Nestled in downtown Las Vegas, in an area known as the East Fremont District, sits La Comida, an appropriately titled restaurant serving up casual Mexican food and drinks in an atmosphere more attuned to Mexico City than Sin City.
I have had my eye on this place for months now, since it opened in the spring of 2013. Finally I was getting my chance to experience first hand the restaurant so many had heralded when it opened.
The brainchild of longtime Las Vegas restauranteur Michael Morton and Chef Paloma Cuellar, this is not the typical Mexican restaurant you’ll find in most US cities. You pick that up pretty quickly when you realize the front door actually fronts an alley. Combine that with a neon monkey out front, a bizarre interior collection consisting mostly of what would never sell at a garage sale, and a host of colorful calaveras, or skulls, and you’ve got a look that for many might be inaccessible.
For me, it was heaven!
Gone were the stereotypical vinyl booths and gaudy colors that adorn the Mexican restaurant scene in many US cities. Recently I had the chance to dine in a well known Mexican Grill that claims to be the Number 1 Mexican restaurant in the US. The tables and chairs were painted in more of a Jackson “The Dripper” Pollock style than anything I’ve ever seen in my over 20 years traveling throughout Mexico.
The moment I opened the door and saw the eclectic mix of decor against a backdrop of imperfect brick walls and old Mexican tiles, I was immediately transported to any number of cantinas and cenadurias common south of the border.
Once you get your table, your attention is immediately drawn to the impressive bar. Complete with a swing, which I am sure gets a lot of use as the night wears on, this is the focal point of the restaurant. La Comida boasts an impressive list of tequilas, but for me, the attraction was something else.
Spending time in Oaxaca, I have fallen into a love affair of sorts with mezcal and La Comida is one of the few places in Las Vegas pouring mezcal. They are known for their margaritas, so I opted for the “mescalito”, a mezcal infused margarita. The taste was good, and the difference between tequila and mezcal was quickly noted. But there was a problem, at least for me.
The drink was served in a Mason style jar, complete with threads upon which the salt was caked. I am guessing someone suggested this as a clever display, oR marketing ploy, but in my opinion, it doesn’t work. Don’t get me wrong, it looks great, but the glass threads got in the way of a smooth drinking experience.
Our waiter was quick to come and tell us he’d be back with chips and salsa, so I asked him to bring us some guacamole too. The chips were wonderful, warm and crisp. The guacamole was excellent, with a nice chunky texture to it. It even had a little kick, something rarely found in guacamole north of the border. The salsa however, was as bland as it gets. I was surprised. Barely better than what I would expect at a chain, there was no kick, and little chile flavor. It was if they had put all their creative eggs in the guacamole basket and left this one empty.
As I looked over the menu, I noticed that I could order different salsas. That’s a nice idea, but if what I had in front of me was an indication of what those salsas might bring, why would I bother? Perhaps the house salsa should include something great and then people might be more inclined to go for the other varieties and flavors.
Since it was late at night, and I was getting that Mexico City street vibe from the decor and ambiance, we ordered the tacos. Tacos are the go to late night option all across Mexico, whether it is a puesto outside the bus station in Oaxaca, or a large taco house like Tacos el Pata in Queretaro.
I went for carne asada and for my wife, the carnitas. Served with these, as part of Morton’s vision is a plate of rice and beans to be shared family style, as the name La Comida suggests. The tacos come three to a plate and are served on small corn tortillas.
Before I go any further, let me explain something. These are small tacos, not the gigantic offerings you get from some places here in the US. That is how tacos are eaten in Mexico, on small tortillas, often in copious quantities. Think 6 – 10 in a sitting. That’s why they are served small.
When our plates arrived they looked wonderful, but looks can sometimes deceive, and that was the case on this night. My charred onion, were barely blackened and the carne asada was served in small chunks, almost diced. That might have been fine, except the edges were crusty and somewhat burned. These were not definately not the tacos I was craving.
The carnitas had an unusual twist. They were served with potato bits in the tacos. Potatoes are a staple in certain types of tacos in Mexico, most notably the fried ones with chorizo, but I’ve never seen carnitas served mixed with potatoes. I searched all over the net for something about this and even called on a friend in Mexico City to see if he had ever seen anything like this, and I could find no one who knew of this style of carnitas.
The taste of the pork itself was great, I was just a little put off by the potato in the taco. Perhaps this twist is a little something from Chef Paloma Cuellar’s hometown in Michoacan.
The rice was nothing special, in fact I could have had it at El Torito, and the beans, while served whole, as you’d expect at a taco stand, also did not leave a lasting impression. I was a little surprised by the small quantity of rice and beans for two people to share.
At this point, I did not know what to expect when the waiter came asking if we wanted dessert. We ordered the tres leches cake and the flan. Just one word here… Redemption! The desserts were spectacular.
While I thought the flan was more like a jericalla, a cross between flan and creme brulee popular in Guadalajara, that did not matter. It was amazing. Cracking through the caramelized sugar to get to the custard, it was smooth and sitting on a small wonderful pond of delicious caramel. This was a top notch dessert.
The tres leches was one of the best I’ve had in El Norte. The density of the cake itself was a perfect match for what you would find in Mexico and maybe more importantly, it was not floating in milk. Served with just the right amount of moistness and no hint that it had been bathing in milk all day, there was not a hint of the sogginess that plagues tres leches cake in so many places.
Would I go back? Yes I would, if only to try some of the other offerings they cook up. Also, when friends ask me where they can get a good dessert and maybe a shot of mezcal, La Comida will be on the top of my list. I just wish they served their drinks in something other than a Mason Jar.
A final note… anytime I experience a restaurant that has mezcal, I am pleased, and La Comida delivered on that front, even though their offerings were limited to Alipus, Del Maguey and a reposado from Mestizo. I would encourage Michael Morton and Chef Paloma Cuellar to consider expanding their collection to include some of the finer mezcals and a few of the cutting edge cocktails featuring this incredible spirit.
La Comida, 100 6th Street, Las Vegas, Nevada, 89101
Tacos for 2, guacamole, drinks, dessert and tip… $60.00
[Some pictures used by permission from La Comida. All rights reserved 2014 ©Dave Miller’s Mexico]