Tapas & Beyond: Las Vegas suddenly has a splashy Spanish food scene – Las Vegas Weekly
Coming out of the pandemic, Las Vegas diners are eager to return to their favorite restaurants and dining experiences, and meeting with friends and loved ones to share a meal, socialize and just spend big chunks of time together again is proving to be as important as which restaurant we’re choosing.
When many local spots were struggling to get open and stay open last year, the simple concept of sharing food was also mired in uncertainty. Large groups weren’t allowed, and it was assumed diners weren’t excited about ordering different dishes and passing them around the table. But it turned out the opposite was true; we wanted to share food more than ever.
“Especially the first few months after everything started coming back, everybody was going crazy,” says John Simmons, founder of the city’s pioneering Spanish restaurant, Firefly. “You could do curbside pickup and DoorDash, but that’s not really what it’s about, especially with tapas. It loses that magic of an immersive experience, and it’s been great to get people back in.”
Firefly helped introduce Las Vegas to Spanish cuisine through the tapas experience, the tradition of ordering several different appetizer-sized dishes designed to complement drinks and round out a relaxing afternoon of socializing. Similar concepts followed, some local and others from the outside, like Chicago hospitality giant Lettuce Entertain You’s Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba at Fashion Show mall.
Tapas famously developed into a full-blown dining trend across the country, but that boom didn’t translate into a slew of Spanish restaurants in Las Vegas. On the Strip, Ba-Ba-Reeba closed in 2010 to make way for more familiar Mexican food, while internationally recognized chefs Julian Serrano and José Andrés opened popular Spanish eateries at Aria and Cosmopolitan, respectively.
“Spanish food can be a little esoteric,” says Jeffrey Weiss, chef and partner at the recently reopened Valencian Gold. “There are some flavors and ingredients Americans don’t typically see. Americans don’t really get doing eggs for dinner, but for Spaniards, the tortilla espanola, an omelet dish, is everywhere.”
Valencian Gold is one of a handful of new Spanish restaurants in Las Vegas that’s amping up interest in the cuisine and generating buzz in local foodie circles with its innovative approach. Paella is the focus for Weiss and his crew, but they’re also modifying traditional dishes like that omelet to bridge the gap in a fun way.
“I know if I put bacon and American cheese on what is essentially a Spanish-style frittata, people will eat it any time of day,” he says. “So it’s sort of a tribute to a typical New York bodega sandwich. And it sells well, because people understand a bacon, egg and cheese.”
Right now, Spanish cuisine in Las Vegas is at peak excitement. We still don’t have as many places to eat this food as we do many other types, but all the restaurants we have are solid to spectacular. And every spot is doing it differently, on or off the Strip, brand-new or established, casual or elevated.
EDO’s 30-day dry-aged striploin carpaccio (Wade Vandervort / Staff)
“I think about how many Italian restaurants we have in Las Vegas, and I think there’s space for everybody,” Oscar Amador says of the Spanish scene. “Everything we [have now], they are very different from each other.”
His restaurant opened three years ago in the former Chada Thai space just off the main Chinatown drag and quickly established itself as more than just a different take on Spanish cuisine. Foodies and industry folks generally consider EDO one of the best overall restaurants in the Valley—and a place that hasn’t received due attention.
Amador, who cooked at Le Cirque at Bellagio, partnered with friends who had done time at Andrés’ Bazaar Meat at Sahara to create a modern, Barcelona-inspired restaurant using global techniques and free-wheeling creativity. The full menu runs the gamut, charcuterie to oysters—suckling pig to dry-aged striploin carpaccio—but regulars love to put themselves in the chefs’ capable hands for a customized tasting menu with various price points.
“I’m from Barcelona, and the culture of our food is a little different from the rest of Spain,” Amador says. “I love classic Spanish cuisine, but our concept is in another line, more modern and always with some surprises. We are always changing dishes and we run out of specials every day. It’s a restaurant with a lot of life.”
Constantly introducing new dishes means anything can be an EDO staple, but beloved dishes include the bikini ($8.50), a tiny pressed sandwich of sobrassada and mahon cheese, and the vegetarian green tartare ($14) with zucchini, avocado and pistachio vinaigrette. Flavors and textures exhilarate across the board at EDO. 3400 S. Jones Blvd. #11A, 702-641-1345.
