I was in Las Vegas this week for a trade show, accompanied by my colleague and fellow-foodie, Fred Cain. On Wednesday Fred had the job of selecting the restaurant for dinner.
Apparently he did some research because the recommendation was China Poblano. This is a brand new restaurant in a brand new hotel. The Cosmopolitan Hotel opened in City Center just two months ago and appears to be the most posh and extravagant hotel yet in Las Vegas!
In this hotel Jose Andres has three restaurants, Jaleo, E by Jose Andres, and China Poblano. Jaleo is already famous in the Washington, DC area and offers classic Spanish Tapas, and the E-Bar is modeled after the “impossible to get into” Mini-Bar in DC’s Cafe Atlantico. Both are a restaurant-within-a-restaurant where an elite few can enjoy an exhaustive tasting menu from some of the world’s most innovative chefs. Thoughtful intensely flavored food has made Andres famous on a national scale and beyond.
China Poblano is an interesting concept. The restaurant is half Chinese and half Mexican and bills itself as “noodles and tacos”. There’s a paragraph on the menu that attempts to make logic of the combination, referring to 16th Century Spanish Galleons traveling to China by way of Mexico, etc.
My feeling is, “who cares?” I don’t need there to be a justification to have the restaurant be half Chinese and half Mexican! By the way, this is not your garden-variety, neighborhood version of either cuisine!
The moment you walk in all of your senses are engaged! To the left is the Chinese Dumpling and Noodle bar, a large round counter of chairs inside of which is a massive steam table, covered with bamboo steamers and Chinese chefs creating dumplings, hand-cut noodles, and various dim-sum dishes.
To the right is the Mexican version of this with its large flat-top tortilla and taco griddle.
The restaurant is edgy, fun, and very casual. The entire menu is composed of numerous small plates and the vast majority of them range from $8 – $12, so it can be considerably more economical than many of the big name restaurants in Vegas. A t-shirt and jeans is the preferred dress according to the manager (who, I must point out was wearing a suit and tie!)
Fred and I took a seat on the Chinese side of the restaurant (after being assured that this would not limit our access to the Mexican side of the menu). We were near the entrance to the restaurant and as a result got a lot of attention from all of the staff. Since the restaurant is new, they are quite interested in feedback and it was clear to them early on that Fred and I were two happy customers!
Try as I did, no staff member would admit to any inner tension between the Chinese chefs and the Mexican chefs! I wanted to hear of Chinese chefs saying things like, “What do those taco-making dummies know about food?” or the Mexican chefs asking “How could those dumpling-rollers get a job in a place like this?” but this was clearly one big happy family and without the slightest exception, the staff was gracious, skilled, and completely devoted to our total enjoyment of the experience.
The first step was cocktails, and there is an impressive list of signature cocktails from each side of the house. There are Chinese classics like the Singapore Sling, and Jose Andres’ take on classics like the Mai Taiwan. Likewise, there are various Margaritas including the “Salt Air Margarita” which has foam around the rim.
I opted for the Margarita ‘Sal de Gusano’ which featured a rim of salt mixed with ancho chili powder, and because I was also eying another menu choice, they kindly included a side shot of Mezcal. Excellent start!
Fred and I decided to order dishes in pairs, one Chinese and one Mexican. We kicked it off with dumplings and ceviche.
The dumplings were called the Plentiful Year Jiaozi. They were filled with a mixture of lotus root, shitake mushroom, cod, scallops, and ginger, and steamed. The flavor was outstanding–a word I would use all night long! You could taste each ingredient on its own, but at the same time, you could taste the sum of the parts. The order said there would be seven dumplings and our plate had only six. More on this in a moment.
The Mexican dish was a Tuna Ceviche. The tuna was cut into tiny cubes and tossed with amaranth seeds, soy sauce, lime juice, and pecans. It was topped with avocado slices that had been sprinkled with a large grain roasted salt. The dish was so beautiful we could hardly dig into it, but you can’t have your ceviche and eat it too, so eat it we did. The dish was decidedly more sushi style than ceviche style and in my opinion had not spent much time in the acidic lime juice that cures ceviche. This, by the way, is not a complaint as the fish was as fresh as I have ever seen, and the flavors were light, bright, and totally in concert with each other.
