Over the past year or two, I’ve noticed more and more video-poker bars giving up the standard by-the-numbers fried offerings and sandwiches, and lease their kitchens out to established chefs and restaurateurs. And in many instances (Naked City Pizza, Carlos’ Kitchen) the food operations grow to overshadow the booze and gambling, bringing in a whole new clientele. The latest neighborhood watering hole to bring in a new partner is Spectator’s Lounge on Durango Drive and Flamingo Road, which recently brought in food truck operator Bobby Wilkinson to create the Bobby Q Grill. The first things longtime Spectator’s customers will notice about the dining room are the redecorations. There’s a fresh, bright paint job, new furniture, some nice touches of corrugated metal atop the windows and a large new flat-screen TV. You’ll also likely find either Wilkinson or his wife, Melissa, on hand, chatting with customers between their turns in the kitchen, doing business on a laptop or waiting tables.
The couple operates two trucks: Sin City Wings and Ben’s BBQ. So it’s no surprise that items from both appear on their new menu. But the restaurant is more than just a brick-and-mortar version of their mobile operations. It bills itself as “modern Southern food,” patterned after the cuisine Wilkinson grew up on. The appetizer section of the menu includes fried pickles ($6), fried okra ($6) and pork and vegetable potstickers in Buffalo sauce ($7). House specialties include red beans and rice ($10) and homemade spaghetti and meat sauce ($12).
Knowing Wilkinson from his trucks, I dropped by a day or two after he opened to sample some dishes at the bar. I had no intention of reviewing the place until it had been in operation a while longer. But the shrimp and grits ($8), Southern deviled eggs ($5) and strawberry Jell-O cake dessert served in a mason jar ($5) were so impressive, I decided to fast-track the place for a spot in this space. Unfortunately, when I returned a week and a half later, I found things in total disarray.
On that second visit, the moment I was seated, my server immediately ran down a list of items that had already been taken off the menu. (The new menus that reflected the quick changes were still on order.) At least one other item I ordered turned out to be unavailable that night. And a crab and black-eyed pea cake appetizer ($9) arrived at my table practically uncooked. Since it was still edible, and actually rather tasty, we ate about half the order. So I was surprised that, after my waitress conceded the mushy lump wasn’t the way it was intended to arrive, she removed it from our bill. I did enjoy a pizza topped with barbecue pork ($12) and an order of wings ($8), but it was obvious the place was still working out a lot of kinks. Out of fairness, I opted to give it a few more weeks before a review.
On the night of my third visit, Bobby Q Grill had been open just more than a month. The menus had been updated, and the food was more consistent. I was impressed with a flat-top burger drowned in butter and topped with onions, cheese, mushrooms and hot sauce ($9), as well as a large piece of lightly fried catfish ($12). But neither compared to the outstanding cornbread, served in a cast-iron skillet. My only complaint this time was with the “potato swirls” that accompanied the fish. Based on the description (“fried hollowed out potatoes stuffed with garlic mashed potatoes, topped with cheese floating in Bobby Q sauce”) I expected something a lot more interesting than the bland lumps of mashed potatoes I received. Even after a month, Bobby Q Grill is still a work in progress. But the owners clearly care, and I expect it to keep getting better. For now, even on its worst day, I’ll take the food here over the generic cuisine that once defined nearly all bars like Spectator’s.
Bobby Q Grill 4140 S. Durango Drive, 457-7500. Read more about the Las Vegas dining scene on Al Mancini’s blog, www.almancini.net.