Las Vegas

Best dishes: of 2014. Some were even in New Jersey.

Everyone loves a list. Especially when it contains pictures and brief, vague descriptions of food that someone else ate over the course of a year. Someone you don't even know. I mean come on. That's about as bad as suffering through a slide show of a coworker's vacation. But that won't stop me.

This is a list of the most memorable and exceptional dishes that my body processed into p**p during 2014.

Ramen Sora
Las Vegas, NV

Ramen sora spicy

I have to think this was my first “real” ramen experience. I guess I've had ramen in the past, but never gave it the serious consideration that it deserves. Ramen Sora changed my opinion on ramen, and got me thinking about it, a lot. Ramen just may be the perfect dish. Those gyoza were no slouches either.

Spaghetti with fennel pollen sausage and Calabrian chiles

Local Seasonal Kitchen
Ramsey, NJ


I've been a big fan of Chef Steve Santoro since the late 90s, when he was producing fantastic and exciting food at the long-gone Dish in Passaic, NJ. He left Dish, and disappeared from New Jersey, for a good amount of time. I figured he'd never return. Recently, he did return to open the awkwardly-named Local Seasonal Kitchen. And once again he's producing fantastic and exciting food. At first bite I knew this dish would be on some sort of “best” list. And whaddayaknow, I was right. Clean clean flavors of spice, meat, and heat. Awwwww, yeah.

The Black Pig
Cleveland, OH

Black pig burger

I'm still thinking about this burger. It remains one of the best burgers that I've had. Anywhere. DB Bistro Moderne, The Spotted Pig, Blue Smoke, Minetta Tavern, J.G. Melon. All of them take a backseat to this burger. Cooked to a juicy medium rare, an appropriate and delicious bun, house-made pickles, great melted cheese. The execution was flawless, and the burger simply outstanding. I hate this picture because it mocks me. It sits there, and mocks me, as I cannot eat it right now.

Chilean Seabass
Paramus, NJ

Chilean sea bass chakra_edited-1

Everything about this dish screams 1990s. The fish itself, the potato wrapped shrimp, the vaguely Asian preparation. But maybe the 90s weren't so bad after all? That potato wrapped shrimp, which I assumed would be a throw-away garnish, was excellent in its own right. Maybe nostalgia plays into it, but this dish is really fun. And visually appealing. Chef Ciszak is doing some very good work at Chakra. You and I should be going there more often than we do.

Ox tongue and tripe
Joyce Chinese Cuisine
River Edge, NJ

Tongue and tripe

A newcomer to the North Jersey Sichuan scene in 2014, and Joyce is bringing the goods. Their version of ox tongue and tripe is a good a version as I've had anywhere, with the added bonus of being slightly better for some reason I cannot explain. A great restaurant overall.   

Fat Gangnam Boy Hero
Kimchi Smoke BBQ
NJ-based Southern and Korean BBQ vendor

Fat gangnam boy2

That Kimchi fella is apparently known for his brisket, but don't let this sandwich slip through your paws. Bulgogi, pickled vegetables, scallions, processed American cheese, BBQ sauce, on a perfect hero roll. This thing is silly-good. Next time, I'll make sure a get a cold beer from neighboring vendor, which would just go so very, very perfectly.

Fish with carrots
Le Relais Des Trois Mas
Collioure, France

Fish at hotel

We had fun listening to the server describe this multi-component dish for 10 minutes, each of which had carrots incorporated some how some way. “Blah blah wis a puree of carrots, blah blah scented wis, ehhh, carrots, the feesh is blah blah wis carrots, a small glass of juice, made wis, ehhhh, carrots.” He wrapped up his explanation in his best possible English, sounding exhausted from saying “carrots” so many times, with “it's just a lot of carrots.” It's a good thing we like carrots. And sichuan peppercorn, which, to our surprise, made its way into one of the components.

The dish was a work of art. The view, sitting at Le Relais Des Trois Mas, overlooking the bay at Collioure, topless sunbathers and all, was glorious. This restaurant was very, very good. And every one of those carrots was perfect. I should also note that the hotel is just lovely as well.

