A Gastro Obscura Guide to Las Vegas

On the Las Vegas Strip, giant LED signs allow you to count Gordon Ramsey’s pores as he advertises his Hell’s Kitchen restaurant at Caesars Palace. Celebrity chef–run restaurants and chains abound along the city’s main drag, but for a culinary adventure, you’ll have to step off the Strip entirely.

Las Vegas has a flourishing Chinatown, tremendous tiki bars, and beloved historical restaurants. Wondrous food and drink await the intrepid visitor willing to swap the Strip for strip malls and casinos for Charleston Boulevard.

Sweet and Savory

In a blindingly bright new strip mall sits Pullman Bread, a small Japanese bakery that happens to be open 24 hours. The shop’s name is a reference to Pullman-style white bread, a thin-crusted loaf invented on American train cars in the 19th century that influenced the development of Japanese milk bread.

Chinatown Vegas spans several acres, with shops and restaurants galore.
Chinatown Vegas spans several acres, with shops and restaurants galore. SnapASkyline/Shutterstock

But this take-out bakery offers much more than bread. There are rows of onigiri (rice balls) stuffed with everything from salmon to honeyed salted plums. There are tiny cups of refreshingly bitter coffee gelatin topped with sweet cream, or a crispy-soft melon pan. If you don’t feel like buying a whole loaf of bread, opt for a sandwich instead. Try a Japanese-style egg sandwich, or, for dessert, one filled with sweet whipped cream and strawberries.

Aloha Specialties offers the homey food that you'd find in Hawai'i, from Spam <em>musubi</em> to the <em>ocha zuke,</em> or green tea over rice.
Aloha Specialties offers the homey food that you’d find in Hawai’i, from Spam musubi to the ocha zuke, or green tea over rice. Courtesy Boyd Gaming; Anne Ewbank for Gastro Obscura; Courtesy Boyd Gaming

Tropical Treats

Walking inside the California Casino in Downtown Las Vegas, you’ll see plumeria flowers printed on the carpet. Look up, and you’ll see staff wearing Hawaiian shirts. Las Vegas is known as the “Ninth Island” due to its popularity with vacationing Hawaiians, and nowhere caters to the community as much as “the Cal.”

On the second floor, you’ll find Aloha Specialties, a small diner with a big reputation for homestyle Hawaiian food. If you’re hungry enough, order a Mix Plate for a piece of beef teriyaki, chicken teriyaki, and fried mahi-mahi over a huge chunk of rice, with a side of creamy macaroni salad. But it’s worth going to Aloha just for one of their Spam musubi, the Spam-and-seaweed-wrapped bundles of rice seasoned with sweet soy sauce.

Farm Basket's fried turkey Gobbler sandwich comes with Miracle Whip and cranberry sauce.
Farm Basket’s fried turkey Gobbler sandwich comes with Miracle Whip and cranberry sauce. Courtesy Farm Basket

Fast-Food Nostalgia

Most Americans have mourned a beloved restaurant chain that’s disappeared, leaving only nostalgia behind. That seemed to be where Farm Basket was headed. The chain, which got its start in San Diego in 1972, operated seven area restaurants by the end of the 1970s. Farm Basket slung fried chicken, coleslaw, and mashed potatoes, but also fried turkey and “Clucketos,” taquitos filled with shredded chicken.

By 2018, Farm Basket survived as just one barn-shaped restaurant on Charleston Boulevard. But that didn’t spell the end for the business, which, under new ownership, has started to expand again, with two new restaurants open in the Las Vegas area. So instead of crying over lost Clucketos, customers can still feast on fried turkey Gobbler sandwiches on soft rolls smeared with Miracle Whip and cranberry sauce, along with fried chicken and taquitos.

Open 24 hours, Frankie's Tiki Room is a cool retreat from the Las Vegas heat.
Open 24 hours, Frankie’s Tiki Room is a cool retreat from the Las Vegas heat. Courtesy Frankie’s Tiki Room; Page Light Studios/Shutterstock

Tiki Fantasy

Las Vegas is anything but tropical. But drinkers can hide from the desert heat in a number of tiki bars across the city. Tiki culture is based more on a 20th-century fantasy of the South Seas than anything real, but the spectacle and showmanship of it all makes it a perfect fit for Las Vegas. Walking into Frankie’s Tiki Room is like entering a smoke-filled, air-conditioned cave. Inflated puffer fish dangle from the ceiling, while the bar serves up fruity concoctions of their own invention, like the Lava Letch (a rum, brandy, raspberry liqueur, and ginger-beer concoction) as well as tiki classics like the honey-laced Three Dots and a Dash and the brutally powerful Zombie.

