Chasing Fireflies

John Simmons goes for the hat trick with the latest installment of his locals-favorite tapas joint

It is 6 o’clock on a balmy Friday evening, and there’s an overflow crowd at the new Firefly near Anthem. The restaurant specializes in tapas, defined on its business card as “various small, savory dishes served as a snack or meal with beer, wine or sangria,” and everyone, it seems, is having the bacon-wrapped dates. Hey, we’re in the desert.

This Firefly—the third, in addition to the original on Paradise Road and a second on West Sahara Avenue, but not counting one Simmons briefly operated downtown at the Plaza—occupies a labyrinthine second-floor space on Eastern Avenue, with four small dining rooms and a patio.

Max’s Menu Picks

Firefly fish sticks, $6.50.

Ham and cheese croquettes, $5.

Thai beef salad, $6.50.

Mixed paella, $24.

This was at one time a steak house, and before that, an Italian restaurant, but owner John Simmons may have finally hit the mark in this tough location. He’s been tweaking this concept ever since he opened Firefly nine years back, originally conceived as a hangout for chefs to dine afterhours. And he’s improved the product steadily, if you don’t count a brief and unsuccessful flirtation with an Asian spinoff joined at the hip to the original restaurant.

After a 15-minute wait for a table, we are seated by the window in a room next to the bar facing three paintings with a Spanish flamenco dancer in various poses, her head turned. Thin slices of bread, Spanish green olives and a nice paprika-almond-honey butter are proffered.

My guests and I pretend we’re in Barcelona, and tell the waiter to start our paella, since the menu tells us there is a 40-minute wait for one, and to bring us a pitcher of red sangria. The wine, iced and fruity, is pleasant, with chunks of apple and sliced fresh orange bobbing to the top.

Our first cold tapa, a house chicken salad with grapes, almonds and a creamy cider dressing, has too much of what I’m told is mayonnaise. I push it aside. But then the hot tapas arrive, and all are reasonably good, except for the bland Padrón peppers, which need seasoning.

Thai beef salad is especially good and—not Thai in the least—is redolent of sesame oil, and tasting Korean, if anything being mainly lettuce, tomato and slabs of thinly pounded, seared beef. Firefly fish sticks, two huge filets of tilapia lightly breaded with panko breadcrumbs accompanied by the spicy house tartar sauce, is a bargain at $6.50. The dish is almost the size of the outrageously priced fish and chips I had at Gordon Ramsay Steak a few weeks back ($44, minus the chips, here.)

There isn’t much new here, though the fish sticks and baked tetilla (a cheese fondue studded with chorizo and tomato, served in a small casserole dish) came after the original menu was developed.

Ham-and-cheese croquettes, a pair of fried cylinders, ooze Manchego when cut open, and are quite good, although I’d prefer that the taste of ham was more apparent. After a few dishes are mistakenly brought to our table (and sent back), the paella arrives. In fact, it’s been closer to an hour, but we aren’t in a mood to complain. Considering the price, the size and the quality, we’re very happy. This is the best neighborhood-joint paella in the city.

We chose mixed paella, Atasca rice with a crusty top (called socorrat in Valencia, Spain, where paella originated), lots of clams, mussels, shrimp and chicken, plus chorizo, peppers and tomatoes, and it’s far more than we can eat. OK, you can’t really taste much saffron, but at $24, it’s a fair deal.

Dessert is warm chocolate and cherry bread pudding, and so what if the vanilla ice cream topping has freezer burn? Maybe next time, we’ll get the bacon-wrapped dates for dessert instead. Simmons has taken a sophisticated European mode of dining and gone mainstream with it, but with this Henderson restaurant, has probably exhausted his reasonable options.

Three’s the charm, if you don’t count that one downtown.

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