Chez Axel – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Chez Axel and its familiar Eiffel Tower rooftop

“Another Land of Enchantment.” That’s how the menu at Chez Axel describes the Provence region in France. No one who’s ever traveled through the region and luxuriated in a café crème at a sidewalk café on a leisurely Sunday morning would ever dispute that the region is as enchanting as any in the world.  It truly is a soiree for the senses, especially for those who believe food is art and that it can restore not only the body, but the heart and soul.

For freshness of ingredients, there is no region in France more renowned than the Provence region in southern France. The cuisine raised in this verdant, sun-drenched region has earned the nickname “la cuisine du soleil” or “the cuisine of the sun” a tribute to freshness and quality.  The produce in Provence perfumes the Mediterranean air where it competes with the wafting bouquet of lavender, oleander and olives.  Is it any wonder French cafés associate their freshest cuisine with this food-lover’s paradise?

The colorful and romantic interior of Chez Axel

High aspirations have been meeting consistently good execution at Chez Axel since it launched in 1996.  Owner-chef Stefan Springer is not the founding owner, but he’s raised the bar so much that in 2010, he was named Chef of the Year by the New Mexico Restaurant Association.  This award is accorded to an outstanding chef in recognition of excellent cuisine and excellent service.  Chef Springer was cited not only for his culinary skills, but for his civic-mindedness.  An organization he founded to keep at-risk students in school provides clothing, school supplies and other necessities.  Albuquerque can use more chefs like this. 

We can use more French restaurants like Chez Axel.  Interestingly, the restaurant’s exterior edifice does not have a Provencal theme.  Instead, its most conspicuous feature is a replica of the Eiffel Tower on the roof.  At night the Tower is illuminated, a beacon to lead hungry diners to a terrific menu of excellent cuisine in a colorful and romantic ambiance.  Each table is draped with white linen table cloths and red napkins folded into wine glasses.  Bottles of wine are displayed on floor level racks and on shelves above eye-level.  Service is personable and attentive.

French bread with herbed butter

The menu showcases French cuisine at an affordable price point, especially for lunch when you can have a two-item lunch combination meal for under ten dollars.  That combination features you choice of two items from a list of soups, salads, quiches and crepes.  You can also opt for entrees the type of which Julia Child herself might have featured had she operated a restaurant–Chicken Provencal, Beef Bourguignon, Cassoulet, Shrimp Provencal and Trout Almondine.  

The dinner menu shines even more brightly with an appetizer menu which includes Snails a l’Aixoise and frog legs as well as salads and soups.  A pageful of meat offerings is even more luminescent.  All meats come from the Adkins Ranch whose animals are “naturally raised” and are guaranteed high in protein, vitamins and minerals and low in fat and cholesterol.  All seafood (sole, trout, salmon, shrimp and scallops) come from Whole Food Market.   The desserts are made on the premises and are guaranteed absolutely delicious.

Tomatoes / mozzarella salad - Lettuce, basil, olive oil, croutons.

A basket of thinly sliced French bread and herbed butter arrives at your table shortly after you’ve placed your order.  The exterior is crusty while the insides are soft.  It’s a bit of a challenge to spread the cold butter, but once you do, it’s a bigger challenge not to eat two or more baskets full of the staff of life.  You’ll want to save a slice or two to dredge up the soup or an entree in which a magnificent entree with rich, delicious broth is showcased.

Culinary history is rife with examples of “rags to riches” foods–items writers often refer to as “peasant foods” by virtue of their humble, economically borne origins which rise to the level of sought after gourmet favorites.  One such food is French onion soup which is, at its essence, simply onions, a scrap of old bread, grated cheese and veal stock. Chez Axel’s French onion soup is amazing–a brown-and-tan crock brimming with thick, stringy cheese bubbling on top; perfectly caramelized onions; croutons softened by a rich, delicious beef broth; and the herbaceous hint of parsley, basil and bay leaf.  This is one of the most fragrant and delicious French onion soups in Albuquerque.

My favorite French Onion Soup in Albuquerque

Julia Child once said, “When beef stew is in the oven, all’s right with the world, and Beef Bouruignon is the best beef stew known to man.”   She loved this stew so much that in her first episode of The French Chef in 1963, that’s what she prepared.  Because of the time and care required to prepare it correctly, Julia’s recipe for this hearty stew may have been filed away in a recipe book, but it wasn’t endeavored often save for by the most intrepid of cooks.  It wasn’t until after the movie Julie and Julia that the home cook began to attempt it. 

Chez Axel’s rendition of Beef Bourguignon has that deep, rich flavor made possible only when it is carefully prepared in a slow and loving manner and with excellent ingredients and good wine.  It’s a version which might even be better the next day when the flavors have melded even more fully.  It’s a deep, rich flavor combining slowly braised, fork-tender beef with a very good wine and fresh, perfectly prepared carrots.  The entree is served with two sides, chef’s discretion.  Count your blessings if it’s the peppery snap pea pods and the buttery long-grained rice.

Beef Bourguignon a l'orange: pieces of beef loin sautéed in olive oil with garlic, herbs, orange zest, carrot, onion & grilled mushrooms, stewed in red wine

In the process of making cooking a national pastime (back in the days before most women entered the workforce), Julia Child introduced the American television audience to quiche in the early 1960s.  Two decades later, an American author named Bruce Feirstein wrote a best-selling book called Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche which lampooned masculine stereotypes.  Men who were all too conscious of fashion and who followed all the trends were referred to as “quiche eaters.” 

My friend Señor Plata is one man confident enough in his masculinity to admit his love for quiche, especially if it’s nearly as good as the  mushroom and spinach quiche at Chez Axel.  The base for this quiche is a light, delicate and flaky crust that would be the envy of any blue-ribbon award-winning pie.  Atop that fabulous crust is more than an inch of fluffy eggs topped with mushrooms and spinach under a blanket of molten Gruyere cheese.  All quiche should be this good. 

Mushroom and spinach quiche with carrots

Julia Child wrote in The French Chef Cookbook that cassoulet can be prepared in one day, but “two or even three days of leisurely on-and-off cooking makes it easier.”  In his Les Halles Cookbook, celebrity travel host Anthony Bourdain was more definitive, calling for three days of preparation time.  One thing is for certain–if you want to prepare a cassoulet dish, you should have the patience of a saint.  Kate Hopkins, who writes as The Accidental Hedonist, puts it best: “you have to want to make this dish, as it is an all day affair. A person doesn’t casually make a cassoulet. This dish is best made with an obsessive desire.” 

Said to date back to the Hundred Years’ War during the 14th century, history and legend tell of a communal dish so hearty, it revitalized war-weary soldiers who promptly dispatched the invading forces.  As with French onion soup, cassoulet is an archetypal peasant dish–an earthy, rich, slow-cooked casserole of beans, meat and herbs meant to be shared.  Chef Springer’s version is made with pork, lamb, bacon, tomato, garlic, herbs and white beans.  It is absolutely the perfect dish for a blustery winter day when its comforting qualities embrace you in a soul-warming embrace.  The pork, lamb and bacon penetrate deeply to flavor the broth with fat, flavor and utter deliciousness.

Cassoulet - Pork, lamb, bacon, tomato, garlic, herbs, beans stew

Even as the captivating voice of Edith Piaf resonates over the restaurant’s sound system with Les Trois Cloches, Chez Axel seems woefully out-of-place in the timeworn shopping center that houses an international menagerie of restaurants in Ho Ho Chinese, Viet Q and Wings N Things.  It frankly would be a better fit for the countryside in Provence.  Duke City gourmets are thankful it’s here and not there.

