10 Contrasting Local Rice Dishes
Rice in its many forms lends itself to a huge variety of dishes, in cuisines as diverse as Persian, Cuban and down home Cajun. Here are ten examples of where to eat various rice dishes in Las Vegas. Not all are the best of their respective versions I’ve ever tasted, but some are indeed, and the others selected are the best you’ll eat around here.
Risotto with White Truffles at Piero Selvaggio Valentino
What, you don’t have $2,200 to shell out for a pound of white truffles, aka tuber magnatum? Perhaps you’d consider a less ostentatious sum for a few shavings at Valentino where chef Luciano Pellegrini prepares a faultless risotto, using Arborio rice.
The risotto is redolent of Parmesan cheese when it comes to the table, and has a creamy, firm texture. A captain comes out to perform the service, shaving ultra thin slices of the precious, reeking delicacy, which drift down onto the dish like dreamy snowflakes.
The smell of white truffles primarily comes from a pheromone mimic, and the overall taste experience has been compared to armpits, old socks and pure heaven; a cultivated taste, perhaps, but one no one ever forgets. The truffles are hunted by dogs in Italy’s Piedmont (the French use pigs to root for them, but Italians say the pigs eat them when digging them up).
Is this the world’s best rice dish? I’d have to say so. Owner Selvaggio calls the dish “the Lord’s porridge.”
Piero Selvaggio’s Valentino
Venetian Resort and Casino
3355 Las Vegas Boulevard South
Las Vegas, NV 89109
Baghali Polo at Royal Persis
Persians generally serve their gigantic kabobs over even more gigantic mounds of fragrant Basmati rice, colored at the top with bright yellow saffron. But sometimes they mix their rice with either zereshk, barberries in English, albaloo, dried cherries, or lima beans and dill, called bagha-li in Farsi, with the accent on the last syllable, as if you were saying Peggy Lee.
When they add to the rice, the dish officially becomes a polo, which has the same Indo-European root as our word pilaf. Only one place has a good example of baghali polo around here. It’s at Royal Persis, where you also get a mean chelo kabob, cylinders of spiced ground meat.
But lamb shank is what you get with your baghali polo. That’s the way a Persian eats it, and by God, so will you. The shank is meltingly soft, so you spoon off a hunk, mix it with the flavorful gravy, and anoint the rice with it. It’s wonderful, and the best Persian dish in the city.
2790 E. Flamingo Rd. #A
Las Vegas, NV 89121-5253
Nam Kao Tod at Lotus of Siam
If Schlitz is the beer that made Milwaukee famous, than this dish, which the menu translates as crispy rice salad, did the same for Lotus of Siam, which Gourmet Magazine grandly proclaimed “the best Thai in the United States.” Nam kao tod may be the perfect beer dish, too, but you’ll be getting a Singha, no Schlitz in this joint.
I don’t know what magic chef Saipin Chutima has wrought in making every grain of rice in this dish so unbelievably crunchy, but they are, a mixture of the rice with shards of ginger, roasted peanut, lemon grass, and sai ua, sweet and sour Thai sausage that gives it all body.
The dish is served with cabbage leaves. You’re meant to scoop some up, and put it in the hollow of a leaf. Oh, and watch out for those Thai chilies. They are positively incendiary, but the meek can eat their way around them and still hope to inherit the earth.
Lotus of Siam
In Commercial Center
844 E. Sahara Ave.
Las Vegas, NV 89104-3005
Night Market Fried Rice at Ping Pang Pong
Perhaps the best-and certainly the most sensual-places to eat in Asian cities are the night markets, where food is sold at stalls, stands and bicycle driven carts. This is lusty food at prices that boggle the Western mind. I’ll be in Vietnam next month, hitting every night market I find, and sending pictures. Stay tuned.
Ping Pang Pong is known for dim sum, the only place in town for, with apologies to PETA, shark’s fin dumplings, as well as a number of other original dishes, like a peerless sesame crusted shrimp roll. But a dish called Night Market Fried Rice, a mélange of beef brisket, tomato, onion, egg, hot chilies, cilantro and rice sautéed until it turns pale gold with crisp bits strewn throughout, is flat out the city’s best fried rice.
Add soy sauce at your peril. This dish doesn’t need it.
Ping Pang Pong
Gold Coast Casino
4000 W Flamingo Rd
Las Vegas, NV 89103
Seafood Paella at Café Ba-ba-reeba
Paella in America is a one-armed pretender compared to the real thing, a crusty, oven baked rice casserole found on the east side of Spain. Lettuce Entertain You’s Café Ba-ba-reeba serves a reasonable facsimile, usually dressed up with chicken, sausage, and several types of shellfish.
I prefer fish paella that uses an intense stock to flavor the rice, but that hasn’t caught on in the States. I asked the kitchen at Ba-ba-reeba to prepare one for me, and they were gracious enough to comply.
