Most Las Vegas visitors never leave the Strip, but finding some of the city’s best food requires venturing away from the bright lights and mega casinos, and into the city’s unglamorous Chinatown. Head west on Spring Mountain Road from Las Vegas Boulevard, and the world of Chinatown will unfold around you, with miles of strip malls packed with restaurants, bars, foot massage shops, Asian markets, tea houses and stores of all kinds. The architecture here features a lot of curved roofs, and the billboards and signs are often in English and Chinese, a reflection of the city’s growing Asian population.
While this part of Las Vegas is called Chinatown, the name is a bit of a misnomer. You’ll find Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and Filipino restaurants, as well as a profusion of other eateries, including two crawfish places and a new French restaurant. The culinary creativity here is exploding, fueled in no small part by chefs who started out on the Strip.
A visit to Chinatown is a chance to get adventurous with your food choices, plus you can enjoy highly original dishes at non-Strip prices. The biggest question when exploring Las Vegas’ Chinatown? How to narrow down where to eat.
One place to start is at Fukuburger, the creation of Colin Fukunaga, which serves Asian-style burgers – beef patties topped off with things like fried egg, teriyaki and wasabi mayo, grilled shiitake mushrooms, pickled red ginger and habanero kabayaki. Fukuburger started life as a food truck (which is still in operation, along with a second restaurant in the southwestern portion of the city) before finding a brick and mortar home in Chinatown. It’s open until 1 a.m. during the week, and until 3 a.m. on Friday and Saturday.
“When I launched Fukuburger I wanted to aim specifically at Las Vegas industry. I really didn’t pay much attention to tourists or anything like that,” says Fukunaga, who worked at TAO before going out on his own. As he explains it, his inspiration came from his fellow workers. “It was specifically for our brethren coming off of work on the Strip, going westbound from the Strip on Spring Mountain…There was no such thing as an Asian-style burger back then,” he says.
The strip mall across the street from Fukuburger holds District One, where Fukunaga enjoys the Vietamese coffee, beef salad and the beef carpaccio, which he says is “to die for.” And while there’s an abundance of noodle shops in Chinatown, Fukunaga points to the new Ramen Hashi as “a super clean ramen joint,” with the noodles made onsite.
At the other end of the Chinatown restaurant spectrum, the new Sparrow + Wolf presents a seasonal, Asian-influenced menu with an upscale vibe. Since its opening, the restaurant has attracted a steady stream of acclaim. Dishes here lean in a refined direction, like the steak tartare with shiitake mushroom, wasabi and confit egg, or the Chinatown Clams Casino.
Sparrow + Wolf chef Brian Howard echoes some of the same thoughts about the area as Fukunaga. “Chinatown, or Spring Mountain Road, has always been a food destination for those of us in the food and beverage industry. It’s been a place where you could experience all sorts of Asian deliciousness at any time of the day or night.”
While the Las Vegas Strip has the firm attention of tourists with its celebrity chefs and fine dining, locals in the know understand that Chinatown is on the cutting edge of the food scene these days.
“There are many great restaurants that are really pushing creativity on the Las Vegas Strip, and probably more talent than most other cities,” Howard says. “In my opinion, a lot of the menus tend to look the same on the Strip…[Chinatown chefs] have more freedom to create and cook the way we feel at the moment, with less hoops to jump through.”
Howard – also a fan of District One, “…a must if you want to be treated like family, or have a hangover you need cured with some delicious pho” – recommends the nearby Sand Dollar, a bar known for its live music, as well as Japanese restaurants Raku and Yui Edomae Sushi, neither of which are in the cheap eats category.
Las Vegas’ Chinatown continues growing, adding more restaurants and bars on a steady basis. “I think over the next 10 years, we’re going to be more of an epicenter of amazing chefs,” says Fukunaga. If he’s right, that’s a good thing for Las Vegas.