Why Everyone Who Visits Vegas Needs to Visit Our Chinatown
Walk through the lobby of any big resort on the Las Vegas Strip and you'll see an aggressive onslaught of restaurants -- some incredible, some celebrity-driven, and some desperately overhyped. Most carry the same purpose: to make dinner feel like an event, something to pair with the noisy slots, neon marquees, and casino party hosts promising access "on the list" to the latest nightclubs
But most of Vegas doesn't actually look like that, and sometimes you want to enjoy a meal without the noise. In case you haven't heard, the food scene in Vegas is having a moment. And the center of the action isn't in casinos -- it's in Chinatown.
A short drive from the Strip down Spring Mountain Road will put you in Chinatown, a different kind of Las Vegas, where you can find mouth-watering meals across a variety of cuisines -- Chinese, yes, but also Korean, Japanese, and even French or Spanish -- usually for cheaper rates and less pretense.
Compared to the Strip, Chinatown is strictly business, no spectacle: a sea of strip malls and shopping plazas past the hump of Interstate 15. There isn't much in the way of parks, patios, or promenades. The absence of hotels, casinos, and easy parking differentiate it from almost every other corner of the city. You'll notice a ton of foot spas and massage parlors, but the identity of the district is increasingly defined by something else: its dining scene. Chinatown is home to about 150 restaurants, ranging from the very traditional to the experimental, with new openings popping up in recent years, like the inventive Sparrow + Wolf, Shanghai-influenced Niu Gu, and Yui Edomae Sushi -- home to the best sushi in Vegas.
"A lot of restaurants open, a lot of restaurants close," says Jimmy Li, owner and chef of Niu Gu. "You've got to have real skill" to keep up with the competition.
Chinese people have always been a part of Las Vegas -- and with them, Chinese food. "When Las Vegas was founded, the Chinese knew their services in restaurants and laundries would be needed, so they quickly opened those businesses," says Sue Fawn Chung, a professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas who specializes in Chinese and Asian-American history.
An early Fremont Street version of Chinatown emerged on the west side of Downtown during the World War II era, lingering for years without making much of an impact. "It was anchored by grocery stores, restaurants, and small shops, but was not successful," says Chung. "Las Vegas' Chinatown was unusual because it was primarily a business center, not a residential and business area."
The Spring Mountain version of Chinatown we know today was born in the mid-'90s with the creation of Chinatown Plaza -- a shopping center built by a Taiwanese-American investment group led by James Chih-Cheng Chen as a hub to serve Asian locals and visitors. "I see so many Asian tourists here, but I see no Asian business people," Chen told The Los Angeles Times in 1996. "I dreamed of a place to serve food to Chinese people."
The district was in the perfect location -- between the Strip and its trend in the '90s of "family-friendly" resort tourism and a growing number of desert home communities in the west valley. "When James Chen started the Chinatown on Spring Mountain, he anchored it with [the Asian grocery store] 99 Ranch Market, shops, and restaurants, and drew the larger community in with special events like celebrating Chinese New Year (and) the Autumn Moon Festival," adds Chung.
The borders of Chinatown aren't firmly defined, although there's a push for constructing a Dragon Gate to make things a little more official. First-time tourists often make the mistake of beginning and ending their visit at Chinatown Plaza, while failing to explore the arteries of crowded parking lots that frame nearly three miles of Spring Mountain between Interstate 15 and Jones Boulevard. Take time to walk the district and you'll discover a variety of cuisine -- like hot pot restaurant Chubby Cattle, the high-end Spanish tapas house EDO, and the Vietnamese spot District One where you can get Instagram-famous lobster pho. Much of Chinatown's food is served inside intimate establishments that invest more in kitchen ingredients than dining room furnishings.
That's a key difference between restaurants on the Strip and restaurants in Chinatown. While typical Strip menus serve up the usual suspects -- Caesar salad, poke, avocado toast -- the chefs and owners behind Chinatown's lineup of restaurants don't answer to any hotel management committees. That makes for a competitive environment where skill and creativity are equally in demand.
"I dreamed of a place to serve food to Chinese people."
"We don't waste anything," says Chef Brian Howard, who chose to open Sparrow + Wolf in Chinatown after spending years working at restaurants on the Strip. His restaurant serves up lasagna made with miso and hot potato made with Sichuan peppercorns. "If I'm going to serve pork brain or lamb tongue, it's going to be accepted, whereas on the Strip or in another neighborhood, people might shy away from that."
There are so many restaurants to explore in Chinatown, it's hard to narrow the list down to just a few top choices, but we'll try anyway. Chinatown's many wonders cater to a spectrum of tastes and budgets, and these days, more tourists looking to "do what the locals do" take advantage of the recent trend of ride-sharing options at Strip resorts, meaning it's easier than ever to sample the tastes of Chinatown. The neighborhood has tracked that shift.
