Leslie's List Traveler: Lip Smacking Las Vegas
At the recent IPW conference, where international travel buyers gathered in New Orleans to learn about the best destinations the nation’s U.S. travel organizations have to offer, I met an engaging Las Vegas entrepreneur who was trying to sell his Foodie Tour to the world.
Donald Contursi, president of Lip Smacking Foodie Tours, was effusive about introducing visitors and locals to the best signature dishes, unique preparations and exciting tastes and locales in Las Vegas.
Contursi, and his Director of Marketing Humberto Rodriguez, explained love of food, eating, dining and new experiences was the “quartet of passions” that inspired them to pursue careers in the food, beverage and hospitality industries, and to create a premier walking tour company exclusively geared toward those craving the ultimate taste of Las Vegas.
They sold me, so last week I traveled from the Crescent City to Sin City to take a bite.
My Mom Michelle, a Las Vegas local, and I chose the Downtown Lip Smacking Tour, a 2.5-hour thorough exploration of the newly revitalized Downtown area with more than 12 tasty samplings of signature dishes at “magnetic, chef-driven restaurants that are all about farm-to-table, seasonally-focused, artisan-crafted fare.”
Downtown Las Vegas was where the action was before Las Vegas’ mega-resorts sprouted up like neon mushrooms further South along the Las Vegas Strip. The area surrounding “Old School” Las Vegas was always pretty raw, but ongoing City planning efforts and infusions of cash and intellectual capital from another Las Vegas entrepreneur, Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, who sold to Amazon for $1.2B, helped Downtown get a little of its ol’ flash back, capitalizing on its distinctive urban character.
Our tour started in the shadow of The Golden Nugget, the $1,000,000 display at Binion’s Gambling Hall and the Fremont Street Experience, where a 1,500-foot long, 90-foot wide, 90-foot tall Viva Vision Light Show canopy entertains more than 17 million Las Vegas visitors a year.
Lip Smacking Foodies meet at Carson Kitchen, 124 S. 6th St., the first Downtown destination. All other stops remained a mystery until our Foodie Tour Guide, Contursi himself, handed us a printed, branded card disclosing all 4 locations where we were going to eat and imbibe.
There were 10 of us, 8 locals and 2 tourists from Olympia, WA, who met up at the restaurant’s courtyard. Contursi said the ratio that day was a little unusual, since the majority of attendees usually are tourists, but he said locals, too, are hungry to find where all the new, hip places are in town, and he was just the guy to lead them there.
“We elevate the experience,” Contursi said. “With us there is no wait to get in, and you get a VIP dining experience. A Chef or head waiter comes to talk about the food and its presentation, we highlight the signature dishes the restaurants are known for, which are sometimes adventurous yet approachable, and we bring people into these restaurants that wouldn’t normally come to try them. The restaurants see repeat business from these tours, and the tour attendees rave about the service and the food.”
Contursi was a former food server for 14 years and worked in more than a dozen restaurants. By following the local Foodie blogs, hunting for hidden culinary gems within the City’s eclectic dining scene, and enlisting the savvy of his exclusive culinary connections, he said his tours take the gamble out of finding the most “Lip Smacking” tastes among the hundreds of restaurants located on and off the Las Vegas Strip.
Contursi said Lip Smacking Foodie Tours employs 4, and his tours currently rank #1 on TripAdvisor for “Best Food & Drink Tours in Las Vegas,” and #1 on Yelp for “Best Food Tour in Las Vegas.”
At Carson Kitchen, Contursi asked us about food allergies and dietary restrictions, confirmed who pre-purchased alcoholic Beverage Packages and gave us branded name tags to wear. After taking a group photo, Contursi escorted us inside where he handed us a small menu of what we were about to try. A Carson Kitchen manager told us about the history of the restaurant and introduced all the dishes.
Carson Kitchen was founded by the late, great Kerry Simon whom Rolling Stone dubbed the “Rock ‘n’ Roll Chef.” It’s a moniker Simon wore proudly, before he died too young at 60 last year from MSA, as he was always voted one of the Top celebrity chefs in Las Vegas and always kept a table available at all his Las Vegas restaurants exclusively for musicians.
Carson Kitchen is rated #3 on TripAdvisor for “Las Vegas restaurants,” and it’s known for its user-friendly, farm-to-table menu.
