Pura Vida – Vegan in Vegas

Pura Vida EntranceIn an industrial area full of strip clubs and bail bondsmen between I-15 and Las Vegas Boulevard lies a pink, blue and yellow building that houses Las Vegas’ one and only fully vegan (and partially gluten free) restaurant. Chef Mayra Trabulse’s Pura Vida Bakery and Bystro at 1236 Western Ave looks a little out of place in this neighborhood, and she clearly hasn’t set up shop where her target demographic is. But that’s okay, I suppose, because for now, her target demographic has little choice but to come to her.

If you’ve been reading my prior posts, like my recent review raving about the Oxtail Soup at Market Street Cafe you know I’m far from being vegetarian, much less vegan. So why would I bother with this cruelty free, animal free save the turkeys restaurant in an industrial wasteland? I had a discount voucher and I came in search of eating adventure. And in that regard, Pura Vida did not disappoint.

Menus at Pura Vida

The adventure began with the menus.

We arrived mid-afternoon (with a reservation) and were seated immediately at a small, bright blue table just inside the door. The adventure began with the menus. We were given no less than four different menus, along with a detailed explanation of what we could and could not order off each of them. Then, as we were recovering from all that confusion, another menu arrived. It turns out that the first four menus were the “specials” menus. The final menu was the “regular” menu. This one, thankfully, required less explanation. My head was spinning, but I persevered.

I ordered one of their “Agua Frescas”, described as flavored water with essential oils. They offer different ones each day and today’s contained pomegranate juice and lime essential oil. It was dark purple in color, light in flavor and easy to drink, and tasted delicious. A great summer beverage! Things were looking up.

At the same time as my drink order, we also placed our food orders. I chose the Breakfast Wow! Puff, and my girlfriend chose the McNeil Bagel (I think that’s what it was called). My drink came out fairly quickly, but we had a lot of time to take in all the atmosphere as we awaited the arrival of our entrees.

Pura Vida InteriorThe area around the entrance is a shrine to the restaurant itself. On the wall are numerous hand written love letters to the restaurant and Chef Mayra from her loyal customers. Numerous reviews and awards adorn the walls. The door is covered in stickers from the various websites that Pura Vida has been featured on. The interior of the restaurant is bursting with bright colors. There are flowers everywhere – both in artwork and in pots. There are certificates on the wall for each of the turkeys Pura Vida has saved from the slaughter. Up front is a glass and stainless bakery case full of baked goods for sale.

I took some snapshots, we chatted and I nursed my Agua Fresca. While we were waiting for our food to arrive we watched as a couple of businessmen came in for lunch, then gave up and left. We overheard them negotiating with the waitress, trying to find something that they could order and still have time to enjoy during their forty-five minute lunch break. That wasn’t happening. They were advised to call ahead next time.

It really is as good as it looks.

It really is as good as it looks.

Our food arrived about an hour after we placed our order. It was beautifully presented, it was served hot, and it was full of flavor. Really amazing, delicious, lick your plate clean flavor. So many restaurants do vegetarian/vegan by simply replacing the meat in a standard dish with something else. Not Pura Vida. Chef Mayra is not a chef who caters to vegans, she’s a vegan who is also a chef – and it shows. She has designed a menu of great tasting dishes from within her chosen dietary restrictions, much like a talented artist might make a fabulous painting using only a few colors.

Pura Vida McNeil BagelThe Breakfast Wow Puff is a light and flaky puff pastry, covered with a delicious cheese-like sauce, and filled with tofu, onions, peppers, garlic and other spices. It was served with a small tin of the tastiest fresh-made salsa I have ever had, a fresh cucumber slice and orange slice. I devoured every bite. My girlfriend’s bagel sandwich was equally good, featuring an amazing soft chewy bagel with lettuce and tomato, more tofu and cheese-like sauce. The garnishes were similar, but also included a mildly spicy “vegan sausage” that, I must admit, I would choose over the meat-based sausages on offer at most breakfast joints.