"Fewer people are asking, 'Which casino is Chinatown in?'" says Joe Muscaglione, a longtime Chinatown investor and community advocate. "A couple companies are even trying to do bus lines from the hotels to Spring Mountain."
It's past time you got off the Strip and checked these places out for yourself. Bring your appetite and cross the following restaurants off your list while exploring the diversity of what our Chinatown has to offer.
Regional Chinese favorites represented within a diverse menu
China Mama sports a new look these days, thanks to recent renovations, but the menu is as comprehensive as ever -- maybe even a little overwhelming. The restaurant aims to cover every region of China, from the north where noodles are popular, to the south where dishes tend to be more rice-focused. Its dumplings remain a big draw, especially for the lunch crowd, while the Szechuan flavors of the spicy boiled cod in chilli sauce and the tea-smoked duck are attractive as hearty dinner options.
The spot for Japanese small plates and robata grill
More than 10 years ago, Raku introduced a new level of destination dining for Spring Mountain Road, making it one of the most important restaurants in town. Choose your fresh fish and have parts of it grilled, fried, or prepared as sashimi. Or stick with small bites roasted over charcoal on the robata grill. Even the condiments are given a personal touch, including the Japanese plum soy sauce and a green tea/seaweed/shiitake/sea salt combo, all made in-house. Extensions of the brand include Raku Sweets, an intimate spot for desserts and light bites in the same plaza and Aburiya Raku, which is considered one of the best Japanese restaurants in LA.
Traditional Chinese street food, noodles, and small plates
Chef Jimmy Li puts a modern but affordable twist on traditional Chinese cuisine in a small family-oriented restaurant. Niu Gu built its reputation on its noodles and short rib (always braised for a minimum of six hours), but that's just scratching the surface. Soup dumplings are handmade -- never frozen -- with anywhere from 12 to 18 twists at the top. Feel free to count 'em if you like. Bite the top, let out the steam, and suck out the filling before finishing them off. Shanghai noodles are simmered for six hours before being cooled off and served cold while dry pots are brought to the table to heat dishes on the spot without water. However, the simplest dish could be the one to eventually get the most attention: jianbing. It's like a Chinese crepe stuffed with meat, potatoes, and scallions -- but it goes down very light.
Reimagined Spanish tapas with imported ingredients
Here's a great example of Chinatown's diversity. Barcelona chef Oscar Amador Edo and partner Roberto Liendo did their own thing with the Boqueria Street food truck before opening EDO in late 2018. And to clear up the confusion, it's pronounced "ee-dee-oh," which is a play on the chef's name as well as the phrase "extra day off." The menu is based on traditional Spanish cuisine like acorn-fed Iberico pork, paella, and cheese plates, but the selection of tapas is always changing based on an ambitious sense of experimentation. Regular favorites include the tamarind octopus and salmon montadito with truffled cream cheese. A 10-course tasting menu is a great value for $45 and can be modified to accommodate allergies and preferences. While the restaurant is too small for a full bar, drinks are served from a craft cocktail cart and the wine list features uncommon, affordable labels.
Traditional Vietnamese taken in a new, modern direction
Chef Khai Vu takes the cuisine of his Vietnamese heritage and transforms it into something completely new. The Lobster Pho is the photogenic dish that put District One on the map, prepared with a whole Maine lobster (flown in fresh every two days) peeking out of a flavorful vegetable broth. Other highlights include the oxtail fried rice and the yellowtail tacos with guacamole. Everything is served inside an ultra-contemporary dining room that quickly stands apart from the crowded field of competing restaurants in the Mountain View Plaza.
Korean barbecue in elevated contemporary surroundings
Think of 8 oz. as a high-end spin on traditional Korean barbeque. The menu is organized by choice of meat and number of people in your party -- prepared at your table by a server during dinner hours. Lunch is more informal and self-service. The deals during the late-night reverse happy hour are incredibly good, running Monday-Thursday 10pm-2am. The semi-industrial modern dining room of brick and wood is a striking departure from what you'll typically find in the area. Throw in the interactive meal prep and it becomes one of the best date spots in Chinatown.
A variety of spicy Szechuan dishes in a no-frills setting
Chengdu Taste makes a point to take the mystery out of its in-your-face, numb-your-tongue Szechuan-style spiciness. The 30-page menu is full of big photos with heat-level illustrated by the number of peppers next to each dish. Anyone who seems remotely apprehensive is immediately directed to the Toothpick Lamb with Cumin, a safe choice with a modest one-pepper ranking. Cuts of lightly fried meat hang off toothpicks like mini-shish kabobs, eliminating the need for chopsticks. Save those for the bowls of hot beef, chicken, or squid in hot sauce.