Firefly’s lamb chops (Wade Vandervort / Staff)
When Simmons opened the OG Firefly on Paradise Road in 2003, he had his work cut out. Las Vegas didn’t know much about Spanish food, but locals—and especially industry workers—knew they needed a fun, close, casual spot for post-shift drinks and food.
“We’ve never been totally traditional, but it was really rough, because we were getting hit by both sides,” he says. “Spanish people would come in and say, ‘This is not tapas.’ And other people didn’t know what tapas were. There was definitely a period where we had to educate people, but now it is ubiquitous.”
Simmons, who left his chef gig at Mon Ami Gabi at Paris Las Vegas to open his own restaurant, was famously getting ready to throw in the towel when his vision took hold, folks of all Vegas industries discovered the joys of sangria, bacon-wrapped dates and crispy chicken croquetas and Firefly turned the corner.
“It was dealers, strippers and performers, a lot of Cirque people, that was the crowd,” he says. “We wanted to make Firefly more feminine, because there were a thousand sports bars in Las Vegas but no boutique places where women wanted to go. They didn’t want a rack of ribs; they wanted little things to nibble and socialize and interesting flavors that create conversation.”
It has launched various locations around the Valley through the years and moved its original restaurant north on Paradise to a bigger location—and Simmons has expanded with Tacos & Beer and the upcoming vegan project Graze Kitchen—but Firefly will forever be the restaurant that started the conversation. 3824 Paradise Road, 702-369-3971; 7355 S. Buffalo Drive #7, 702-202-1339.
Valencian Gold (Wade Vandervort / Staff)
Weiss debuted Valencian Gold in 2019 as a fast-casual paella concept, but early fans wanted more—paella in a traditional pan, sangria with their meal. The original version of the restaurant had too many limitations.
His team began planning for a significant renovation and menu expansion pre-COVID, then kept busy during the downtime by making New York-style bagels for pickup orders (many hundreds of which the restaurant donated to first responders and healthcare workers) and by partnering with the Delivering With Dignity program to produce meals for homebound, high-risk families in various local neighborhoods.
“We were doing a lot of recipe testing during that time, too,” Weiss says. “We used the pandemic not only to find ways to help service the community but to get our restaurant to the right place to reopen and make it a really awesome, sit-down concept that spoke to my experience cooking and living in Spain.”
Valencian Gold was the toast of Vegas foodie social media when it came back to life last month, complete with a gold flamethrower that lights the paella grill, a refreshing cocktail selection and a long list of tapas that includes addictive fried cheese puffs with truffle honey ($6), shrimp with XO sauce ($11) and classic croquetas ($6).
“We’re trying to be storytellers. Everything has a specific purpose,” Weiss says. “The bullfighter steak is based on this tradition in Pamplona going back to the 13th century, when there was no refrigeration, so the meat was stored under olive oil. We’re using vaca vieja, older dairy cows, just like the tradition, and that olive oil with herbs and garlic really tenderizes the meat. It’s like beef on 11.”
All restaurants tell stories through food, but this effort is helping to increase education on and interest in Spanish traditions. Plus, it’s a lot of fun, as you’ll see when that torch lights up your paella Valenciana ($18-$28). 7960 S. Rainbow Blvd., 702-776-7707.
Jamón Jamón (Wade Vandervort / Staff)
If EDO is the city’s new, modern take on the cuisine, Rafael Salines Catalá’s Jamón Jamón Tapas is the classic Spanish stronghold making a big splash in the Vegas dining scene. It moved to its current location on Sahara in January after operating as a delivery-focused ghost kitchen last year, and Catalá, who came to the city 12 years ago to work at Jaleo before spending time at Julian Serrano, is winning over new fans every week.
“Many of the customers from those [Strip] restaurants came looking and found us,” he says. “And we’ve also found [that] the local community of Filipinos and Cubans really love Spanish food. They are looking for more authentic, pure flavors, and we are doing very traditional food.”
Even under pandemic conditions, Jamón Jamón continues to import ingredients from Spain and all over the world to craft its dishes, Galician-style octopus ($29) and Manila clams in tomato sauce ($23) and Bellota ham and chorizo are also sold deli-style. “The majority of my customers have been to Spain at least one time, and I think they miss what they tried over there,” Catalá says.