For our next pair of dishes, we chose a vegetable dish from the Chinese side. It was the Dancing Eggplant. If I could have only had a single choice on this menu, the Dancing Eggplant would have been high on the list. It was made with long thin Chinese eggplants which were roasted with black garlic (which has a sweet mild flavor), soy sauce, and bonito flakes. The bonito flakes are dried fish flakes and added a warm exotic flavor to the dish. The sauce was thick and rich and I was close to licking the plate before they removed it!
From the Mexican side we ordered a taco. These are on corn tortillas, about the diameter of a coaster, and made fresh before your eyes. The one we chose was the Pancita al Pastor, made with a long strip of slow-cooked pork belly and a paper-thin strip of pineapple. It had a sort of barbecue sauce on it and once again, all of the flavors contributed their individual strength and texture to for a dish that delighted all of my taste buds!
At this point it was clear that we would be here for a long time. I think three of these small plates would suffice, but I was determined to try them all. Several of the staff members had stopped by to see how we were enjoying the evening and every last one of them seemed to genuinely care that we did.
We began at this point to mockingly complain that our first dish was short one dumpling and that it was so good we were weeping for that missing morsel. We also decided it was time for something else to drink.
The Cold Tea for Two is not for the faint of heart. It is a teapot filled with Green Tea, Tequila, and Beer. The tea is very floral and has almost a perfume flavor, while the tequila adds a sharp attention-getting note and the beer mellows the whole thing out. This little teapot was short and stout and lasted us the rest of the evening!
It was time to make some more decisions and our next round would include a Chinese noodle dish and another taco. The noodles were painstakingly, and precisely cut by hand, right in front of us.
The Beijing Glass with its visual beauty rivaled any other dish we had all night. it was a cold noodle/salad dish that came in a bowl with all of its ingredients separate and a dressing in the bottom. We were instructed to mix it all together which was difficult because it was so beautiful. The dressing was bright with citrus but had a deep sesame flavor and all of the ingredients were delicately shredded and teased into sculpture like shapes.
The taco we chose was a personal recommendation of our host, Markus. It was called the Barbacoa del Res, a Oaxacan-style barbecue beef with guajilo chiles and strips of pickled cactus paddle. The beef was shredded and delicate, but filling. You couldn’t help but be consciously euphoric with every bit of this delicious dish!
By this point we were beginning to wind down when the gorgeous UNLV student Catherine who was our waitress brought over a dish we hadn’t ordered. it was the dumplings called Vegetable Jiaozi, filled with carrots, cucumber, zucchini, and water chestnuts. She explained that the staff had taken a liking to us and felt that Fred and I deserved more than just that one missing dumpling and this order was on the house.
In the restaurant business, it can take so little to make a customer feel special, and this was the sort of touch that made us love China Poblano for more than just the great food.
Now we were starting to get full, so Fred and I placed what would be our final–and unnecessary–order. We ordered the Shrimp Mojo from the Mexican side and had deliberately saved for last what the website promised would be the best choice. This was the Rou Jia Mo, a Chinese Street Sandwich made with red braised pork in a sort of grilled bread.
The shrimp was good, but the closest thing we had all night to normal food one could find in other restaurants. Had it been the first dish we had, it would have been great, but by this time the bar had been set so high!
The Chinese Street Sandwich did not disappoint. It came split in two in two small paper bags as it would be from a vendor and was so packed with flavor we both took our fist bite and put it down so that we could just step back and say, “Wow!” If this is what street vendors serve in China, I can’t imagine what the fine restaurants are like! it was indeed the grand finale. I did not get a picture of this one, so I show you below the picture from the ChinaPoblano website.
By the time we left we had made a lot of new friends, consumed an unnecessary amount of food and drink, but had what could only be described as an amazing experience.
The staff seems disappointed that in their first couple months the restaurant has not caught on. They attribute it to Jose Andres not being as well known in the west as he is in the east, and that every restaurant in the hotel was brand new.
I hope it does catch on because I have eaten in a lot of restaurants in Las Vegas and few offer this much enjoyment for such a reasonable price.
Perhaps Jose Andres needs to call on one of his celebrity chef buddies to plug it on a TV show because this gem of a restaurant deserves to be celebrated.