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Las Vegas (Mostly) Off the Strip (Long + Pics)

Las Vegas (Mostly) Off the Strip (Long + Pics)
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  • - April 18th, 2014, 7:03 pm
    - April 18th, 2014, 7:03 pm Post #121 - April 18th, 2014, 7:03 pm
    You can eat quite well both on and off the Strip, or so I think I proved on most recent visit to Las Vegas. But before I ate anything near the strip, I pretty much transported myself right back to Japan for another vacation. My eating extravaganza began merely hours after my arrival when I dined solo at Raku. Though I always choose Raku for the stunning robata grilled items and sashimi, it would be a mistake to ignore the house-made tofu. Yes, the tofu is terrific, but don't underestimate the importance of the high quality bonito flakes Raku uses. It's really amazing how much flavor this seemingly simple dish delivers.

    Raku's tofu (half order)

    Raku always offers a number of sashimi offerings which change frequently and are displayed in handwriting on a small board in the restaurant, and vary constantly depending upon which fish are in season. And so I should not have been surprised when my server at Raku pushed the menuke (rockfish) sashimi, explaining that it was at its seasonal peak and was not to be missed. He was right.

    Menuke sashimi at Raku

    Just as good was another daily special of firefly squid. It's remarkable how much flavor these gems deliver as they burst at first chew. When available, I will always choose them over any other squid offering, particularly since they're only in season a few months a year. There's really nothing like them.

    Firefly squid salad at Raku

    Knowing that I would be finishing the evening with dessert at Raku Sweets, I sampled only two of Raku's fantastic robata grilled items. The Iberico pork shoulder delivered as great flavor as one would expect from this luscious pig, with just enough fat and char to leave me debating whether a second skewer was appropriate. Equally delicious was the Kobe outer skirt steak with slivered garlic.


    Iberico pork shoulder above, Kobe outer skirt steak below, at Raku

    If you wanted, you could easily make a meal at Raku from their grilled items or sashimi, but I think the ideal combination involves tofu, sashimi and robata grilled items. With nothing quite like Raku in Chicago, you'll be wowed. So score one for Vegas - as much as I love Katsu, I just think that Raku is operating at a higher level.

    After dinner, I moved a few doors down in the strip mall, right past Kabuto to Raku Sweets, all the while smelling the intense aromas of curry from Japanese Curry Zen and the smell of liquefying pork from Monta. Unfortunately, you won't hear me gushing about Raku Sweets, at least not based upon my first visit. It's a bright and cheery place, no doubt, offering only counter seating with a front seat view of the action:

    Dessert counter at Raku Sweets

    Raku Sweets offers a three-course prix-fixe dessert tasting menu for $19. You certainly can't complain about the minor investment. The beginning of dessert seems routine enough, with the delivery of the menu:


    Dessert menu at Raku Sweets

    Or so it all seemed routine. In fact, in Willy Wonka style, the menu was edible, with raspberry sauce for dipping. Unfortunately, the menu tasted similar to a plain ice cream cone, so repeatedly dipping menu pieces in the raspberry sauce eventually lost its charm.

    Edible dessert menu and raspberry sauce at Raku Sweets

    The real first course was a vibrant and smooth strawberry sorbet, served with a green tea jelly. The subtle green tea flavor might have been just a little bit lost, but the strawberry sorbet was truly excellent.

    Strawberry sorbet and green tea jelly at Raku Sweets

    The primary decision to be made at Raku Sweets is which of the five desserts to choose for your main dessert. At the suggestion of my waitress, I ordered the baton - a thin chocolate tuile cylinder filled with a chocolate and a pistachio mousse, garnished with chopped pistachios and resting atop a spoonful of raspberry sauce. But the mousses were too light, too fluffy, as if their volumes were obtained largely by beaten egg whites, and the pistachio flavor was unrecognizable. Though pretty to look at, there was little about this dessert that appealed to me.

    Chocolate and pistachio mousse dessert, Raku Sweets

    Dessert concluded with a cream puff, filled with custard and your fruit filling of choice. I chose strawberry, and the custard and strawberry filling was terrific. But the dish was slightly marred by the overbaked, slightly too crisp, cream puff.

