RACER EATS: Las Vegas’ Championship-Contending Food & Drink Options
If you’re like me and will soon be headed to Las Vegas for what has become a real power-week for the racing community – the NHRA Las Vegas Nationals at The Strip immediately followed by the SEMA Show – chances are good that you’re every bit as excited about all the eating and drinking you’ll be doing as you are the great racing, cool cars and neat products you’ll be seeing. Unless, of course, you’re lying to yourself – and probably your significant other – about how burdensome and miserable this time of year is, how you “ugh, just can’t believe it’s already trade show season”, and how you’re “completely over” Las Vegas. Yep, we can see through it – me, your wife, your employees and whoever else you’re feeding that bull to.
The only person I can think of that isn’t facing eating out at least two times a day for nearly a week solid during the aforementioned NHRA/SEMA power-week (I might trademark that) is Matt Hagan. I’m not certain of this, but I’m having very little trouble imagining him carrying around a temperature-controlled backpack stocked with Tupperware containers full of properly proportioned grilled chicken and broccoli, carrying a three-quarters-full gallon jug of water and, certainly, holding some whey [protein]. The rest of us? More concerned about the macronutrients of our cocktails (proper tequila to soda water ratio) and whether sides are considered “family style” or not. Thus, here we are with another RACER EATS feature at DRAGILLUSTRATED.com to guide you through the closing days of October and first week of November while almost the entire motorsports community converges on Sin City.
Before I dive into the commandments of wining and dining in Las Vegas, I’d like to address the elephant in the room and that’s the simple fact that everyone does Las Vegas differently. Honestly, I feel like the place gets a bit of a bad rap. My wife and I aren’t big gamblers, nor are we overtly interested in attempting to talk over a 260-decibel DJ set at a nightclub at 4AM, but we absolutely love Las Vegas. We’ve ventured out that way at least twice a year for the last decade, and it’s always to eat some great food, loosen up with a few cocktails and enjoy a show or night of high-level people watching in a casino lounge. You can do Vegas like Kenny “Captain Chaos” Koretsky if you want (it looks like fun), but you don’t need to have a sky suite at the MGM Grand, a VIP table inside Studio 54 and access to the high roller areas of the casinos to have fun in Vegas.
Below I’ve attempted to identify a little something for everyone – from fine dining to fast food; from watering hole to cocktail lounge. I hope you enjoy, and I hope even more that you’ll share your thoughts and suggestions! Hit us with an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to give us your feedback or tell us a place we’re missing!
RULE NO 1: SMASH A DOUBLE-DOUBLE AT IN-N-OUT
What follows is a 100-percent true story.
Up until 2016, I’d never eaten a hamburger or cheeseburger. Well, I’d had one, but it was the first and last of my life up until January 28, 2016. I remember the situation well – all too well. We were going through the drive-thru at Hardees north location in Kirksville, Missouri – and for the record, you haven’t truly lived until you’ve lived in a town with twoHardees within two miles of one another. As we rolled up to the speaker to place our order, my dad turned down “Too Much is Not Enough” by the Bellamy Brothers just enough that he could speak over it, but he, my brother and I could continue enjoying some of the greatest country music ever recorded. I leaned over the front bench seat of our family’s beloved big-block-powered, dually conversion Chevy Suburban to gander at the pictures on the menu. I was around eight years old and was a notoriously picky eater – a situation that I was and am still reminded of regularly. What I really wanted was a hot ham and cheese and curly fries, but the pressure had been immense – for years even at this point in my life – to “eat a f$%*&#@ hamburger like every other man on the planet.” I took pause.
After about three seconds of waiting on me, my dad made the decision. “Just give me another cheeseburger,” he said. “Ketchup and pickles only. If I wait on him to pick something we’ll still be here this time tomorrow.”
Damn, dude. Calm down.
As I peeled back the orange wrapper and made eye contact with my burger, my heart sank, and stomach started to turn. Knowing what would happen if I didn’t eat this freaking thing, I closed my eyes and sank my teeth into the seemingly 40-percent gristle patty. As my top-and-bottom teeth met and I began to pull the burger away from my mouth, I felt it – a penny. Yep, along with ketchup and pickles, my cheeseburger came with a copper-plated Abraham Lincoln.
Shock. Pain. Tears. It was a disaster. I vowed to never again eat a hamburger/cheeseburger of any make or model. I’m out.
