29 August 2007

When Vegas Bites, Bite Back

There's only one thing you can do when Vegas chews you up and spits you out. No, not find an ATM. Get your money's worth out of the town and eat it all back.

So it was when I reached my pre-determined loss limit halfway through my recent trip to Sin City. I was actually doing fine until a late Saturday night visit to the craps tables. For me, it's the most exhilarating way to lose your money: quickly, but with the promise of getting it back with one hot roll. Alas.

Sushi Roku @ Caesar's Palace

Okay, it's a chain, no big discovery here. But they make damn fine sushi (and stiff cocktails, to boot). Camille and I initially ordered oysters for an appetizer, but thanks to a plague of red tide in the Pacific, we ended up with Tofu Three Ways, which featured bites of soft tofu with: scallions and sesame oil, white truffle and truffle oil, caviar and lemon oil. My favorite was the caviar/lemon oil, the combination of the salty roe and the citrus over the smooth, soft tofu was the proverbial party in my mouth. I was most looking forward to the truffle when we ordered, as that was the first truffle experience for me, but it was far too subtle against the blank canvas of the tofu. Kinda like looking at an off-white painting on white canvas: underwhelming.

For sushi, we went with: ikura (the orange/red salmon roe), yellowtail-scallion roll, eel-avocado roll, spicy scallop roll, soft shell crab roll, albacore-garlic roll, and sweet shrimp sushi (which is raw) with accompanying fried shrimp head. I don't know what exactly it is about unagi, the freshwater eel, that I love. It's got a meaty-fishy taste and is almost pasty in texture. When combined with the equally mushy avocado and against Sushi Roku's very good sushi rice, it's fantastic. It all melts together so nicely. When I'm old and toothless, please stuff this into my mouth roll by roll so I can gnaw it till I'm in the grave. My other favorite is the yellowtail-scallion. Yellowtail is one of the least "fishy" fishes, and when it's mild creaminess is countered by the green onion, it's another little bit of awesomeness. Everything else was a fantastic pair of contrasting flavors save for the soft shell crab roll, which was fried too long and a tad burnt. I'm consistently a sucker for soft shell crab and have had it in a variety of cuisines, but I can't think of a time when soft shell was as satisfying as I imagined it to be. Nor can I think of a time when I won at the craps table. But off I always go, loading the back end of the pass line and covering the six and the eight like every other sucker. The lesson here: be wary of soft shell crab. And craps is lots of fun. Try it!

The Aloha Specialties Restaurant @ The California

This trip, we kicked it way old school and stayed downtown at "The Cal." It's just off of Fremont Street and populated predominantly by aging Hawaiian tourists, many of which lug their own oxygen through the smoky innards of the casino floor. And where there's oxygen-deprived Hawaiian pensioners, there's Hawaiian food! After promising runs at Pai Gow and blackjack didn't pan out, it was Loco Moco time.
Hawaiian cuisine is a mish-mash of the various immigrant cultures that worked the lands over the years, though I have no clue where the Loco Moco came from. Rice topped with a hamburger steak (aka
a hamburger) topped with a fried egg topped with gravy. So, uh, yeah... there's the cultural history of the Sandwich Isles on a plate!

The hamburger was cooked to be juicy inside and slightly crispy outside, which gave it a wonderful bite when combined with runny fried eggs and the beef gravy. This dish triggers nostalgia points for me because it reminds me of the simple breakfast my mom used to make of rice and a fried egg all mashed together into a big, yolk-y mess. So, my youth + cultural history of the Sandwich Isles on a plate = supreme satisfaction. It's one savory plate, but the egg whites and rice balance it enough to stave off immediate onset of food coma. I can't quite figure out what spices they use in Hawaii for the beef and the gravy, which seems to be the real key to the dish. I came close to unlocking that puzzle, but then I fell asleep in my room watching SportsCenter on a loop. Mmmmm, food coma.

Chang's. 4760 South Decatur Blvd.

If you're sick of buffets at the hotels... well, then, you're no friend of mine. But if you want a reprieve from the incessant jingling of slot machines and don't want bottomless plates of king crab legs two days in a row, head west on Tropicana. Go past the erotic supply store, turn right at the trailer park, and stop at Chang's for some brunch, dim sum style. The place is always bustling, and the staff will keep pushing plates of goodness at you. You really have to turn your table into a well-oiled eating machine, clearing off plates in a timely fashion to allow for the arrival of more steamed and fried bites.

The specialty here is the XO noodles, chow fun noodles fried in a type of chili oil-based sauce and accented with pepper flakes, scallions, and sesame seeds. It's slightly crispy, but the noodles are still soft.
The spice hits you but relents, letting you shovel as much as you can without fear of tearing up like a little girl. All the dim sum staples are here and in fine form. Mine and Camille's favorite is the taro dumplings, which are chopped pork stuffed inside dumplings of mashed taro, which is then breaded. Even though the taro is still a starch, it's a terrific change of paste from the noodles and buns.

I finally worked up the courage to take on chicken feet, which is cooked in a black bean sauce that turns the skin red. If you can get over the fact that it's chicken feet, it's actually quite good. It's basically the best part of the chicken, the skin, except instead of meat underneath, it's all knuckle and toe bones. It's delicious but awfully tedious to eat, as you basically have to bite a toe off, gnaw the skin loose, and spit the bones out. Strategically speaking, it's an excellent "breather" food that lets you take a break from stuffing yourself while you're still eating. At Chang's, you can stuff yourself for about $15 a person, so you'll be ready for either another food coma or a run at Let It Ride.

Mermaids @ Fremont Street

This is the saddest of sad casinos, all slot machines and posters beckoning you with novelty drinks. Yet, I went in because some of those posters tantalize you with the elite of fairground food: deep-fried Twinkies and deep-fried Oreos. I slinked past the two feathered showgirls out front offering the complimentary slot machine spin and beelined for the food counter at the back.
The truly ridiculous thing about the deep-fried Oreo basket -- if you can accept that three Oreos covered in sweet batter and deep fried for 99 cents is normal -- is that it's topped by powdered sugar and chocolate sprinkles. The frying does change the texture of the Oreo, partially melting the cream and softening the chocolate cookie, so that the whole thing feels like a doughnut hole stuffed with Oreo preserves. It's not as sickeningly sweet as you might think, and pairs fantastically with a cold root beer (also 99 cents). It's like a chocolate sweet cream sandwich bite, and while it was born at a state fair, it's right at home amidst the neon and LCDs of Fremont Street. It's also the perfect exclamation point to a weekend of reckless gambling. Vegas may have my money, but I got paid back in the form of free cocktails, Hawaiian history, and deep-fried sugar sandwiches.

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