If the Strip is for tourists, Downtown is for locals. Once-limited, Downtown’s dining options seem to be expanding like the universe, thanks to new entries such as Joe Vicari’s Andiamo at the D, Park on Fremont, Mingo Kitchen & Lounge and the newly minted La Comida—Michael and Jenna Morton’s upscale Mexican joint that ups the ante for quality and, some would say, price point.
Actually, it’s quite a bit more than merely a Mexican joint. The Mortons, who own the wine bar La Cave at the Wynn, treated this project as more of a labor of love than a business venture, taking a relic of a building that had been vacant for decades and turning it into an iconic space Downtown Las Vegas can take pride in.
Designer Karen Herold worked with the Mortons to find the antique tiles from Mexico that surround the restaurant’s chic zinc bar, Mexican wallpaper that partially covers the bricks that line the walls, reclaimed butcher-block tables and ingenious plastic chairs of the Target genus wrapped tightly in dark leather.
The Day of the Dead nicho over the open kitchen adds an element of the bizarre, as does a 7-foot neon monkey hanging from the outside rooftop. Be prepared to sit in close proximity to people you don’t know. Apparently, the Morton’s intention was to turn Downtown into a big party.
Those parties often begin with cocktails, and the signatures at La Comida are fresh-fruit margaritas based on tropical fruit purees such as guava, passion fruit, prickly pear and pomegranate—blended with appropriate quantities of tequila, of course. Premium tequila is another temptation here. Feel like a flight of El Millionario? Pop out a modest $235.
You pay considerably less for what you eat here, although I’ve heard a few people grumble that prices are on the high side for Downtown. I disagree. The food is terrific, even if the Mortons and their chefs, Pablo Sanchez-Ortiz and Billy DeMarco (who mans the stoves at La Cave), consciously softened some of the funkier dishes Mexico has to offer, tempering the heat and leaving the organ meats at the butcher.
Start with romana a la parilla, grilled romaine lettuce with the genius addition of smoked chorizo sausage, cotija cheese and roasted pepper vinaigrette. Another good option is elotes asados, Mexican-style street corn on the cob slathered with chile-lime butter and more cotija. Wear a sweatshirt, or bring a bib.
Sanchez-Ortiz is from Michoacán, a state in Central Mexico, but his dishes are all over the map. Pollo al horno is from Yucatán—oven-roasted chicken smeared with an achiote (annatto seed) paste that gives it a deep orange color and a sweet, indefinable flavor I personally crave. Perhaps the best entrée is puerco ahumado, smoked pork marinated in four different chilis, adobado-style, like diner food in New Mexico but minus the heat.
I’d come back for Sunday brunch just to eat the best huevos rancheros in the city, but I found the ceviche de camaron, served in a moss-green sauce, lacking in flavor. I’d also like a little more flavor in the guacamole, presented in a three-legged stone dish known as a molcajete, and more body in the bland house salsa. But these are minor complaints from a menu that generally soars to surprising heights.
If you fancy a sweet, the tres leches cake here is correct and irresistible, not drowned in sauce, but firm, moist and rich, topped with whipped cream and strawberries.
Downtown as Foodie Central? Pinch me.
100 Sixth St., 463-9900. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sun-Thu, 11 a.m.-“late” Fri-Sat. Dinner for two, $45-$69.