Chez Axel Restaurant
6209 Montgomery, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 25 November 2011
1st VISIT:  28 October 2011
COST: $$
BEST BET: Beef Bourguignon, Mushroom and Spinach Quiche, French Onion Soup, Cassoulet

Chez Axel on Urbanspoon

Cafe Dalat – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Cafe Dalat, one of Albuquerque's very best restaurants of any genre.

Cafe Dalat, one of Albuquerque’s very best restaurants of any genre.

Da Lat is one of Vietnam’s most well known vacation destinations, serving since the turn of the century as the vacation spot for affluent Vietnamese and foreigners. Considered the unofficial honeymoon Mecca of Vietnam, it is located on the greater Central highlands of Vietnam and at 1500 meters (~4920 feet) above sea level is one of the few cities in Vietnam surrounded by pine trees, just like James Nguyen’s adopted home of Albuquerque.

That’s one reason James named his latest restaurant venture after the beautiful city of Da Lat. James opened Cafe Dalat on Sunday, August 31st, 2003 after nearly ten months away from the Duke City dining scene. Formerly the proprietor of May Hong, he has brought with him all the great recipes from May Hong and added some 15 or so other great entrees and appetizers, including some dim sum. His wife, in fact, returned to Vietnam for several months before Cafe Dalat’s launch to learn dim sum from a dim sum master.  Every year James travels to California, the progenitor of new trends in Vietnamese cuisine, to see if there are any new dishes or trends he can bring back to Albuquerque.

Proprietor James Nguyen with a plate of lime beef

Proprietor James Nguyen with a plate of lime beef

Alas, Cafe Dalat isn’t nearly big enough to serve an extensive dim sum menu, but it is certainly one classy restaurant and has surpassed May Hong and Saigon as my highest rated Vietnamese in the city and one of my highest rated in New Mexico in any genre. It’s easily on par (maybe even better) than Cyclo, a nationally regarded Vietnamese restaurant in Chandler, Arizona and it’s better than many of the Vietnamese restaurants I frequented in the San Jose area.  In 2004, Weekly Alibi readers selected Cafe Dalat as the very best Vietnamese restaurant in Albuquerque. Two years later, it earned a four-star rating from the Albuquerque Journal’s luminous restaurant critic Andrea Lin.  Competition is increasingly formidable, but Cafe Dalat continues to outshine its competition.

Since James launched Cafe Dalat on Central Avenue, several other Vietnamese restaurants have sprung up across the city. In fact, the Duke City area (including Rio Rancho) now has more than two dozen Vietnamese restaurants, most serving very good to outstanding food. Curiosity-seekers will try the other Vietnamese restaurants and some will spread their business around to the ones considered worthy of their appetites, but invariably when you ask them which is the city’s very best, it’s Cafe Dalat that comes immediately to mind for most of them.

Banh Mi, the outstanding Vietnamese sandwich!

Banh Mi, the outstanding Vietnamese sandwich!

There are many reasons–not the least of which are James and his lovely wife–that Cafe Dalat gets the nod over formidable competition. For one thing, it’s probably the most striking Vietnamese restaurant in the city thanks to James’s complete refurbishment of the drab, dingy remnants of the previous tenant, the Little Saigon restaurant.  Attractive upscale touches, a competitive wine list; rich, dark woods and subdued lighting add those subtle touches of class and ambiance to which most restaurants aspire. Not even the acid etched graffiti on an east-facing window detract from the restaurant’s panache.

Then there’s the menu. Eighteen different appetizers (not to mention five additional tofu and vegetarian appetizers), four cup-sized soups and fifteen different swimming-pool sized bowls of pho and stew–and that’s just the first page of the menu. Just trying to narrow your dining choices is a tremendous challenge.  The really great thing about Cafe Dalat is that you can’t go wrong no matter what you order. You may not like (make that love) some items as much as you’ll like others, but there’s probably nothing on the menu you won’t dislike.

Shrimp in Bacon: jumbo shrimp wrapped in fried bacon and topped with crushed peanuts

Okay, maybe you’ll dislike the durian shake, made from what is considered the stinkiest fruit in the world. Most Americans consider durian malodorous and they might be right. It’s an acquired taste, one of which I’m proud to boast I have. Even if you don’t like durian shakes, there are other rich, creamy and fruity cold concoctions on the menu–strawberry shakes, jackfruit shakes, fresh coconut juice, the incomparable Vietnamese lime aid and even an avocado shake (like sweet guacamole you ingest with a straw).

19 November 2011: The appetizer line-up is like a “who’s who” of the very best Vietnamese appetizers ever assembled all in one menu. If you love spring rolls or egg rolls, Cafe Dalat’s are among the very best in the city, but even better are other appetizer alternatives, including some interesting starters you might not associate with Vietnamese cuisine.  One example is the shrimp in bacon, called Mariscos Costa Azul in Mexican mariscos restaurants where they’re served.  Cafe Dalat’s rendition is topped with crushed peanuts and served with fish sauce.  Bacon with anything makes for a great combination.  You’ll love these.

Luscious lime beef!

Luscious lime beef!

16 June 2007: The lime beef is fabulous! Nearly carpaccio thin slices of seared steak are blanketed with refreshing mint and cilantro and crushed peanuts as well as grilled onion and invigorating spices. This is an appetizer for which it’s okay to use your fingers to use the razor-thin steak as a scooping device for the complementary ingredients. Provided with the lime beef is a bowl of nuoc cham, the quintessential Vietnamese condiment based on fish sauce. Cafe Dalat’s nuoc cham is among the very best in Albuquerque, but that’s a common theme.

16 June 2007: Best in the city honors (at least among the Vietnamese restaurants that don’t specialize on banh mi) might also be accorded to the Banh Mi Thit (pictured above), popularly known as a Vietnamese sandwich and described on the menu as a hoagie. Banh mi is a Vietnamese word for bread and indeed, the French inspired baguette on which this sandwich is crafted, is worthy of adulation. At Cafe Dalat, the Banh Mi Thit is engorged with small slices of pickled carrots, daikon, cilantro, jalapenos, soy sauce, black pepper, onions and your choice of meat: barbecue pork, grilled pork, grilled beef, grilled chicken or ground beef. No matter what your meat selection, you’ll enjoy the contrasting and complementary sweet, savory, piquant and tangy flavors as well as the textures.

Baked rice cake

Baked rice cake

1 December 2007: One of the things that may surprise you about Cafe Dalat is that something with a simple name hold an adventure in complex flavors and deliciousness. Take the rice cake for example. Anyone who’s been in a diet is familiar with the tasteless cakes of puffed rice. Cafe Dalat’s baked rice cake (pictured above) features a shrimp enrobed in a yellowish pastry made from a mixture of flour, coconut milk and basil. It is meant to be wrapped in lettuce and dunked in fish sauce and is even better than it looks.

19 November 2011: Even on a sweltering summer day, it’s nearly impossible for me to pass up Cafe Dalat’s spicy beef stew, my very favorite soup anywhere in Albuquerque. It’s like an aromatic elixir, one sip of which instantly cures whatever ails me. This soup is brimming with flavor and served steaming in a swimming pool sized bowl. It’s flavored with fifteen different spices, giving it a piquant, spicy and savory taste. It also receives a slight tang from pineapple chunks. Its savory flavor is derived from thinly sliced eye round and beef brisket. The round rice noodle is thick and always perfectly prepared.

