I moved to Las Vegas right before I turned 16. That’s a horrible time to move — in the middle of high school — in the middle of a school year, no less. Within one calendar year, I was in three different high schools. It’s hard to make new friends when you’re still heartbroken about leaving your old ones and then transferring from one school to the next to the next.
While my initial years in Vegas were difficult, one thing I latched onto right away was finding good restaurants. I didn’t care where they were in town, if they were in a good or bad neighborhood, how far I had to drive to get to them— as long as I could afford them, I would try them.
I, of course, had my favorite restaurants in my home state of New Jersey while growing up, but after moving to Nevada, my passion for finding “neighborhood gems” only became greater. While the rest of the week might have sucked, at least on Friday nights I could drown my adolescent depression with delicious and new flavors from cuisines I wasn’t familiar with back then. There was the mom and pop all-vegetarian Chinese place that sounds trendy right now, but was one-of-a-kind back in the day. There was the small, strip mall Vietnamese storefront where I experienced curried chicken in a sizzling clay pot for the first time — a flavor I’m still chasing today. There was the neighborhood Italian joint that did wonders with both agnolotti, the half-moon shaped pasta, and portobello mushrooms, the earthy shroom that eats like meat if cooked correctly.
All of these places — Long Life Veggie Café, the Vietnamese place I can still picture but whose name I can’t recall, and Bella Luna — are gone now. Neighborhood gems, no more. While that is sad, the good news is that the Las Vegas dining scene is booming and with that, there are more local favorites in each pocket of The Valley than ever before.
These are the places you keep in your mental checklist, the ones that make you the go-to oracle of food when your friends need to figure out where to eat this Friday, the ones you end up seeing on television years later and say to yourself, “I’ve been with that place for years.” These are the places we are proud to call our own. These are the ones we think should have even bigger followings but are glad that they don’t, because that makes them still our little secret. These are the places worth driving to the other side of town for when you have a craving that is more important than the traffic report.
Here are some of our favorite Las Vegas neighborhood restaurant gems.
Tucked away in a quiet commercial center in Green Valley, Served seemed like it would fail from opening day. It did, after all, open in the exact same parking lot as the popular-since-day-one breakfast and lunch joint, Kitchen Table. And just a few minutes away sits the brunch juggernauts CraftKitchen and the more recently opened The Stove (previously covered in these pages). But Served has, well, held serve. Led by the skilled but shy Matthew Meyer, who recently shined at a local taco contest featuring some of the city’s best chefs, Served is doing some crazy stuff you can’t find anywhere else in town. How about a scallop benedict with two seared jump diver sea scallops, sautéed spinach in a lobster stock and white wine reduction, two poached eggs, hollandaise sauce, and all on a toasted crostini. Or try the delectable mushroom bahn mi with that meaty shroom, asparagus, and rapini getting the Vietnamese sandwich treatment in style. There’s also a great selection of burgers, including the Out West Burger with a 12 oz patty, four slices of damn-that’s-good brown sugar bacon, crispy onions, Tillamook sharp cheddar cheese, and sweet and tangy BBQ sauce. It will hit the right spot for any burger lover. Meyer loves pulling influences from all over the world and specializes in fusing Asian flavors with upscale American food. While brunch is favored, Served is open for all three meals. Your appetite will thank you whenever you go.
Served, 1770 W Horizon Ridge Pkwy #100, Henderson, NV 89012
Meraki Greek Grill
The strip mall on the southeast corner of Rainbow Blvd. and Tropicana Ave. is a hotbed for fine cuisine. Leading the charge is Meraki Greek Grill which, while certainly a gem, hasn’t had any problem finding a crowd. Throughout the course of the day, the casual Greek restaurant is full of energy thanks to a nonstop flow of customers enjoying simple Greek food done correctly. Operated by the superstar twosome of Jerry Goumroian (owner) and Niko Georgousis (executive chef), this place hits on all cylinders when it comes to providing the clean, fresh flavors of Greece done in an approachable way. The two both have fine dining backgrounds, with the former a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and working with such esteemed chefs as Paul Bartolotta, Guy Savoy, and Rick Moonen, and the latter graduating from the Culinary Institute of Greece and cooking at the Divani Caravel Hotel in Athens, Caracas Restaurant on the Island of Crete and Estiatorio Milos at The Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas.
Gyros, bowls and, of course, Greek salads are done here. There is perhaps no better value plate in town than the Chicken Kalamakia ($14.79), which includes two chicken skewers grilled so fresh you can taste the smoke, a bed of delicious Greek rice, a Greek salad, pita, and tzatziki. Bring a friend and share stunningly good appetizers, including the diner favorite spanakopita, a spinach, mint, and feta pie baked in phyllo dough and saganaki, a robust cheese lit on fire tableside. Be ready to yell “Opa!” as your cheese hits flames and again with each succulent bite of this fantastic food.