    Cream puff with strawberry and custard filling, Raku Sweets

    There were certainly positives at Raku Sweets, but I ultimately felt let down. No doubt expectations were certainly high given the Raku name. But given the minimal investment required for the 3-course dessert tasting menu, there would certainly be little risk in giving Raku Sweets a try. Avoid the same chocolate dessert I had and maybe you'll leave happier.

    As long as I'm on the Japanese theme, let's talk Japanese curry, Japanese Curry Zen to be precise. I could complain about the pork katsu. It was very lean and not all that flavorful. But at least the pork was beautifully fried, served hot and crisp. But the real star here was the magnificently rich, thick curry. I was lucky to have sampled some curry on my most recent visit to Japan, and the version served at Japanese Curry Zen was every bit as rich and satisfying. The curry is served with a slightly tart tonkatsu sauce and some pickled vegetables to cut the richness of the dish. Since you can escape here spending under $10, you'd be a fool to not visit. Hell, it's in the same strip mall as Kabuto, Raku and Monta - have a taste while you're there. You won't regret it.

    Pork katsu curry at Japanese Curry Zen

    I wasn't even close to done sampling Vegas' Japanese offerings. We've all dug deep into bowls of artery clogging ramen at Monta. But there's a ramen explosion in Vegas -- even Ramen Misoya is opening up a location there to be part of the action. And I was lucky enough to try one of the most acclaimed spots, Ramen Sora, which specializes in Sapporo Ramen. Apparently, Ramen Sora's Vegas location is the only US location of Sapporo, Japan's own Ramen Sora.


    Ramen Sora specializes in Sapporo ramen, typically miso ramen. And this was one outstanding bowl of ramen. Here are a few looks at my bowl of miso ramen with chashu pork and egg:



    Ramen at Ramen Sora

    The broth was rich and full of flavor. Perhaps not as thick and rich as Monta's, but outstanding nonetheless. The chashu pork was rich and fatty, yet tender and melting. But the thick, chewy ramen noodles were the real star of the dish. I love thicker ramen noodles and these were just right. They're the kind that demand to be slurped immediately and quickly to maintain the perfect texture. But one bit of advice: order the small bowl. One can only slurp so much liquid pig. Ultimately, I can't tell you whether I personally prefer Monta or Sora, but the beautiful thing about vacationing in Vegas is you don't need me to decide for you. Try them both.

    Ramen Sora
    4490 Spring Mountain Rd.
    Las Vegas

    Nope, still not finished exploring Japanese food in Vegas. Before picking up a friend at the airport, I had a late lunch at I-Naba. I-Naba apparently has at least two other locations, one in Honolulu and another in Torrance, California.


    Have you ever had the absolutely perfect noodle? You might just want to try the housemade soba noodles at I-Naba. I-Naba makes their soba noodles daily, using buckwheat flour imported from Nagano. They're chewy, nutty, earthy and deeply satisfying:

    Soba at I-Naba

    I ordered the ten zaru soba and it was magnificent. I prefer my soba cold so as not to ruin the texture of the noodles, and I-Naba's soba was fantastic. So was the accompanying shrimp and vegetable tempura, with its crisp yet delicate batter and minimal grease. Just as was the case with my outstanding tempura meal in Kyoto, it was suggested that I alternate between the tempura dipping sauce and the accompanying green tea and curry salts, which were delicious.

    Tempura at I-Naba

    And when I finished the tempura and the soba, I was brought the soba-yu for sipping. Soba water and a great dashi make for a perfect finish to any meal. Here's a look at the whole meal, though the soba dipping sauce is hidden below the wasabi and green onions:

    Ten zaru soba at I-Naba

    I could eat soba every day. I might even prefer its elegant simplicity to the in-your-face flavors of ramen. But I've yet to find a place in Chicago that turns out respectable soba. I've tried a few, and left mildly disappointed each time. That's just one of the reasons I would urge you to visit I-Naba in Vegas (or perhaps Torrance, CA or Honolulu). Add it to the list of places that won't break the bank. I should note that all of the places I mention in this post are withing 5 minutes of one another by car.

    But one warning if you visit the Las Vegas location of I-Naba. It's in a strip mall, but it's sign and entrance cannot be seen from the street. So arrive with patience and gps.

    I'll document the rest of my recent Vegas trip in a separate post. There's a lot more, including my favorite meal of the trip (Kabuto), wonderful dinners at Bartolotta di Mare and Carnevino, xiao long bao and a lot more.