Banana Beef Stew

Banana Beef Stew

1 December 2007: For sheer comfort, however, the restaurant’s best stew is probably the banana beef stew (pictured above) which contrary to its name has nothing to do with fruit. This stew is made with banana shank, a boneless cut of beef with a lining of fat for flavor. It is simmered slowly in a five-spice broth and served with your choice of rice or egg noodle or vermicelli or bread. The bread is warm, yeasty baguettes perfect for sopping up the flavorful broth. This stew truly has properties that uplift the soul. 

16 June 2007: Mothers everywhere will tell you there’s nothing better than a steaming bowl of chicken noodle soup when you’re under the weather.  Vietnamese mothers and chefs make the very best chicken noodle soups anywhere.    One of the very best on Dalat’s menu is a pho brimming with wontons filled with ground pork, barbecue pork and a thin egg noodle swimming in a chicken broth along with onions and scallions. The paper-thin wrapping skins are barely resilient enough not to fall apart in the steaming broth, but when you do break into them you’re rewarded with a delicious ground pork seasoned with anise.  The broth is rich and luxurious, so good it might make you wish you were ailing.

Grilled beef over patter noodles

16 June 2007: Over the years we’ve sampled just about every entree James has offered either at May Hong or at Cafe Dalat, but he’ll occasionally surprise us with something new. A 2007 addition to his novel-sized menu is an eggplant and pork entree (pictured below). This entree is constructed with sliced eggplant and ground pork stir fried in a sauce that seems to be equal parts tangy, spicy and sweet, a combination that only the most skillful cooks are able to consistently get absolutely right. Cafe Dalat gets it right!  Eggplant, in particular, is one of those items which if made incorrectly can leave an inky and bitter aftertaste.  Dalat’s rendition is tender, each slice absorbing the flavors of the sauce.

Ask James if his restaurant serves the type of food served in Vietnam and he’ll openly tell you he serves the type of food only the affluent can afford in his native country. It’s the type of food served in restaurants most citizens can’t afford to visit.  Like most Vietnamese families, the Nguyen family diet consisted mostly of vegetables, fish and bread. James fondly remembers the catfish pond and vegetable garden in his family’s back yard and to this day prefers the simplicity of a limited diet to American extravagance. It’s not, however, as though a fish and vegetable diet ever became mundane. Vietnamese cooks are very inventive and became experts in the use of flavorful sauces, many of which have made their way to his restaurant.

New to the menu: eggplant and ground pork

New to the menu: eggplant and ground pork

4 October 2011: One such example is the catfish in ginger sauce, a whole catfish which is perfectly prepared–crispy on the outside and lovingly tender on the inside. A slightly piquant but mostly sweet ginger sauce the color of Day-Glo glazes the catfish. The fish itself is bony and caution must be exercised when you eat it, but it’s so good, you’ll work around the bones and pick off ever bit of the flaky, tender and delicious fish. This is an inspired entree!

1 December 2007: So, too, is Cafe Dalat’s rendition of cube steak (pictured below), as delicious a beef entry as I’ve had at any Vietnamese restaurant anywhere. It’s better, in fact, than many a prime steak I’ve had. Cubes of eye of round steak are marinated in a sublime mix of lime and spices then stir-fried to an unbelievably tenderness and served with stir-fried green pepper and caramelized onions.

Caramel Catfish

1 May 2015: One person’s bizarre is another person’s delicacy. In April, 2015, Albuquerque’s NewsCastic outlet  published a list of “13 bizarre things on ABQ menus.” Among the baker’s dozen was the caramel catfish at Cafe Dalat.  While not taking umbrage with the categorization of caramel catfish as “bizarre,” owner James Nguyen confirmed that the dish is absolutely beloved by Vietnamese people and that it’s usually paired with sour soup.  What’s not to love?  This is a terrific dish.  Now, if you’ve got visions of candy caramel enrobed catfish, you’re in for a surprise.  After sugar has been caramelized, fish sauce is added and the concoction is stirred until the sugar is completely dissolved.  Shallots, chili and ginger are then folded in.  The result is a rather thin and very intriguing sauce with powerful flavors, perhaps the least obvious being sweetness.  This is a caramel sauce unlike what you might imagine.

19 November 2011: American tastes which lean toward grilled meats will quickly become enamored of Cafe Dalat’s grilled pork in which pork is marinated with the sweet spices of anise and cinnamon to create an olfactory treasure that dances on your taste buds. One of the best ways to have it is with patter noodles which don’t really seem to be noodles at all. In fact, they seem to be more like a one large rice noodle sheet in a cheesecloth pattern. The grilled pork is topped with crushed peanuts and scallions. It’s traditional to wrap the pork first in patter noodles then in lettuce leafs with cilantro, julienned carrots, daikon, ribbons of cucumber, bean sprouts and fresh mint leaves inside. These lettuce wraps are then dipped in Cafe Dalat’s pleasantly piquant fish sauce. If freshness has a flavor, it’s something like this dish.

Cafe Dalat's rendition of cube steak

Cafe Dalat’s rendition of cube steak

All dishes at Cafe Dalat are attractively presented with a diversity of colors and forms. Plating is almost an art form and this restaurant has a penchant for eye-pleasing arrangements. Everything on your plate is where it should be for optimum harmony and appearance. The balance of color, texture and appearance gives diners pause to reflect on how great everything looks. It tastes even better!

Other Vietnamese restaurants may come and go, but Cafe Dalat will stand the test of time because it consistently prepares and serves the very best Vietnamese cuisine in Albuquerque.

5615 Central, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 266-5559
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 1 May 2014
COST: $$
BEST BET: Spicy Beef Soup, Catfish in Ginger Sauce, Grilled Pork with Patter Noodle, Banana Beef Stew, Rice Cake, Cube Steak, Caramel Catfish

Café Da Lat on Urbanspoon

Roadkill Cafe – Seligman, Arizona

The famous Roadkill Cafe on Route 66 in Seligman, Arizona (Elevation 5,280)

 I had my dinner yesterday
In a place they call the Roadkill Cafe
They serve their dishes full of tricks
Scraped off Highway 66.
From the Roadkill Cafe menu

The legality of gathering and consuming roadkill varies from state to state.  In Tennessee, gathering and consuming flattened fauna (save for domestic pets) is not only perfectly legal, it made for great comedic fodder when Volunteer State native Al Gore ran for the Presidency.  In Maine, the police have to tag the furry Frisbees before you can take them home to cook it, while in Wyoming, the tagging is done by a game warden.  Only if you have a scientific collecting permit and plan to study it can you pick up roadkill in California.   Arizona state laws not only prohibit gathering and consuming roadkill, jurisprudence specifically prohibits the hunting of camels. 

States in which roadkill is legal would envy the menu at Seligman, Arizona’s famous Roadkill Cafe on Route 66.  The menu includes such flattened food and car-crashed carrion as “Rack of Raccoon,” “Long Gone Fawn,” “Rigor Mortis Tortoise,” and “The Chicken That Almost Crossed the Road.”  Political correctness doesn’t spare the child either.  The children’s menu includes “Donald Forgot to Duck,” “Poached Bambi Burger,” “Barney Con Carne” and “Rocky the Low Flying Squirrel.”  The restaurant’s motto is “You Kill It, We Grill It.”

The interior of the Roadkill Cafe

The many species of wildlife–among them mule deer, elk, antelope, javalina, turkey, rabbit, mountain lion, coyote, fox, prairie dog, bobcat and black-footed ferret–which call the Seligman area home obviously can’t read the Roadkill Cafe’s menu or they might have relocated.  Many of the illiterate among them hang on the walls of the OK Saloon on the back of the restaurant, the handiwork of a taxidermist.  Still, it’s precisely because of the presence of wildlife in its natural habitat that Seligman is a very popular destination for hunters and photographers. 

