Gazing at the sweeping white-brick Moorish archways and 3,000 pounds of chainsaw art, with panels depicting the Mayan creation story and figures in the style of El Dia de los Muertos (Mexico’s Day of the Dead), one cannot be less than impressed with Javier’s, the newest member of the restaurant family at Aria. If you stay to eat, though, you’ll likely leave with a very different impression.
Here’s the rub: Given the roster of high-profile Mexican chefs working with MGM Resorts International—including TV’s chef Aaron Sanchez, who consults at House of Blues, and the Too Hot Tamales from Border Grill—I have to ask myself repeatedly, in Jay Leno’s words, “What the hell were they thinking?”
Aria has an impressive collection of chefs and restaurants: Shawn McClain’s Sage, Julian Serrano and Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s eponymous spots, and Masa Takayama’s Bar Masa being a few. Javier’s, the first Mexican restaurant to open here, simply doesn’t belong in that company. It is part of an Orange County, Calif., chain with a restaurant in Cabo Azul, Mexico, and the food is stunningly below average and absurdly overpriced.
I understand the appeal of Javier’s in Newport Beach’s Crystal Cove. That location has a devoted clientele and serves as a social club for the notorious one percent who gather for margaritas and to flash their tans, BMWs and Rolexes.
But Las Vegas is supposed to appeal to a broader spectrum, and paying $50 for carne asada—a tepid, tough steak paired with a stuffed chile and (admittedly delicious) refried black beans—will leave any discerning consumer shaking his head in disbelief.
That’s not to say there is no upside. This is a completely beautiful place, from the black leather banquette seating to the sequestered, candlelit booths and white ropes framing the entrance. The staff is mostly bilingual; on both of my visits, I heard Spanish being spoken not only by the servers, but by many of the customers.
Service is speedy, solicitous and efficient, performed by a team of handsome young men clad in smart white shirts with matching ties, sans vest or jacket. The salsa tomata trumps the bland house salsa that arrives with a warm basket of chips. And beware the pale yellow habanero salsa. It’s a killer.
So are the prices. Paradoxically, the dish I liked best here was the least expensive, a plate of three crisp chicken taquitos for $10, drizzled with guacamole and sour cream. For chile rellenos fans, rellenos de picadillo (two chiles stuffed with ground beef instead of the usual cheese) are a good option. At $22, they are one of the least expensive main menu items. I liked the dish, but my wife thought the filling tasted like Hamburger Helper. Just sayin’.
Appetizers can be ceviches, (marinated seafood such as fish, shrimp or octopus). For $2 extra, the ceviche trio combines all three. The dish needed more lime juice, or at least another component to add more flavor. But it wasn’t bad.
Queso fundido, a melted cheese dip, however, had an almost undetectable amount of chorizo and was greasy to the point of being inedible, while salpicon, a salad of cabbage and shredded beef, had no taste whatsoever. The chipotle, garlic and avocado—ordinary components of a traditional salpicon—had apparently gone missing.
There are a few bright spots. Camarones poblanos (huge, fresh Mexican prawns in a creamy pasilla chile sauce) are excellent, and pescado al a Veracruzana (in this case, a nice chunk of halibut with tomato, onion and olives) would have been great if the kitchen hadn’t been so stingy with the sauce.
Pass on the gummy flan for dessert. In fact, pass altogether.