TOUR OF FOODIE: C’mon along as Lip Smacking Foodie Tours boost the fortunes of Fremont Street restaurateurs

Can we get an Amen! for the “Chicken and Red Velvet Waffle Slider”?

Yes, you there — what say your palate, madam?

“Wow! That is really good!” says the Fremont East-visiting, Lip-Smacking Foodie Tour-goer of her palate’s verdict for what’s on her plate. “It must be the vanilla maple syrup. Wow!”

Double wows. … Wow. Surely enough to launch Therapy restaurant’s delicacy into the Yelp/TripAdvisor stratosphere. Yet let’s not forget the syrup’s equally stellar recipe co-stars: buttermilk battered fried chicken breast, red pepper remoulade slaw and the serving-platter headliner: the red velvet waffle itself.

Executive Chef Talen Lancaster, take a bow. “We have our signature dishes, which people love,” says the recipient of smiles from well-fed faces. “People get to come and sample things, see what we’re about.”

And this is only one stop — three more will follow — during this Excursion into Exotic Eating in the beating heart of Downtown Las Vegas.

Downtown discovery … and rediscovery

“The more locals find out, the more they want to play tourist in their own city,” says Donald Contursi, president of nearly four-year-old Lip Smacking Foodie Tours, as we stroll around on a recent evening between (and within) restaurants and bars lining Fremont East.

“What better place to go than the historic part of Vegas?” he says of tours that reveal Downtown’s hidden epicurean gems to locals and tourists alike — spotlighting a section of Vegas that tends to get lost in the shadows of the Strip’s high-wattage hubbub.

Statistically, restaurants and bars are vital components of Downtown’s economic profile. As estimated by the UNLV Center for Gaming Research, food and beverage sales in that corridor in 2017 combined to produce 23 percent, or nearly a quarter, of the area’s total $1.2 billion in revenue, exceeding hotel room occupancy, which came in at just under 20 percent.

“Sometimes we as locals just stay in our area of town,” Contursi says, “but we show them the nooks and crannies of their city.”

Exploring them entices not only our taste buds, but our taste for Downtown’s bohemian flavor. “We go to places that have great service, amazing food, a story — uniqueness,” Contursi says. “Downtown, it’s going to be more casual. You may not get a glass to go with your beer, but that’s OK.”

Not that the Foodie Tours shortchange the Strip. Quite the reverse. “The tours on the Strip, those are the high-end award-winners, million-dollar restaurants,” says Contursi, who employs a staff of tour guides to cover their busy weekly schedule. Visit the tours’ website and you’ll find a portal to all its variations, including its marquee Strip-based packages that have attracted anywhere from a dozen to nearly 100 patrons per tour, at 15 to 20 tours per week. (Individual dietary needs and exclusions are accommodated.)

A plate of food at Turmeric is seen during the Lip-Smacking Foodie Tour Tuesday, November 20, 2018, in downtown Las Vegas. (Sam Morris/Las Vegas News Bureau)

Among the options are the pithily named “Savors of the Strip,” “Savory Bites and Neon Lights,” “Boozy Brunch,” “Afternoon Culinary Adventures,” “Bright Lights and Lip-Smacking Bites,” “Vegas Sights, Worldly Bites,” “Vegas Nights, Helicopter Flight” (with Maverick Helicopters) and “Ultimate Steakhouse Tour.” Yet it’s the 2 ½-hour Downtown tour (price: $125 per person) that funnels interest — and dollars — into locally-owned coffers rather than corporately-operated casino vaults.

“We’ve maintained the business since we opened, but for our neighbors, sales have increased,” says Maria Horta, Therapy’s general manager. “There are a lot of repeat customers, and a lot of local companies hire the tour just to get to know restaurants that open in town.”

Like tossing a stone in a still pond, the Foodie Tour is the splash that brings welcome waves of business. “It brings crowds of people who may not have been downtown in years. They see how it’s changed, they’ve heard the buzz,” says Jeremy Crittenden, general manager of Turmeric Flavors of India, another tour stop.

“They look at local art installments and spend money in shops across the street. It opens people’s eyes.”

See the sights, taste the bites

Twilight envelops the bustling food/entertainment district as Contursi prepares to play Culinary Pied Piper for a locals group — eight female employees of the catering department from Green Valley Ranch hotel-casino on an evening of bonding. Gathering at the kickoff site at the courtyard of the former John E. Carson Hotel on Sixth Street, they surround a crackling outdoor fire that takes the edge off the nip in the air and sets a cozy mood.

Right this way, folks. And expect to ID Downtown sights and gather Downtown facts between face-stuffings.

“This is the neighborhood grocer, kind of like a Trader Joe’s — natural goods, organic goods,” he says as we breeze down Fremont Street past the grocery store simply named The Market.

