Off the Strip
I spend a lot of time in Las Vegas. By default, so does my wife. We love it. It’s like a second home for us. More importantly, we love all the elements of Las Vegas—even Las Vegas Boulevard. When you talk to the locals, however, they espouse an attitude about the Strip that I liken to how San Franciscans feel about television: “We don’t do that.” I have a few friends that live in Las Vegas, and exactly zero of them spend any time in the major casinos (unless they’re working). That being said, when we tell them about our experiences along America’s most over-the-top stretch of pavement, they’re always compelled. Like I told my friend Mike Jones last night, who plays piano for Penn & Teller at the Rio, “you never would have known the Cosmo opened a Milk Bar had we not gone there and brought you a compost cookie!” Truth be told, there is so much to do on the Las Vegas Strip besides gamble and act ridiculous. Neither I nor my wife play games of chance. I’ve played approximately one hand of blackjack and five slot machines over the last ten years. When I come to Vegas, I eat, I drink, and I shop—not necessarily in that order, but with equal ferocity. But while I’m full of advice when it comes to downtown attractions, a few of my friends gave me a little of their own recently: try staying off the strip and check out what the city has to offer beyond the outrageous. This past weekend I decided to do just that.
I spent the weekend in Summerlin, a growing community on the west side of town buttressed against the mountains and Red Rock Canyon national park. Rather than glam it up at glitzy bars and feed my appetite with fine dining, we decided to research and reminisce about what life used to be like before the internet—back when everything wasn’t all or nothing. Part of the reason the pre-Prohibition (or “craft”) cocktail culture took off ten years ago was because mass-market mixing had gone too far to one side of the spectrum. Mixed drinks were losing their balance and their sense of history. While I now thoroughly enjoy that I can get a really interesting cocktail just about anywhere in the U.S. and drink well wherever I go, I would never want the U.S. to become nothing but $12 mezcal Margaritas with fresh-squeezed lime juice. I subscribe to a life philosophy that I’ve plagiarized from the fashion world, a concept known as “high-low.” That could mean wearing a designer jacket with Vans, or couture shoes with a pair of beat up Levi’s. It means that I also enjoy all elements of imbibing, from the upper echelons of old Scotch to the simple pleasures of cold Tecate with hot sauce. The problem with where I live in the Bay Area is that we’re expanding the presence of the former at the expense of the latter. While there are more and more places where I can get a Negoni with Dolin vermouth, there are fewer where I can a cheap (but delicious) Bloody Mary and a plate of fries. Summerlin, however, is booming with both.
We spent two days driving through various parts of outer Las Vegas revving the engine of our rented Dodge Charger through the high mountains of the desert in search of the past—of a time in our lives when eating and drinking was only part of the friendship formula, not the sole focus of everything. There was a time in the Bay Area when you could go out for breakfast on a Sunday and not wait in line. That was back when you could take a day off your diet and just live recklessly for the few hours of freedom you had over the weekend. While I love avocado toast, poached eggs, quinoa oatmeal, and all the other neo-California health options you find at fancy diners today, I don’t want their prevalence to come at the expense of my beloved greasy spoons. I don’t want to live in a world where yoga is fashion and carbs are the enemy. Sometimes I just want a giant fried tortilla shell stuffed with scrambled eggs and God knows what else. I won’t necessarily eat the entire thing, but I want to be able to order it at least. I want to know that it’s there if I want it. In Las Vegas, everything is here whenever you want it—24 hours a day.
And as someone who loves taco trucks and the arrival of regionally-specific Mexican food to pop culture, I would never, ever, ever, ever sacrifice fun for authenticity. You don’t have to. There’s some rule written down somewhere (I wish I could find out where so I could burn that place to the ground) that decrees people who are seriously into something must also act seriously. But sometimes I want to eat really good Mexican food in a giant hacienda-themed garden and listen to mariachi. Or I want to sit in that restaurant’s bar and listen to the local band play “Mad World” by Tears for Fears, and other outstanding eighties covers while I drink cold Modelo and eat endless amounts of chips and salsa. That experience is unfortunately extinct where I live, but it’s still alive here in Las Vegas.