Situated about halfway between Flagstaff and Kingman, Seligman calls itself the “birthplace of historic Route 66” (though Springfield, Missouri would dispute that claim).  At 5,250 feet in elevation, it has one of the few remaining Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad stations as well as a Harvey House.  Aside from mounted wildlife, the OK Saloon is a veritable museum with antiques from the area’s Old West heritage.  Located immediately outside the saloon is the old Arizona Territorial jail which once confined several unscrupulous scofflaws.  Adjacent to the jail are Old West storefronts which have had several cameos in commercials and documentaries.

Charbroiled Cheeseburger with Fries

The Roadkill Cafe is replete with roadside kitsch–and not of the dead animal variety (though there are several mounted animal heads on the walls).  The walls and ceiling are paneled in rustic woods resonating a pronounced Western or Old West theme.  Farm implements, animal traps, frying pans, pots, tools and sundry bric-a-brac serve as decorative touches.  There’s something to see everywhere you turn, but perhaps the most catchy kitsch is the menu which will bring a snicker to all but vegetarians and animal rights activists. 

The simple thing to do would be to order the all-you-can-eat soup and salad bar which will set you back a pittance and enthrall you with a nice variety of ingredients, toppings and dressings.  Beverages are served on quart-sized Mason jars and are refreshed faithfully.  The coffee is served on thick ceramic mugs and is hot and delicious.  You can easily tell the tourists from the locals.  The tourists are the ones with the cameras flashing and the locals are the ones who walk in and sit down without waiting to be escorted to their tables.  Both tourists and locals are welcomed as guests.

"The Chicken that almost crossed the road" - Fried Chicken with Seasoned Texas Fries and Cottage Cheese

The charbroiled cheeseburger (whose roadkill sobriquet escapes me) is one of the more popular items on the menu, perhaps because no matter what it’s called on the menu, it’s bound to be good.  That’s the magic of charbroiling.  Not only does it make the entire restaurant smell as if you’re cooking out-of-doors, it leaves a nice crusty bark on the outer edges of the burger no matter the degree of doneness.  The Cafe’s burger features a thick beef patty of about eight ounces topped with a slice of melted American cheese.  Pickles, tomatoes, onions and lettuce are plated on the side and there’s mustard and ketchup on the table.   A charbroiled buffalo burger is also available. 

Lame jokes about the chicken that crossed the road have been told for years.  We now know about the chicken that didn’t make it across that road.  It’s on the Roadkill Cafe’s menu where it’s listed as the “chicken that almost crossed the road.”   It’s a good thing it didn’t make it all the way across.  The Cafe’s fried chicken is delicious with a crispy golden crust that sheathes a juicy leg, thigh and wing.  The crust isn’t greasy as chain restaurant chicken tends to be.  Served with two sides of your choice, you’ll be well advised to order the seasoned Texas fries which are cut from baking potatoes.

Pecan pie and Pumpkin pie

The menu features a number of pies, not made on the premises but quite good.  The pecan pie and pumpkin pie are fresh and tasty with a thick, buttery and flaky crust.  Both go very well with the restaurant’s coffee. 

Seligman is the quintessential Old West frontier town which has parlayed its Route 66 heritage into a popular travel–and perhaps dining–destination.  The Roadkill Cafe is one of several reputedly excellent restaurants in the town.  It’s become our preference for a meal on the way to or from Las Vegas.

Roadkill Cafe
502 West Highway 66
Seligman, Arizona
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 12 November 2011
COST: $$
BEST BET: Fried Chicken, Cheeseburger, Pecan Pie, Pumpkin Pie

Roadkill Cafe & OK Saloon on Urbanspoon

China Poblano – Las Vegas Nevada

China Poblano, a fusion of Mexican and Chinese Cuisine From the Brilliant Mind of Juan Andres

Mexican history and folklore recount the story of a remarkable woman who would come to be venerated as a holy woman and prophetess.  Born to nobility in India and possessing remarkable beauty, she was kidnapped as a young child and brought to Mexico, an intended gift to the Viceroy of Mexico whose personal harem of gorgeous women was known far and wide.  When she arrived in Acapulco on a Chinese ship, people were in awe of her breathtaking appearance and exotic ensemble, detailed with dazzling sequins and complex embroidery.  Her stye would come to be imitated far and wide by Mexican women who called it and her China Poblana which translates literally to “Chinese Pueblan.”  At the time, China was a term used to describe the entire Far East and all Asians.

Instead of winding up one of the Viceroy’s concubines, she was adopted by a childless couple from Puebla who loved and raised her as their own daughter.  An extremely attractive and capable young woman, she nonetheless opted for a spartan life in a convent. Though she did not take her vows as a nun, she did lead an ascetic life and was reputed to have had visions of angels as well as long conversations with the Virgin Mary. Until her death at the age of 82, she was frequently consulted by the clergy. Her tomb in the Sacristy of the Jesuit Temple of Puebla is still known today as the Tumba de la China Poblana, the Tomb of the China Poblana.

Would Frida Cahlo and Chairman Mao actually eat here?

Celebrated chef, restaurant impresario and television glitterati Jose Andres pays tribute to the idea of East meets West with one of his signature concept restaurants that presents a unique way of preparing and serving Mexican and Chinese foods.  Las Vegas Weekly called China Poblano “quite simply the perfect restaurant for today’s hipster foodie.”  Fittingly, it’s housed in The Cosmopolitan, a 3.9 billion dollar luxury resort casino and hotel on the Las Vegas strip.  The Cosmopolitan lives up to its name; it’s hip, chic and happening, the place to be seen and to espy the hipsters who frequent this Sinatra cool hot spot.

China Poblano is not a fusion restaurant per se in that it doesn’t take Mexican and Chinese dishes and transform the diverse and certainly disparate culinary traditions, elements and ingredients of the two very different nations to form an entirely new genre.  Instead, the restaurant serves Mexican dishes and it serves Chinese dishes and the twain…well, occasionally it does meet.  Jose Andres has pondered “If Mexico hadn’t shared its chiles with China, would we have spicy Chinese food?”  Obviously he’s grateful for that peppery philanthropy.

Chairman Mao watches over the exhibition tortilla and taco prep kitchen

China Poblano is an over-the-top loud and colorful restaurant that presents a stunning visual and olfactory sensory experience most will find fun though some may  find aspects of the experience offensive.  Located on the third floor of the stunning Cosmopolitan, it’s got some can’t miss qualities that grab you as you’re walking toward it.  The entrance is shaped like a fat Buddha in a lotus position.  Flanking the entrance are two take-out windows: “Chinese Food” on the left and “Mexican Food” on the right.  

Behind the Chinese window, you’ll find an exhibition dumpling, noodle and dim sum station on one side with an industrious kitchen staff hard at work hand-crafting and plating exquisite Chinese items.  Behind the Mexican window is an exhibition tortilla and taco prep kitchen where you can watch the delicate practice of creating edible art.   On a wall to the right is a digital photography display which rotates historical figures from both China and Mexico.  The notion of Chairman Mao and Frida Kahlo overseeing the restaurant may not be intended as an effrontery, but we did run into an elderly Asian who found Mao’s countenance offensive.