Fast-forward three decades (or so) and I’m at the SEMA Motorsports Parts Manufacturers Council event outside of Los Angeles, California. If you’re not familiar, it’s a great deal – basically three days of speed-dating between motorsports media and motorsports manufacturers in an Embassy Suites in Orange County. On the last day of the show (Thursday) SEMA always arranges for a special lunch – almost always In-N-Out Burger. In years past, I’d always just gone without, chugged a protein shake and remained true to the promise I made to myself. This particularly beautiful day in sunny Southern California, however, I was feeling froggy. I’d heard people rave about In-N-Out for years and, frankly, I was starving.
What happened next was amongst the most transformative experiences of my life. It was a limited menu situation (large group, obvy), all they were offering were combo meals featuring a “Double-Double”, fries and your choice of soft drink. “Give me a Diet Coke,” I said, thinking of my long-term health and wellness, of course.
Fighting hunger pains at this point, I dove in. The white wrapper in my hands partly shrouded two never-frozen, 100-percent pure American beef patties and two slices of American cheese between two perfectly toasted (I’m assuming American) buns along with an American-sized slathering of In-N-Out’s signature spread (unchanged since 1948). Along with a tray of fresh, hand-cut French fried potatoes, I venture to say this is the greatest “fast food” on the planet, and definitely amongst the best tasting burgers in existence.
So, long story long at this point, if you’re in Las Vegas and you don’t make smashing a Double-Double with fries a real priority, well, you should.
PRO TIP: The Las Vegas Boulevard location is going to catch your eye and, admittedly, it’s a somewhat iconic part of The Strip, but I’d encourage you to opt instead for the Craig Road location off of I-15. It’s about 7 miles from Las Vegas Motor Speedway and it seems to never be wait-in-line busy, which is the only condition you’ll ever find on The Strip. My wife, Alisha, spotted this place from the road a couple years ago and now we’re regulars.
RULE NO. 2: EAT LIKE A DISTINGUISHED GENTLEMAN AT THE CAPITAL GRILLE IN THE FASHION SHOW MALL
In the spring of 2007, I flew out to Las Vegas with one of our photographers to do a photo shoot with the one-and-only Kenny Bernstein. He’d just announced that he was coming out of retirement to drive a brand-new Dodge Charger Nitro Funny Car sponsored by Monster Energy Drink. It was a big deal. I couldn’t have been more excited about it. Even back then, I was uber passionate about seeing new “big brands” make their way into drag racing, and I was over-the-moon to think that we had a major league energy drink coming into drag racing and throwing down big bread (like three million a year or better). I wanted to put him on the cover of the magazine and really do something impactful – celebrate what this guy was doing for the sport and what he’d done. Thirty years with Budweiser? It’s almost unbelievable really. I’ll never ever forget what it felt like when I was programming the “King of Speed” Kenny Bernstein’s phone number into my Blackberry – it was surreal, to say the least.
He’d told me just to come to his trailer, call or text, and we’d get together. Upon our arrival, we were greeted as if we were special guests and told to make ourselves at home. After we set up the lights, we spent at least a solid hour shooting photos and Bernstein was every bit the bonafide superstar you’d expect. Total professional, knew what he was doing, and played the part from start to finish. We spent the whole day hanging out with Kenny and his then marketing director Matt (an absolutely great guy that I developed a long-lasting friendship with). When it was time to roll out, I’ll never forget the way things played out.
“You guys got a car or something?” Bernstein asked. “How you getting back to your hotel?”
I didn’t really know what to say because, honestly, I wasn’t sure. I’d taken a cab from the airport to the racetrack, and I hadn’t really thought about how I’d get to the hotel.
“We took a cab out here,” I said, perhaps not realizing how I’d just completely obliterated any perception I’d created previously of really having my shit together. “So, I’ll probably just call a cab.”
“No, you will not,” he said. “You’ll ride with me and Sheryl.”
The next thing I know we’re piling our camera and lighting gear, along with all our baggage, into the trunk of Kenny Bernstein’s Lincoln Continental rental car and heading for the famous Las Vegas Strip.
“What hotel you guys at?” he asked as we pulled onto I-15 and headed toward the city.
“Um…the Stratosphere,” I said, now fully understanding that any guise I’d created previously about the success of my little magazine publishing endeavor was likely up for debate. “How about y’all?”
Now, imagine me cringing.
Anyway, Kenny and Sheryl drop us off at the Stratosphere and as they’re helping us round up our crap out of their car, shockingly, they invite us to dinner. “It’s a phenomenal place,” he said. “You’ve got to go.”
