>> Monday, February 14, 2011
Beef tendon Kumamoto oyster tacos with Szechuan pepper corn sauce? Fried potatoes with a choice of mole poblano or XO sauce?
José Andrés' newest venture in the swanky new Cosmopolitan hotel on the Strip in Las Vegas pairs casual Chinese and Mexican food together in one trendy location. The vibe inside is interesting. Chow down on casual dim sum / tapas all while gazing at Chinese doll statues, a slideshow montage of Chairman Mao and the like, and an open kitchen with cooks diligently churning out tortillas, hand-pulled noodles, and other little "eats."
To quote Mr. Andrés himself, it's a “grand, beautiful, sexy fantasy.”
The two cuisines don't really mix, save for the one or two dishes that I've mentioned above. In fact, the kitchens are separated, with two distinct take-out counters under matching neon signs ostentatiously screaming "CHINESE FOOD" and "MEXICAN FOOD."
José Andrés was originally tasked with the job of creating a Chinese restaurant for this new hotel. Not being comfortable with the cuisine, he instead opted to do a mix - half Chinese and half Mexican (the cuisine with which he is most familiar and for which he is most well-known).
Odd concept, to say the least, but José Andrés argues that, at the end of the day, the two cuisines are not too different. Really, isn't a Peking duck wrap basically a Mexican soft taco with a few twists?
We'd have to try it for ourselves to see.
Drinks are super fun. Bryan tried the Salt Air Margarita (see foamy drink on left - $11), which is described as José Andrés’ personal favorite drink made with with fresh lime and salt "air". Bryan thought it was tasty, but too sweet for his preference. You can choose from a variety of Aguas Frescas (a Mexican drink made with fresh fruit, water, and sugar - $4.88). I especially enjoyed my cucumber flavored one (second from left), although I'm sure the passion fruit and raspberry ones were just as good.
We thought his Mexican dishes were spot on. Tacos were fresh, flavorful, and had a great combination of flavors. I actually really enjoyed the Viva China, one of the few fusion tacos on the menu made with soft beef tendon, Kumamoto oyster, and scallions with a Sichuan peppercorn sauce ($9).
The Carnitas (braised baby pig/pork rinds/spicy salsa verde cruda $8) was also very good, as well as the Pescado Frito (fried fish/Mexican salsa $11.88) and Pancita al Pastor (slow-cooked pork belly/pineapple $9). Overall, José Andrés clearly knows his Mexican food and he does a fantastic job executing it. This is definitely better than anything I've tried in Boston.
One of my favorites (a must order!) was the Scallop Ceviche (pictured at the top of the post). You get these little bay scallops which are each perched on top of a key lime half dipped in ancho chile and sugar. The resulting "shot" is a wild burst of contrasting flavors that's not only fun to eat (look at Bryan's expression here!) but also really enjoyable.
Top left: Caldo Tlalpeño (shredded chicken/rice/peas/carrots/avocado/chipotle $8). Top Right: Shrimp Mojo (shrimp/sweet black garlic/roasted poblano peppers $14). Bottom left: When Pigs Fly BBQ pork buns). Bottom right: The Unruly Monk ( hand-cut noodles/bok choy/wild wood ear mushrooms/poached egg/spicy sauce $16).
Chinese food is definitely a different story. Granted, I've had some of the best Chinese street food in the world between places like Jia Jia Tang Bao, Yang's Fry Dumpling, and China and Taiwan in general. The dim sum is quite average here and really not worth the higher prices that he charges. You might as well stick to the good (and cheaper!) Chinese food in LA, NYC, or possibly even Chinatown in Las Vegas.
We did enjoy his soups, which have a flair of creativity that definitely elevates them above an ordinary Chinese street dish. Check out the perfectly poached egg in The Unruly Monk. The hand cut noodles had fantastic texture and the food was clearly made with top quality ingredients. Skip the When Pigs Fly (essentially tiny Char Siu Baos costing way more than normal).
In general, we much preferred his Mexican offerings to his Chinese offerings.
Though not particularly authentic, the Chicken Ji Song (chicken/lettuce leaf cups/fried sweet potatoes $15) was actually quite tasty. I really enjoyed the textural differences between the lettuce cup, the juicy chicken, and the crispy fried vermicelli on top.
Nice, but Naughty (sautéed lotus root with fresh pea shoots and sesame - $9.88) was actually a nice, refreshing counterpoint to all the other meat & carb-heavy dishes we had ordered. I love lotus roots and pea shoots, so I actually enjoyed this dish. It was also generously sized, and arguably much bigger than a typical "tapas".
For dessert, I highly recommend the Cajeta Flan (goat’s milk caramel/pineapple $8), which I'm pretty confident is the best dessert on the menu. The flavors were delicate yet sophisticated at the same time. The caramel was deep and rich, and the goat's cheese definitely added a unique twist to the traditional dessert.
Happy Buddha Giggling Taking a Bath (shaky belly strawberry gelatin $10)
My friend Emily, a Las Vegas wedding photographer, saw this on the menu and absolutely had to order it because she was sooooo curious. This is the wackiest thing I've ever seen. There is an entire Buddha who really looks like he's taking a bath, all covered with strawberry flavored foam. It's a bit disconcerting to be eating his body parts, but the jello, which is all-natural, was pretty good and not too sweet. Though there's a bit of novelty to this dish, it's probably not worth the $10.
Overall, we really liked this place. In fact, we visited it twice during our short stay here in Las Vegas (the second time we only ordered Mexican dishes!!). It's conveniently located right in the center of Strip, and the prices are reasonable for the location. They recommend that you order 2-3 tapas per person. I found that to be a bit much, as some of the "tapas" are almost the size of regular dishes. I would start with 2 per person and then order more if you're still hungry.
My favorites? Get a couple tacos (I actually loved Viva China, but they are all good), Scallop Ceviche, Guacamole, and Cajeta Flan. If you like hand-pulled noodles you can get one of the Chinese dishes, since that's still a pretty unique concept.
This post is part of a larger Las Vegas series. Posts in this series:
Beijing Noodle No. 9
Joel Robuchon (The Mansion)
Enoteca San Marco
3708 Las Vegas Boulevard South
Las Vegas, NV 89109