The noodle and dumpling station

Hanging from the ceiling are a phalanx of bicycle wheels, perhaps a playful recognition of the plenitude of the ubiquitous two-wheeled conveyance in China.  A stair-step wall is dedicated to statues not entirely unlike the terracotta soldiers unearthed several years ago, but decidedly less military.  Other walls are accented with colorful Chinese and Mexican masks.  Seating is rather casual–communal wooden tables, each with a 50s-style metal red napkin dispenser.  The restaurant is not nearly as commodious as most Vegas casino eateries, but you’re also not sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with your neighbors either. 

Servers, dressed in sharp black Mao-styled jackets with Chinese and Mexican symbols, are attentive and friendly, working in tandem to meet the needs of their guests.  You might be surprised at just how well informed they are on all aspects of the restaurant concept.  You might even be graced by the chef (not Jose Andres) delivering a plate or two to your table.  It’s an efficient experience executed flawlessly.

Cochinita Taco: Yucatan-style pit barbeque pork/marinated onions

The avant-garde menu offers a wide selection of Chinese and Mexican items served tapas style and priced moderately compared to other Vegas upscale establishments.  The menu is apportioned into several sections: dim sum, noodles and soups, tacos and sections called “From China” and “From Mexico.”  Some of the restaurant’s interpretations honor tradition while others are playful and fun–up to and including the names given them. 

Scour the twelve-item tacos menu (one taco per order) and you’ll see a lot of familiar offerings (especially if you live in the great southwest).  The tacos range from simplicity itself (refried beans with chipotle salsa and queso fresco) to the familiar (carnitas: braised baby pig, pork rinds, spicy salsa verde cruda) to the Mexican favorite (slow-cooked pork belly, pineapple) to the Mexican-Chinese fusion favorite Viva China (soft beef tendon, Kumamoto oyster, scallions, Sichuan peppercorn sauce).  You’ll also find a Langosta taco (lobster, salsa Mexicana, arbol chile sauce).  Let’s see Taco Bell come up with a line-up like this!

Scallop Ceviche: bay scallops/key limes ancho chile sugar

China Poblano’s answer to the Old El Paso commercial in which a young boy invents a flat bottom taco so the ingredients don’t spill out is a stainless steel taco holder in which each individual taco is nestled.  The taco holder helps the warm, freshly made tortillas hold in ingredients such as the Yucatan-style pit barbeque pork and marinated onions in the Cochinita Taco.  What it can’t hope to contain are the fabulous flavors of the sweet, tender and juicy meat punctuated by onions pickled pink  Each taco goes about four bites, but you’ll enjoy every one of them. 

Founder Jose Andres has long been regarded as one of the pioneers and foremost practitioners of molecular gastronomy, a term he despises, preferring to say chefs are closing the gap and bridging the differences between science and cooking.  Perhaps culinary gastronomy would be a better term to describe what some of his creations do in maximizing the creativity in the use of ingredients.  The scallop ceviche would fit that description.  You’ll do a double-take when it’s delivered to your table.

Like Water for Chocolate: fried quail/ dragon fruit/rose petals/chestnut and dragon fruit sauce

Perched above a layer of river stones are four bay scallops sitting atop four key limes dipped in an ancho chile sugar (but don’t call it molecular gastronomy).  This is most certainly a play on oyster shooters, meant to be eaten by picking up the key lime and shooting it in your mouth while squeezing the lime behind it.  The tart tanginess of the lemon and the sweetness of the sugar combine with the savory-sweetness of the scallop to give your mouth a burst of contrasting yet surprisingly complementary flavors.  This is a must have!

On the surface, Laura Esquivel’s wonderful 1990 tome Como Agua Para Chocolate (Like Water For Chocolate) is about the struggles of a couple passionately in love but cruelly fated to be kept apart.  Below the surface, however, is a brilliant novel that celebrates the passion food can–and does–inspire.  China Poblano pays tribute to the novel and to its sentiment with a dish aptly named Like Water for Chocolate.  This dish’s most elegant feature is perfectly braised quail which borders a beauteous array of dragon fruit sauce, chestnuts and rose petals.  The quail’s skin is wonderfully crispy, its meat delicate and juicy.  The dragon fruit sauce, which is almost mousse-like, lends a bit of sweetness which pairs very well with the quail.  The rose petals are also surprisingly good.

Gaspacho Morelia: pineapple/ watermelon/ jicama/dragon fruit/ queso fresco/chile pequin

To Jose Andres, even the sacrosanct traditions of his home nation are subject to reinterpretation.  Gazpacho, for example, is almost always a cold, tomato-based raw vegetable soup.  Inventive chefs sometimes incorporate watermelon for a sweet contrast.  China Poblano’s reconstruction, called Gaspacho Morelia, includes pineapple, watermelon, jicama, dragon fruit, queso fresco and chile pequin.  Not a tomato in sight!  When it’s delivered to your table, your server will use an orange juicer to squeeze an entire orange on top of the gaspacho.  The three savory ingredients–queso fresco, chile pequin and celery–provide a wonderful contrast to the citrusy melange.  

China Poblano’s lamb pot stickers stuck on you are a fusion treat that arrives at your table looking unlike any pot stickers you’ve ever seen.  A crispy, lattice-like cover drapes over six pot stickers.  It’s as much fun to extricate them from their crispy lace dome home as it is to eat the pan-fried dough from which it’s made.  More fun–with an appropriate exercise of caution–will be popping the dumplings into your mouth.  They literally burst with the hot liquid flavor of the meaty, cumin-laced juices in which the tender Colorado lamb shoulder is braised.  The lamb is oh, so delicious.

Lamb Pot Stickers Stuck on You: (six pieces) vegetables/crispy lace

Desserts are as imaginative, maybe even moreso, than the savory dishes.  That may be especially true of the Chocolate Terra Cotta Warriors, a whimsical take on the warriors unearthed in the Chinese city of Xian.  Only a handful of items on the menu are more steeply priced, but splurging will ensure, at the very least, ogling admirers on all sides.  A chocolate statue crafted from an outer shell of Oaxacan chocolate is stuffed with a chocolate-peanut butter mousse. The statue is surrounded by a melange that includes caramelized bananas, ginger ice cream and dark chocolate cookie crumbs.  It’s as pretty as a picture so it’s a pity the only way you can eat it all is by cracking open the chocolate shell and melding all ingredients in each spoonful. 

Dinner at China Poblano could easily set you back a C-note and it might not even fill you up, but you will most certainly enjoy every adventurous bite and look forward to a return visit.  One of the great thrills of your visit is watching food being delivered to adjacent tables.  It’ll give you an idea what you might want to order the next time you visit.  Because of the popularity of this phenomenal new restaurant, you’ll want to make reservations.

Chocolate Terra Cotta Warriors: A shell of Oaxacan chocolate/chocolate mousse interior/ caramelized bananas/ginger ice cream/cookie crumbs

In 2011, China Poblano was a semi-finalist for the James Beard Foundation’s “Best New Restaurant award.  Jose Andres didn’t go home empty-handed, however, as he took home the coveted Outstanding Chef award and an episode of 60 Minutes in which he was profiled won a James Beard Award  for best television segment.  Leave it to a Spaniard to start a delicious Mexican-Chinese revolution.

China Poblano
3708 Las Vegas Blvd, South
Las Vegas, Nevada
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 11 November 2011

COST: $$$$
BEST BET:Chocolate Terra Cotta Warriors, Lamb Pot Stickers, Gaspacho Morelia, Like Water for Chocolate, Cochinita Taco, Scallop Ceviche

China Poblano (Cosmopolitan) on Urbanspoon

Lotus of Siam – Las Vegas, Nevada

Lotus of Siam, perhaps the very best Thai restaurant in America

In the August, 2000 issue of Gourmet Magazine, multiple-time Pulitzer Prize award-winning writer Jonathan Gold called the Lotus of Siam restaurant in Las Vegas, Nevada “the single best Thai restaurant in North America.”  Not a disparaging word was heard or a dissenting opinion offered among the cognoscenti save for those who argued that the word “Thai” should be removed from from Gold’s audacious proclamation.  Lotus of Siam is THAT good!

