PHOTOGRAPHY BY ANTHONY MAIR
I’ve been to Las Vegas dozens of times over the years. Every time, I had an amazing experience cooking there—like when I had the honor of cooking for the great French chef Jean-Louis Palladin. We were up until 4 a.m. making these incredible dishes and eating together. But, like most people, I had never spent much time away from the Strip.
The Strip is like Times Square times 10. You think of it for the entertainment and gambling, everything you find concentrated right there. But what you might not think about are all the people it takes to make that destination what it is. There are so many people who come to work every day to be a dealer in the casino, to cook the food for the buffet, to clean the rooms in these massive hotels, and then they go home to their own neighborhoods, where their sister owns a little restaurant or their father runs a local shop.
The last time I was in Vegas, it was to film an episode of my show, No Passport Required, and I got to experience a slice of that off-Strip life when I was invited into the Chinese-American community there. Chinatown is only a couple of miles from the Strip. It started with a central square, and in the 1990s they started to build it out. Soon it grew to have another square, and then another. Now, you have this incredible community hub where you can find some of the best food in America. I was super-lucky to have Crystal Yuan, this remarkable violinist for Celine Dion, take me under her wing and show me some of her local favorites, including Yi Mei Champion Taiwan Deli, Shang Artisan Noodle, and Chubby Cattle.
At first, as we drove away from the Strip, it looked as if we could be anywhere in the U.S. Strip malls and chain stores lined the streets. It was early in the day, but it was already smoking hot outside. No one dared to be out on the streets. It looked and felt like we were in the desert. But then we pulled up to Yi Mei Champion Taiwan Deli and opened the door and, boom, there was a blast of energy. Families were at every table, and delicious smells greeted us right at the door. It was packed in there!
Whenever I settle into a table at a restaurant, I always like to ask what’s good. Like, “C’mon, tell me what your mama would order.” So, even though it was over 100 degrees outside, I ordered piping-hot niu rou mian—Taiwanese beef noodle soup. I could see the noodles being hand-pulled, so I already knew there was a serious commitment here. But what totally blew me away was this super-umami-rich beef broth garnished with these bright pickled mustard greens and fresh bok choy, and then finished off with a little bit of cilantro, scallions, and bean sprouts. It’s this bowl of chewy, crunchy, steamy goodness that makes you feel like you’re at someone’s home for dinner. I couldn’t get enough.