It’s easy to think you know Las Vegas, given its flashy starring role in myriad TV shows, boxing matches and blockbuster movies. Ever since Frank Sinatra made his film debut in Las Vegas Nights in 1941, thrill seekers, dream chasers and gonzo journalists have descended upon the city, all hoping to strike it rich and/or engage with its menagerie of personalities—casino bosses, showgirls, whales, tigers and assorted Elvi—if only for one night. But there’s more to Vegas than its glitz and its gaming. To get to know the town and really find its riches, we follow a quartet of locals who love the city and know its backstories, its hidden gems, its classic haunts and its new enclaves of creativity.
Heritage and Chilaquiles on the Eastside
I meet Justin Favela at Lindo Michoacán, the family-owned Mexican restaurant that’s become a staple on Las Vegas’ Eastside. He’s on a break from his latest project, meticulously covering with piñatas an entire 1984 Thunderbird that will soon be shipped to Philadelphia as part of a public art program.
Favela—born and raised in Las Vegas with a Guatemalan mother and Mexican father—has made piñata into an art, enveloping large-scale objects tied to American pop culture in tiny squares of paper, a time-consuming and tedious pursuit to say the least. His work has been shown at the Denver Art Museum and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas, and is part of the permanent collection at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno.
“Food is such an impactful art form,” he says as he digs into a heaping plate of chilaquiles. “It’s visual, you can smell it, you can hear it. It’s really a true way to share somebody’s culture.”
Las Vegas’ Eastside is a cultural gem—culinary and otherwise—largely undiscovered by outsiders. It has played a prominent role in Favela’s work, and in the city’s evolution. “Some of the first predominantly Latino neighborhoods are on the Eastside,” Favela says. “I have so much pride for it. The hipsters haven’t found it yet.”
From Lindo, our journey through the Eastside leads to an unassuming strip mall where we find El Triunfo, known for their pupusas, a celebratory Salvadoran food of thick pillowy griddle cake filled with cheese or meat and beans. This steaming hot delicacy of stringy, greasy goodnes is served in a foil wrapper. From there it’s on to El Rey de La Piñata, a fun party supply store where Favela picks up a form or two on occasion for custom piñata-ing if he needs something quick for a project. Hundreds of locally made piñata figures of all styles hang from the low ceiling, and staff will customize their faces upon request.
Traveling down the Eastside Boulder Highway feels like a walk down memory lane with Favela. He takes me into Sam’s Town, a locals’ casino, to find the Mystic Falls Park attraction, a laser and water show. “When I was a kid I would hang out here. Over the years they just kept adding more things,” Favela says in delight. “An animatronic wolf, lasers, birds, waterfalls.”
Favela explains that in the ’80s, when Vegas had its big boom, his grandfather (a farmworker), his father and uncle saw opportunity in the city. As with many Latinx families, working at the casinos was a generational rite of passage. “Most of my family works either in the restaurants or maintenance, cleaning the casinos, and now it’s the new generation. My cousins and I were fulfilling that narrative—but we’re no longer cleaning the casinos. My cousin is on the marketing team at Caesars and another is in human resources
One of his first jobs was as a roller coaster operator at the New York-New York. “My grandma was so proud. She’s like, ‘You got your casino job, just lock it in.’ She had so much pride in that. And when I left the casino, she was like, ‘What are you doing? You were operating a roller coaster.’” He ultimately gave up the corporate security to pursue his true calling—art.
Our final stop is the Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art on the campus of UNLV, where we meet museum director Alisha Kerlin. Last year, the Barrick—home to a collection that focuses on both indigenous traditions and modern life in Southern Nevada—hosted Favela’s exhibition with Ramiro Gomez, “Sorry for the Mess.” The show addressed labor, childhood memories and life in Las Vegas. “Both artists talk about the perspective of the workforce—it’s a history that is not often told,” she says as we walk through the current collection, which now includes Favela’s Estardas (stardust) sign sculpture. Favela concurs: “Latinx history in the city hasn’t really been documented. And it’s a shame because it’s going to be lost. People talk about mobsters, movers and shakers and casino owners, but nobody talks about the families that had to move here to build this town.”
Urban and Hip Downtown
Ryan Brown has a knack for bold moves. She went from growing up in a quiet North Las Vegas suburb to attending college at raucous Arizona State to working for professional sports teams in Atlanta, then migrated to New York City without even owning a winter coat.
Now back in Las Vegas, she’s the co-owner of Downtown’s Classic Jewel cocktail lounge. Though the bar was initially just a business concept, it led to her falling in love with the area. These days, Downtown is considered the city’s hippest neighborhood, a compendium of woman-owned, Black-owned and independent shops, a small slice of urban living in a city known for suburban sprawl.