In the decade plus since Gold’s assertion, every reputable critic from every credible publication has jumped on the bandwagon, essentially echoing or adding to to the validation of the greatness that is the Lotus of Siam.  The superlatives are similar on every review you’ll read of this vaunted restaurant; only the names of the scribes change.  In a media culture which delights in the “time to tear down” portion of Ecclesiastes 3:3, the absence of true criticism for Lotus of Siam speaks volumes.   Lotus of Siam is THAT good!

The best new addition to Lotus of Siam--an expanded dining room with a huge wine cave

First-time visitors approach the Lotus of Siam with high expectations, return visitors with the type of reverence usually accorded only to shrines or holy places.  A visit is akin to a religious pilgrimage, albeit not one of great distance or difficulty to reach (it’s only minutes away from the Las Vegas strip) though the restaurant is situated in a strip mall that’s probably 25 years beyond its time, a strip mall Zagat called “the ugliest strip mall in America.”  Few ever give it a second thought that the peerless purveyor of the best Penang on the planet is located in one of the city’s most unsavory areas.  Lotus of Siam is THAT good! 

In recent years, Las Vegas has earned a reputation as one of the world’s premier dining destinations, much of that apotheosis attributable to many of the world’s culinary glitterati launching a satellite restaurant operation in Sin City.  You no longer have to go to San Francisco, Chicago, New York City or even Paris to experience some of the best restaurants in the world; they’ve all come to Las Vegas.  Lotus of Siam, on the other hand, was in such demand from New York City visitors to Las Vegas, that in 2010, a second instantiation of the Vegas institution was launched in Metropolis.  Lotus of Siam is THAT good!

Tod Mun Plar: deep fried fish-cake mixed with curry paste, served with cucumber salad with chopped peanut.

So, just what is it that makes Lotus of Siam THAT good?  Most agree it’s all starts with incomparable chef-owner Saipin Chutima who in 2010 was finally accorded with “Best Chef: Southwest” honors by the James Beard Foundation after  “Miss Congeniality” finishes in 2008 and 2010.   Her specialty is Issan-style Thai food, its genesis being the northeastern region of the country where the chef was raised, a region in which cuisine is more highly spiced than those of the other regions of Thailand. The 150-item menu notes that some of the dishes are influenced by the cultures of Laos and Cambodia and while that menu is also replete with traditional Thai favorites common at other restaurants, they’re prepared better (and spicier) than anywhere else. 

Despite being ensconced for most of its 25 years in an unassuming Lilliputian space,  the universally beloved restaurant with huge flavors has earned Wine Spectator’s “Award of Excellence” every year since 2005.  In 2010, Lotus of Siam expanded, much to the delight of oenophiles and diners alike.  The expansion makes it easier to obtain a reservation and showcases one of the most impressive wine caves in a city which prides itself on its wine lists.

Fried Chicken Dumplings: Deep fried wontons skin stuffed with ground chicken, and vegetables, served with homemade sweet and sour sauce

The wait staff at Lotus of Siam is unfailingly attentive and polite. Even better, they’re on the spot to refill your empty glasses of ice water–and you will empty them if you endeavor to consume the lip-numbing, tongue-tingling “Thai hot” dishes. Even if weaned on New Mexico chile as I was, Lotus of Siam has several dishes that might make many blubber “no mas.” A degree of heat at level eight (out of ten) is piquant enough for most asbestos tongued New Mexicans. That’s not to say all the dishes are incendiary. There are many entrees who will captivate you with the subtle blending of pungently sweet spices.

The 150-item menu includes several “must try” appetizers including nam kao tod, a highly spicy stir fry of minced Issan-style sour sausage seasoned with ginger, fresh chilies and scallions and served with crispy rice. It’s one of the Las Vegas restaurant favorites listed on an unofficial “essential restaurant guide” published yearly.  An appetizer popular in trendy Bangkok, tod mun plar is prepared exceptionally well at Lotus. This deep-fried fish-cake mixed with curry paste is served with a sweet-tangy-piquant cucumber salad with chopped peanuts. With a fragrant bouquet and light texture, these fish cakes will win over even the fish haters among you.

Crispy Duck on Drunken Noodle: Crispy duck topped with homemade fresh chili and Thai basil. Serve on the top of pan fried flat rice noodle. –

The appetizer roster also includes several items sure to please poultry lovers who can spice up the precursory part of their meal with garlic black pepper chicken wings. Several meaty chicken wings are deep-fried until crispy then sautéed with potent black pepper and a wealth of garlic. If you don’t want to wreck your breath (while loving every morsel in doing so), the stuffed chicken wings are a wonderful option. Two pterodactyl sized chicken wings are stuffed with ground pork then deep fried and served with a tangy sweet and sour sauce.  Then there’s the fried chicken dumplings, deep-fried wontons skin stuffed with ground chicken and vegetables.  Better dumplings cannot be found!

Lotus of Siam’s soup offerings are fabulous and offered in cup size as well as in a swimming pool sized bowl. At a level eight degree of heat, the Tom Yum Kai, a spicy and sour soup with chicken, lemon grass, lime juice and straw mushrooms, is as baby bear might say “just right.” It’s also one of the heartiest, most savory soups imaginable–a soup so good you’ll mourn the last spoonful.

Roasted Duck Curry: The combination of roasted duck, pineapple, bell pepper and tomato in red curry base with a touch of coconut milk make this dish very tasty and unique.

Among the entrees, the roasted duck curry (replete with cherry tomatoes, small grapes, pineapple and coconut milk) is the very best curry dish I’ve ever had.  It’s an entree I’ve had during three of my five visits to Lotus of Siam so if the restaurant has a better curry dish, I’ve yet to try it. The concordance of ingredients and the resultant melding of flavors will leave your taste buds delirious with joy.  The first time you bite into a plump cherry tomato which has been swimming in curry is like your first kiss.  The sensation of a curry saturated grape bursting in your mouth may make your eyes roll with carnal pleasure.  If a food item can make love to your mouth, it would resemble feasting on this curry dish. 

Duck is the showpiece ingredient in another favorite entree, one of four crispy duck entrees on the chef’s choice menu.  The crispy duck on drunken noodle, pan-fried rice noodles topped with fresh, homemade chili and Thai basil.  This is one of those rare dishes about which absolute perfection can be ascribed.  Everything about it is perfectly prepared.  The duck is mouth-watering–tender, succulent, eyes shut wide with pleasure delicious with a crispy fried skin that may leave you swooning.  The pan-seared basil would have made a wonderful entree on its own while the drunken noodles inherited the saucy flavors of the other components of one of the two best duck dishes I’ve ever had (the other being the roasted duck curry, of course).

Coconut Ice Cream on a bed of Sticky Rice

Despite sizable portions, you’ll want to end your meal with dessert.  The menu lists only  mangoes (in season) with sticky rice, coconut ice cream with sticky rice and fried bananas. These relatively simple desserts are common in street stalls throughout Thailand, but uncommonly good in America–just like this phenomenal restaurant. 

