fukuburger

From the successful food truck in Las Vegas to an L.A. restaurant and now a restaurant inside Hawaiian Marketplace, Fukuburger knows burgers and is a local fan favorite. First problem I foresee is can I get past the “crack sauce”? It’s the house recipe dipping sauce for fries or anything else worth dunking. More or less, I’m basically using my fries as a vessel to secretly drink the crack sauce.

I have a favorite burger here, too, … wait for it … I present the “Buta Burger.” An all-beef Fuku patty, crispy apple-wood bacon, classic American cheese, pickled red onions and red ginger define this sandwich for sure with tart, sweet and umami. The Buta monster is finished with Japanese barbecue sauce, perfectly sized squishy bun and wasabi mayo.

From Venetian top chefs to Michelin-starred culinarians, there are no boundaries in the burger game, as this food truck hero Fukuburger drops a bomb with the Buta Burger.

“Butter Burger,” Carson Kitchen, downtown, @CarsonKitchen @KerrySimon

The fun and always-busy Carson Kitchen does amazing things to ordinary ingredients. If I can pull myself away from the crispy chicken skins, I’ll tell you all about its signature burger. Let me just say it: I’m a fan. Carson Kitchen has done each one of my meals well, but this Top Five is less about wonderful meals and all about burgers.

First, with a golden brown brioche bun toasted from coast to coast, then Boursin cheese, cheddar, perfectly seared and seasoned beef patty, ice-cold lettuce and tomato, it rounds out the ultimate burger. Hands down this is the best burger in DTLV.

Carson Kitchen pays special attention to flavors, with the boldness of the cheeses, crunchy sear on the patty built with salt and pepper, and how it has added the lettuce and tomato to the bottom of the burger patty, and the cheeses to the top, this allows each bite its own combination of flavor and never a soggy bottom.

BRUNCHES FOR ROYALTY

Bardot Brasserie

Escargot Bardot, Duck a la Orange, Sauteed Skate Wing, and Onion Soup Gratinee at Bardot Brasserie on Feb. 3, 2015. Launch slideshow »

Bardot Brasserie, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, Aria

If you close your eyes and dream of bread and sweets like I do, Bardot brunch is the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the Aria rainbow. The restaurant has an elegant and approachable vibe that immediately draws you. A riff on a 1920s-style Parisian brasserie, Bardot nails the look and feel with a perfectly designed atmosphere, leaving no aspect feeling as if it might be an overblown Epcot version of a French brasserie.

The bread and pastry display is (unfortunately) amazingly delicious. I fell victim to the multiple choices of carbohydrates and pastries, of course. My beginning course consisted of escargot (absolutely ridiculously tasty), with a middle course of lobster eggs Benedict shared with my dining companion, and an assorted plate of macarons was the perfect ending to this 6,700-calorie party.

This restaurant is one of the best representations of a “concept” I’ve come across in some time, and it’s my new favorite Las Vegas brunch spot.

Honey Salt, 1031 Rampart Blvd.

It’s simple, but complicated, and well executed with unapologetic use of wonderful ingredients while remaining approachable. I felt at home — if home was a place without four noisy children and more refined and relaxing. I appreciated the staff as they understand the food and aren’t the average server drone who memorize a list of obscure ingredients without any idea what each one does to complement the next.

They delivered a seamless experience for my brunch visit. Over the last four years, I’ve grown to love Las Vegas, but it’s the off-Strip locations like Honey Salt that I tend to crave more often than the hustle-and-bustle of casino row. When I need normal, I go to places like Honey Salt. It’s familiar and inviting and a great choice for a wonderful brunch.

I enjoyed everything, but I must mention the tomatoes and burrata, and the breakfast pizza was a perfect choice, as I’m a sucker for bread, cheese, eggs and bacon. I could have eaten three orders of the chicken and apple sausage by myself. Top off a killer brunch with fantastic, oily, fresh pressed coffee and fruit.

La Cave Food and Wine Hideaway, 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sundays, Wynn Las Vegas

It’s all in the presentation, and Wynn Las Vegas nailed it with the Sunday butler-style brunch. If you are going for more of an occasion than just a meal, La Cave is the experience to add to the bucket list. There isn’t a missed flavor or under-seasoned component. It’s brunch without a budget and hooked-on steroids just the way the Wynn group delivers in all its concepts.

Considerably large doses of style, luxury and a little more style. Don’t miss the rillettes or beignets with raspberry jam. I was deep in a sugar high and thought, “What if there was a pecking order for beignets?” I imagine that each beignet would have to complete a laundry list of training and exercises before earning an official beignet seal of approval. The beignets with raspberry jam at La Cave would be the drill sergeant of all beignet applicants.

Yardbird Grand Opening at Venetian

The grand opening of Yardbird on Saturday, Jan. 24, 2015, at the Venetian. Launch slideshow »

Yardbird Southern Table, 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Fridays through Sundays, The Venetian

I’m a Southern guy, and so is John Kunkel, the creative driving force behind 50 Eggs Restaurant Group based in Miami. When I first met John, Robin Leach introduced us. Within minutes, Robin and I fell madly in love with John’s version of Southern fried chicken. And the rest is history. A sweet fried chicken love story.

Like the name Yardbird indicates, they have amaze-balls fried chicken. It’s so much more than fried chicken, and I’d like to give credit where credit is due. In the industry, a unicorn like Yardbird comes along only every 10 or 15 years. It’s exceptional in so many ways: Quality, execution and consistency, three things I know that make restaurateurs like John smile when complimented for achieving.

I have favorites. I’m in love with the cheddar waffles, and the sugary, vinegar-soaked watermelon always has me daydreaming of a Southern church picnic. The maple-glazed bacon doughnuts are silly tasty. I could devour my weight in maple doughnuts, but I better not. My last favorite is the brisket, well, because it’s freakin’ brisket and done just like I imagine the best brisket to taste.

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It’s been a busy year for eating. I inherited a treadmill, tasted many dishes I could only imagine, left each establishment in a euphoric food high, or maybe that was my blood pressure. But certainly worth every noshy little bite and experience. Get out there, have fun with your food, and try new restaurants and experiences as we head into the New Year. Fabulous Las Vegas is growing, and it’s a food lover’s bucket destination.

Ben Vaughn is a chef, author and TV personality known as a host for the Food Network. Ben’s latest book, “Southern Routes,” chronicles his journey to find the best-kept food secrets in the South from the Carolinas to Texas. “Southern Routes” is published by HarperCollins.

Ben resides in Tennessee and serves as CEO and culinary director for his restaurant group Fork Knife Spoon. Ben’s new brand of Southern Kitchen food trucks hit the streets in Las Vegas. Follow all the action from the mobile kitchen @SoKitchenLV. @BenVaughn also is host of “The Breakfast Show,” a TV series that premiered in the fall.

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