Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2015 | 11:59 p.m.
There’s something about being a member of a secret club that intrigues us. As children, we play games and make up secret codes and special knocks so that only the “members” get to join our super-special secret club. Funny thing is, as you get older, the desire to be on the inside track doesn’t change.
Everyone wants the hot new ticket or to be on the cutting edge of the latest trend. That is where my treasure hunt with local undiscovered locations comes into play. I’m always on the lookout for the inconspicuous places with amazing food.
There is something to be said for the adventurous spirit it takes to explore some of these off-the-beaten-path locales.
First off, the neighborhoods might be quaint and welcoming, but let’s be honest. Most of the best local joints I’ve dined at have been hidden in shady places well off my “safe route.” That being said, I’m glad that I put on my big-boy pants and gathered up the courage to look past the riff raff gathered outside, chipped paint and plastic tablecloths because what I found was worth the risk.
One of the things I really like about finding a good local spot is that you have to earn your way into the scene. The scene here, of course, is very different. These people aren’t preoccupied with critics or Michelin stars. They are worried about paying the bills and keeping the lights on and customers happy with delicious, handcrafted flavors.
There is no concern for ambiance. Flavors set the mood and keep customers returning. This lack of frivolity only benefits the consumer. The expectations are naturally lower when you walk in, and you are disarmed into thinking that there probably won’t be anything special. The pressure is off the kitchen/staff to blow you away, and that’s why it’s that much more amazing when it happens.
What I mean about earning your way into the scene is that with most local joints, the first time you walk in, you will definitely feel like an outsider. The customers, staff and owners all seem to be sizing you up — and maybe they are. But if the food is great and you keep coming back, you start to see a shift in the climate.
It’s a good sign when they stop taking note of your entrance, and even better when they start to appear to recognize you. That’s when you know you’re in the club. Those riff-raff outside start to greet you when you walk in, and you start to feel like they might even be watching out for you.
Another great thing about finding an amazing local spot is that you become the tour guide, your friends’ ticket to the in crowd. If you have friends like mine who love to find the next most delicious thing, you become their Obi-Wan. Once you are accepted into the club, then you can start sharing your find with others as a food dignitary of sorts.
When people come to town, they know about the Top 10 best restaurants on the list for that city. What they don’t know are the best places to grub out on some simple, well-planned and amazing flavors. You get to be the local expert and take people on a journey to a well-hidden gem of the city.
With a local joint, the thing that catches me off guard most often is that the tastiest food in the city is usually hiding in plain sight. It’s the restaurant you might walk past every day, not giving it a second glance. Maybe the paint is faded or the sign hangs a little crooked. Maybe the iron bars on the windows keep you at a distance.
I’m not saying you won’t have misses. Don’t get me wrong; there are local joints that are misses. Not every place with a dingy appearance is going to surprise you and knock your socks off. There will be letdowns, but if you find one truly great secret gem, I guarantee that you will keep hunting and be glad you did.
“Don’t judge a book by its cover” definitely applies here, so sack up and step inside. You are likely to be surprised by what you have been missing all these years. Here are my absolute new-to-me favorite Las Vegas joints and dives with food that will give you cravings even in your sleep.
No. 1: 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.
No. 2: 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 extra-large T-shirt because you will leave permeated and full.
No. 3: 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 certainly 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.
Ben Vaughn is a chef, author and TV personality widely known as a host for the Food Network. Ben’s just-released 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 the host of “The Breakfast Show,” a TV series that premieres soon.
Robin Leach of “Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous” fame has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past 15 years giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.
Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.
Follow Las Vegas Sun Entertainment + Luxury Senior Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.