We’ve been visiting Lotus of Siam since the millennium year–within weeks after Jonathan Gold’s anointing of this gem.  It’s on my short list for the proverbial “last meal” and should be on everyone’s “bucket list” of restaurants to visit before all is said and done.  Lotus of Siam is THAT good!

953 E. Sahara Ave.
Las Vegas, NV
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 10 November 2011
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Fishcakes, Duck Curry, Thai b.b.q. chicken, Mangoes on Sticky Rice

Lotus of Siam on Urbanspoon

Lawry’s The Prime Rib – Las Vegas, Nevada

Lawry's The Prime Rib Restaurant in Las Vegas

“What keeps me motivated is not the food itself
but all the bonds and memories the food represents.”

~Michael Chiarello

Many of my most cherished memories involve the act of eating and quite often those memories don’t involve the food itself.  The memories which sweeten most over time invariably involve the people with whom those meals were shared.  The act of degustation is infinitely more satisfying and the meals so much more pleasing when shared with loved ones.  In part because of the memories it evokes, one restaurant which will always hold a special place in my heart is Lawry’s The Prime Rib.  Every visit rekindles memories of my first visit and creates new memories to be revisited and cherished thereafter. 

My inaugural visit to Lawry’s occurred on August 31st, 1985 in Chicago, Illinois.  I was five hours removed from landing at O’Hare Airport after an exhausting flight from London.  Jet lag had set in and neither my thoughts or speech were as coherent as one would want for meeting future in-laws for the first time.  The jet lag apparently trumped any nervousness I may have had because my in-laws found me perfectly charming, a worthy catch for their daughter.  Over the years, my father-in-law and I grew very close, sharing great conversation, great wine, wonderful food and many loving memories.  Lawry’s The Prime Rib deserves some credit.

The elegant interior of Lawry's The Prime Rib

Fourteen years later–on December 29th, 1999–the entire family gathered in Las Vegas to celebrate my father-in-law’s 70th birthday at Lawry’s.  For a man who had seen and accomplished virtually all he ever set out to do, the outpouring of love came as a very touching and memorable surprise.  Four years later, we gathered at Lawry’s once again only this time without him.  We were there to celebrate his life, cut short prematurely.  Of all the many lessons he taught us, perhaps the most important was that families who share meals together share love.

Lawry’s has been carving out places in the heart and impressing itself upon the memories of countless diners since launching its flagship Beverly Hills restaurant in 1938.  Because of its unique ability to create memories, it has spanned generations and survived the onslaught of rigorous competition despite virtually not changing a thing in more than seventy years.  If ever there was a “one trick pony” it would be Lawry’s, but this is one pony who does that one thing exceedingly well–better than anyone else has ever done it.

An expert carver slices a Lawry's cut of prime rib

What Lawry’s does–as the name clearly indicates–is serve the very best roasted prime rib of beef conceivable.   Sure, it’s an anachronism, but it’s a throwback in the best sense of the word–the sense that implies exceptional service and warm hospitality, a lavish dinner experience, an art deco ambiance and a unique menu so good, it hasn’t had to change much with the times.  Lawry’s is about memories and it’s about tradition.  It’s about parents and in-laws introducing their children and grandchildren to the sharing of great food and the creation of new memories. 

Lawry’s is also about making its guests feel special, as if they all deserve an exceptional dining experience–one that comes to you.  Not long after your drink order is taken, an expert carver nattily attired entirely in virginal white wheels a stainless-steel cart to your table where you can select the cut of roast prime rib of beef you want.  The prime rib is carved tableside before your very eyes and to your exacting specifications.  It’s food porn, a tantalizing visual show that will make your mouth water and arouse your olfactory senses.  The beef is dry-aged and roasted with the famous Lawry’s seasoning blend.  There is no better beef anywhere!

The Lawry's Cut of Prime Rib Destined For My Plate

There’s a prime rib of beef cut for every appetite. They range from the “California Cut,” a smaller cut for lighter appetites, which at about eight-ounces, is still an intimidating hunk of beef to the “Beef Bowl Cut,” a double-sized cut with the rib bone as served annually to the Roast…er, Rose Bowl and Cotton Bowl football teams. It’s roughly the size of an air conditioner. The most popular cut is the Lawry cut which probably tips the scales at about twenty-four ounces.  As with any prime rib, there’s a bit of marbling here and there, but it only lends to the flawless flavor profile.  Lawry’s whipped cream horseradish is as powerful as tear gas so unless you’re into shedding tears with every bite, it may not be for you.

The prime rib dinner includes Lawry’s famous original spinning bowl salad with mixed greens, shredded beets, chopped egg, croutons and a unique dressing you won’t find anywhere else.  The salad preparation is unique.  Waitresses–attired in an old-fashioned outfit complete with a Nurse Ratchet type hat (cap?)–don’t toss salads; they spin them in a stainless-steel bowl atop a bed of ice.  Then with the pomp and ceremony of a knighting, the waitress will present a chilled salad fork so you can apportion the salad onto your plate.

Lawry's Prime Rib (the Lawry's Cut), Mashed Potatoes with Gravy, Creamed Corn, Spinach and Yorkshire Pudding

Lawry’s Idaho mashed potatoes are superb–whole potatoes whipped with milk and butter to give them the creaminess  diners crave!  You can have the mashed potatoes with or without gravy.  In either case, they’re standard with your prime rib as is Yorkshire Pudding (not actually a pudding by American standards) which is baked in small skillets until puffy and golden brown.  A number of a la carte dinner accompaniments are available: jumbo shrimp cocktail, sizzling skillet of mushrooms, a baked Idaho potato, fresh asparagus, buttered peas, creamed spinach and creamed corn.

The latter two are absolute must haves, reasons by themselves to visit Lawry’s! The creamed spinach (subtly seasoned with spices, bacon, scallion, onion and more than a hint of garlic) might explain Popeye’s affinity for spinach (didn’t Gilligan love it, too?). It is simply outstanding, a buttery-rich tangle of beauteous greens.  Be ever vigilant and don’t leave the table or you’ll be risking your dining companion reaching over and taking some.  The creamed corn will inspire similar covetousness.  It’s sweet, buttery and delicious to the nth degree.

Lawry's famous salad

There are other options on the menu including ribeye steak, fresh fish of the day and Atlantic lobster tails, but when in Rome, most do as the Romans do.  That means a prime rib of beef dinner you’ll long remember.  Now, if you’re thinking that in Las Vegas you can have a prime rib dinner for a pittance at any number of casinos, remember you get what you pay for.  In most cases that’s a fatty slab of tough beef prepared by a nameless, faceless cook in the confines of a hectic kitchen.  If there are any memories to be gleaned from this experience, they’re bound to be memorable for the wrong reasons. 

There are seven items on the dessert, but most diners don’t have room for a post-prandial sweet treat unless they ask the wait staff to box remaining items. The coconut banana cream pie has a rich, butter crust, an old-fashioned vanilla cream center and is loaded with ripe banana slices and topped with a generous amount of toasted coconut.  The fact that I’d prefer a second serving of creamed spinach is certainly no indictment of the pie, but a testament as to just how good the creamed spinach is.

Banana-Coconut Cream Pie

Today aside from its Las Vegas, Chicago and Beverly Hills locations, Lawry’s The Prime Rib is creating new memories in Dallas, Jakarta, Singapore, Tokyo and Taipei.  Dear memories of my father-in-law revisit me every time we dine at Lawry’s.  They’re fond memories of great times we shared at a restaurant we considered our special place.

