Vegas can’t pony up regional ’cue like the hickory-smoked ribs you get at Arthur Bryant’s in Kansas City, or the cumin-spiked brisket of City Market in the Texas Hill Country.
But we still have our merits as a ’cue town: Memphis Championship Barbecue (three locations, Memphis-BBQ.com) when award-winning pit master Mike Mills is here, and there’s decent barbecue on Strip buffets including the meats at Cravings in The Mirage, which uses a J&R Oyler smoking box for their ribs.
Barbecue—for the record—is the opposite of grilling. Meats must be slow cooked, which is why I’ve excluded Korean barbecue, which is done quickly on metal braziers.
My current ’cue obsession are the rib tips at Buzz BBQ (three locations, BuzzBBQ.com), although nothing to make me forget the Burnt Ends (beef brisket, not pork) for which I drove 500 miles to the legendary Arthur Bryant’s in Kansas City, but as good as any barbecue dish in Vegas. These rib tips are blackened, tender, beautifully scented with smoke and oinky perfumes and swathed in red sauce. They use hickory at Buzz BBQ, my favorite cooking wood, so I may be biased. Chicken and brisket are also reliable here, but neither will stoke anyone’s imagination.
TC’s The Rib Crib (8470 W. Desert Inn Road, 451-7427) is a family-run establishment that slow-smokes meats using a number of hardwoods. The ribs and surprisingly moist chicken are the menu stars. I was disappointed by the brisket, though. It seems no one in town really lets a brisket cook long enough to actually be tender, and that includes the so-called Jewish delis. But TC’s has terrific sides such as Big Sam’s richly flavored baked beans, and irresistible house-made desserts such as glazed-doughnut bread pudding. On Fridays they do a mean catfish, and on weekends, breakfast items such as chicken and waffles are served all day.
The most tender, fragrant, best rib I’ve ever tasted in Vegas comes from this modest butcher shop in a converted house in North Las Vegas. Chuck Frommer, the owner and pit man at John Mull Meats (3730 Thom Blvd., 645-1200) uses a magical dry rub, and makes killer red barbecue sauce, which he sells in bottle. But there’s a catch: This isn’t a restaurant, although they do catering for parties of 30 or more at $16 per person. Frommer sells all kinds of meats, and makes a wonderful, all-natural beef jerky. His wood is red oak, which imparts penetrating, complex flavors. The mac ’n’ cheese is incredible.
The most persistent form of Mexican ’cue available here is adobada (Spanish for “marinated”), which in this case is spiced pork slow-roasted on a spit. And you won’t have to shell out much for it at Tacos El Gordo (1274 Charleston Blvd., 251-8226), an odd ochre building with a huge spit twirling behind the order counter. A taco can be had for $2. After ordering, a carver slices the meat in chunks, alternating it with crackling skin, then layers the bounty into a taco. The next steps are slathering it with creamy sauce and topping it all off with yellow chili and roasted green onions. Ten dollars buys a platter on a mountain of fries, enough for four hungry diners.
I’ve been eating lots of meals lately at a small local chain called Ohana Hawaiian BBQ (four locations, OhanaHiBBQ.com). This is the best Hawaiian chain in town. On the Islands, meats are slow cooked, often in ovens or firepits, especially kalua pork, the Pacific version of pulled pork done expertly here. Teriyaki-glazed chicken is also good, and so are Korean-style short ribs, redolent of garlic and sesame oil—although, technically, this is what you’d call a grilled meat. Scoops of rice and macaroni salad come with dinners. For kama’aina, (and you know who you are) those nori-wrapped clumps of rice with Spam or Portuguese sausage, called musubi, aren’t half bad.