The area surrounding West Spring Mountain Road has garnered plenty of justifiable attention in recent years as a hotspot for Asian cuisine. But really interesting Asian restaurants continue to flourish in other neighborhoods. My most recent discovery is 21 Restaurant and Lounge, a Korean restaurant on West Sahara Avenue. While the place feels more like a nightclub than a restaurant, it offers a nice variety of Korean cooking done quite well.
21 is located in the rear of a small strip mall, fairly hidden if you just happen to be driving down Sahara. But it’s actually an extremely large space. The centerpiece of the room is a large bar that boasts a handful of beer taps. Don’t get your hopes up for a draft, however; the place is still relatively new, and my server quickly informed me it hasn’t installed any kegs yet. Fortunately, there are plenty of other ways to indulge, including bottled beer, premium sake, specialty cocktails and several varieties of soju, the Korean liquor. Show up between 6-8 p.m., and they’re all half-price.
Most of the tables that surround the bar are made of a white Plexiglas-like material. When my wife and I were seated at one, our host quickly reached under it to turn on an internal LED light. The glowing table was a bit distracting at first, but it definitely gave the restaurant a weird, sci-fi vibe that almost overshadowed the relentless videos by Psy, Beyonce and Steve Aoki in constant rotation on the numerous video screens. (I had no clue that Mr. “Gangam Style” had recorded so many songs.)
The menu is a bit of a hodgepodge. A section labeled “Liquor Lovers” features drinking snacks that range from kimchi fried rice ($8) to an assorted-fruit platter ($20). The next page is dedicated to “Soju Cravers” and features various soups ($10-$15) and skewers of meats and vegetables ($3-$20). The chef then apparently gives up on his booze-related labels and simply lays out several pages of stir-fry, pancakes and other options. Seafood fans will find wonderful offerings such as squid ($15), octopus ($13-$15) and sea snails ($15). But land-based dishes like braised beef rib ($15), spicy chicken ($12) and pork hocks ($20) are also plentiful.
Everything I’ve sampled here has ranged from good to great. The skewers are fairly simple. But eight medium shrimp lightly coated in a teriyaki-barbecue sauce for a mere six bucks are well worth the money. The garlic skewers ($3) were also simple but satisfying. I was even more impressed with the bulgogi. Literally translating to “fire meat” in Korean, the term refers to any grilled, marinated meat. In this case, it was beef. And while it was a bit fatty, it was nicely seasoned in a semi-sweet glaze and sliced so paper-thin that it seemed to melt in my mouth.
For a real taste of Korea, however, I recommend the kimchi pancake ($8). Crispy on top, and a bit mushy on the bottom, it’s a perfect example of how the tasty fermented vegetable can offer a mild kick without necessarily overpowering.
Also make sure not to ignore the assorted styles of chicken wings ($8 for a half-dozen). These are not typical bar snacks. Each of the large-wing portions is breaded and perfectly fried, resembling traditional fried chicken. More importantly, the available flavors are added to the batter sparingly. I recommend the curry version, which has so slight a hint of spice that even people who think they don’t like curry will eagerly devour them without quite knowing why. (If you’re a huge curry fan, however, you may be disappointed with the subtlety of the seasoning.)
21 is still a relatively new spot, and it’s clear the owners want people to view it primarily as a lounge-nightclub. But the food is good enough to impress anyone who loves good Korean food, and will win over newcomers to the cuisine. The fact it isn’t located in “Chinatown” makes that fact just a bit sweeter.
21 RESTAURANT AND LOUNGE 6145 West Sahara Ave., 834-4222. Read more about the Las Vegas dining scene on Al Mancini’s blog, www.almancini.net and follow him on Twitter @almancinivegas.