Cassoulet (and ravioli)
Auberge du Vigneron
Cucugnan, France

Cassoulet Auberge du Vigneron ravioli

If you find yourself tooling around the Pyrenees, exploring ancient Cathar castles, and why wouldn't you, you'd do well to stop in the small commune of Cucugnan, nestled in the shadow of Chateau de Queribus. There didn't seem to be a whole lot going on in this tiny, tiny place, but Auberge du Vigneron is well worth a stop. Or even a detour. Especially if treacherous mountain roads lacking safety rails are your thing.

It seems unfair to include two dishes from a single restaurant, especially when I couldn't figure out what made one of them so good, but I will anyway.

Not sure what the sauce on the ravioli was, but it was ethereal. Each of those ravioli was filled with a different meat product, including foie gras IIRC.

As for the cassoulet, well, what can I tell you. It was probably in the top 5 dishes of the year. Filled with various sausages and duck confit, this dish could have, and may have, warmed the stomachs of a Cathar slaughtering army. Hints of genocide never tasted so good.

Merendero de la Mari
Barcelona, Spain


It wasn't the only paella we ate in Catalonia, but it was first, and it confirmed my suspicions that what passes for paella in my part of the word is simply absolute crap. As I said here, “Every bite revealed a little piece of tender seafood or vegetable. Stuff I didn't recognize. I'm having a hard time thinking about this dish at this moment, because it was so outstanding, and I'm so hungry right now, and I know it will be some time until I have anything remotely as good as this. I don't know what else to say other than it was a revelation.”


Barcelona, Spain


Gelonch wasn't the only place where we had seppia that was sliced into pasta-like ribbons during a trip to Barcelona, but it was my favorite. Linguini's got nothing on seppia. If anyone knows where to get a seppia ribbon-maker, or seppia for that matter, do let me know.

Slow roasted salmon
Woodstock, NY

Salmon cucina woodstock_edited-1

I rarely order salmon, because typical Atlantic salmon is largely unexceptional. Wild Pacific salmon in season, of course, is an entirely different beast, and should be ordered whenever it's available. The slow-roasted salmon with corn pudding at Woodstock's Cucina, however, made me rethink everything I thought I knew.

Escape Montclair
Montclair, NJ

Escape scallops

Chef Bryan Gregg has continued to impress the hell out of me in 2014. His commitment to seasonal, pristine ingredients squares nicely with the way I like to eat. One brunch at Escape included three scallops over corn. I believe this dish captured the essence of Escape Montclair. Simple, pure, perfect. A proper brunch, indeed.

Cauliflower ravioli
The Cookery
Dobb's Ferry, NY

The Cookery cauliflower ravioli

The Cookery has really impressed me with some dishes, while others have landed a bit flat. The cauliflower ravioli was one that impressed. Brown butter, of course.


Lion's Head Meatballs
Fu Restaurant
Fairfield, NJ

Lions head meatballs

A new Shanghainese restaurant in New Jersey, brought to you by the folks who run the excellent Chengdu 23 in Wayne. Maybe it was due to the fact taht I hadn't had this dish in close to 6 years, but diving into the Lion's Head meatballs were like nuzzling into the soft bosom of an old lover. Or something like that.

Stockade Tavern
Kingston, NY

Stockade kingston cocktail4

Stockade Tavern is a world-class cocktail bar run by a super nice husband and wife team. Every cocktail I had during various visits was interesting, mostly new-to-me, and eye-opening. There's a lot of craftsmanship here. No messing about. They've got ingredients that I've not so much as heard of, which is not easy to pull off. This is a great experience, and not to be missed. I cannot envision a time when I'll be near Kingston and not make time to spend an hour or two at Stockade Tavern.

Park West Tavern
Ridgewood, NJ

Andrew lasers
80s cheesy laser treatment courtesy of Duong L.

Andrew at Park West Tavern continues to grow and push the envelope with his cocktails. I rarely order anything specific here, and given my status as a semi-regular irregular, he generally has time to surprise me.  Just recently I had a new concoction. My comment after the first few sips was the somewhat absurd “this tastes like Christmas.” "That's what I was going for," he replied. Impressive.

Casa Leon
Collioure, France

Casa leon collioure anchovies

Collioure is known for anchovies. It has been argued that the world's best anchovies come from the waters here. Who am I to argue? I didn't even think I liked anchovies until eating them during almost every meal during a visit to this colorful, beautiful coastal town in the south of France. Before I left, I was a convert. Anchovies are magical.

