Eclectic Avenue

The University District has a lively combo of quirkiness and tastiness

Photo by Anthony MairOne of the best items on Cugino’s menu: Donnie’s Special.

Here is a district that is often overlooked by most travel guides and those weekend reporters who parachute into town to report on the latest openings for the idle chic. In a way, you can’t fully blame them since our University District doesn’t have the green-friendly flair of the University of Texas’ The Drag or the studied commercial suss of UCLA’s Westwood. Heck, you might even say we’re pretty darn ramshackle in the way we lump eateries, bars, pastry shops, clothing and comic book shops together. But here is my question: Why is that a problem?  

In reality, if you look past the chains (Einstein Bagels, Starbucks) and the clutter of cheap student housing, you might be surprised at what’s packed in the area between Tropicana Avenue and Flamingo Road on our city’s near eastside, with Maryland Parkway as the main drag. If “charm” is too strong a term for what it has, can we at least say “atmosphere”?

Listen, on one lazy afternoon, after visiting a former professor on campus, I had a bowl of tripe soup; bought a piece pipe for a friend’s birthday; found a spiffy brown bowler hat for $7; purchased a couple of Daniel Clowes comics; then moseyed to another place for kalua pork; downed a few pints of Duvel (my favorite blond Belgian ale); and befriended a lady in a parking lot with an interesting take on the moon-landing “hoax.” And I wasn’t even trying. So if you can swing with what I’ve told you, here are a few must-stops of epicurean interest for the area:

Cugino’s Italian Deli. It’s the best Italian deli on this side of town. The menu is pretty lively: The tripe soup has nice snap; there’s always a fresh batch of rice balls; a tang-tastic variety of antipasto salads (try the sweet peppers with the marinated mushrooms); garlicky garlic knots and classic New York pizza (thin, crisp and ready to fold); and a great sandwich in “Donnie’s Special” (chicken cutlet, peppers, fresh mozzarella and sweet vinegar. The fact that it doubles as a grocer for a variety of meats, cheeses and olives makes it feel like a little piece of Brooklyn. 4550 S. Maryland Parkway, 895-7561.

Freakin’ Frog. If you’ve always envisioned a university bar with a delirious variety of ales (have you had a Black Butte Porter of late?), a knack for booking good bands who are accommodated with some decent floor space and a bar staff serving you wonderful beers and whiskies with unpretentious good cheer, then congrats! The Freakin’ Frog is your new home. The crowd is straight out of central casting: pseudo-bohemians, skate punks, frat kids, white-collar suits and disillusioned barflies—they all have a reason for calling the Freakin’ Frog a haven. 4700 S. Maryland Parkway, 597-9702,

Aloha Kitchen. The cheerful minimalism here is a gas. The decor refreshingly lacks the usual tiki trappings and ceramic dolls in hula skirts that you tend to find in such an eatery. But the real attraction here is the food. The excellent Hawaiian dishes at this mini chain (there are now three in town) include the kalua pig (roasted, shredded and served on a bed of cabbage) and the terrific lumpia shanghai (Filipino egg rolls stuffed with ground pork, chopped onions and minced carrots). Be prepared for a lunch crowd packed with UNLV students and staff, but the upside is that you can always befriend someone in line while waiting for your sesame soy chicken salad. 4745 S. Maryland Parkway, 895-9444,