Those who discovered Jamón Jamón in its early days are shifting to the dine-in experience now, and the chef does not disappoint. A 10-pound Segovia-style roasted suckling pig (which must be ordered in advance) is becoming one of the most popular dishes, proving that uncompromising dedication has its rewards. 6135 W. Sahara Ave. #2&3, 702-762-2844.
Tres Cazuelas’ churrasco pintxo (Wade Vandervort / Staff)
Tres Cazuelas Latin Cuisine (3355 Spring Mountain Road #35, 702-370-0751) is an ideal stop along your Chinatown district crawl, since it combines live entertainment and boutique beer and wine lists with tapas and traditional Spanish bites, plus other Latin dishes like empanadas, habanero-spiked guacamole, Basque-style pinxtos (snacks) and Argentinean churrasco steak.
Pamplona’s ensalada sandia
Multiple Spanish restaurants can be found along West Sahara Avenue. Pamplona Cocktails & Tapas (5781 W. Sahara Ave. #100, 702-659-5781) serves rare cheeses, prized Iberico ham, classic tapas and multiple paella options, along with steak and seafood. Over at the Artisan, Barcelona Tapas (1501 W. Sahara Ave., 702-834-3990) hits all the right notes with hot and cold dishes, several specialty seafood tapas dishes like steamed mussels and shrimp ceviche and some familiar entrees (tacos!) for good measure.
Of course, you can’t do Spanish food in Las Vegas without hitting the Strip for two standard-setting experiences. Jaleo (Cosmopolitan, 702-698-7950) is as colorful and energetic as casino restaurants come, powered by an open kitchen and its big-time paellas and special-cut Presa Iberico bellota, a pork dish to remember. Next door, Julian Serrano Tapas (Aria, 877-230-2742) was a recent Strip restaurant reopening, and it’s about time. We couldn’t go on much longer without its shrimp gazpacho, huevos estrellados, mushroom risotto and perfect pan con tomate.
Lago (Anthony Mair / Courtesy)
There are a lot of great things about Forte, one of Las Vegas’ most prominent Eastern European eateries, and one of them is a tapas menu that incorporates Spanish favorites like bacon-wrapped, almond-stuffed dates and peppery shrimp dish gambas al ajillo ($10) into the mix. But you have to sample the chebureki ($10), Georgian-style fried beef dumplings sprinkled with dill, and house originals like Stroganoff fries ($10) and the cheese-bread-egg masterpiece khachapurri ($13). 4180 S. Rainbow Blvd. #806, 702-220-3876.
This casual wine and whiskey bar offers plenty of shareable bites, from personal pizzas and bacon sliders to its new ranch fries ($13) topped with fried chicken and gravy, and the “three amigos” dip selection of salsa, guac and chorizo beans ($13). Town Square, 702-473-5415.
Las Vegas needs more great neighborhood wine bars, but until that happens, this Strip hideaway is the perfect place for sips and snacks. The beef filet flatbread with caramelized onions and blue cheese ($21) is an absolute flavorbomb, a perfect surf-and-turf combo with jumbo lump crab lettuce cups ($19). Wynn, 702-770-7375.
When Julian Serrano, one of the city’s all-time great Spanish chefs, decided he wanted to do Italian tapas, the folks at Bellagio were all for it. You will be too after snacking on mini pizzas, smoked salmon crostini ($26), tomato-braised meatballs ($20) and octopus with squid ink couscous ($29). Bellagio, 702-693-8865.
Global cuisine has been a focus at Venetian and Palazzo in recent years, and this versatile eatery—focusing on grilled items, raw bar and daily brunch—is a great example. Bounce around the menu with goat cheese croquettes ($14), rock shrimp tempura ($17) or beef empanadas with cilantro aioli ($15). Venetian, 702-414-2263.
Nittaya’s Secret Kitchen
This neighborhood Thai favorite recently relocated nearby to a much larger space with a much larger kitchen, allowing chef Nittaya Parawong to offer some delicious new small plates. Our advice: Eat them all, but especially don’t miss the basil chicken potstickers ($9), perfect crispy pork belly ($11), lemon grass rubbed chicken wings ($11) and chili-lime squid ($13). 8427 W. Lake Mead Blvd., 702-360-8885.
An award-winning writer who has been documenting life in Las Vegas for more than 20 years, Brock Radke covers live …