Dining Out with the Harrises
Hidden Gems Beyond the Neon of the Las Vegas Strip Part II
Las Vegas is a city that never slumbers, and that is especially true when it is the food and beverage industry. If you can make it here in the food industry you are probably doing something incredibly right since the competition for culinary cash is fraught with intense heat in and out of the kitchen. Most new restaurants, especially mom-and-pop places spring up along the Vegas strip malls like cactus in the desert, but how does one stay relevant year after year as the number of new chefs and celebrity chefs weave their way into the Vegas restaurant landscape? From observation it takes many factors, but the two that truly stand out are customer service and great food. If you excel at both, than you are sure to survive and thrive in a city that is hungry 24/7.
The trend for having that local in the know hidden eatery seems to be on the rise, and more people want to know where the locals go. Often they are found in areas that seem a bit questionable, or perhaps deceiving. Once, in Miami, we had a fabulous meal inside a gas station. Yes, a gas station that had a restaurant and a great wine bar, in the back of the convenience store where you purchase snacks and lottery tickets. Here in Las Vegas, we found another startling place somewhat similar to that experience, tucked away in the back of the neighborhood bar Inn Zone on S. Rainbow Blvd., called Toddy Shop.
The Toddy Shop is better known in the Kerala region of New Delhi that serves as a the regional food hangout serving up dishes that are flaring with flavor, but this one happens to be located far from the streets of its origination. Toddy refers to the preferred beverage of the region that is made from the sap of the palm tree. Although this Toddy Shop has created a reputation surrounding the authentic and unique food offerings, it serves up some authentic Indian food without having to purchase an airline ticket.
We walked into the dimly lit doorway and noticed the bar where several locals were hunched manically over video poker monitors, with beer mugs and cigarettes strategically placed for a Friday night of gaming. We immediately began to question if we came to the right place, but the friendly bartender assured us that the chef was at the tiny kitchen in the back behind a small window that lent itself to an ordering station where some of the best Indian food is being dished up in an almost clandestine manner. We looked at the printed menu, ordered directly from the chef, and went to a dimly lit back room, with several tables, that looked like it was more of a surplus room than a place to dine. Although the namesake beverage was not offered on the menu, dishes offered are texturally rich, savory and exotically spicy without needing a gallon of fire-quenching beverages to extinguish the burn. Multiple dishes came to our table that both surprised and elated us. How can such interesting cultural cuisine be relegated to the back of a local’s bar?
According to Chef Hernant Kishore the concept to start out small seemed to be the best way to get his cuisine established for a bigger market. We began with The Queen Karimeen, which boasts to be the classic Toddy Shop delicacy, consisting of spice rubbed flash fried whole pompano generously doused with onion-tomato masala and then wrapped and steamed in a banana leaf. The pompano was perfectly drenched in tangy flavor and steamed to perfection. Chef’s childhood favorite, it quickly became one of ours as we indulged in the Indian Chop Suey, which is ironically called American Chop Suey in India. Crispy noodles are bathed in garlicky chili gravy mixed with stir fried veggies, char grilled baby bok choy and bulls eye.
One of our favorite dishes of the evening was the popular TD bar snack, Rajah Masala. This dish is deceptively simple and yet, simply addictive with a blend of roasted peanuts, pico de gallo and assorted chips. Creative cooking can spring up anywhere, including in the back of a Vegas dive bar and we were certainly glad we found this under-the-radar place. Toddy Shop may just be a trendsetter in giving a glimpse of great ethnic food where many locals find their respite in the Vegas way: at a small neighborhood bar, with a drink and a hot machine and some great grub.
238 S Rainbow Blvd.
Las Vegas, NV 89145