Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Las Vegas: Food Reviews

Las Vegas proved to be a culinary challenge for The Man and me.  We struggled to find moderately priced somewhat healthy non-fast food throughout the vacation.  We made a rule before we left that we didn't want to eat anywhere in Las Vegas that we could eat around home (so no Olive Gardens, no Burger Kings, and no bars--unless the bars were highly recommended).  We also didn't want to spend very much except for our anniversary dinner, and even that shouldn't be too expensive.

After many, many hours of researching the Big Name restaurants in Las Vegas (those tied to Puck, Batalli, Robuchon, et al.), we decided that we didn't want to take a chance on a celebrity chef taking food we love--chicken, for example--and smothering it in food we hate--any gooey sauce or fungus.  Ruling out Big Names and fast food greatly reduced the offerings in Las Vegas.  Few, if any, of the mid-priced or low-priced offerings had positive reviews online.  What's a family to do!?

In-n-Out Burger.  We don't have these in Oregon, so we've heard talk about the legendary fries and amazing burgers that can be customized into fantastic creations, but we'd never eaten there before.  Straight from the airport, we headed to the nearest In-n-Out to see about all the fuss.  The lines proved to be long, the scent inside delicious, and the turnover incredibly fast considering the crowd.  We only waited a short while for our fresh, hot fries and cheeseburgers to be prepared.  The fries were all devoured quickly, and the burgers didn't slow down much on the way into our bellies.  Very, very good.  We ended up going to another of these fine establishments the next day for lunch as well.  The die-hard In-n-Outers that I know swear by this place, but I have to say I'm a bit more devoted to Burgerville.  BV's fries are not as fresh, but they're a bit thicker (more akin to McDonald's, but better).  BV's burgers are better than In-n-Out due to the cheese and non-greasy buns.  I tolerate plasticky cheese just fine, but if someone gives me the option for Tillamook cheese, there isn't really a debate.  Fork over the cheddar ASAP!  In-n-Out gets a 4.5/5 from me.

My cheeseburger on the left and The Man's "Double-Double" on the right with 2x as much meat and cheese. YUM!
Our first night in Vegas included a long wait to get into Bootlegger on the south end of the strip.  Bootlegger is a family-owned Italian restaurant that you really, really need to have reservations for if you plan to eat there in the evening.  We didn't know this.  We know now.  Once we got seated, the service was excellent.  The menu had many things on it we all liked, and the prices were very reasonable.  My ravioli arrived hot and delicious, and The Man's chicken parmesan with alfredo sauce was to-die-for amazing.  Mom and Dad both complained a bit that while their food was very good, it was a tad salty.  I completely agree, especially about the house meat sauce.  I chugged pop like it was going out of style through dinner just to get the sauce down.  Otherwise this was an excellent meal for a good price.  4/5 from me.

Our second night in Vegas was a doozy.  We struggled to find a place to eat for a long time before we stumbled into Earl of Sandwich.  Not exactly high-brow food, but the sandwiches had excellent reviews.  We all learned why.  My "all american" turkey, cheese, lettuce, and cranberry jelly sandwich was awesome, and the house kettle chips were pretty good.  Not the biggest meal, but the price was great.  Relatively healthy food and lighter fare after a second burger lunch was greatly appreciated by all.  4/5 from me.

On our third night, we celebrated our anniversary at the Peppermill on the north end of the strip.  The menu looked amazing, and the prices were pretty good for mid-to-higher end casual dining.  The Man ordered a steak: he said it was good (if a little fatty), and the side dishes were very good.  I had chicken parm, but it was the weirdest--and most humongous--chicken parm I've ever had.  Two GIGANTIC chicken breasts, breaded, fried, and cheesed, layered on top of at least a pound of pasta, sauteed peppers and onions, and the lightest, sweetest tomato sauce on earth.  The chicken was incredible, and the pasta was perfectly cooked.  My $25 plate, however, could easily have fed two grown men.  I ate as much as I could hold, but there was still a solid meal left over.  The Man finished the majority of his meal at least.  It was all delicious, but I do wish the portion sizes were more realistic.  This is the only time I think I've ever whined about getting too much for my money.  4/5 for me (half a point off for the lack of atmosphere inside and dodgy characters outside, and half a point off for sllooooow service).

Our last night was actually the most difficult meal out of the week.  We were all stuffed from lunch still, and we didn't want a big dinner before going to bed early.  We ended up agreeing to hop down the street to Raising Cane's, a fast-food chicken shop.  We each ordered a small amount of food and took it all back to our room.  None of us thought it was amazing or really worth going back to, but it wasn't bad.  The fries were good.  The toast was rather unnecessary after fries and fried chicken, but whatever (just pile on the carbs!).  2/5 from me.

We did visit two buffets in Las Vegas, partly because everyone talked about how popular the buffets are, and partly because it was easy to please everyone by going there.  The most popular complaint I read online about the buffets was that the food is always cold.  Think about it though: if you start on one end of the buffet line and pick out the hot food first, of course it is going to be cold by the time you wind through the buffet and get back to your table.  Don't ding the buffet for your lack of speed getting the food to your face.  Take smaller amounts of hot food to your table and go back to the line with a clean plate more often.

The buffet at the Bellagio was really good.  The food was fresh, hot, and looked delicious.  The pizza appeared to be rather blah, but it tasted fantastic.  The Man enjoyed his turkey and ribs.  Dad hit the pineapple and frozen yogurt pretty hard.  While neither Mom nor I were particularly enthusiastic about the soup (crunchy potato soup? yuck), we both like the more traditional fare.  Aside from a killer raspberry sorbet and some decent cookies, the dessert bar is where the Bellagio fell flat.  The cheesecake wasn't even cold, not to mention most of the other desserts all tasted the same.  4.5/5 from me.

The Mandalay Bay buffet did not have good reviews online, but it was rated higher than most of the other buffets.  Since we were on that end of the strip on our last day, we had lunch at the buffet.  The selection wasn't quite as vast as Bellagio's, but the offerings looked really nice.  The bread baskets overflowed with rolls and bagels, and the pizza looked incredible.  I was also pleased to see some more ethnic offerings, especially the Spanish rice.  The pizza ended up being not so great.  The bread rolls could have been used to play hockey.  The rice was gross.  We all ate plenty to get full, but the food just wasn't great.  The desserts, however... hidden off to one side is the dessert bar, and there's a good reason it is hidden.  Any more obvious and that place would be crawling with people.  The desserts were AMAZING.  Dad was disappointed that they didn't have any ice cream or froyo, but he suffered through chocolate cake and apple turnovers, muffins galore and cheesecakes high and low like a trooper.  Poor guy, right?  I threw all sense of caution and reason to the wind and ate until I was ready to heave.  4.5/5 from me.

We all looked forward to vegetables and fruit when we got home--and big bowls of chicken noodle soup to detox our bodies from the onslaught of salty/sweet/huge meals day after day on vacation.  I've enjoyed being back in the kitchen whipping out healthier versions of our favorite restaurant food.  Seriously, celery and peanut butter never tasted so good.

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