Throughout the experience the waitress was extremely friendly and chatty. After our food arrived Chef Mayra emerged from the kitchen to chat as well. We complimented her food and made some small talk. As we talked, it quickly became clear that she doesn’t get a lot of omnivores. She assumed that we were vegan simply because we were eating in her restaurant, and I must admit it was a little awkward bursting her bubble. She handled the news well though, and we moved on to other friendly conversation. As we talked we learned that Pura Vida has a constantly evolving menu, depending on what is available locally and in season. This, I’m sure, is one of the reasons her food is so amazing. I just wish it didn’t take five menus to explain it.

If you are one of those know your food, vegan, cruelty free, gluten avoiding types, or are forced to dine with someone who is, then overlook the location and the idiosyncrasies and make your way to Pura Vida. I liked this quirky place, and even though I am not at all vegan, I plan to return. But I must offer some advice for those who dine here. Make reservations. Be patient (plan about two hours for a meal here). Try not to get overwhelmed by the menus or discouraged by the wait. Everything here is prepared from fresh ingredients, to order, and it takes time. The chef and the waitstaff are a bit disorganized, but they are very friendly, they mean well, and when your food makes it out of the kitchen it will have been worth the wait.

  • Go when you have time to chill out and enjoy the conversations with staff, and your dining companions. It’s a nice place to just relax if you’re not in any hurry.
  • Once you get to know the menu you can call your order in with your reservation, which should result in a quicker meal.
  • If you are vegan, this is the restaurant for you. It is the only place in Las Vegas where nothing on the menu is off limits for vegans. And even better, the food is delicious.

Website: www.puravidavegas.com
Pura Vida Bakery & Bistro By Chef Mayra on Urbanspoon

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Le Thai: An App, Two Entrees and a Lady Boy

Le_Thai-EntranceThis little restaurant located just outside the downtown canopy may not seem like much at first glance. In fact, I walked by it many times on our trips to Vegas. It’s dark exterior and tiny size made me think it was just some random take-out restaurant.

When my boyfriend told me about the really good Thai restaurant we should check out, it never occurred to me that he was referring to the same tiny little place I had walked by so many times. I admit, I was dubious. I should know by now that Las Vegas has a lot of hidden gems – yet sometimes I still need to be reminded.

Le_Thai-Wall-ArtWe came here later on a Friday night and I was worried we wouldn’t get in. The place appears miniscule from the outside and I could tell there were already a lot of people seated. The hostess was apologetic, claiming they only had outside seating. She thought this might not be acceptable since it was cold (in the 50s) outside. Being from New England though we were willing to ‘brave the cold’. She seemed relieved and said something about how nice it is when people are laid back. We were then led through the main part of the restaurant and back to the ‘outdoor seating’.

The main part of the restaurant was dark and small with a lot of small tables. It didn’t appear overly cramped though, like some small restaurants I have been in. The outdoor seating area was a bit more spacious, with tables in the center of the room and seating along the walls. Though they refer to it as outdoors, it is more like a large patio area with walls and a bamboo ceiling. Heating units throughout kept it at a temperature that was almost too warm for me. Definitely not the outdoor seating I was expecting.

We had to wait quite a few minutes for a server but I didn’t mind. It gave us some time to look over both the food and drink menus. When our server did come he was very friendly and even joked around with my boyfriend. He was more than willing to answer any questions and, when asked about the ingredients in one of our dishes, he willingly went back to the kitchen and asked the chef about it.

Le_Thai-Spring-RollsSo, on to the best part – the food. I had to go the traditional route (since it was our first time here) so I chose the Spring Rolls and Pad Thai with a Thai Iced Coffee. I tend to order these items the first time I go to a Thai place with the idea that if the most popular dishes are good then the rest of the food is worth trying. And these things did not disappoint. My coffee was just the right balance of sweet and strong. A lot of places tend to overdo it with the cream but that was not the case here. The spring rolls came out quickly and were crispy and fresh with a nice sauce. The Pad Thai was large and had a lot of good flavor without being greasy.

