Rice is the world’s most versatile and widely consumed grain, with more than 40,000 varietals. There are many ways to eat rice in Las Vegas, at a number of ethnic and upscale restaurants. Here are seven of my favorite dishes to throw into your routine:
Baghali polo at Royal Persis.
Baghali polo at Royal Persis
Polo, with the same Indo-European root as our word pilaf, is the crowning glory of the Persian table. At our best Persian restaurant, Royal Persis, the polo of choice is baghali, Basmati rice swathed with dill and lima beans, topped with rice-tinged yellow from saffron. Lamb shank submerged in a pool of stock is traditionally served with this rice, as it’s done here. The shank is fall-apart tender. Mix in some rice, and voilà, you are eating the best Persian dish in Vegas. $4.95, 2790 E. Flamingo Road, 413-6017.
Jambalaya at Lola’s
Lola Pokorny’s Holsum Lofts Cajun restaurant won’t make us forget Commander’s Palace, but it’s the still the best place we have to eat New Orleans-style home cooking. Her jambalaya is a good example of what a creative home cook can do with a limited pantry. Originally devised to stretch shrimp, chicken and andouille sausage, this flavorful peasant dish is done nicely here, with the requisite amount of spice. $9.99; with shrimp, $12.99, in Holsum Lofts, 241 W. Charleston Blvd., 227-5652.
Arroz con pollo at Havana Grill
Havana Grill’s seminal Sunday-night supper dish doesn’t come up to versions I’ve eaten in South Florida, but it’s the best one in the desert. Expect a mound of food colored a faint yellow from saffron, rice slow-cooked with onion, garlic, green pepper and a disjointed, unreasonably flavorful half chicken. This mountain of food is crowned with a pair of fried plantains, a starchy Cuban cousin to the supermarket banana. I always start a meal here with a potent rum concoction from the bar and a dish of ham croquettes, crunchy on the outside and creamy on the inside. $16.95, 8878 S. Eastern Ave., 932-9310.
Night market fried rice at Ping Pang Pong
The most sensual places to eat in Asian cities are night markets, where food is sold at stalls, stands and moveable carts. Ping Pang Pong is known primarily for dim sum such as half-soup dumpling and sesame-crusted shrimp roll, but the a la carte menu has some good surprises. Night market fried rice combines beef brisket, tomato, onion, egg, hot chilies, cilantro and rice, all sautéed until the entire mess turns a pale gold. It is, to the fried rice you get at Panda Express, what one of Beethoven’s late quartets is to the Offspring. $10.95, in the Gold Coast, 367-7111.
Bi bim bap at Mother’s Korean Grill
Bi bim bap—don’t you just love to say it?—is the quintessential Korean lunch dish, ideal for health-conscious eaters who don’t want big slabs of barbecued meat sizzling under their collective noses. It’s essentially rice with the dreaded kim chi, shredded vegetables such as carrot and cucumber, canary-yellow soybean sprouts, a touch of chopped beef, a fried egg and—this is optional—a red-hot bean paste with which to mix everything. For an extra few bucks you can have it in a stone pot, called a dolsot. $11.95 lunch, $12.95 dinner, 4215 Spring Mountain Road, 579-4745.
Nam kao tod at Lotus of Siam
Gourmet magazine once called Lotus of Siam “the best Thai in the United States,” and it’s been a tough table ever since. Nam kao tod, loosely translated as “crispy rice salad,” is finger-food deluxe, discretely crunchy grains of rice with shards of ginger, roasted peanut, lemon grass, and sai ua, sweet and sour Thai sausage. The dish is served with cabbage leaves, which are used to scoop up the rice, taco-style. Prik ki nu, literally “rat dropping chilies” (so named for their shape), explode inside your mouth like military ordinance. You can’t say we didn’t warn you. $7.95, in Commercial Center, 953 E. Sahara Ave., 735-3033.
Paella Valenciana at Julian Serrano
Madrid-born chef Julian Serrano made his reputation at Picasso, but he is quite proud of his native Spanish cuisine. His eponymous tapas bar and restaurant in Aria at CityCenter also makes the best paella ever found in this city, using the traditional iron pan and ingredients—featuring chicken, rabbit and sausage—to enrich his saffron-laced Bomba rice. This is as close to the paella you’d eat in Barcelona as you will find. $40, in Aria, 590-7111.