Our escapade begins at Juhl, the mid-rise live-work condominium complex where Brown both lives and works. It’s about 5 p.m., cocktail hour, and Classic Jewel on the ground floor is buzzing with condo residents and other locals. “It’s a real community here,” Brown says as she surveys her bar, a soulful cocktail lounge that transitions effortlessly from after-work happy-hour joint to fun and flirty live music and craft cocktail hotspot. “We spend holidays together, we travel together, we rally together.”
Just a few years ago, though, the area was a ghost town. A handful of restaurants, bars and shops had popped up, and her mother’s real estate agency owned several units at Juhl. The combination of condos upstairs and commercial space on the ground level stoked Brown’s entrepreneurial fires.
“We wanted to do something together,” she says, recalling her brainstorming with her mother and sister. “We love travel. We love drinking. We love eating. We’re that family, so we decided to open a bar.” Joining forces with her mother, sister and business partner was the perfect leap forward. Now Classic Jewel is part of the Downtown fabric.
We hop into Brown’s partner’s 1965 Ford Falcon and cruise toward the Fremont East District, parking next to the Downtown Container Park shopping center, where a huge praying-mantis sculpture overlooks a locomotive car and shipping containers. Our first stop is Black Spade Tattoo & Permanent Makeup, owned by legendary tattoo artist King Ruck. “I got my last four tattoos here,” Brown says in the narrow space. She banters with the manager, while Ruck meets with a client nearby. Five years ago, she inked the geographic coordinates of Classic Jewel on her collarbone. “My mom’s here, my business is here, I live here,” she says. “Everything is here.”
We then stroll to chef Stacey Dougan’s Simply Pure, a tiny well respected vegan restaurant where Brown habitually stops for a fresh juice. She says that Black Downtown business owners such as Dougan, Ruck and chef Natalie Young of Eat and Old Soul have served as an inspiration, a role she hopes to fulfill for the next wave of entrepreneurs. Before we leave Downtown Container Park, she shows me one of her favorite shops, Third & Arrow, an eclectic, Latina- and woman-owned clothing boutique where she picks up basics such as tank tops and leggings with bohemian flair.
Gliding through the streets in the Falcon, Brown’s face lights up as she points out a bevy of new woman-owned small businesses: gift shop All Good Things, skin-care boutique The Layer Lounge, mani-pedi shop Nail Therapy and brow and lash bar FacePop. Not one was there when Classic Jewel opened five years ago.
Crossing over Main Street we become fully immersed in the new Downtown—quaint neighborhood restaurants, shops, breweries, cocktail lounges, wine bars and fitness studios. We settle in for dinner at Esther’s Kitchen, which in the almost three years since its debut has become the prize of the block. Chef James Trees, a James Beard nominee for Best Chef: Southwest, plates seasonal Italian. After we’re seated, it becomes clear that Brown is a regular. The server knows what she eats (bucatini nero), what she drinks (interesting whites) and how cool she is (very). While this may be the end of our time together, I realize that for Brown, this era is in fact just her beginning.
Writer and man-about-town
Peak Vegas on the Strip
As I pull into the Wynn’s Encore Tower Suites, adjacent to Wynn Las Vegas, to meet Michael Shulman, I am not sure what to expect. Not because I don’t know him—we’ve been friends for 10 years—but because you can never be sure which “personality” is going to show up. Will it be the raconteur in velvet smoking jacket or the DJ in gold sequin turban? When I enter the opulent VIP lobby, Shulman’s sport coat, shirt, jeans and ample jewels assure me that this afternoon I’m meeting my favorite iteration, the writer and friend.
Shulman is the “Eloise” of Wynn Las Vegas—a loyal patron since it opened in 2005 and later also a devotee of its sister resort, Encore. He knows the place so well you’d think that he, like the fictional children’s book character, actually lives in the hotel.
“Over the years, I just found myself spending more time here,” says the writer whose popular blog, Shulman Says, lets readers tag along on the luxurious life of this bon vivant. “I grew up with a father who played golf and poker and a mother who played Neiman Marcus, so we were always coming to Vegas. I finally settled here in the fall of ’98, just in time for the opening of Bellagio.” In 2009, he received the key to the city from former mayor Oscar Goodman.
Shulman’s the kind of guy who makes it OK to have dessert before dinner, especially when it is mint chocolate-chip ice cream from the walk-up window at The Café, our first stop as we head toward the casino floor. “I love the level of detail in everything that they do,” he says, pointing to the Atrium’s whimsical floral carousel and hot-air balloon designed by event maverick Preston Bailey. “From the decor to the service, everything is done well or it’s not done at all.
After ice cream, on our way to find caffeine, we pass Wing Lei, Wynn’s Michelin-starred Chinese restaurant, where the Peking duck salad and kung pao chicken have made Shulman a regular. At Urth Caffé in Wynn Plaza we order the potent, creamy and rich signature start-me-up, the Spanish latte, just the needed boost for the walk across the street to another of his favorite hangouts, The Palazzo at The Venetian Resort.