Le_Thai-Shrimp-Pad-ThaiLe_Thai-Thai-Beef-Noodle-SoupThe boyfriend got Thai Beef and Meatball Noodle Soup and the Lady Boy cocktail (Mekhong Thai Whiskey, ginger ale and lime). I tried the soup and it was incredible. It was full of tasty, savory beef to the point where I would call it more of a stew than a soup. This was the dish that we asked the waiter more about. We found out that the tenderness of the beef was the result of a 3 day process. I thought the Lady Boy was okay though I am not a fan of lime. The boyfriend described it as a lighter, more natural tasting whiskey sour.

Good service and delicious food – this is definitely a place I would like to return to. It is very convenient when you are looking for a place to eat downtown as it’s open until 12am during the week and 2am on weekends. You may need to make a reservation if you want a table at a peak time.

It looks like they have a website in development but right now the best place to go for more info seems to be their Urbanspoon page.
Le Thai on Urbanspoon
Le_Thai-foodmenuLe_Thai-drinkmenuLe_Thai-drinkmenu2Le-Thai-Lady-Boy-Cocktail

Komex: It’s Korean, It’s Mexican, It’s Delicious!

Komex Fusion Express EntranceJudge a restaurant by its location and you’re sure to miss some of Las Vegas’ finest food. So, when my girlfriend suggested we check out Komex Fusion Express in the middle of a strip mall at 633 North Decatur Blvd. Suite H, I figured in might be worth a shot. I had never even heard of a Korean/Mexican fusion restaurant, so I knew I would be in for an eating adventure!

Komex Fusion Express Kitchen

Nobody comes here for the decor.

Komex is a small place with a few basic tables and plastic chairs. It appears to be mostly intended as a take-out restaurant, though they do offer full dine-in table service. We sat at one of their simple black tables, adorned with a paper Chinese Zodiac placemat, some napkins and silverware. The tiles on the floor are worn and dated, as is the wood panel siding on the walls. I’ve suddenly been transported to a Chinese takeout restaurant circa 1975. No, wait! It’s Las Vegas 2013 and I’m about to embark on an eating adventure, and nobody comes here for the decor.

Our drinks arrive: A can of Coke ($1), and a Mexican Coke in a real glass bottle made with cane sugar ($2). Along with them comes a free bowl of chips with a small cup of salsa and another of guacamole.

Fried Wontons

Fried Wontons

The chips are thick, crunchy, appear to be made from flour and have more in common with fried wontons than they do with corn chips, but they have a light flavor and hold up well to the salsa and guacamole. The salsa was fresh and had a nice mild flavor with a touch of clilanto. The guacamole was excellent! It had a buttery soft texture and tasted quite fresh. Very nice for a freebie!

We were just hungry enough for an afternoon snack, so we ordered the “Bulgogi Nachos” ($7.99) – hey I love bulgogi and I love nachos, so why not? We also ordered their “Fried Wontons” ($1.50). The wontons came out first, five crispy fried wontons stuffed with ground meat and served with duck sauce. They were mildly seasoned, served warm and went well with the accompanying sauce. They didn’t last long. Soon after the nachos arrived.

Komex Fusion Express Bulgogi Nachos

Bulgogi Nachos

For those that don’t know, bulgogi refers to a sweet, tender Korean barbeque beef, and Komex makes some of the tastiest, most tender bulgogi I have ever had. They take that amazing meat and pile it high over a pile of chips (like those in the free appetizer), along with more of that fresh salsa, mozzarella cheese, korean hot sauce and jalepenos. The result? I have had many a plate of nachos in my life and these are, without a doubt, the best nachos of any kind I have ever had. Mind-blowing, lick the plate, kiss the cook, amazing. The sweetness of the meat and the cheese balances out the heat from the sauce and the peppers, and you can taste every flavor without ever being overcome by spice. Just perfect.

Komex Fusion Express CheckAfter we picked every last morsel from your plate of nachos the bill arrived, along with a fortune cookie for each of us and a fresh cut orange. Or bill came to $13.50. I wish every $13.50 I spent was this good.

