Right now, I’m sweaty and tired. It was a hot day that I spent in a hot room, pushing buttons to make sounds and lights go off. Because of my fixation on pushing the buttons ‘right’, I didn’t do nearly as much research as I was supposed to for today’s post. But I have to write it anyway. I’m in too deep to back out. So I have to keep flailing into the night, hoping I get a run of good luck, and I pull out of this with something of value after the last several hours were spent pissing it all away.
Which is as close to being perfectly in-sync with the Nevada vibe as one could hope to be, I feel.
Well, a specific part of Nevada, but, as we’ll get to, that’s fairly representative of the state, from a raw numbers perspective. And trust me, they know about raw numbers in Nevada.
Why hello there, I’m Jon O’Guin, and this is Meandering America’s Menus, a series I accidentally left out in the sun, and now it’s kinda bleached and shriveled. The basic premise is simple: in roughly 1,500 or 2,000 words, I hope to give you an impression or snap-shot of the cuisine of one region of America, in order to better explore the varied differences in our nation’s cuisine and culture. Basically, I’m slowly but surely writing a small novel to help people understand that just because America is one country, doesn’t mean we all eat the same.
We’ve been progressing in a slowly expanding ooze-like pattern from my home state of Washington, because I really don’t want to make a decision about what to do with California yet, but I stupidly started with Washington then Oregon, so to maintain SOME kind of pattern, I’m been rolling through the rest of the West. And Nevada is, in an interesting way, something of my problem with California writ small. Because to discuss Nevada cuisine is to actually discuss two separate systems: the state as a whole, and the metro-centers of Reno and Las Vegas. Las Vegas might be dropping the cash to ship in sushi for All You Can Eat buffets (and yes, that IS a real example), but fucking Ely sure as hell isn’t.
Giant Marble fountains are not traditionally signs of frugality.
So we have a dichotomy: what do the casinos and bars of the shining city lights offer, and what can we find in the smaller streets and side-alleys of the state? I’d say I’m glad you asked, but I wasn’t kidding about being tired and hot, so I’m honestly not. Still, let’s dig into Nevada, and see if we can mine up some gold, like previous miners before us.
The Simplicity of Excess
When it comes to talking about the cuisine of Las Vegas, it’s actually pretty easy to sum up: it’s all of it. ALL cuisine. This is a city I could reasonably and easily connect to any cuisine at a surface level. Like, this week, what did we cook? Caesar Green Beans. Oh, look, it’s Caesars Palace, (No, that’s not a typo. There’s no apostrophe in the casino/hotel’s name, because, supposedly, it is “meant to be a place where every guest is Caesar”, so it’s a plural, not a possessive. Though, technically, it would make more sense for it to be a plural possessive, but this parenthetical is already going on too long.) a casino with no less than FOURTEEN RESTAURANTS, covering French, Southwest, Italian, Japanese, a Buffet, North Chinese, a DIFFERENT kind of Italian, English Pub Food, More Chinese, two American steakhouses, and a Starbucks
“Eat whatever! We shipped it in so you’d spend a lot of money!”
And if you’ve never been in a Nevada casino, let me tell you, it’s a fascinating experience. I stayed at the Circus Circus in Reno for a week, and it’s…man, it’s something. It’s like a resort, or an amusement park, but because you’re inside, time feels like it’s meaningless, so you end up walking outside, and it’s always surprising: “Oh, that’s right, it’s still before noon” “Oh, when did it get dark?” “Oh, it’s already 100 degrees out”. I couldn’t even legally drink when I went there, and I still ended up dazed and confused. (Though I was in town for a theatrical conference, so dazed and confused was a pretty frequent state during that trip for me.)
As you can see, I was having a great time, just not quite in my right mind.
But we’re not here to marvel at my amazing fashion choices (I’m 80% sure I still own both the hat and the shirt) but to talk about the food. And even in relatively more modest Reno, you could still buy 6 pound steaks, or unlimited margaritas, drinks by the YARD, and so on. Because that’s what sticks out here as the binding theme: the casinos are places of wealth, of excess, and their meals are excessive. There’s a $777 burger in Las Vegas. And to understand how crazy that is, they have to bundle in a bottle of $300-400 champagne to get that high. They built a burger, went ‘okay, we’re only halfway to how expensive we NEED THIS TO BE, what can we do?”
IN that regard, it’s kind of hard to pinpoint precise distinctions between high-end or crazier options in any other big city. I’m sure LA and New York have crazy dishes that rival some of the options in Las Vegas. The difference is the scope: there’s not one crazy sized portion/expensive dish on this block, there’s a dozen.
I mean, we’ve got a giant gold lion, a mini Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower in the back. This is not a place known for playing small.
So it’s not defined by what it has, but how much it has of it. But let’s see how the other half lives. MORNING JON, HANDLE THIS.
Salt of the Earth, and On the Fries
Morning Jon here (well, early afternoon Jon, but I had chorin’ to do, so ya gets who ya gets), and when it comes to talking about the food of Nevada as a whole, there’s a lot to dig into. See, first off, we gotta acknowledge a couple very interesting facts about Nevada. Firstly, Nevada is the driest state in America. Not the hottest, but the driest. IT only rains there on average 10 days out of the year. Which means it’d be a great place for Bruce Willis’s character in Unbreakable to fight crime, but is rather difficult in terms of managing crops.