Inside Golden Tiki, in Las Vegas’s Chinatown, there’s something to gawk at everywhere you look, from the flickering night sky illuminated on the ceiling to the Disney-inspired animatronic birds that spew dirty jokes. The bar was designed to evoke “an adult Disneyland,” and the connection continues with offerings like Dole Whip, which is a famous concession near Disneyland’s Tiki Room attraction. Unlike at Disneyland, though, you can get your Dole Whip here with a floater of rum.

The Golden Tiki in Chinatown has Dole Whip on the menu and eye-popping decor.
The Golden Tiki in Chinatown has Dole Whip on the menu and eye-popping decor. Courtesy The Golden Tiki

Golden Tiki, like Frankie’s, has a spread of classic and new drink concoctions on the menu. If you want your cocktail to catch the attention of the whole bar, however, ask for the bartender to flame your drink. It’s only a dollar more in return for an eye-popping tower of fire sprayed above your goblet.

Basque in Unique Flavors

For quirky ice cream, there’s nowhere like Las Vegas’s own Sorry, Not Sorry Creamery. There’s lots of social media hype around this company’s ice cream, which makes sense, considering that one of the owners is a well-known local food influencer. It also helps that their ice cream is very good.

You can try the delicious guava cheese or vegan lemon icebox-cookie flavors at any of the company’s colorfully decorated three locations. But for something special, head to Sorry, Not Sorry’s downtown outpost. That’s the only place that serves the blackberry Basque cake flavor, which is a tribute to the state’s history of Basque settlers, who started arriving in Nevada in the mid-19th century and brought their distinct culinary culture with them. The ice cream is studded with chunks of Basque cake (a traditional cookie-like tart) and swirled with jammy Nevada blackberries.

Blackberry Basque cake ice cream is on the menu only at Sorry, Not Sorry's downtown location.
Blackberry Basque cake ice cream is on the menu only at Sorry, Not Sorry’s downtown location. Courtesy Sorry Not Sorry; Anne Ewbank for Atlas Obscura

Korean Coffee

In a Chinatown strip mall, an enormous wooden door leads to Gäbi Coffee and Bakery. There’s not overt signage, but this cafe is anything but hidden, given that there’s almost always a crowd sitting at the chicly mismatched tables and chairs scattered throughout the space.

Staff serve cakes, drinks, and sandwiches out of a giant greenhouse plopped in the center of the brick-lined walls, which are covered in quirky takes on Korean art and photography. The decor is meant to evoke the twilight of Korea’s Joseon Dynasty more than a century ago, when coffee was first introduced to Korea. (Gäbi is an old Korean word for coffee.)

There’s plenty of coffee on the menu at Gäbi, from their eponymous specialty (a dry cappuccino sprinkled with raw sugar and ground coffee) to the fanciful lavender white mocha. But they also sell sweet iced teas, such as the vibrant purple yuzu omija, a tall infusion of citrus and omija, a fruit called “five-flavor berry” in Korean for its complexity. Gäbi also offers a slew of desserts, many based on ube, the purple yam. Try a slice of ube cheesecake, ube mille crêpe cake, or an enormous ube macaron.

Signed photos of singers and celebrities line the walls at the Italian American Club Restaurant.
Signed photos of singers and celebrities line the walls at the Italian American Club Restaurant. Anne Ewbank for Gastro Obscura

Singing and Red Sauce

Six decades after its founding, the Italian American Club Restaurant is still going strong. Even on weeknights, singers on stage will serenade a dining room filled with elegantly-dressed, tall-coiffed eaters. The elderly gentleman at the next table might finish off his stuffed banana peppers and shrimp Fra Diavolo without looking up from his plates, or he might get up from his chair, take the mic, and competently sing a rendition of “You Make Me Feel So Young.”

Frank Sinatra was, in fact, a member of the Italian American Club, which was once a private social group for the area’s Italian American community. His donation of a Cadillac, legend has it, helped fund the construction of their current space. Along with Sinatra, the restaurant has been frequented by other singers, politicians, sports stars, and, many say, members of the Mob. The pasta is fresh, the menu is long, and the portions are generous. “Because your grandma thinks you’re too skinny!” the bartender might add.

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