Brush off those flip-flops and prepare for an offbeat dining adventure. Downtown Las Vegas is ripe territory for low-key dining and drinking, where we found incredible eats at the area’s Latin food huts.
Most are parked on private lots, and all have good drinks to be had in the vicinity. Casual attire is almost always required, and there’s low overhead (the ample outdoor seating is to be shared with the pigeons). Whether a wheel-less trailer on cinder blocks or what looks like the remnants of an old filling station kiosk, these grub shacks share captivating consistencies: a penchant for delivering something flavorful and a place to soak in the atmosphere such as the sound of an ambulance siren or the sight of a tow truck whizzing by. OK, maybe not entirely that exciting, but you get the idea.
Located just off Eighth and Fremont streets, this truck affair wears its no-frills badge with honor: just a few tables and little fanfare, save for the food. The double-layered chili relleno and steak burrito (just $5) are dutifully stuffed and will anchor you down halfway through the first bite. Better still, this place does good “gringo food” (hey, the cook said it first), such as a heady grilled cheese and a BLT that benefits from the proffered salsa bar. 800 Fremont St., 461-2950.
Tacos El Gordo
It’s the aromas you’ll encounter before you even get a chance to peek your head through the truck window and see their sources. A haven for quick, easy finger foods, the pork carnitas tacos and grilled steak tortas are standouts. And, at last, the search is over for a good $2 tamale that is flavorful and not gummy. A well-stocked salsa bar is a must with these places, and El Gordo is no exception with pickled radishes and finely cut onions to throw into the mix. There is a great vibe out here, too, with the occasional radio blaring rock en Español for the people eating on the curb or leaning against a stop sign while woofing down the goods. You can hang out here for hours without scrutiny, and—given that they close at 4 a.m. on the weekends—many do. 1724 E. Charleston Blvd., 251-8226.
The Huntridge Tavern
Truly the last of a brilliant and fading breed, the Huntridge is a tavern that fell straight out of a John Steinbeck novel. Open 55 years and still battling on like a cramping marathon runner, the attraction here is that its charm isn’t contrived. This is truly a hangout for everyone: Bikers, musicians, retired casino workers and the curious onlookers are all involved in liquid egalitarianism—$20 could easily cover a few with a companion. Set against a stark and dimly lit backdrop, the cheap well drinks rarely fail to be interesting. 1122 E. Charleston Blvd., 384-7377.
I ♥ Arepas
It’s easy to drive by this one if you’re shooting up Las Vegas Boulevard, but it won’t be so obscure for long; there’s just too much being offered. A mere kiosk in the Dino’s Lounge parking lot, this is the place for Venezuelan food, and it’s stylish fare. Arepas, or flat, circular cornmeal patties grilled to give ’em some crunch on the outside, are stuffed with a variety of things to make you happy. Whether it’s the popular perico (breakfast), with eggs, spicy sausage, diced tomatoes and onions; a pork butt arepa that hits salt cravings in all the right places; or the zesty and flavorful garlic ceviche, they’ve got you covered. Also worth noting is the phenomenal hallaca. This is the “kitchen sink” item with beef, pork, chicken and vegetables all wrapped in cornmeal dough and plantain leaves, tied with string and boiled. The result is an astonishing balance of good flavors. 1516 Las Vegas Blvd. South, 366-9696, ILoveArepasLV.com.
Well, if I ♥ Love Arepas is located right in front of Dino’s Lounge, then by all good sense, you should head in there. I’ve always admired Dino’s ability to balance the old and the new. More than 50 years in the game, Dino’s welcomes tourists with affordable drafts, cheap billiards and raucous Friday night karaoke, and all without feeling the need to overhaul the place with any cosmetic surgery or alienating the locals. That’s a tough trick. Charismatic barflies stand tall when people mention Dino’s; feel free to do the same. 1516 Las Vegas Blvd. South, 382-3894.