About a hour later, we were scrambling out the door of the hotel and heading toward the Capital Grille on the top floor of the Fashion Show Mall. There we broke bread with Kenny and Sheryl, Matt and a couple of his sponsors. It was spectacular. I was in so far over my head that it was hard to fathom, and I was well versed in “fake it till you make it.”
I ordered a 10 oz. filet mignon topped with gorgonzola cheese and a side of parmesan truffle fries. Prior to this superb plate, I enjoyed a wedge salad with extra bacon, blue cheese crumbles and ranch dressing (because I can’t completely shake off Kirksville, Missouri).
It was spectacular. I’d never really had fine dining at that point in my life, and I was hooked. Kenny ordered cocktails, bottles of wine and then insisted on picking up the check for all of us. The food was great, but the experience and the ambience was what really stood out to me. The staff was on-point, the view of The Strip and the hotel Kenny was staying at (and that I couldn’t afford to Google search) was breathtaking.
I remember when the waitress came back to pick up her little black booklet thing, Kenny handed her his credit card – an American Express “black card”.
“You must be important,” she said.
Kenny laughed and smiled, and politely said, “I don’t know about that, but thanks.”
I later used this story as an example of how drag racers – especially those as accomplished as Kenny Bernstein – don’t have the public recognition that I believe they deserve. Somebody important? Are you serious, lady? This is the King of Speed. This is Mr. 300. Hell yes, he’s important, and how in the hell do you not know who he is?
Anyway, since then Capital Grille has been my go-to fancy steakhouse. I always swing by the Capital Grille in Indianapolis during PRI and the U.S. Nationals, and have made an effort to visit as many of them as I can as I’ve traveled the country. It’s also one of my wife’s favorite places as it was the first legitimately “nice place” that I ever took her to and, of course, it was the Vegas location that I first took her, and the reason I’m recommending it to you.
PRO TIP: Don’t take a large group. The place is fairly pricey and while it’s 100-percent worth the money, this might not be the type of place you take 15-20 people. I’ve done it and it’s great, but you’ll be having nightmares about the receipt for a good little bit. However, you will be motivated to make some money in the days following so, I guess, go for it.
RULE NO. 3: EAT THE BEST MEXICAN IN THE WORLD? YEP.
Listen…this is not Taco Bell, not Chipotle and not your local dive Mexican joint where everything is served covered in white cheese sauce. It is, however, amongst my top five favorite restaurants of all time. I’m talking about Javier’s inside the ARIA Resort & Casino. This is a joint that I was introduced to by West Coast Pro Mod racer Danny Rowe. He invited my wife and I to join he and his wife, Val, along with a slew of their friends for dinner at Javier’s several years ago when they first opened their Vegas location – the original is in Newport Beach, California. The way the restaurant looks out onto the casino floor is bad ass, and the music and lighting makes you feel like you’re somewhere not everyone gets to go. The food and drink live up to the hype, too. The jalapeño margarita is legit, the salsa is perfectly spicy enough to need a glass of water but not feel like you’re going to die (looking at you, Alex Laughlin) and the Filet Antiguo (what I order) along with a side of white rice is to die for. It’s a prime cut of beef served on a bed of sautéed spinach with baby potatoes, topped with a light chipotle cream sauce. It’s stupid.
PRO TIP: I’m trying to break you guys here, basically. Another place that isn’t exactly cheap, but, hey, you only live once and when you’ve spent a good bit of your life eating food that likely has a penny in it – it’s hard to resist good eats. I think this is a fantastic spot for a “team dinner” or a “sponsor dinner”. It has an electric vibe, great service, great people watching and – I shit-you-not – a 25-foot chainsaw carving in the back room that is unbelievably cool.
RULE NO. 4: GET A LITTLE BIT OF THAT OLD TIME, MAFIOSO VEGAS VIBE
Just off the Las Vegas Boulevard, directly behind The Flamingo sits Battista’s Hole in the Wall – a fantastic Italian joint that serves every imaginable red-sauce classic and includes complimentary red and white wine with every meal (as well as a salad or soup, bread or pasta, and a killer cup of cappuccino when you’re finished). Not only is the food solid as a rock, but, again, the vibe of this place is just awesome. It’s perfectly, dimly-lit with the kind of classic deep, dark red leather booths you’d expect to be made an offer you can’t refuse. Not only is this place absolutely affordable, it’s guaranteed to leave a lasting impression – especially if their wandering accordion player stops by your table. He takes (and possibly expects) tips, but has an uncanny ability to bust out the fight song for whatever college you went to. The first time I ate at this place he asked me what school I went to and I told him, “Kirksville Senior High”.