Overall, the food was delicious, and cheap. I could not find a single item on their menu over $10. Komex isn’t a shiny new restaurant in a prime location, but that’s not what we’re here for anyways, right? We’re here for the food, for the eating adventure, and I assure you, this was one yummy adventure! This isn’t just someplace to consider “if you’re in the neighborhood.” It’s a place worthy of a special trip across town. You’ve gotta try it!

Website: http://www.komex.com
Komex on Urbanspoon
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Honey Salt: A Taste of New England

Honey_Salt-placesettingHoney Salt is a farm-to-table restaurant in an upscale strip mall at 1031 South Rampart Blvd in the neighborhood of Summerlin. I first discovered it thanks to a post on Bite and Switch. This restaurant has been getting a lot of good press lately, and we stopped in on a Saturday afternoon to see what all the buzz was about.

The interior of the restaurant is bright and clean, with tables and chairs that evoke an upscale country feel. That feel continues with a smattering of kitsch and a wall full of pictures that are clearly Cape Cod (Massachusetts) inspired. Waitstaff are dressed in jeans and plaid shirts, the way Abercrombie and Fitch might envision a farmer’s attire.

Honey_Salt-Dining-RoomWhen we arrived we saw some very fashionable and well put-together folks dining right up front, and I thought that we might have been seated in a corner behind the bar due to my jeans-and-a-t-shirt sense of style. As the meal progressed we discovered that the party up front had reserved the area for a baby shower. Perhaps I was too quick to judge. There were a number of other casual diners in our little section, so we didn’t end up feeling at all under-dressed.

The mid-afternoon menu is brief, but had just enough interesting dishes to entice us to order. As we were not overly hungry, my girlfriend and I chose to split an appetizer, a burger and dessert. The waitstaff handled this request without a hitch or a grimace, though they did not go the extra mile and split the dishes for us. They simply placed the dishes in the middle of the table and gave us empty plates to serve ourselves. Having received this service at Omelet House and Coffee Pub recently, I’m afraid I’ve begun to expect it.

Honey_Salt-Red-DiaryWe received a bowl of warm rolls and very tasty cracker-like triangles served with a ramekin of house-made hummus as a complimentary starter. It all tasted good, but I would have preferred bread and butter or hummus with pita or pretzel chips. Perhaps I’m too much of a traditionalist. My girlfriend’s “Red Diary” cocktail ($10) was a bit sweet for my tastes, but it was obviously prepared with premium ingredients. I would have chosen the “Fat Tire Amber” ($6 bottle) from their solid list of micro-brews if I were having a beer, but I chose to forgo the alcohol on this occasion.

For our first course I put aside my usual reservations about ordering seafood in the desert and ordered the “New England Fry” ($14). This dish included fried clams, fried calamari, grilled shishito peppers and a lemon aioli. I grew up just a handful of miles from the world-famous clam shacks of Ipswich and Essex Massachusetts, so I consider myself a bit of an expert when it comes to fried seafood. Honey_Salt-New-England-FryThe serving was small, by New England standards, but that’s forgivable when you’re in the desert 2500 miles away. Both the clams and the calamari were lightly breaded, fried in clean oil (very important) and perfectly cooked. The clams were complete with bellies, and had a nice briny seafood flavor. The calamari, which I know is a challenge to get right, was tender, tasty and easy to chew. The aioli was okay as a dipping sauce, though I’m a bit of a purist and left it out after trying a bite. The peppers were good, but added nothing to the dish but color. They are not a traditional part of a “New England Fry,” and their flavor really didn’t match well with the rest of the dish. In the end, I was so impressed with the freshness and execution of the seafood itself that I didn’t really care what it was served with.