The restaurant uses Bomba rice from Spain and traditional double handled cast iron paella pans, which enables the rice to crust on top and remain moist in the center. For the paella, the chef used monkfish, calamari and shrimp, and the result almost transported me to Spain.
Cafe Ba Ba Reeba
3200 Las Vegas Blvd S # 1144
Las Vegas, NV 89109-0763
Kashmiri Biryani at Namaste
North Indian food dominates the Indian restaurant landscape, the meat rich, Mughlai cuisine brought to India by the Mogul Emperors of ancient Persia.
But in that country’s extreme northwest, there is Kashmir, a province that uses dried fruit, nuts and edible gold or silver leaf to garnish its dishes. And the one Kashmiri dish one might find on a north Indian menu is Kashmiri biryani, a gaudy rice creation.
At Namaste, the best Indian restaurant in town, chef Om Singh has created an authentic Kasmiri biryani, fragrant basmati rice chock full of braised lamb, cashews, dried fruit and masala, an aromatic mixture of spices, all garnished with diatome thin slices of silver leaf. The dish is best eaten on its own washed down with a yeasty Indian beer. If you insist, though, eat it with hot naan bread, steaming from the tandoor.
In Commercial Center
953 E Sahara Ave A#6
Las Vegas, NV 89104
Arroz Con Pollo at Havana Grill
The arroz con pollo at Havana Grill isn’t, somehow, as good as ones I’ve eaten in South Florida, at institutions such as Versailles and Café Columbia. Still, it’s the best version around here unless you count the one at Florida Café, their sister restaurant, which is identical.
What you can expect is a huge mound of food, colored a faint yellow from saffron, rice slow cooked with onions, garlic, green peppers and a disjointed half chicken. Cooking the ingredients together slowly is how Cuban home cooks achieve a penetrating flavor. On top of the dish is a pile of fried plantains, a starchy Cuban fruit in the banana family.
Make sure and start a meal here with the addictive ham croquettes, and a nice rum drink. In case you hadn’t noticed, rum is the new vodka among the smart set.
8878 S Eastern Ave # 100
Las Vegas, NV 89123-3291
Bi Bim Bap at Mother’s Korean Grill
I just came from Baltimore, where I ate a version of Korea’s meal in a rice bowl, bi bim bap, that put the one at Mother’s to shame. I was in the Lexington Market, at a food stall, and the ladies were glad to put a ration of sesame oil scented tofu into my plastic take out container at no extra charge.
Mother’s isn’t original, cheap or especially distinguished, but it does happen to be the best Korean food here. Bi bim bap is a lunch dish, for health conscious eaters who don’t want big slabs of barbecued meat. I always pay extra and get it in the dolsot, or earthenware pot, in which the rice crust turns a golden brown.
It’s essentially rice with kim’chi, shredded vegetables such as carrot and cucumber, canary yellow soy bean sprouts, a touch of chopped beef, a fried egg, and-this is optional, a fiery red hot bean paste that you can mix it all up with. Hey, I’m hooked.
Mother’s Korean Grill
4215 Spring Mountain Road
Las Vegas, NV 89102
Sticky Rice at Sakun Thai Cuisine
Regional and northern Thai dishes are slow food, as opposed to Chinese Thai dishes from Bangkok cooked in a wok, and most are eaten with sticky rice, aka glutinous rice, served in a bamboo basket.
Before the health inspectors got sticky, this rice was cooked in the basket as well, but these days, for sanitary reasons, it comes in wrap made out of a clear, Saran-like material.
The quintessential dish eaten with it is gai yang, which we know as Thai barbecued chicken, and Sakun has the city’s best version, on the bone, crusted with spice and fall apart tender. Also recommended is a northern Thai dish called som tam, raw green papaya salad, which can be had Thai style, with cooked shrimp, or Lao style, with salty crab.
Sakun Thai Cuisine
1725 East Warm Springs
Las Vegas, Nevada 89119
Jambalaya at Rhythm Kitchen
Like many of my friends, I mourn the closings of Commander’s Palace and Louis Las Vegas, which served the best New Orleans and Low Country cooking Vegas will ever see. But there is hope. The chef from Commander’s Palace, Carlos Guia, is now the chef at the Country Club Grill at Wynn Las Vegas, and next week, he’s launching a brunch with jazz and Cajun specialties. Laissez les bon temps rouler.
In the meantime, the best you can do is probably this version of the modest Cajun specialty, originally invented to stretch more expensive ingredients like ham, shrimp and chicken.
The restaurant is owned by the man who owns Hush Puppy on Charleston, and when it was first open, the jambalaya tasted slapdash. Now it’s deeply flavored and quite respectable, with a price point that is more than reasonable, $13.29.
6435 S Decatur Blvd
Las Vegas, NV 89118
editor’s note: more images arriving soon….
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