He replied, “No, I meant college.”
“Didn’t make it that far, buddy, but thanks for assuming the best.”
PRO TIP: This is exactly the place to take someone who wants to go somewhere cool, fun and special, but doesn’t want a somewhat pretentious, uptight joint like some of the typical Las Vegas five-star restaurants. Pricewise this is a great place to take a group as it won’t break the bank and everyone will get their bellies full. However, I wouldn’t start off a night on the town here as you’ll likely want to go to bed after a plate full of ziti.
RULE NO. 5: RESPECT THE CRAFT; SNAG A SLICE AT PIZZA ROCK
I didn’t know this was a thing, but apparently, you can be a world champion at pizza making, and Tony Gemignani, the owner of Pizza Rock just off Fremont Street in Downtown Las Vegas, is one 12 times over. Most pizza places become famous for a specific style – paper-thin crust or super deep-dish, wood-fired or whatever else – but they do it at all at Pizza Rock, and they do it damn well. I’m an absolute sucker for a classic margherita, and you’ll get one of the best in the world at this place, but they have it all – a great white pie, some heavy-duty meat-laden stuff and some froufrou stuff that you’d expect at a West Coast eatery in 2019 (you know – gluten free with quail eggs and kale or whatever). What sends this place over the top is the atmosphere and aesthetics – there’s a Peterbilt in the place that serves as a DJ booth and the music is loud enough to make you feel alive, but not have to scream at your dinner guests.
PRO TIP: This is one of those places that knows its customers, and knows the area, so they have a late-night walk-up window that’ll allow you to grab a fresh slice without having to wait for a table or get there early.
RULE NO. 6: LOSE ALL FEELING IN YOUR FACE AT THE CHANDELIER BAR
With three stories of bar and lounge seating inside a literal floor-to-ceiling chandelier, this joint is said to be one of the most famous bars in the world. Personally, the first floor is a little too typical hotel casino bar for me, but the second and third floors are pretty swanky places that seem to always have a lively crowd. The primary reason for going here, however, is to treat your team, staff, wife or self to this crazy-ass drink they have that isn’t on the menu. It’s considered something of a “secret drink”, but it’s not that much of a secret as the bartender told me back in April that they serve over 100,000 of them a year. Regardless, it’s basically a margarita, but it comes with a yellow flower (kind of looks like a dandelion) floating on top. The bartender will instruct you to take a few sips of the drink and then take this edible flower (known as a “buzz button”) and eat the freaking thing. Within a few seconds you’ll feel your mouth and tongue start to, well, freak out – kind of an intense tingling sensation. The feeling lasts for like maybe 10 minutes, and the idea is that every time you take a sip the drink tastes a little different – as the effects wear off. It’s a lot of fun and something to talk about if nothing else.
PRO TIP: They’ll sell you the flowers for $2 a piece. I was so enamored with this deal the first time I did it I bought $20 worth of the flowers so I could keep the fun going at other locations. They don’t keep long, but I got a couple days of fun out of the deal.
RULE NO. 7: TAKE A SHOT AND SCORE SOME NACHOS AT GHOST DONKEY
Speakeasy? Is that what you said? Count me in. I love stuff like that. Conspiracy theories, secret societies and hidden bars inside Las Vegas casinos are right up my alley. As you’re strolling through the Block 16 food hall inside The Cosmopolitan, you’ll notice a pale pink door under an exit sign with a small picture of a donkey painted on it. There’s no neon sign, no arrow, no hours of operation or anything at all welcoming, but if you walk through that door you’ll find a tiny bar with a few seats that serves crazy craft cocktails and a single food option: nachos. Alisha and I actually walked by this place several times and never noticed it, and then walked by it a few times more when we were trying to find it. It’s quite cool and a fun place to take a small group.
There are so many places to eat and drink in Vegas that these rules are hardly fair. I’d argue that you can’t go wrong. STK, also at the Cosmo, is what happens when you mate a steakhouse with a night club, and I dig it. The Palm inside The Forum Shops at Caesars features a tomahawk ribeye steak that Murder Tundra dreams about nightly. Nacho Daddy with locations downtown on Fremont Street and inside the Miracle Mile Shops is another killer Mexican place with some filet mignon fajitas that are worth their weight in gold.