This could be a picture of fucking MARS for how little water there is in it.
Increasing the difficulty is the lack of land. Not that Nevada’s a small state, but around 85% of it is federal land, or lands managed by federal agencies. Military bases and testing stations, national parks, Native American Reservations, etc. And while of course there are people who live in some of those areas (otherwise it’d be weird to have a reservation for people who don’t live there, or bases without soldiers), it means that the agricultural sector of Nevada isn’t a powerhouse: there’s not a lot of land for farms, and its’ dry land to boot.
And that’s why, for example, while the population of Nevada is around 3 million people, the population of the Las Vegas metropolitan area is 2.2 million The Reno metro area 425,000. Meaning that of 3 million people, 2.6 million of them live in one of the two big cities. 86% of the PEOPLE live in just two places.
Because of these things, the REST of Nevada’s food looks…mostly like food elsewhere in the Southwest. It’s got burgers and chili, steaks and tacos. It’s really a kind of striking parallel: there’s the cities, where there’s money and glitz, excess and luxury, and then there’s…onion rings.
We’ll get into this in a minute, but this plate is actually pretty solidly representative of the food we’re looking at.
That’s not as much of a joke as it sounds: Onions are one of the crops that DOES grow fairly well in the dry Nevada climate, and they’re actually in the top 10 Onion producers in America, so almost every restaurant in Nevada sells some kind of onion product, with Onion rings at burger joints being a little more common in Nevada than most states
And, of course, what LOOKS like much the same doesn’t always mean It’s truly ALL the same. That’s why you gotta DIG to find things, not just sweep.
For instance, Nevada does have several signature flairs. I mentioned way back in the Idaho post that Idaho has the highest per-capita population of Basques in the nation. Well, second place to them is Nevada, and for some reason, (probably just the increased state focus on the service industry) Nevada actually has more Basque restaurants than Idaho does, and several distinct dishes that have caught on in the region, from the Picon Punch (an aperitif cocktail with bitter herbal liqueur, brandy, and grenadine over ice), to the Basque-style chateaubriand (chateaubriand is a particular style of cooking beef tenderloin that varies by region. The Basque method is…and I can’t believe I’m reading this correctly, to cook the tenderloin between two THINLY POUNDED STEAKS, which are THROWN AWAY after cooking, in order that the tenderloin itself be cooked perfectly and completely rare. Is…is this accurate? Because that’s fucking bonkers.) as well as lamb shanks, chorizo (the famed sausage of Spain and Latin America), and more. The cuisine is very meat focused, as you can see, with mushrooms, garlic, and onion serving as the meat’s constant companions.
It also has a kinda Tapas/Banchan.
In addition, Nevada has a fair amount of Thai food. Over 300 Thai restaurants dot the state, with a great deal of them being centered in Reno and Las Vegas, of course. But beyond those ethnic foods, you’re mostly looking at the intersection of the beef trends of the Midwest, with Rib Eyes, Prime Rib, and so forth, with the Southwest trends of Tamales, tacos, and enchiladas, and the Native traditions like Fry Bread, Venison, and Elk. Nevada’s where it all comes together, just before you hit the Coast, and the land gets wetter. It’s a sort of idealized version of the various ‘old west’ foods, all melded into one.
Which is a great echo to the excess and glamour of the ritzier parts of the state: Nevada is where so many different people have come, or passed through on their way to find what they were looking in for in America, that it carries a bit of everything. Sushi and Rib-eye, Onion Rings and Panang Duck, Margaritas by the Yard, and a goblet of Picon Punch. It’s a melting pot, (in a more literal sense than most, when the temperatures hit a hundred most summer days) of what people felt like they should save and carry with them across this great nation, and there’s a little bit of everything if you just know where to look.
If you’d like to help Jon afford to take a trip back to the Circus Circus now that he’s of legal age to get plastered and lose a lot of money, and maybe try and hunt down the Mexican restaurant across the street that inspired his love of horchata, consider supporting us on Patreon! IF you don’t want to, that’s cool, he’s pretty bad at it. (Yesterday, he tried to export an hour-long video for them, and it crashed his computer because he doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing with video editing) You can stay on the safe side by just connecting with us on Social media! We’ve got a Facebook page, a Twitter, and an Instagram, and we don’t spam posts on any of them! Check us out!
MONDAY: I LEGITIMATELY ALMOST FORGOT I HAD A PLAN FOR MONDAY, AND STARTED TO CHANGE EVERYTHING UP. BUT NO, ON MONDAY, WE INDULGE IN A NEW TYPE OF POST, WHERE THE RECIPE COMES IN OUNCES, AND IS BEST SERVED COLD. A COCKTAIL-BASED CATASTROPHE!
THURSDAY: I DON’T KNOW, I’LL PROBABLY STILL BE NURSING A HANGOVER. LET ME GET THE REST OF MY LIFE IN ORDER THIS WEEKEND, AND I’LL GET BACK TO YOU.