Casa Leon is a lovely little restaurant serving pristine seafood, local wine, and, thankfully, anchovies. This plate of anchovies stood out, and went quite well with the bottle of Collioure rosé. Seek out Collioure AOC wines. You may be quite pleased.

Los Toreros
Barcelona, Spain

Los Toreros clams

Clams aren't generally my thing, but the big bowl of sweet, tender, briny clams at Los Tereros in Barcelona filled me with joy, and reinforced my understanding of simple Catalan cooking. Los Toreros is a quaint, not-very-touristy Barcelona gem.

Northern Style larb
Lotus of Siam
Las Vegas, NV

Lotus of siam northern larb
This horrible photo hurts my eyes. Sorry.

I haven't missed an opporunity to visit Lotus of Siam since my first visit in 2002 or so. When we returned this year, we were surprised to see the place has more than doubled in size. And it is more popular than ever. So much for a little hidden secret.

The selection of German wines remains impressive (and those wines go perfectly with the spicy Thai food), and the Northern-style larb remains delicious. And powerful. This dish is much different than the typical larb you'll find on most Thai menus. It's a deep, dark, rich, masculine affair, probably made with some liver and blood, and doesn't include the acidic bit that its cousin does. And boy oh boy, is it spicy. If you go to Lotus of Siam, consider their separate Northern-style menu, which is filled with rare and exciting treats.

House-cured pork with leeks
Lan Sheng
Wallington, NJ

Lan sheng smoked pork

A version of this dish can be found at most Sichuan restaurants, but I recall really, really enjoying the dish at Lan Sheng. Slightly smoky, a bit salty, pure and porky. Lan Sheng's liquor license will likely keep me from ever returning, but if I do, I'll order this dish again.

Fried chicken
Peck Peck Chicken
Teaneck, NJ

Peck peck chicken1_edited-1

2014 marked the start of a more serious exploration of Korean food at the t:e organization. While one might foolishly dismiss fried chicken wings as being nothing more than a snack, Korean fried chicken is certainly one of Korea's greatest gifts to our collective food culture. Move over, southern states.

Crab cake
Paramus, NJ

Chakra crabcake

Two dishes on this list from Chakra, a restaurant to which I really haven't given much consideration over the years? I'm more surprised than you. There's not denying the crab cake at Chakra is the tops.  The dish is perfect, right down to the lightly dressed snow pea shoots. There's a bit too much vodka on their cocktail menu, though.

Pasta with clams
Piermont, NY

Confetti clams linguini

It's not easy finding a decent plate of pasta with clams in the North Jersey area. It's really not. All of those Italian-American restaurants really don't do a very good job.  Most versions suffer from any number of flaws. But not the dish at Confetti. It should be the standard to which all other restaurants aspire. Beautifully and functionally plated, as well.

House-made sausage
Mill House Brewing Company
Poughkeepsie, NY

Mill house sausage

As I've noted, several times, Mill House Brewing Company has really impressed me. Elevated pub grub, great cocktails, excellent staff, a beautiful room. Every town needs a Mill House Brewing Company.  The house-made sausage made an appearance on my plate on our most recent visit. Juicy, flavorful, cooked just north of that's-too-raw, and a great version of bangers and mash.

Breakfast taco
Destino II Cart Tacos at the Rhinebeck Farmers' Market
Rhinebeck, NY

Destino taco

On a whim and just because, I ordered a breakfast taco from Destino II during a quick run-through of the Rhinebeck farmers' market. And I'm glad I did. Was this a perfect breakfast taco? I don't have much experience with breakfast tacos, but I'd venture to say “yes, this was a perfect breakfast taco.” Fluffy eggs, ground chorizo, fresh corn tortillas, hot sauce, salsa. What's not to LOVE.


So there you have it. I'm sorry I put you through that. I hope this helps someone, somewhere, at some point.

tommy:eats is a freelance food writer, photographer and curmudgeon, based in North Jersey. When not making lists he can usually be found putting together slide shows of his trips.

Velveteen Rabbit: Las Vegas cocktails


It wasn't but a few years ago when you'd be hard pressed to find many options for decent cocktails in Las Vegas. During a visit back in '09 a friend and I ended up at the bar in the Eiffel Tower Restaurant at The Paris. I think that was the only place we could come up with in that area that had any sort of cocktail program.

