It’s taken me a little while to get around to reviewing Desnudo Tacos, not because I haven’t been excited about the restaurant, but because I wanted to let some time pass after my last review. You see, the last time I wrote about the place (in another publication), the restaurant was still a work in progress. In fact, it hadn’t opened its doors. Rather, the partners were experimenting with the menu at a series of Tuesday-night dinners next door in sister restaurant, Naked City Pizza.
Desnudo (which means naked in Spanish) is a collaboration between two local culinary up-and-comers, Chris Palmeri and Christian Dolias. Palmeri served as executive chef in MGM Grand’s high-end Mexican restaurant Diego before abandoning the corporate world to open a hot dog stand, then a sandwich shop and eventually Naked City Pizza in the west-side dive bar Moon Doggies. While at Diego, Palmeri worked with consulting chef Rick Bayless—arguably America’s finest chef of Mexican cuisine. The heavily tattooed Dolias burst onto the scene a few years ago as the founder of the underground cooking collective CutThroat Culinary. He’s a self-taught cook who developed his love of Mexican street food while living in Southern California.
Those familiar with Naked City and Moon Doggies may be surprised by the upscale quality of Desnudo’s décor. Outfitted in red and black, paintings of skeletons and skulls provide a Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) theme. There are large communal tables as well as smaller high-tops.
The printed menu is brief, but varied. It’s really just a handful of soups, ceviche, salads, tacos, tortas and burritos. But the chefs also create some pretty interesting daily specials, including recent offerings such as Canadian honey mussels steamed in spicy tomato broth and salmon Veracruzana.
You don’t have to look to the fancier plates to understand why this place is so popular: Dolias pays attention to the smallest details, such as creating a rotating assortment of unforgettable rice and bean side dishes (when was the last time you raved about the rice or beans in a Mexican restaurant?), and spicing his freshly made guacamole with everything from crumbled blue cheese and bacon to toasted pumpkin seeds. About the only things not made in-house are the tortillas, but they are brought in fresh every morning from a local supplier.
I’ve had nearly all of the half dozen tacos on the menu, and have never been disappointed.But the standouts have been the chivo and the pollo. The first is slow-braised goat cooked with chilies, avocado leaf, banana leaf, onion, cilantro and radish in a way that highlights its gamey nature (unlike so many American restaurants, which choose to conceal it). The chicken, on the other hand, is slow-cooked to make it tender and juicy, and it’s mildly flavored with a green pumpkin-seed sauce and a house-made lime queso fresco.
Among the burritos (all of which can be ordered “enchilada style,” or covered with sauce and cheese, for an extra two bucks), you’ll find a chicken version and a Cali Burrito made with skirt steak and french fries. But the burrito de machaca—made with braised beef, bell peppers and eggs—is the most interesting. I liked an early version that was a bit bolder than the most recent one I tasted, but both were delicious.
In all other ways, Desnudo’s cuisine gets better every time I try it. Any minor complaints in my first review (among them, awkward serving vessels and an occasional order of stale tortilla chips) seem to be things of the past—although I’m still not overwhelmed by the chips.
Given the overall quality of Mexican restaurants in Las Vegas, however, Desnudo already stands out as one of the city’s best, and manages to do so for a reasonable price.
3240 Arville St., 982-6435. Open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sun., Dinner for two, $25-40.