Honey_Salt-Backyard-Burger-and-FriesNext, we split a “Kim’s Style” (topped with a fried egg) “Backyard Burger” ($14), ordered medium. The burger was moist and delicious, with cheddar cheese melted on top and a homemade tomato ketchup already on the bun. The egg was fresh and cooked just right; it elevated the burger to a new level. On the side were fresh lettuce and tomato, tasty thin-cut french fries and a couple of pickle slices. It all looked and tasted so good that I didn’t bother to send back the burger, which was cooked closer to rare than medium.

"Medium Rare"

“Medium Rare”

For dessert we had the “Brown Bag Apple Pie” ($9). The brown bag is a bit of a gimmick, but the pie was delicious! We ignored the waiter’s suggestion of salted caramel ice-cream and went for the traditional vanilla. The ice-cream was smooth and creamy and a perfect complement to the warm apple pie.

Honey_Salt-Brown-Bag-Apple-PieOverall, I feel that Honey Salt is a good value. They are clearly sourcing premium ingredients, and except for the temperature on my burger, everything was executed perfectly. Service was solidly good, and the atmosphere was comfortable. They do seem to be trying a bit too hard in some ways, but I can forgive them wanting to stand out in the sea of great restaurants that is Las Vegas.

Update Feb 12, 2013: Honey Salt owner Elizabeth Blau took the time to contact me personally this afternoon to thank me for (the positives of) my review, and to clear up a couple of things. It is obvious that she is very passionate about the restaurant, and wants each customer’s experience to be just right.

Here’s three things I learned from our discussion:

  • Mid-afternoon seating is typically in the area behind the bar as the main dining area is used for staff meals and dinner prep.
  • The kitchen will plate split items separately when practical, however they choose not to sacrifice the presentation of a dish for the convenience of separate plating. Ms. Blau was pleased that her front of house staff handled the splitting request so well. (So were we.)
  • The brown bag in the brown bag apple pie is used to maintain just the right level of moisture. (I still maintain my assertion that plating it this way is a bit of a gimmick. Regardless, it’s delicious.)

www.honeysalt.com
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Coffee Pub – Breakfast just off the Strip

Coffee Pub Las Vegas entranceWhile for me, the concept of eating breakfast in Vegas is new (I used to get up at the crack of noon – there is just to much to do in Vegas after hours), there are a lot of great breakfast options to be found. One of these places, located off-strip, is the Coffee Pub.

The Coffee Pub is located at 2800 W Sahara Ave and can be a bit of a trick to find. The sign is fairly obvious from the road but you have to drive into and towards the back of what appears to be an apartment complex. The place itself kind of blends in.

Lobster Omelet at Coffee PubWe were actually confused about how to get into the building when we arrived since there was work being done on the sidewalk. A waitress kindly came out and directed us. We ended up sitting on the patio since the weather was so nice.

The waitstaff remained happy and attentive throughout our meal. We both ordered omelets and shared a “Famous Frozen Mocha Java”. The food was great! The mocha java was a perfect blend of coffee and chocolate, not too sweet. And the lobster omelet was cheesy and creamy with a ton of lobster in it. I was very full when we left.

Famous Frozen Mocha JavaOverall, I thought this was a great little breakfast place. (They also serve lunch, though I have not tried that yet). I will definitely go back and try more of their food.

www.coffeepublv.com
Coffee Pub on Urbanspoon

Viet Bistro: Another Culinary Gem in a Strip Mall (Vietnamese)

Viet Bistro Las VegasMy love affair with Vietnamese cuisine began when my girlfriend’s sister attended college in Cambridge, MA. She discovered, and soon shared with us, a Vietnamese restaurant in Harvard Square, then called Pho Pasteur. The food was fresh, healthy, had great flavors (but was not spicy) and it was cheap – fill your stomach for 7 or 8 bucks kind of cheap. I was hooked! I love to try new things, so I worked my way through their menu discovering many new favorites.

Fast forward to today. I’m always on the lookout for good, inexpensive eats in my favorite city, so it’s only natural that I began working my way through the Vietnamese restaurant offerings in Las Vegas. I’ve tried many of the fine Vietnamese restaurants up and down Spring Mountain, and many are very good. However, my favorite Vietnamese restaurant in Las Vegas is located in a strip mall at 7175 West Lake Mead Blvd.