The two-story Lalique crystal Acqua di Cristallo statue in The Palazzo’s foyer is so grand and opulent it gives Shulman’s bling a run for its money. Despite his Wynn bias, this is his favorite lobby on the Strip. We also come across his favorite cocktail bar, The Dorsey, where we chase our lattes with offerings from the zodiac cocktail menu—the reliable, patient and practical Taurus negroni for him and the friendly, emotional and artistic Pisces French 75 for me. The conversation turns to art. “If we are talking about art on the Strip, I’m especially partial to the sign I adopted at The Neon Museum,” he says. In our years of friendship I have somehow missed the fact that his family foundation underwrote the restoration and relighting of a major piece of Las Vegas history—the sign that formerly adorned The Liberace Museum.
We take the five-mile drive down Las Vegas Boulevard to see it. The Neon Museum, an outdoor art gallery of sorts, offers 45-minute guided tours that look at the history of this unique town through its prominent, singular visual language—signage.
Amid the neon, Shulman explains that he claimed dibs on this sign for a few reasons. “One, it’s not the Stardust sign. It wasn’t going to cost millions to renovate. Two, it is gayer than gay and I love me some Liberace. At the end of the day, in addition to being a gay man, he was the highest-paid entertainer in the world.”
As the Spring Mountains range in the distance turns dusky pink, we decide to end our jaunt at the place where many of our greatest nights have drawn to a close—Piero’s restaurant. “I’ve always loved Piero’s because you’re likely to see everyone from Ann-Margret to the Rolling Stones,” Shulman says as we enter.
Piero’s is like a scene out of a movie, specifically Casino, which was filmed here. “My go-to dishes are the burrata salad and the bone-in veal chop Parmesan,” he says. “They don’t make my favorite dish anymore, although if I call ahead of time, the chicken cordon bleu magically appears.”
If he can conjure a long retired classic, it only reaffirms my early assumption that Shulman is the guy with one of the golden keys to this glorious city—both literally and figuratively.
Restaurant industry luminary
A Culinary Who’s Who on the Outskirts
Crystina Nguyen takes care of people. It’s part of why she’s become the de facto den mother to the hospitality industry in Las Vegas. Today, however, a friend, chef Sonia El-Nawal, is turning the tables on her, whipping up a feast at the quaint Rooster Boy Café in the Westside enclave of Desert Shores, an idyllic residential neighborhood surrounding man-made lakes.
“In the years that I have been here, I watched the industry shift from everything on the Strip to now off the Strip,” Nguyen says.
El-Nawal piles our table with Middle Eastern delicacies: moussaka, shakshouka, kabobs and a bright and beautiful avocado-tomato salad. Over the course of three hours, we eat almost a dozen plates of food, drink three bottles of wine from the adjacent French bistro and wine shop Marché Bacchus, and welcome a handful of guest stars into our party.
The collection of friends today—all of whom call her “Mama”—stems from Nguyen’s two decades of taking care of her peers in Las Vegas’ tight-knit food and beverage industry. She started as a server at Osaka Japanese Bistro and went on to front-of-house positions at seminal Las Vegas restaurants, such as Rosemary’s at the Rio, Morels at The Palazzo and Bin 702 Downtown, before her most recent role as general manager of the acclaimed District One Kitchen & Bar, planted in the city’s most diverse ethnic-food corridor along Spring Mountain Road.
These days her caretaking comes in the form of Mama’s Care Packages, providing home-cooked meals to industry workers affected by the COVID-19 shutdown. “For a lot of my care packages, I actually harvest something—carrots, peas, whatever I can get. I bring a team with me and everyone volunteers their time,” she says as we drive about 15 miles north of Downtown, to where the subdivisions end and the desert begins.
We arrive at the lush, 60-acre Gilcrease Orchard, where visitors can pick stone fruits and hunt for the perfect zucchini, all plotted through an app that describes what’s available and where. Ambling along the rows of crops is a much needed respite from the frenetic pace of Las Vegas. On weekends, Nguyen gets eggs nearby at The Farm, an agricultural time capsule that has been in operation since 1961.
The trek ends on Las Vegas’ main artery, Spring Mountain Road, where Nguyen points out a landmark that is dear to her, Pho So 1, where she met District One chef Khai Vu when he was a 14-year-old cashier. It is still her favorite noodle shop. A bit farther on we pull into another hit, Sparrow + Wolf, from chef Brian Howard. After a warm welcome, Nguyen sits down to the inventive Chinatown clams casino with a glass of Ruinart. She’s in her element. She’s with family. Whether out in the fields or at a table, it’s clear Mama’s home.