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Your new Las Vegas dining guide: the best places to eat right now

When was the last time you were in Las Vegas? I visit about half a dozen times a year. When people learn this about me, they assume I like to gamble or go to nightclubs. I’m not much of a fan of either.

I go for the Pizza Expo (yes, there is an entire convention devoted to all things pizza) and the Winter Fancy Food Show (a showcase of food products from around the world). I go to stay in a hotel room that’s fancier than my bedroom, to enjoy a trip to a spa and to dress up and eat, eat and eat again. I’d like to see a show at the Sphere.

There are outposts of restaurants from around the world, and a high density of places backed by celebrities. That doesn’t necessarily make them good, but it usually makes for an eventful, entertaining evening. Some are better than others. Some rely heavily on the celebrity of the celebrity involved.

My favorite celebrity restaurant in Las Vegas at the moment isn’t really a restaurant. It’s a truck off to the side of a walkway that leads to the casino in the Park MGM hotel. And it’s something one of the celebrities involved, Jon Favreau, has been wanting to do for almost a decade.

The Chef Truck and seating area at Park MGM in Las Vegas by Roy Choi and Jon Favreau.

(Audrey Ma)

Favreau and Roy Choi worked together on the 2014 film “Chef.” The two became friends while Choi consulted on the film and taught Favreau how to cook for his role as chef Carl Casper. They started doing pop-ups together, selling the Cubano sandwiches featured in the film to promote the movie.

“I always wished we could do something more permanent,” Favreau says during a recent call with he and Choi. “I would say to Roy, ‘Hey, we should do a restaurant.’”

“It took so long to open something because you know the restaurant business, and especially the celebrity restaurant never ends up turning out the way maybe actors or producers want them to because they end up being brought down to reality with the daily grind of a restaurant,” Choi says. “Also, for me with Jon, the most important thing was our friendship.”

After the Cubano pop-up, Favreau would look at spaces and hint at opening a restaurant, but Choi refused. After 8 years, he stopped asking.

In 2018, Choi opened Best Friend, a restaurant that pays homage to his Kogi BBQ trucks and his distinct L.A. style of Korean food, at the Park MGM hotel. He and Favreau continued to find ways to collaborate and work together. In 2019, Favreau and Choi launched “The Chef Show” on Netflix, a travel and cooking show that featured the two cooking with various friends around the country. They filmed two seasons.

“I’m in Vegas like four times a month and people come to Best Friend and stop me and explain how much the “Chef Show” meant to them,” Choi says. He noticed the show had a second life during COVID lockdowns, with many streaming the series during quarantine.

“It melted my heart,” Choi says. “Over the years it’s happened like hundreds of times. So when this opportunity came up I was like, let’s do this for the fans.”

Favreau finally got his restaurant with Choi. The two opened the Chef Truck at the hotel in November, with a replica of the food truck from the 2014 film, a short menu that serves favorites from the movie and a small seating area nearby.

Choi says the recipe for the medianoche is pretty much the same as the one you see in the movie and the series. The foundation for the sandwich is the mojo, the pork marinade that sings with garlic and fresh cilantro, mint and bright citrus. He uses it to marinate the pork shoulder that’s already been brined in orange juice, vinegar, spiced rum and a handful of other spices and aromatics.

The sliced pork is layered onto a housemade roll that’s a cross between a soft French roll and what you’d find on a really good bolillo for torta. Then he adds ham, Swiss cheese and pickles. He slathers on a torrent of salsa verde, fashioned with the scraps from the mojo pureed with plenty of garlic and cilantro. The top of the roll gets a lashing of yellow mustard and the sandwich is toasted on the plancha in an excessive but appropriate amount of butter until it’s shining and pressed to a fraction of its former size.

The Chef Truck Cubano from The Chef Truck at Park MGM from Roy Choi and Jon Favreau.

The Chef Truck Cubano from The Chef Truck at Park MGM from Roy Choi and Jon Favreau.

(Audrey Ma)

It delivers the flavors of the holy trinity of the Cubano, with the ham, cheese and mustard at the forefront. The pickles and the salsa zigzag through it all. It’s crispy, juicy, rich and satisfying in a way that only a superb sandwich can be.

The Chef Truck Cubano, a vegetarian sandwich, manages that same crunch and umami with mojo tofu, portobello mushroom and eggplant in place of the traditional pork and ham.

“It’s the one I’m most into right now,” Favreau says. “I asked him [Choi] to come up with a plant-based one that could stand up to the traditional sandwich, and Roy went into the lab.”

Your meal at the truck will not be light, but find space on your table for the ham and cheese croquettes. The bite-sized golden nuggets are filled with creamy mashed potatoes, bits of salted ham and mozzarella cheese.