“Prior to this, Downtown hadn’t had a grocer for 23 years,” he continues. “(Zappos owner and Downtown redeveloper) Tony Hsieh tried to get a grocer to come Downtown but nobody would do it because there weren’t enough residents, but he knew in order to attract residents you had to have a grocery store so he opened up his own.”

Learn a little. Eat a little.

That points us toward Therapy. They’re expecting us. “All we require is that restaurants hold a table so no matter how busy it is, it’s a standing reservation, that’s what makes it VIP,” Contursi says.

Seated at a long chef’s table within its industrial-chic decor, we learn its history (as a former 99-cent store) and heartily indulge in Therapy’s gastronomically therapeutic (and colorfully named) offerings: “Chicken Meatballs” (jalapeno cilantro pesto and shaved parmesan); “In the Gundi” (baked ricotta, truffled fig jam, roasted almonds, cranberry and walnut crostini); “Devil on Horseback” (soft truffled goat cheese and almond-stuffed dates wrapped in bacon, served on romesco sauce); and signature cocktail, “The SMASH” (Four Roses Bourbon, blackberries, fresh limes and mint). Plus, the waffle sliders.

Up and onward, as Contursi points out Downtown sights including: social hub Commonwealth; Inspire Theatre; The Ogden condo complex; members-only 365 Tokyo bar (concealed behind mirrored glass and featuring Japanese-style service customs); and the most honestly named eatery on Earth: The Heart Attack Grill (we’re not stopping there — the tour does not include complimentary defibrillators).

Next stop: Downtown Cocktail Room, and schmoozing in its hideaway within a hideaway — a curtained-off, seductively dim bar with speakeasy charm. Named after a regular customer who passed away — and whose picture graces the wall — it’s called Mike Morey’s Sip ‘n’ Tip.

“This is the bartenders’ bar,” Contursi notes, “so when they get off work this is where they come and hang out.” (Mystery and exclusivity define it, as a curious barfly following us learned: “Hey, where you guys going? What’s going on in there?”)

We’re back on the Fremont Street beat, toddling along when Contursi points out The Beauty Bar and Don’t Tell Mama piano joint on our way toward Turmeric Flavors of India. Chef/owner Ritesh Patel ushers us into his kitchen for a naan-bread demonstration — a lesson in pound-the-dough/sprinkle-the-garlic/fry-it-up expertise. Eat it, too.

“The tours are bringing a lot of people and I’ve spoken to many of them,” Patel says. “Word of mouth — when somebody mentions something, they believe, rather than reading something.”

Now we nosh on “stuffed Portobello” (with peppers, spinach sauce and sautéed mushrooms). And “Gobi Manchurian” (cauliflower florets tossed with soy-garlic sauce). And “Chicken Pakora” (fried chicken bites with sriracha chutney). And “Marsala Shrimp Taco” (Kerala spiced shrimp with leaf on roti).

Still digesting, we’re cutting through Container Park, pausing to gaze at the towering, flame-spewing Praying Mantis, then weaving through the lively open-air lineup of boutiques, bars and shops to wind up at 7th & Carson restaurant, exuding intimacy with tiled tables, wood-fired hearth and menu of shareable plates.

“The tours help our business immensely. They expand people’s minds,” says Executive Chef Gregg Fortunato, who serves up a mind-expanding (and belt-loosening) array of indelible edibles, including: “hearth oven bread” with a four-way dip (hummus, baba ganoush, roasted red pepper and cucumber yogurt); “grilled peach and burrata” (arugula, black pepper honey and basil pesto); and “Legs & Eggs” (tempura crab leg, caviar, and barrel-aged ponzu).

“It’s a great partnership,” says 7th & Carson owner Liam Dwyer of pairing with Foodie Tours. “There are eight restaurants in just a three-block area from Las Vegas Boulevard to 7th Street and Carson Avenue, and people like the experience of walking in, meeting the owner and experiencing something new. Oftentimes on the Strip, you don’t get that personal touch that you get Downtown.”

Visitors make a toast during their stop at Therapy during the Lip-Smacking Foodie Tour Tuesday, November 20, 2018, in downtown Las Vegas. (Sam Morris/Las Vegas News Bureau)

Foodie Tour de force

What say you, tour-goers?

“It’s been a blast,” says Amanda Martinez. “I didn’t even know about the historic properties. I love learning about the city. I’m thinking about doing this for my bachelorette party.”

And you? “Amazing,” says Kara DiPietro. “I don’t know downtown as well as I should but it’s definitely interesting to see all the small businesses and items that are down here you wouldn’t normally know about. It’s nice to know the culture, seeing the ins and outs.”

That concludes our tour, but maybe one more “Chicken and Red Velvet Waffle Slider” – a tasty reminder for the uptown-bound to head Downtown again … and again … and again …


To offer feedback on this story or suggestions for future stories on Las Vegas Newswire, contact Managing Editor Steve Bornfeld at SBornfeld@lvcva.com.



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