Meraki Greek Grill, 4950 S Rainbow Blvd #160, Las Vegas, NV 89118
595 Craft and Kitchen
Anchoring the other side of the mall is 595 Craft and Kitchen, a pub that specializes in having a large variety of on tap beers and some damn tasty — if Americanized — Vietnamese bar food. The rotating tap of beers includes locals like 9th Island Pina Colada Sour, from Lovelady Brewing Company in Henderson, and Cozy Catastrophe by Able Baker Brewing Company in Las Vegas, national picks like Fresh Squeezed IPA from Deschutes Brewery in Bend, Oregon, and Vanilla Honey from Longdrop Cider Company in Boise, Idaho. International choices include Petrus Saison De Pale from Brouwerij De Brabandere in Belgium and Fatoamorgana from Omnipollo in Sweden.
Along with beers on tap, there is also a rotating kombucha tap, which, upon my last visit, featured a mellow watermelon option that more than hit the spot in a hot summer’s day.
But even if all you drink is tap water, you can still have a great time at this lively pub, which serves up great fusion bar food. Check out the crispy cauliflower from the snacks section for something a little lighter but just as tasty as the wings you might normally go for. These are lightly coated, a la tempura, and come with a variety of topping or dip options, including garlic parmesan, sweet chili, or classic buffalo sauce. From the “sandos” section, go right to the banh mi — this sandwich seems ready to trend — and get your Vietnamese sandwich of choice. Proteins from brisket to pork belly adorn the flavorful sandwich that also features cucumber, pickled veggies, cilantro, jalapeno, and mayo. The ginger garlic chicken banh mi is one that will have you coming back for repeat visits.
Don’t forget to check out the rotating specials board, which recently featured a Thai mac’n’cheese that deserves a spot on the everyday menu.
595 Craft and Kitchen, 4950 S Rainbow Blvd Ste 100, Las Vegas, NV 89118
Gelato di Milano
No matter which savory option you choose, the sweet of choice in the mall is Gelato di Milano, courtesy of Franco Pati. The gelato maker from Italy spent years in the beach town of Florianopolis, Brazil, with his wife, a champion pizzaiola, before following his son Jean Luca to Las Vegas. As Jean Luca began his studies at UNLV to follow in the family footsteps and go into the food/hospitality industry, Papa Franco noticed a lack of authentic Italian gelato in town. Hence the little gelato place that could.
With 60 rotating flavors, each focused on natural ingredients, every day brings a bounty of stunningly good gelato to the table — or should we say, counter. Coconut is a family recipe father and son worked out that contains chunks of raw coconut plus coconut milk. Hometown pride shines through with the best-selling Golden Knights flavor, featuring a vanilla base and graham cracker and peanut butter cookie mix-ins. They also make a top notch affogato, espresso with a fior di latte (think sweet cream) scoop of gelato mixed in. The gelato here is a perfect dessert for a summer night…or a winter night…or any other time of year.
Gelato di Milano, 4950 S Rainbow Blvd Ste 140, Las Vegas, NV 89118
Rooster Boy Café
The picturesque location of Desert Shores sets a number of restaurants bucking up against a manmade lake. It’s the perfect spot for a lazy morning or a long lunch with friends. And there is no better place to enjoy such a situation than Rooster Boy Café, a quaint eatery run by Chef Sonia El-Nowal. The American-Lebanese culinary professional specialized in pastry for many years, having worked at such acclaimed restaurants as Nobu, Masa, Lafayette, and Sign of the Dove. She has cooked in food epicenters like New York City, San Francisco, Paris, and Mexico City, among others. El-Nowal brings all this experience to her hole in the wall on the west side of town, where guests can get everything from a traditional New York egg sandwich on a Kaiser roll to North African spicy specialty shashouka — eggs over a stewed tomato, onion, and chili broth. Perhaps you need to cure your hangover with the Mexican favorite chilaquiles or you just want to indulge with some Dutch Oven pancakes. Then there are the galettes, which include potato, rosemary and brie and prosciutto, figs, and caramelized onions. They are some of the best in town. The variety and quality of cuisine, the scenery, and the laid-back vibe, along with Chef Sonia’s welcoming personality, all make Rooster Boy worth the trek, whether it’s a short walk or a car ride from another area.
Rooster Boy Café, 2620 Regatta Dr. #113, Las Vegas, NV 89128
Before the complaints come in, we know there are so many more neighborhood gems in Las Vegas. We have our list, which is longer than what was just printed above, though we think this is a great start. And we can’t wait to hear about your favorites, too.