Intimate restaurant where sushi is prepared with elegance and precision
If you can only choose one restaurant in Las Vegas for sushi -- and money is no object -- this is your place. Chef Gen Mizoguchi, who refined his craft at the similarly awesome Kabuto, treats his creations like a work-of-art, presenting omakase packages that range from $68 to $210 per person. The environment is no-frills and seating is limited, but that's part of the charm. The focus is strictly on ingredients, ranging from fresh seafood flown in daily from Japan to lightly grilled A5 Miyazaki wagyu. Nothing is buried in sauces or heavy seasonings. It's all about sourcing, preparation, and natural textures.
A new take on French fine dining with fun tableside presentations
Chef Yuri Szarzewski and the team from Eatt took their game up a notch with the opening of Partage in 2018. The restaurant serves French-inspired cuisine in a semi-fine dining setting. Dinner is served in five, seven, or nine-course tasting menus -- often beginning with creamy soups and winding down with a cheese course before dessert. In between, expect inventive dishes of seafood, foie gras, and smoked wagyu. If you prefer to choose-your-own-adventure like Bandersnatch, large and small plates can be ordered a la carte. Regardless, you're getting a full overall experience, heavy on tableside presentations, and a great value for the money spent.
Wine bar with imaginative global cuisine
Hotshot chef Khai Vu's latest of three Las Vegas restaurants is a wine bar with food that takes inspiration from Europe, Asia, and South America. Keep things simple with slices of fresh-cut Iberico or the creamy, sweet La Tur cheese blend or go big with whole fish specials and off-menu steaks. The restaurant is dominated by a large bar in the center of the dining room, although you can also sit at a small collection of tables near the window or a chef's table near the kitchen. Managing Partner Luis de Santo is also the restaurant's master sommelier, ready to guide guests through a global wine lineup as well as sake and house-made sangria.
Affordable Korean street food in a nerdy atmosphere
For those who love Korean street food, but want to skip the whole BBQ thing, Si-Jang is a welcome alternative with affordable prices. The restaurant is a charming mix of brick and wood, decorated with street signs, comic book covers, and faux telephone wires. The food is heavy on soups and tender proteins (chicken, squid, braised beef) with banchan: servings of pickled and marinated vegetables on the side. Mix it all together with rice or just pick at different things as you go along.
Evolving mixture of cuisines taking full advantage of a wood-burning grill
After making a splash as one of the Las Vegas’ best new restaurants of 2017, Sparrow + Wolf remains an experiment in constant evolution. Chef Brian Howard estimates he saw about 70 dishes rotate through his menu during the restaurant's first 20 months, and continues to mix things up while putting his wood-fired grill to surprising uses -- like the dry-aged BBQ Porterhouse, made with a Japanese-style Koji rub. Customer favorites, including the beef cheek and bone marrow dumplings or miso and lamb lasagna, tend to come and go with a comfortable degree of consistency. They'll be back before you know it. Recent renovations saw the addition of 50 new seats, a private dining room, and a new entrance redesigned with a warm living room feel. (Just wipe off your feet before stepping on the shag carpet.)
Chinatown's answer to a traditional Italian restaurant
A taste of Italy in Chinatown? Don't call Trattoria Nakamura-Ya fusion. Rather, just think of it as the kind of Italian restaurant you'd find in the middle of Tokyo. The pastas are the perfect level of al dente, including the carbonara, which uses miso in place of egg, or the spaghetti and clams, which rival versions that cost twice as much on the Strip. If you need more recommendations, check out the "Big Ten" list of popular dishes on the wall. You can't go wrong with the sea urchin linguine with tomato cream sauce or the spaghetti with squid ink. The restaurant is small with simple decor, but is a nice change of pace, especially during the daily lunch deals.
Hot pots with exceptional ingredients delivered by conveyor belt
At first glance, Chubby Cattle seems like a cheap all-you-can-eat concept, but it's really much more. Customers pick ingredients from a conveyor belt that travels around the dining room and mix them into their own simmering hot pots. Think of it as a combo of Chinese cuisine and Japanese technology. The conveyor belt is actually covered and temperature controlled -- kinda like a roving refrigerator that keeps food fresh from the moment it's prepped to when it arrives at the table. It's totally a gimmick, but it works on the strength of the ingredients, including Miyazaki A5 Wagyu beef and organic grass-fed Dorper lamb. Chubby Cattle got its start in Vegas, but has since expanded to Denver, Dallas, and Philadelphia.
Go-to spot for tender, flavorful ramen in Las Vegas
This tiny noodle house is cozy, crazy busy, and has what could be the best ramen in Las Vegas. It takes 12 hours each day to make the pork broth, and it's worth every minute. (According to legend, a full pig's head is soaked inside it for a full gelatinous effect.) Eager to try it for yourself? Just sign your name on the clipboard by the entrance and hang out on the sidewalk until you're called to be seated. You'll be slurping noodles in no time.
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