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Stars of the local dining scene go to Chinatown

Pad Mee Prik King from Chada Thai and Wine
Pad Mee Prik King from Chada Thai and Wine

As I’ve written frequently on these pages, The Strip is no longer the center of the local culinary scene. You need only look at two eagerly awaited Asian restaurants that opened this month, each from one of the town’s most respected restaurateurs. Neither is in a casino. And while they’re both located in the neighborhood most Las Vegans refer to as Chinatown, neither is Chinese. But they’re shining examples of the direction in which the local food scene is moving. They’re small, they’re ambitious, and they’re aimed at a niche market of local diners.

Curry Zen is a tiny Japanese curry house in the Spring Mountain Road strip mall that many local foodies have begun to refer to as Little Tokyo. Its neighboring restaurants include critical darlings such as Raku, Monta, and Kabuto. Like those, it’s hoping to find an audience interested in a particular type of Japanese food largely neglected in our valley. In this instance, Japanese curry.

The mastermind behind this restaurant is a home chef named Takaya Zenbayashi (Mr. Zen to his friends). He runs a Japanese tourist company, and has never worked in a professional restaurant. What he brings to the table, however, is a third-generation family curry recipe. Lending a hand is partner Martin Koleff, a consultant to many of Las Vegas’ top Japanese restaurants.

The curry enjoyed in Japan is different from the varieties served in India, Thailand and other countries. It’s a mildly spiced, brown, stew-like concoction served over white or brown rice. The vegetarian curry is served plain, although assorted meats or potatoes are available alongside it. In Japan, Koleff explains, it’s a popular, inexpensive style of dining.

“If you spot a ramen place,” he says, “you’ll spot some kind of small restaurant [nearby] that has curry. And then there are also places that specialize in curry.”

Here in Las Vegas, Curry Zen offers its fare in a quaint little establishment with seven seats at a counter, and another 10 at tables. The basic curry costs $5 with rice, although half portions are available. Add-ons start at a mere 50 cents for cheese, while a trio of deep-fried shrimp or a pork cutlet will set you back $3.50.

At this point, the menu is extremely limited. Koleff promises it will expand, but says they want to roll things out slowly. For my money, a plain order of curry is one of the best deals in town. I also love the potato croquettes, while the kurobata sausages don’t really impress me. But if you want the most amazing piece of fried food in town, try a curry pan ($2.50). The tiny pockets of bread are stuffed with curry and then deep-fried. The chef only makes about two dozen a day, and only offers them as takeout — so get there early.

If you’re in the mood for Thai, check out Chada Thai and Wine on Jones Boulevard, in the same strip mall that houses Las Vegas’ finest Chinese restaurant, China Mama. Be warned, however — while the food here is amazing, the real reason to visit is the wine list, which is provided by owner/sommelier Bank Atcharawan.

Bank was the longtime manager/sommelier at Lotus of Siam. “I started to pick up things about food and wine while I was there,” he recalls. “It was just fascinating.”

After a dozen years in Las Vegas’ most renowned Thai restaurant, he decided it was time to strike out on his own. “I think it’s time to move on and find something challenging,” he explains.

At Chada Thai, he offers small plates of southern Thai cuisine at affordable prices. Nothing costs more than $20, and most dishes are priced under $10.

Wine is similarly priced — or at least it will be as soon as the restaurant gets its liquor license. That will hopefully have happened by the time this article is printed. Just to be sure, call ahead to see if you need to BYOB.

Of the 150-plus labels on the future wine list, he says “my focus is around $30 to $60 bottles.” His favorites, much like at Lotus, are Rieslings because he feels their sweetness and acidity pair well with the spicy food from his kitchen. He’s currently carrying about 30 of that variety. High-rollers who love pricey reds should have no fear, however. A bottle of the super-expensive Romanee-Conti sits on the shelf, and Atcharawan promises that “I’ll maybe have a bottle or two hiding” for people who want to indulge.

Atcharawan hopes the eclectic wine list will appeal to food and beverage industry professionals looking to enjoy a good bottle after work. To accommodate them, he’ll keep the restaurant open until 2-3 a.m. every night. “I don’t really think in town we have a late-night wine spot,” he explains. “So that’s what I’m shooting for.”

While Curry Zen and Chada Thai cater to some very different markets, each is a great example of what makes the local dining scene so exciting.

CURRY ZEN 5020 Spring Mountain Road, 985-1192. CHADA THAI AND WINE 3400 S. Jones Boulevard, 641-1345.