Viet Bistro is a small mom n pop restaurant with just a few tables. Unlike other Vietnamese restaurants that I frequent, I often see other non-Asian patrons there. The general rule of thumb with ethnic restaurants is that if most of the clientelle matches the ethnicity of the restaurant, then the food must be good. This restaurant renders that “logic” worthless.

The food is excellent. Everything I have tried there has been delicious. The reason I believe there are so many non-Asian diners there is the service.  The owner and chef, Kevin, also makes time to interact with customers front of house, and always makes me feel welcome. Kevin is an expert at making his food approachable. The menu is primarily in English, with the translated Vietnamese names in small print below. Traditionally spicy dishes are prepared mild, with the spice on the side. He will suggest substitutions to suit your taste, and he pays attention to what you like, so that he can tailor his suggestions to your tastes.

Bun Bo Hue (Hue Style Spicy Beef Noodle Soup)Dining in his restaurant is like visiting a friend – A friend who is an excellent cook. When Kevin is up front making all of his customers feel at home, his sister keeps the kitchen running, preparing the restaurant’s amazing food.

Despite the prominent “Pho” advertised at the front entrance, the restaurant’s specialty seems to be “Hue Style Spicy Beef Noodle Soup” (Bun Bo Hue), a noodle soup with deep, flavorful broth, lemongrass, tender meats, cliantro and green onion. Fresh sliced peppers, lemongrass and sprouts are served on the side. It’s a large hearty bowl of soup that will fill you up for a mere nine dollars. For those familiar with pho, this noodle soup is similar, but uses a different (softer, white) style of rice noodle. Viet Bistro also offers Pho dishes of course, in many varieties like shrimp, oxtail, even filet mignon!

Goi Bo Tai Me (Vietnamese Beef Carpaccio Salad)Another standout is the Vietnamese Beef Carpaccio Salad (Go Bo Tai Me), with thin sliced rare beef over shredded cabbage and other fresh vegetables, topped with carrots and onions; all smothered in a brown (tamarind?) sauce. I’ve shared this $9.50 appetizer with my girlfriend on three separate occasions and it is one of my favorite Vietnamese dishes that I have tasted anywhere. I really recommend you give it a try! Next time we go I’m ordering one all to myself.

Bun Cha Gio, Bo Nuong (Vermicelli with grilled beef and egg rolls)The vermicelli bowls (Bun) are fantastic as well. A large bowl is filled with warm rice pasta, fresh vegetables (sprouts, carrot, lettuce, cucumber, green onion, mint) and topped with chopped peanuts, meats, fish and/or spring rolls depending on which bun you choose. Fish sauce and peppers are served on the side. The first time I dined at Viet Bistro, the staff offered to make my bun with beef, which is how I often order it, but was not on the menu at the time. The result was amazing, simply the best bun I have had anywhere, and it has since been added to the regular menu – Grilled Beef Bun (Bun Bo Nuong). The bun prices vary from $8 to $10.50 depending on the toppings you choose.

Tips:

  • If you are new to Vietnamese cuisine, you may need to get used to fish sauce. This is a common component of Vietnamese dishes and it has a very nice flavor, but the scent takes a little getting used to. If the scent bothers you, just try to ignore it and enjoy the food. Getting past this initial hurdle opens the door to many delicious dishes. It’s worth it.
  • Most Vietnamese food is mild, and peppers are offered on the side so you can season to taste. If you find that your dish has become too spicy for you, the Vietnamese iced coffee (made with sweetened condensed milk) tastes great and does a good job of cutting the spice.
  • If you have concerns about specific ingredients or the level or spice, or even if you don’t see your favorite Vietnamese dish on the menu, don’t be afraid to ask. I have found Viet Bistro to be very accommodating.

Viet Bistro on Facebook
Viet Bistro on Urbanspoon
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Note: This post was updated on Nov 23, 2012 to correct inaccuracies regarding the relationship and roles of the owner and staff.