How to eat like a local in Las Vegas, according to chef Rick Moonen

Photo via Instagram/DistrictOneLV

How to eat like a local in Las Vegas, according to chef Rick Moonen

Foodie City Guides

How to eat like a local in Las Vegas, according to chef Rick Moonen

Las Vegas, perhaps more than any other city in the world, is the master of rebranding itself. The 1990s saw Vegas shift its identity from being a budget spot for cheap hotel rooms and all-night gambling to a sophisticated destination for luxury hotels, world-class entertainment and gourmet dining.

As massive casino resorts opened at a dizzying pace and attempted to outdo one another in terms of luxury perks, high-end amusements  and celebrity cachet, they drew a wave of celebrity chefs – Wolfgang Puck, Emeril Lagasse and Bobby Flay were among the first famous chefs to open restaurants in Las Vegas. In the space of a few years, dining on The Strip went from being a “Yeah, you can eat there” experience to an aspirational dining mecca.

By the time chef Rick Moonen was invited to open a restaurant at Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay Resort, he had already risen through the ranks at some of Manhattan’s most celebrated temples of fine dining, including Le Cirque and The Water Club. He was partner and executive chef at New York City restaurants Oceana and Molyvos, both of which earned coveted 3-star reviews from The New York Times

But when Vegas called, Moonen answered, and his fine dining restaurant RM Seafood opened in 2005 at the Shoppes at Mandalay Bay, and the former Top Chef Masters runner-up followed that up in 2013 with Rx Boiler Room, a steampunk-inspired, creative comfort food restaurant at Mandalay Bay. 

Throughout his career, Moonen has been a staunch advocate of sustainable fishing practices, enough to earn him the moniker, the “Godfather of Sustainability.”  Naturally, Moonen and his wife, Roni, a food photography stylist, spend a lot of time on the Strip, but in their downtime, they like to head off-piste for relaxed, unpretentious dining experiences.  

While “off-the-Strip” was once synonymous with penny slots, lap dances and $3.99 spaghetti dinners, increasingly, chefs are abandoning the high rents and highbrow vibe of the Strip to open casual, affordable eateries in innocuous strip malls, where the rent is low, parking is plentiful and the atmosphere is way low-key.  

“Look, I love the Strip,” says Moonen. “There’s no place like it in the world. But I spend a lot of my working hours there. So when I need some downtime and a good meal, I want easy, authentic and convenient. That’s a rarity on Las Vegas Boulevard but fortunately, you don’t have to look far to find great food in humble surroundings in the city.”

Here are some of chef Moonen’s  favorite off-the-Strip places for a casual meal:

District One

With an industrial-chic interior in an unassuming Chinatown strip mall, District One offers a menu inspired by traditional fare from Vietnam, Thailand, China and Japan. Moonen calls it “approachable Asian food that’s not watered down for wimpy American palates”—and he loves the oxtail pho.

Other Mama

In an anonymous Spring Valley shopping center, chef Dan Krohmer offers, per Moonen, “an energetic, ‘cheffy’ experience” in a fun, casual setting.“ Creative, Asian-influenced food is preeminent at Other Mama, and Moonen particularly craves the kimchi fried rice and says, “Whatever the daily chalkboard special is, that’s what I want.”

Forte Tapas 

Almond-stuffed dates, grilled sausage platters, vodka shots and borscht for two – these are a few of Moonen’s favorite things at Forte Tapas, a color-saturated, super-cozy bar and eatery with a menu combining Spanish tapas and Bulgarian comfort food. “We love chef Nina (Manchev),” he says. “Her mom is usually there too, and she’s a real character. The vibe is super-cool.  Just go!”

Honey Pig

In a beyond nondescript strip mall (it’s next to a Big Lots), this no-frills, no-website Korean BBQ is open 24 hours. “My first apartment in Las Vegas was near this place,” Moonen recalls. “And I could come here for a good, cheap meal at any time of day or night.” It’s all about pork here, and thin slices of every part of the pig are served  raw, with spicy sauces and sides, for DIY grilling on the table. Moonen advises to “wash it down with plenty of soju.”

Florida Café Cuban Bar & Grill

Technically on the Strip but far removed from the melee, Havana native chef Sergio Perez’s cafeteria-casual spot celebrates the flavors of his home island. Moonen heads here for “live Cuban music, a funky atmosphere and the best Cuban sandwich in Vegas.” Order a pitcher of mojitos,” he says, “and you can’t go wrong.”

EATT Gourmet Bistro

Bright and minimalist EATT offers healthy takes on haute dining, minus the pretense and price tag. “This is Michelin-star quality dining in a strip mall,” says Moonen. “It’s great food prepared with classic skill.” EATT offers a range of vegan, gluten-free items, and “killer vegan soups.” Moonen is a fan of the duck confit, pate a chou with house-cured salmon and the fish of the day, “which always rocks.”

Elia Authentic Greek Taverna

Moonen’s second NYC restaurant, Molyvos, was the first Greek restaurant to earn three stars from the New York Times. So he knows his souvlaki from his spanakopita. And Elia, he says, is “the real deal – authentic Greek cuisine in a casual atmosphere.” His must-haves include the horiatiki salad with roasted feta, wild oregano and serrano peppers, and the lavraki, a whole grilled Mediterranean seabass, which he says is “better than they make at (Estiatorio) Milos!”

Saffron Flavors of India

This elegant pan-Indian restaurant lurks behind another ho-hum storefront, where the lights of the Strip are a distant glow on the horizon. Moonen comes for the paneer chili, Tandoori chicken wings and Rogan Josh lamb in ginger and fennel sauce. “Raj Patel, the owner, is a good friend, and he’s brought really refined Indian fare to North Las Vegas. This is a place I love to come with a big group, and let Raj do the ordering for us.”

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