As you stroll through Shanghai Plaza on Spring Mountain Road near Arville Street, it’s easy to lose sight of the dining options. A Korean corn dog restaurant is a few doors down from a dessert shop offering ube, matcha, and black sesame in fish-shaped waffle cones. A little further you will pass a tea room, a Malaysian restaurant, two noodle shops, a Vietnamese restaurant and two Chinese restaurants among the storefronts of this two-story shopping complex, which has become a popular day trip. for customers from near the Strip casinos.
“Tomorrow morning, at 10 or 11 in the morning, there will be about 12 limousines which will drop tourists,” explains Joe Muscaglione, partner of one of these Chinese restaurants, Shanghai Taste, and one of the creators of chinatownvegas. .com website.
The stretch of Spring Mountain Road just west of the Strip has arguably become one of Las Vegas’ top dining destinations, drawing locals and tourists alike. Many still call the district Chinatown – a nickname that dates back to the 1995 opening of the Chinatown Plaza shopping center, which stretches from Valley View Boulevard to Arville on the south side of the road. But that moniker doesn’t do justice to the variety of cuisines represented in the region.
“It’s called Chinatown, but it’s really the Asian city,” says Sonny Vinuya, president of the Asian Chamber of Commerce in Las Vegas. “If you want Thai food, Japanese food, if you want Filipino or Vietnamese food, this is it. There is a bit of everything.
And in recent years, these offerings have spread beyond the Asian diaspora. “Spring Mountain is like a street of hidden gems,” explains Nicolas Kalpokdjian, managing partner of the French gourmet restaurant Partage. “From Italian to French, to very specific Asian dishes, I think Spring Mountain is an amazing resource because there are so many different types of food.”
A gourmet destination
Kalpokdjian need only point the finger at his neighbors in the sprawling center of Spring Mountain Shopping Complex to prove his point. They include a Japanese izakaya, a Mexican restaurant, sushi and ramen restaurants, several Chinese restaurants, a Cajun crayfish restaurant, and a nationally renowned tiki bar.
“It’s a kind of entryway to eat off the Strip,” explains chef Marc Marrone, who was about to open a German doner kebab restaurant in the same square this summer. “It’s still pretty close to hotels on the Strip where a tourist doesn’t get in a cab for 30 minutes without knowing where they’re going, for some restaurants they’ve heard is fine. It’s kind of a more accessible business off the Strip for tourists. Plus, lots of industry folks who walk down the Strip to visit friends at a nightclub or bar on their way home stop at Spring Mountain for a bite to eat.
Chef Khai Vu, who operates the popular Pan-Asian restaurant District One Kitchen and Bar on Jones Boulevard just north of Spring Mountain, began working in the neighborhood in 1994 at his family’s Vietnamese restaurant, Pho So One. Like many families operating Asian restaurants in the area in the 90s, they were recent immigrants to the United States with a connection to Asian restaurants in California.
At the time, the clientele was 70% locals and around 30% tourists from Los Angeles. During the holidays, however, that ratio would change dramatically, as more California visitors flocked to the area.
“Any big weekend, it was 90 percent tourists – mostly Asians, from LA or the San Francisco Bay Area,” Vu recalls.
The opening of Chinatown Plaza helped establish an identity for the neighborhood, although the sinocentric label did not fully reflect the variety of Asian restaurants and businesses on the street. In 1999, Governor Kenny Guinn made it official by giving the nickname Chinatown to the stretch of Spring Mountain from Las Vegas to Rainbow Boulevards.
Restaurants along this corridor have since been popular stops for sightseeing buses, most often those catering to Asians and Asian Americans. However, it was a Japanese robata grill that ultimately put Las Vegas’ Chinatown on the national map of foodie destinations.
“When you talk about high-end dining, Raku was the first to start bringing in some really fantastic ingredients and stylistically pushing them with food,” says chef Brian Howard, whose award-winning modern American restaurant Sparrow + Wolf opened in Spring Mountain. near Arville in 2017.
“He was so lonely”
It refers to Aburiya Raku, a small restaurant specializing in grilled robata kebabs that opened on Spring Mountain in 2008. Thirteen years later, it remains a must-see destination for foodies on vacation and has earned its chef – Owner, Mitsuo Endo, multiple James Beard Award Nominations.
“I wanted to open a restaurant here just because it’s not too far from the Strip,” Endo explained through a translator during a recent interview at the restaurant, noting that there was not a lot of Japanese restaurants in the area when he moved. in Las Vegas in 2007.
“I wanted the chefs, the workers and the hotel employees, after work when they go downstairs, come to eat and have fun,” he says.
Raku’s popularity among local food and beverage workers and national culinary media has inspired several other innovative Japanese restaurants to open in the same mall, including Las Vegas’ first serious ramen bar, a more luxurious sushi experience than any on the Strip, a Tokyo-style Italian Concept and Japanese curry house. (“He invited them to come to this mall (because) he was so lonely,” Endo’s translator says, laughing.) Despite their success, it was still almost a decade before Howard decided to roll the dice in a restaurant run by a chef. just half a mile east which was not related to any specific food culture.
“I’ve been dining on Spring Mountain Road for 20 years, and that’s kind of what prompted me to put Sparrow + Wolf on this street,” Howard explains. “I knew there were no barriers when it came to ingredients or style. There was no catering for a crowd of tourists.
“A cultural mix”
Its bold and eclectic menu has drawn inspiration from influences from around the world – some Asian, many non-Asian. And its near-immediate success among locals, tourists, foodies, and industry professionals, along with numerous awards and accolades, has proven once and for all that Spring Mountain has become a culinary hotspot that defies ethnic boundaries. .
“Sparrow + Wolf has paved the way for more (types of) restaurants in this area,” says Kalpokdjian, explaining that Howard’s success has made him feel comfortable bringing high-end French cuisine into. the neighborhood.
Roberto Liendo, who opened Spanish restaurant Edo in the region around the same time that Partage debuted, agrees that Sparrow + Wolf was a game-changer.
“I think people have completely changed their perspective on (the region),” he says. “They think Chinatown is the place to go for other types of cuisine and is just a cultural mix.”
“We have this diversity, and it’s all different ethnic cuisines,” Vu says. “There is a lot to offer, not just Asian food. And I think it should be an international destination for culinary adventures.
As a result, Vu says District One attracts a clientele that includes “a bit of everyone,” a sentiment echoed by most restaurateurs interviewed for this story.
Muscaglione says the end result is Chinatown among the best and most diverse in the country.
“If you go to Chinatown in Chicago, it’s more Vietnamese than anything else. If you go to Chinatown in LA, it’s almost all Cambodian now. Chinatown in San Francisco, we eclipse them. They only have 132 restaurants; there are more than 150 of us here.
And, he points out, that number is increasing.