Every time I review a new downtown restaurant, I find myself applying two sets of standards. My inner hipster just wants to relive my 20s by hanging where the cool kids are and finding someplace halfway decent to fill my belly along the way. And I’m happy to say quite a few places have opened in the past few years that fit that criteria, the latest being Mingo Kitchen and Lounge at Arts Square.
On the other hand, the food writer in me is looking for a destination restaurant, a place that transcends its area and will inspire foodies from all walks of life and every neighborhood to visit just because of the food. I want a place with a unique personality that delivers consistent quality. Sadly, I’ve yet to find such a spot in the new downtown, including Mingo. The menu here is considerably more clever and original than a lot of the new downtown spots, but, sadly, it’s delivered in a hit-and-miss fashion, with as many failures as successes.
First things first: Mingo is a great place to hang out. It boasts an outdoor patio perfect for a cool summer’s night. The interior is beautifully decorated in black with silver accents, and the couches are plush and comfy. The soundtrack is eclectic. And there’s a nice selection of specialty cocktails and craft beers.
The man running things is Mingo Collaso, who also heads the Mexican restaurant Mundo in the World Market Center. The chef is Robert Solano, and his menu here is steered towards gourmet comfort food, divided between small and big bites.* Among the small, you’ll find fresh-cut fries with sriracha ketchup ($3), chicken wings with a Maytag bleu cheese dipping sauce ($8) and a baked mac and cheese made with béchamel sauce, parmesan, white cheddar, gruyere and chipotle ($9). The large bites include ono fish and chips ($10), spicy honey-glazed mahi mahi ($18) and free-range chicken with Mediterranean chimichurri and caramelized onions ($16). Then there are the two over-the-top hotdogs: the Notorious P.I.G. (topped with pickled jalapenos, horseradish mac and cheese and bacon for $9) and The Kanye (wrapped in bacon with pickle relish, onions and peppers for $7).
My first thought after looking at the menu: This could be a truly interesting spot. The dishes are somewhat familiar, but have personality. And after dining at Mundo and Collaso’s former restaurant, La Madonna, I know the guy can cook. So when my wife and I had dinner there, we enthusiastically ordered up some edamame with garlic, red chile, lime, ponzu and sesame salt ($5) and a pair of mahi mahi tacos ($10). The edamame was downright addictive, if just slightly heavy on the lime. The fish tacos, which were rubbed in red chile and topped with mango relish, avocado, lime, shaved cabbage and sauce, were OK, but not in any way exceptional. Our meal really fell apart, however, with a land-and-sea entrée ($22) that paired a mediocre cut of skirt steak with a skewer of four small garlic shrimp so salty they were basically inedible.
Given the mixed results of my first visit, I returned alone for lunch. On my waiter’s recommendation, I ordered a small plate of seared Brussels sprouts ($7) and an open-faced egg sandwich ($12). Brussels sprouts, which have never been my favorites, are now being served fried in top restaurants across the country. But these were probably the best and most original spin on the vegetable I’ve ever had, just lightly seared in brown butter and a balsamic reduction with candied pecans and golden raisins. (You can add bacon for an extra buck, but I passed.)
The egg sandwich had the potential to be a real over-the-top signature item, made with brioche, fontina, gruyere, bacon, avocado, arugula, sautéed onions and what I believe was a sriracha mayo. Unfortunately, the chef loaded it up with so much arugula it was hard to taste anything else — a pretty amazing feat considering all those other bold ingredients.
Given its location, décor, creativity, reasonable prices and the extremely friendly servers I encountered at Mingo, I’d say it’s worth trying the next time you’re in the Arts District. But until the food becomes more consistent, I can’t recommend it to anyone who must travel to the neighborhood. I’m still waiting for a place that good to emerge somewhere downtown.
MINGO KITCHEN AND LOUNGE, 1017 South First Street, 685-0328. Read more about the Las Vegas dining scene on Al Mancini’s blog, www.almancini.net and follow him on Twitter @almancinivegas.
*This sentence has been corrected.