We were served:
• Crispy Chicken Skins with smoked honey
• “Devil’s” Eggs with crispy pancetta and caviar
• Roasted Young Beets with pistachio, orange and goat cheese
• Veal Meatballs with sherry foie gras cream
On the way to our next destination, we walked past El Cortez, “where locals come to play.” Contursi said it’s one of the oldest casino-hotel properties in Las Vegas. Mobster conglomerate Bugsy Siegel, Meyer Lansky, Gus Greenbaum and Moe Sedway bought El Cortez, 600 Fremont St., in 1945 for $600K. Contursi said local casino owner Jackie Gaughan eventually bought the property in 1963, expanded it, and lived in the tower penthouse and played poker in the casino every day until he passed away in 2014. The hotel’s distinctive Spanish Colonial Revival style facade hasn’t been changed in more than 70 years.
When we arrived at Itsy Bitsy Ramen and Whisky, 150 Las Vegas Blvd. N., Contursi handed us another menu and cautioned to pace ourselves because portions would be generous.
The quirky and colorful Japanese-style tavern is located on the ground floor of The Ogden, one of Downtown’s residential high rises. Itsy Bitsy specializes in customizable ramen and Japanese street food that meld old world artistry with new world attitude including rice dishes, hand rolls, Gyoza dumplings, Japanese street corn, Japanese sake and an array of Japanese whiskeys.
We were served:
• Snow Crab Hand Rolls
• Shrimp Pot Stickers
• Japanese Sweet Potatoes
• Chef’s Ramen Selection
Walking toward the next tour location, Contursi pointed out The Laundry Room, 525 Fremont St., a secret speakeasy located inside Commonwealth, another popular venue. The bar-within-a-bar was once the laundry facility of nearby El Cortez. It’s an intimate spot with only 27 seats, and no texting or selfies are tolerated. The entrance is elusive, and those in the know text a secret number and get instructions how to gain entry.
Contursi also gave us a sneak peak inside The Park at Fremont, 506 Fremont St. The gastro-pub’s outdoor courtyard immediately reminds you of the upscale shabby chic patio at The Ivy in Los Angeles, but only after throwing in a lot of Downtown Las Vegas edge. It’s where you’d meet Alice, through the looking glass, for small plates, entrees and specialty cocktails. There’s even a distressed Cinderella-style carriage and a whimsical hidden see-saw in a smaller, adjacent courtyard.
Across the street, we were led to Inspire, 107 Las Vegas Blvd. S., a theater and multi-venue complex at the crossroads of Las Vegas Boulevard and Fremont Street. There’s convention and conference space, multiple cocktail bars, outdoor patio areas, a News Café and the 150+ seat theater.
We were all given 1 free drink at one of Inspire’s hideaway lounges before we ventured upstairs to enjoy the City’s largest climate-controlled rooftop lounge and beer garden. After more photos were taken overlooking Fremont Street, VIP Host Cynthia Lee whisked us away to yet another hidden treasure at Inspire, one of the Top 10 membership lounges in all of the world.
365 Tokyo is open exclusively to Inspire members, and reservations are required. What makes 365 Tokyo so special, Lee said, is it’s an intimate, members-only cocktail club offering traditional Asian service with a twist of modern day mixology magic.
From the ultra-excusive 10-seat, 260 sq. ft., floor-to-ceiling glass lounge you can see all the action on Fremont Street, but feel a world away being wowed by unique ingredients, expert technique and craft cocktails tailor-made to your taste. 365 Tokyo is complete with the City’s only artisanal ice service, offering everything from expertly-carved Whiskey orbs to custom-cracked, crushed or cubed crystals to complement the beverage of your choice.
On the way to our final destination Contursi walked us through the Downtown Container Park, 707 Fremont St., a bastion for consumers who like to shop small and support local businesses at sustainable shopping destinations. A huge fire-breathing praying mantis steel sculpture stands guard at its entry.
The Downtown Container Park comes from the Downtown Project, the community revitalization group funded by Zappos CEO Hsieh. The 19,000 sq. ft. open-air shopping center is created from repurposed shipping containers and locally manufactured Xtreme Cubes that house swank boutiques, bustling restaurants, a spirited venue for free live music and an interactive playground for kids.
Our last stop was Glutton, 616 E. Carson Ave., housed inside a industrial-chic, mid-century building that maintains the exposed wood roof framing from its original 1955 construction.
