For the last 10 years I’ve tried to figure out what food really says “Las Vegas.” I figured there must be an indigenous dish of some sort—a unique creation or even a novel variation of some other place’s creation—that the town could really rally around. An edible identity is just as much (if not more) a source of pride as a sports team is for a city (not that we have that, either), right?
Think about it. Chicago has pizza and hot dogs. New Orleans has beignets and jambalaya. St. Louis has toasted ravioli (and Provel on pizza—yuck). Green chilies spice up all of New Mexico. But what food is best representative of a hodgepodge desert town like Las Vegas? It’s always a stumper.
In the past, shrimp cocktail and prime rib were a given. But with the influx of celebrity chefs, higher quality food and the seeming sophistication of palates, those notions are pretty outdated. Certainly we must have evolved. And those dishes weren’t really ours anyways—Las Vegas was just known for selling them cheaply and in mass quantities.
So what’s the new, better answer?
That’s not a simple question, unfortunately. The problem starts with Southern Nevada’s lack of local ingredients. With the exception of a small orchard, a few tiny organic farms and some residential gardens we don’t really grow anything, unless you count cactus, but I don’t see nopales dominating the Strip anytime soon. We’re not particularly close to a body of water (or a body of water from which you’d want to eat its contents, anyway), which leaves out sushi and seafood as a way of defining us (despite their prevalence on our menus). So what should a landlocked, semi-barren desert claim for its own? Perhaps the football-shaped beer—did we invent that?
Obviously needing some professional help in this matter, I queried more than a dozen Las Vegas chefs. This led to another problem: The majority of them actually avoided answering. And most of those that did chime in managed to also inject a hearty dose of self-promotion.
For example, Joe Romano, Golden Gaming Inc. executive chef, suggested the Sierra Gold burger (Kobe beef, bacon, cheese, mushrooms, truffle oil). Considering pretty much every place on the Strip is trying to one-up the hamburger (see page 106) by adding foie gras, lobster tails and other fancy toppings and high-grade cuts of meat, this could be a legitimate claim. But since even McDonald’s is pimping a gourmet burger, it seems a little too universal to be the Vegas food.
John Schenk, executive chef of Strip House, noted the indulgent side of Vegas and suggested that it’s best represented in his restaurant’s 42-ounce long-bone rib eye for two and 24-layer signature chocolate cake.
Rick Moonen, executive chef of RM Seafood, agreed, but in a broader manner, suggesting surf and turf as our culinary claim to fame. Certainly steaks/surf-and-turf/general indulgence are “prime” suggestions. We no doubt have as many steak houses as we do bingo parlors and wedding chapels. But it still lacks a certain “Vegas” element, considering the popularity of steak houses in so many other cities (including cities with closer access to cows, both living and dead). Chef Robert Solano, executive chef of Mundo, elected his Spicy Shrimp Ceviche Cocktail. In his thinking, this item is a nod to the famous Golden Gate 99-cent shrimp cocktail as well as to the more refined tourist. It’s a reasonable—and delicious—suggestion, but until we see our fanny-packed masses carrying this around town (in a souvenir cup with a neck strap), I’m reticent to stand behind it.
While none of their answers scream “Vegas food!” they are, perhaps, even more telling than you think. The thing that Vegas really excels at, more than anything, is marketing. The city is, was and always will be about promoting itself. It’s a mirage, a fantasy, a Proteus-style shape-shifter bending to the palate of its residents and visitors.
Yes, we have good food, amazing food, food that arguably rivals that in any city. If there were some kind of Las Vegas food pyramid it would no doubt consist of varying proteins, carbs and fats along with a consistent daily dose of PR. It may not be actual food, but it’s something we all digest countless times a day.
Besides, if you’ve ever had Cincinnati chili, you know there are worse things than not having our own food.