Lawry’s The Prime Rib
4043 Howard Hughes Parkway
Las Vegas, NV
(702) 893-2223
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 9 November 2011
1st VISIT: 31 August 1985
COST: $$$$
BEST BET: Prime Rib, Lobster Tail, Spinning Salad Bowl, Yorkshire Pudding, Idaho Mashed Potatoes, Creamed Spinach, Creamed Corn, Banana-Coconut Cream Pie

Lawry's the Prime Rib on Urbanspoon

Lindo Michoacan – Las Vegas, Nevada

Lindo Michoacan, one of the best Mexican restaurants in the southwest

Lindo Michoacan and its three scions strewn throughout the Las Vegas area may be the best gourmet-quality Mexican restaurants we’ve visited in America which aren’t owned by Rick Bayless or aren’t situated in Santa Fe (Los Potrillos) or Albuquerque (Los Equipales). The older sibling, Lindo Michoacan is a storied restaurant which over the years has garnered unprecedented local acclaim and has even been celebrated nationally. For years, it has earned “Best of Las Vegas” honors in the Mexican food category and if you listen to Vegas Chowhounds, there isn’t a Mexican restaurant in the city anywhere close.

The founder’s story is also steeped in the kind of heart-rending rags-to-riches details that raconteurs tend to embellish until those details become legendary. The story has it that Javier Barajas learned his culinary craft as a young boy working at a convent. Mother Superior was so impressed by his work ethic that she assigned him to work in the kitchen where he absorbed everything he could about cooking. One meal at Lindo Michoacan and you’ll be convinced the nunnery served diving gastronomy and was staffed by cherubic, fat nuns who may have taken a vow of poverty, but not of gastronomic self-denial.

One of the three dining rooms in the sprawling restaurant

As your hostess escorts you to your table, your mouth will be agape at both the enticing aromas which fill the air and at the vibrant folk art which festoons the walls and ceilings. Lindo Michoacan is a breath-taking sensory experience in every sense of the term. The restaurant’s three dining rooms tend to be crowded, not only because seating is in personal space proximity, but because most tables seem occupied by groups–either families or friends.

At one corner of the main dining room is a small (maybe 10X10) room bisected by glass and tile.  A solitary figure, a tortillera, works behind the glass, assiduously kneading dough into small balls then rolling them into flat disks about a foot in diameter.  The tortillera then places the raw tortillas on a preheated cast iron plate, turning them frequently to ensure they are cooked evenly.  The tortilla is ready when it begins to puff up with air pockets and becomes the color of a pinto pony.  Making flour tortillas is a time-honored process that requires experience and expertise.  Lindo Michoacan’s tortilleras know what they’re doing.

Your first order of salsas is complimentary.

The menu reads like a novel you can’t put down (although it’s unlikely even the most deliciously salacious novel can cause your mouth to water like the menu will). In all of our visits, it has literally taken us ten to fifteen minutes to decide what to order. It wouldn’t be beyond reason to close your eyes and point at a random menu item and still be treated to one of the best Mexican entrees you’ve ever had.

Fortunately, while you’re perusing the menu, the attentive wait staff gives you a preview of your upcoming dining experience with a basket of crispy, low-salt chips which are substantial enough for the fiery red salsa and the warm bean dip served complimentarily with every meal. The salsa and bean dip are like a “yin and yang” duo of prandial precursors. After the salsa has set your tongue on fire, follow up with the bean dip as a flavorful extinguisher.

Fideos, a unique Mexican spaghetti-soup

You can also try to mollify the salsa’s effect on your tongue with horchata, the incomparably refreshing and addictive rice beverage. It’s especially addictive at Lindo Michoaca where during one balmy summer visit, I drank seven tall glasses of the rice and cinnamon flavored drink (and not necessarily to put out the fire on my tongue). I’ve never had better horchata.

Each meal is accompanied by flour or corn tortillas as well as the best sopa de fideos (a wonderfully spiced vermicelli soup) you’ll ever have. Sopa de fideos wasn’t in my mom’s comfort food repertoire so I came to appreciate this highly flavorful soup later in life. It’s surprising that more Mexican and New Mexican restaurants don’t offer it. Each meal also includes fresh guacamole dip which is made with fresh Hass avocados, jalapenos, tomatoes, onions, cilantro and fresh lime. Despite all those “additives,” the prevalent flavor is of avocado, just as it should be.

Ceviche de Camaron with tortas

Bountiful botanas (appetizers) include gourmet starters such as nopalitos (Mexican cactus), but you can also find such popular favorites as queso fundido (melted and blended Monterrey Jack served with green chile strips and chorizo) and ceviche de camaron (fresh shrimp diced with tomatoes, onions, jalapeno mixed together with lemon juice and spices). Unlike most ceviche, the dominant taste is the shrimp, not the overdone citrus infusion.

In years’ past, any gringo (and even if I did quality on an ethnic basis, I couldn’t do it) who can say “pollo al chipoltle estilo Parangaricutirimicuaro,” without stopping, would win a free margarita or tequila. We have yet to try that tongue-twisting, polysyllabic tongue-twister, but can attest to the quality of several other outstanding entrees:

Carnitas a la Coca Cola

The chuletas estillo “Amador Castillo,” pork chops in the style of Amador Castillo, are among the tastiest evidence that Mexican food doesn’t need to be incendiary or even particularly spicy to be great. With this entree, three broiled pork chops are marinated overnight in a sauce made with achiote, fresh garlic, onions, diced red chiles, vinegar and “secret spices.” The resultant flavors might remind you of tender pork chops marinated in a citrusy, smoky barbecue sauce.

Especiales del mar (seafood specialties) include a boatload of shrimp and fish (mostly orange roughy) entrees that may make you long for the sea. The best of the lot may be the Camarones Abuelito Timo, eight large, fresh Mexican Gulf shrimp filled with cheese and red peppers, wrapped in bacon and deep fried. The shrimp are accompanied by a sauce made with 1000 Island dressing and Tabasco sauce, which, while delicious in its own right, was wholly unnecessary. There’s something uniquely flavorful about shrimp wrapped in bacon and Lindo Michoacan does it best!

Novillo al Coñac

True to its name, the Carne A La Coca-Cola Estilo “Mama Consuelo,” actually does employ America’s favorite soft drink to add flavor and contrast to a New York steak prepared with a sauce of pasilla chiles, garlic, pepper and other spices. This flavorful, slightly sweet “Coca-Cola Classic” is certainly crafted with ingenuity and imagination as its ingredients meld masterfully to form taste sensations you won’t easily forget. It is one of the chef’s mother’s secret recipes.

New York steak al cognac is emboldened with a sauté of cognac, mushrooms, onion, secret spices and sour cream and is an entree which positively dances on your taste buds. The steak is grilled to your exacting specifications and is nearly tender enough to cut with a fork. On its own, it would make an excellent steak entree, but with the accompanying sauce, it’s elevated to one of the very best meat entrees I’ve ever had at any Mexican restaurant.

My favorite horchata

Lindo Michoacan celebrates the cuisine of one of Mexico’s most storied regions, a region reputed to be home to the very best chefs in Mexico. In Mexico, it is said that, “If you want good food, go to Michoacan.” In Las Vegas, savvy diners say, “If you want good food, come to Lindo Michoacan.”

Lindo Michoacan
2655 East Desert Inn
Las Vegas, NV
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 8 November 2011
COST: $$
BEST BET: Ceviche De Camaron, Camarones Abuelito Timo, Chuletas Estilo “Amador Castillo”, Carnitas A La Coca-Cola Estilo “Mama Chelo”, Salsa, Horchata, Steak Al Conac, Queso Fundido

Lindo Michoacan on Urbanspoon

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