Thankfully, this has all changed.  The improbable explosion of new hotels and casinos, and the influx of celebrity chefs' restaurants, have brought with them lots of opportunities to drink very well in Vegas. The Cosmopolitan alone has several great options, not least of all being Comme Ça, which also has an excellent burger I should note. The bar at the Mandarin Oriental is no slouch, and offers spellbinding views of the strip. At the bars and restaurants right off of the casino floor at Aria you will find tequilas and cocktails and glorious fun oh my. If you find yourself at the Paris, skip the Eiffel Tower Restaurant bar and go directly to Gordon Ramsay Steak, for fine cocktails indeed (and, as it turns out, another excellent burger).

This is all well-and-good if you want to drop 14-18 bucks a drink, and putter around the strip. But if you're looking for something a little more low-key, a little more organic, a little more less corporate, a lot more less expensive, then you might want to check out Velveteen Rabbit, in what is called the Arts District, near downtown (old Vegas). A reader tipped me off to this place and off I went.

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Southwest Diner: Boulder City, NV

Southwest diner sign

If you're looking for something to eat before or after visiting the Hoover Dam, you might find that there aren't a whole lot of options. Especially if you wait until you're at the dam to decide that you want to eat locally and not head back to Vegas. Especially since the cell reception in those canyons is spotty. Especially if you didn't do a lick of research at the hotel room prior to leaving, which would have been a great idea, don't you think?

I managed to get enough internet connectivity on a stretch of Route 93 to identify Southwest Diner, in beautiful Boulder City, NV, as a candidate for lunch. Glad I did.

Hoover dam1

First, the dam. I refuse to use the word "damn" in any way in the post, because that'd be some hacky writing. My writing is hacky enough as it is, so I don't need any darned help in that regard.

Hoover dam inside2

The dam is impressive. I recommend taking the 1 hour tour (the longer of the two), which brings you inside of the structure. Our tour guide was fantastic. Very knowledgeable, and just funny enough to keep people interested.

I wanted to get to the Hoover Dam Bypass bridge, which presumably offers excellent views of the dam, but I didn't have time (had to get to the diner, you know). But I'd suggest trying to make some time to fit that aspect of the visit as well.

As many have noted, you can drive over the dam to the Arizona side, and park for free. Or you can pay on the NV side, right before the dam.

Back to the food. 

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Ramen Sora: Las Vegas, NV: Super ramen, best gyoza

Ramen sora spicySpicy Ramen

What I never realized about Las Vegas is that there exists a Chinatown with all sorts of food options. Take a look. You'll find Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Filipino. See, all of the Chinese cultures! And that's just in the Chinatown Plaza, a strip mall on Spring Mountain Road.

While getting a Sichuan fix was tempting, there was one thing that kept coming up in conversations with people, and that was ramen. Ramen, ramen, ramen.

And who am I to argue? Quite frankly I'm not even sure that I've ever had a proper ramen, so this seemed like a good opportunity to get something exceptional.

Off we went to Ramen Sora, on Spring Mountain Road (and of course, at least $20 cab ride).

Ramen sora outside

It's a small place that could fit a few more tables if they tried. Hell, if it was in NYC, there would be at least twice as many seats. So, it's roomy, and it fills up quickly. Indeed we grabbed the only available table at lunch. By the time we left at 1pm on a Friday, a few people were waiting to be seated.

The crowd was diverse, with young people, tourists, Asians, and locals. Please note that I realise these groups are not mutually exclusive. SiriusXM was cranking out today's hits, and the place was pretty lively. Very comfortable, very welcoming.

Menus are printed on laminated place mats, and have pictures, which is nice if you're like me. Some quick googling was necessary to figure out what some of the ingredients were, but I sensed no language barrier with the servers, and they were absolutely wonderful and gracious. Come to think about it, they were downright joyful.

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Sushi Roku: Las Vegas, NV

AquariumShark Reef at Mandalay Bay: do not eat

(Feel free to skip the cathartic narrative and scroll down to the food. I know I would.)

