As a critic, it’s always a dilemma how long one should wait before reviewing a restaurant. You want to be the first to explore a new spot, but you also want to give it time to work out the kinks. It can be a delicate balancing act. But this week I’m breaking all the rules by telling you about a place that won’t be open for a while, but where you can already sample the food. Allow me to explain.
Chef Chris Palmeri has been serving some of Las Vegas’ best pizza, wings and sandwiches for about three years at Naked City Pizza, located inside a divey little bar called Moon Doggies. It’s been a favorite of both the local and national press, and was even featured on Diners Drive-Ins and Dives. Before that, however, he was executive chef at the MGM Grand’s upscale Mexican restaurant, Diego, where he got to work with its consulting chef, Rick Bayless — one of America’s top Mexican chefs. Now he’s decided to return to his roots, and is converting an abandoned space next door to Moon Doggies into a true restaurant called Desnudo Tacos (Naked Tacos) that will specialize in Mexican and Southern Californian street food. He’s recruited Chrstian Dolias, who heads the underground chef’s collective CutThroat Culinary.
The new restaurant isn’t expected to open for a few months. But since mid-summer, the two chefs have been developing the menu in a series of Tuesday night specialty menus at Moon Doggies. Dubbed Desnudo Tuesdays, they’ve become a favorite of local foodies.
The weekly specialty menu is small (usually less than ten items), and changes from week to week. If you want to know what they’re offering before you head over, you can follow Desnudo Tacos on Facebook, where they post upcoming menus and photos of various dishes. But with large portions, and items priced in the $6-$8 range, it’s worth just heading over and experimenting.
I’ve spent two Tuesday nights checking out the menu. The first time, I limited myself to a simple pair of chile rellenos, which were good, but not exceptional. My friends also stayed basic that night, but they all enjoyed their tacos, both pork and chicken.
On my most recent visit, however, the chefs were getting much more creative. They offered either tacos or tortas stuffed with your choice of confit pork braised with chorizo or poached chicken sautéed with green pumpkin seed sauce ($6). There was also a skirt steak California burrito ($7), ceviche of lobster, shrimp, octopus, calms and roasted cactus ($8), tortilla soup ($6) and a Mexican-style shrimp cocktail ($8). The chefs even mixed up a soft drink made with hibiscus flowers and mint ($3).
The standout was clearly the mouth-watering pork. The ceviche was a little on the tart side, but I enjoyed it a lot. The soup was rich and delicious. And the sweet, soup-like shrimp cocktail had just enough kick to it to provide a bit of contrast.
Of course, any unrehearsed menu served in a dive bar is bound to have a few problems. In this case, the glassware used for the ceviche was awkward. The round cylindrical glasses were so tall and thin it was tough to get to the bottom with the fork provided. But that’s understandable — I don’t expect them to buy special glasses for an item that will only be served one night. The stale chips that came with my shrimp cocktail were a bit more difficult to forgive. But, all-in-all, given the price and the creativity, it was a damn good meal.
If Desnudo Tacos comes even close to the success of Naked City Pizza, it’s destined to be one of the most buzzed-about restaurants of 2014. And Tuesday nights at the original are giving customers a unique look into how two talented chefs are developing its menu. Sure, there are bound to be some misses scattered in with their hits. But these guys are creative and not afraid to takes chances. No wonder the night is becoming one of the hottest attractions in town for food fans in the know. Check it out now, before you can’t get a seat.
DESNUDO TUESDAYS, Tuesdays at Naked City Pizza, 3240 Arville Street, 243-6277.