A Taste for the Understated

Several remedies for all that ails you near UMC

Photo by Anthony MairBetty McIntosh serves fresh coffee at the Omlette House.

Photo by Anthony MairThe Omlet House.

I’ll say it proudly. I’m a fan of low-key strip malls. After all, for so much modern progression around them, they’ve proven their staying power. In a (very) circuitous way, they bring out the Las Vegas historian in me. The best of their kind have an element of community support and are offbeat and inspired enough to handle the modern chains, and they also give you a taste of the commercial and cultural clusters of Las Vegas long ago.

I won’t snicker at suburbians who have grown accustomed to Vons, Blockbuster and Starbucks—those are their choices, but I am appealing to some who find comfort in small businesses where locals have been frequenting for a time: the tattoo shop, comic book store, psychic crystal shop or third-world cuisine. Why? Because they offer an unpredictability and difference that can lead to some interesting stories for you.

One of my favorite old strip mall scenes lies along a few blocks on Charleston Boulevard between Rancho Drive and Shadow Lane. It’s near UMC, and so many medical personnel frequent the eateries there that you’ll feel like an extra on Scrubs. This little pocket of commerce in the 40-year-old district is wonderfully studded with nondescript, repurposed buildings, awkward parking lots, and shops with unassuming signs highlighted by very low-wattage bulbs. And that’s the key to my admiration: the low-key strip mall taunts you to peel back the layers and find the prizes. Here are a few hidden gems:

Omelet House. Tourists take note, this isn’t a far trek from the Strip so if you want to delve into one of the city’s best breakfast spots, by all means, the tables are waiting for you. It’s located at the Galleria Mini-Mall (would I make that up?), just off Rancho. Parking can be tight, but I still suggest you stop here. As you’d guess, the omelets are an art of their own, and I’ve made no secret of my love of the Bugsy Siegel (roast beef, jack cheese and sour cream). But lunch is also an option with the Pilgrim (grilled turkey breast, bacon, and jack cheese) as a popular highlight. It’s 32 years now and they are still in business; stop by and find out why. 2160 W. Charleston Blvd., 384-6868, OmeletHouse.net.

Mix Zone Café. Located just across the aforementioned Omelet House in a quiet, open-faced strip mall is this beauty. For some genuinely first-rate Thai food that is both flavorful and delicate, Mix Zone achieves its aim. So many spices that hit various parts of the palette are here. The garlic chicken and mint fried rice are excellent ideas, but the tom yum (hot, sour soup consisting of mushroom, lemongrass, tomato and lime juice) is just boss. Prompt service and an easy vibe to the place only enhance the assets. 2202 W. Charleston Blvd., 388-0708, MixZoneCafe.com.

Frankie’s Tiki Room. If you’re in town and you need your dose of Tiki-influenced South Pacific exotica. I recommend this place. It’s easy to find. It’s a free-standing, whitely saturated reality on the corner of Charleston and Shadow Lane (the slogan “the happiest place on earth” facing the street will surely help). Once you go inside, you’ll mix with some of the more intriguing individuals in the city. They know why they are here: the good rum drinks; the well-natured insistence of surf guitar easing through the place; the faintly lit table-top candles that give it a rich essence; and the tiki touches that don’t stray to overkill. This is not just pastiche, but smart, well-executed milieu, and that’s a difference. 1712 W. Charleston Blvd., 385-3110, FrankiesTikiToom.com.

Real Donuts. Blink, and you might miss it as you rush down Charleston for the freeway. This one is facing right at you, and a traffic jam years ago is what had me pull into the lot and head inside. If you need a tonic from the banal doughnut chains, Real Donuts will do you a world of good. A terrific stop for snackables (i.e., no utensils). Cinnamon rolls and twists are decadent favorites. Hey, it has Thrifty-brand ice cream! If that doesn’t do the trick, then you are beyond hope. Not much seating capacity here so do what I do—sit on the sidewalk and feed the pigeons. They tend to go for maple twists. 1811 W. Charleston Blvd., 388-9958.