The morning after a much-too-long night at a surprisingly friendly bar called "PBR Rock Bar," which is right on the Vegas strip across from the Cosmopolitan, with an outdoor bar I should add, all I wanted was sushi. Comforting, salty, fatty--sushi.

We were heading to the largely unexceptional Shark Reef at Mandalay Bay when I saw Kumi, right off the casino floor--a restaurant that was on my list of places to consider. It was open, inviting, and empty. I could picture myself right there at the bar, enjoying a crisp white and fatty tuna. But it was only 11.30, and we figured we could check out Bodies at the neighboring Luxor before lunch.

After waiting some time for the tram to get to the Luxor, we decided to bail, and get some sushi. But, we thought we'd head back up the strip to Blue Ribbon, since it was only 11.45. We enjoyed Blue Ribbon a few nights before, and thought it would be perfect for a casual sushi lunch. Off we went to the Cosmopolitan, by $20 cab.

Finally at the Cosmopolitan, we run up the escalator, barely able to contain our excitement and hunger, and we're met with Blue Ribbon's closed doors. The fucking place isn't open for lunch. We turn around to go to Comme Ca, which has a fine burger, and they're closed too. WTF? OK, now what. I figured we could go downstairs and grab a burger at Holsteins. Well bloody hell, the place is packed, and that's a 20 minute wait. We're now flustered, and blood sugar levels are dipping, and patience is running thin.

The missus said something about Sushi Roku. Said she heard it was pretty good. And it's at Caesars. At this point I didn't want to admit defeat by going back to Mandalay Bay (the only sure bet in this game), so I (smartly, this time, if you can believe it) call to confirm that they are open, and back in a cab to Caesars it is.

We're dropped off at Caesars, $20 poorer, and try to find a map to tell us where this restaurant is. I review the map and don't see Sushi Roku, but I see Nobu! I'll take Nobu in a pinch any day. We run down to Nobu, which is apparently in the Nobu Hotel, which is a hotel within a hotel I suppose. I ask the nice people if this is where Nobu the restaurant is, and they say "yes!" I ask if it's open, and they say "no!" Well fuck me, back to the map to find Roku. Can't find it. It's not on the map.

I call them back and they tell me they're in the Forum Shops at Caesars. If you're not familiar with it, The Forum Shops at Caesars is a largely depressing mall with depressing people looking at stuff they can't afford, and at the same time getting in my damned way. I'm running around the Forum, looking for a map, trying to figure out where the hell I am in relation to the restaurant, and end up backtracking. Twice. And did I mention there are hundreds of meandering people in my way?

I finally get my bearings. Now I'm walking full steam, not letting anything stop me. Some wandering d-bag is walking right toward me (and the fountain which I'm walking next to), looking up at the painted clouds on the ceiling as if it's the Sistine Chapel, like some perfect version of a dopey clueless tourist sent to Earth specifically to annoy me. I'm watching him, waiting for him to come back to reality, see me, and alter his course. But no. He doesn't. When this lummox gets within 2 feet of my airspace, I let out a quite loud and direct "BRO!" This 6'2" fucking guy recoiled and almost fell over himself clearing my right-of-way. "Sorry, sorry," he stuttered, stumbling away, aimlessly. I didn't have time to respond. I saved him from walking into the fountain, the big goofy fucker, and that was enough.

Finally get to Roku, on the third floor of this dreary-ass mall, and it's kinda not very nice at all. Sort of unkempt. Not the sexy sleek place that you see on their website. But fuck it, we're hungry, and this is going to be it. I ask to be seated in the large main room, which is empty other than 1 large table. At least the room has windows and a nice view of the strip rather than a view of the mall. Vegas restaurants with views are very rare indeed.

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Holsteins: Las Vegas, NV

Holsteins burger1a
When I put the question of "where should I eat in Vegas" out to the internet, one reader got back to me with a place with a shit ton of booze and dry-aged burgers. I think you know what happened next.

Of course, the place immediately shot high up on my list of must-tries. The place is Holsteins. Or, more completely, Holsteins Shakes and Buns. See, they apparently have shakes. And they put booze in those, too, if you want. I guess this is what makes Holsteins an "exciting new burger concept," as they say on their website. Can we stop with the "concepts" and just call ourselves "restaurants" going forward? Thanks.

Anywho, what's important is the food and the drink and the service. All of which were spot on at Holsteins.

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