You order at the truck, then find a seat at a table. While you wait for your food, you can study a small diorama of the food truck from the film and the series.

“I’ve been working on immersive experiences and I have a lot of visual effects experience from the Marvel stuff, Disney and Star Wars and there are techniques you can use that are really fun like Pepper’s Ghost and forced perspective,” Favreau says. “To have a little chef truck diorama that uses some simple technology, it’s a little surprise for people and adds to the magic.”

Though the truck has only been open for about a month now, there’s already a possibility for more.

“I think that now that we have the template, we can start to think about it to take it around and make more of them,” Choi says.

He and Favreau are also thinking about expanding the menu with more items inspired by some of the cities the two visited in “The Chef Show.”

But even if you’re never heard of the movie or the series, don’t know who Jon Favreau is and have never eaten a Roy Choi taco, you will enjoy these sandwiches.

The Fontainebleau Las Vegas

When the doors opened for the private party to celebrate the launch of the Fontainebleau Las Vegas Wednesday evening, the Champagne was flowing under a gargantuan chandelier, the casino was awash in tuxedos and evening gowns and Keith Urban serenaded guests as they entered the lobby.

Later in the evening, Paul Anka opened for Justin Timberlake in the hotel’s BleauLive theater. To say it was glamorous doesn’t seem to adequately capture the sheer extravagance and excess of the evening. It was the most Vegas, Vegas thing I’ve experienced in all my years traveling to the Strip.

And with a strong lineup of lauded chefs from around the world, it’s already one of the most sought-after places to dine in the city. Evan Funke’s Mother Wolf is just as opulent as the one in Hollywood, the negronis just as excellent, the fiori di zucca stuffed and fried to perfection and gilded with dollops of caviar and the rigatoncini alla vaccinara just as al dente and mesmerizing.

Komodo, the hotel’s Southeast Asian restaurant from Miami, features a menu that spans dim sum, sushi and even Peking duck in a dimly lit, moody grand dining room with lush green velvet booths. The square of A-5 wagyu I sampled was ludicrously tender.

The Promenade, the hotel’s version of a food hall, is home to bagel, sandwich, taco, pizza and handroll-focused restaurants. The slices of pizza from Miami Slice were first rate. The temaki from Bar Ito, the sushi bar sister to the hotel’s 12-seat omakase restaurant Ito, featured perfectly seasoned and cooked rice nestled into crisp seaweed alongside plump lobster meat.

Cantina Contramar, a spin on Gabriela Cámara’s Mexico City restaurant Contramar, will open soon. There is not one, but two steakhouses. And there’s a Cantonese restaurant called Chyna Club from Hakkasan founder Alan Yau. I could spend a week at the hotel and not experience it all, but I’d like to try anyway.

Durango Resort

The apple oatmeal cookie from Summer House at Durango casino and resort in Las Vegas.

The apple oatmeal cookie from Summer House at Durango casino and resort in Las Vegas.

(Jenn Harris / Los Angeles Times)

Located about 15 minutes southwest of the Strip is Durango, a casino and resort that opened in early December. Like with many of the new hotel openings, the hallmark dining option is a food hall. This one is called Eat Your Heart Out.

It’s a spacious, brightly lit corner of the casino full of Los Angeles and Las Vegas favorites. From Los Angeles, there are outposts of Irv’s Burgers, Prince Street Pizza and Uncle Paulie’s Deli. From Orange County, there’s Gene Villiatora’s ‘Ai Pono Café. Las Vegas’ Shang Artisan Noodle, Yu-Or-Mi Sushi and Nielsen’s Frozen Custard are all represented. And you’ll also find Fiorella pasta bar from Philadelphia’s Marc Vetri.

My favorite bite during a recent visit to the hotel was in the cookie bar at Summer House, one of the full-service restaurants on the property. The Chicago-originated, Southern-California-vibes-themed restaurant has a bakery case to swoon over just off to the side of the host stand. Brown butter crispy rice treats share real estate with colossal cookies, brownies and blondies.

The apple oatmeal cookie is everything a good cookie should be. It’s chewy throughout, crisp around the edges and soft enough that you need to take care when handling so that it doesn’t break. It’s full of sweet, buttery oats and generously studded with chunks of apple. It’s the apple pie and oatmeal cookie love child I didn’t know I needed.

Where to eat in Las Vegas now (on and off the Strip)

The Chef Truck at the Park MGM, 3770 S. Las Vegas Blvd., Las Vegas, NV,
(888) 529-4828, www.mgmresorts.com

Fontainebleau Las Vegas, 2777 S Las Vegas Blvd. Las Vegas, NV, (833) 702-7070, fontainebleaulasvegas.com

Durango Casino & Resort, 6915 S. Durango Dr., Las Vegas, NV, (888) 899-7770, durangoresort.com

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