Chef-Owner Bradley Manchester came out to talk about his cuisine’s vibrant flavors and palate-pleasing textures that showcase savory meats, locally sourced produce, house-made pastas and seafood from the Pacific Northwest.
Contursi said Glutton exudes Downtown neighborhood vibe and specializes in craft cocktails and a revolving but concise menu of small and large plates.
We were served:
• Ahi Tuna Tacos with sweet chili, yuzu guacamole, frisee and pickled fresno pepper
• Braised Pork Flatbread with Fontina cheese, bordelaise and pickled fennel
• Wood Roasted Cauliflower with curry almond butter, cumin pickled shallots and mint
• Pickled Tomatoes with whipped ricotta, basil and grilled bread
• Caramel Corn Profiteroles with salted caramel, popcorn ice cream and peanuts
• Peach Cobbler with vanilla ice cream and rum raisin butter sauce
Melynda Schmitt, one of the Lip Smacking Foodies from Olympia, WA, said, “We not only got to sample some fabulous food, but it was great to discover more about Downtown and see the revitalization of the area.”
Local Sasha McVeigh, from Henderson, NV, said, “This Foodie Tour is totally lip smacking. There was great energy, you get to know diverse people, eat delectable food and learn a lot about Las Vegas. It was an amazing way to spend an evening with friends and really good food.”
In addition to the $125 per person Downtown Lip Smacking Tour, Lip Smacking Foodie Tours offers Afternoon Culinary Adventures, a 2.5-hour, 4-stop “afternoon stroll of eating and exploring,” with 12+ signature dishes to try ($125 per person), Savors of the Strip, a 3-hour, 5-stop “glamorous evening extravaganza,” offering 15+ signature dishes to try ($195 per person) and Private and Custom Tours also on foot.
For an extra $40-$60 per person Foodies have the option to add on an alcoholic Beverage Package where pre-selected signature drinks are served at each stop.
Lip Smacking Foodie Tours are hosted daily, rain or shine, and tickets must be purchased in advance with a credit card through their website. Cash is not accepted, and most of the tours sell out in advance.
All tours include gratuity at every destination, and tour guides say tips are always appreciated, but never mandatory.
Foodies are encouraged to dress in comfortable clothes, but no tank tops or flip-flops are allowed. Foodies also pay for their own parking.
Contursi said his first trip to New Orleans during IPW was overwhelming, and he regrets not having more time to explore the Big Easy’s Foodie scene. He did make it to locals’ favorite Parlay’s for a po-boy, and said he is looking forward to returning to New Orleans to try Johnny’s Po-Boys in the French Quarter next.
While starting Lip Smacking Foodie Tours South seems like a lofty goal, Contursi said he’s enjoying a delicious payoff, savoring the success of the demand for his Foodie Tours in his hometown of Las Vegas.
Lip Smacking Foodie Tours
124 S. 6th St.
Las Vegas, NV 89101
Itsy Bitsy Ramen and Whisky
150 Las Vegas Blvd. N.
Las Vegas, NV 89101
107 Las Vegas Blvd. S.
Las Vegas, NV 89101
616 E. Carson Ave.
Las Vegas, NV 89101
|Carson Kitchen’s Crispy Chicken Skins with smoked honey||Carson Kitchen’s “Devil’s” Eggs with crispy pancetta and caviar|
|Carson Kitchen’s Roasted Young Beets with pistachio, orange and goat cheese||Carson Kitchen’s Veal Meatballs with sherry foie gras cream|
|Itsy Bitsy’s Snow Crab Hand Roll||Itsy Bitsy’s Japanese Sweet Potato and Shrimp Pot Sticker|
|Itsy Bitsy’s Chef’s Ramen Selection||Inspire’s rooftop lounge and beer garden|
Donald Contursi, president of Lip Smacking Foodie Tours, at Inspire’s rooftop lounge
|Glutton’s Pickled Tomatoes with whipped ricotta, basil and grilled bread and Ahi Tuna Tacos with sweet chili, yuzu guacamole, frisee, pickled fresno pepper|
|Glutton’s Braised Pork Flatbread with Fontina cheese, bordelaise and pickled fennel||
Glutton’s Wood Roasted Cauliflower with curry almond butter, cumin pickled shallots and mint
Glutton’s Caramel Corn Profiteroles with salted caramel, popcorn ice cream and peanuts and Peach Cobbler with vanilla ice cream and rum raisin butter sauce