Las Vegans call it Chinatown, but that’s more aspirational than accurate—it’s really a street. Not even a whole street, just a few blocks of Spring Mountain Road, easily accessible from the Strip. But this stretch has a high concentration of the city’s best, most authentic Asian restaurants: sushi joints, pho places, ramen shops, bahn mi counters and much more. Chinese, Japanese, Korean and every fusion you can imagine—it’s available here. “Las Vegas’s culinary portal to Asia,” the Toronto Globe and Mail burbled a few years ago. It’s a great, often less-expensive alternative to the high-end Asian fare on the Strip.
If there’s a portal to Chinatown, it’s Seoul Plaza (5030 Spring Mountain Road). It doesn’t look like much at first glance: a small, unassuming strip mall, some low-slung buildings arrayed around a rectangle of asphalt. But there’s enough happening here that the Las Vegas Weekly named it the city’s Best Ethnic Food Enclave in 2012.”It’s almost too good to be true,” says the Weekly’s food editor, Brock Radke, two years later, “a tiny little nook absolutely packed with some of the best Asian food in the entire valley.”
At the top of the list might be Raku, a tiny (some 30 seats) Japanese restaurant beloved not only of the city’s foodie elite, but of its chefs—almost since it opened in 2008 as one of Vegas’ earliest Japanese izakaya restaurants, the late-hours Raku has had a rep as the place chefs go after work. Local food critic John Curtas placed it at number four on his list of 50 essential Las Vegas restaurants: “Raku and Sweets Raku [Raku’s dessert-only sister restaurant, also in Seoul Plaza] aren’t simply places to eat; they are states of mind … and statements of quality and passion,” he writes. It’s relatively affordable, too. But it’s hardly alone in Seoul Plaza. Along with Raku, Monta, a ramen joint, “paved the way,” Radke says, for what is now “a surging local Japanese food scene.” They were followed by such relative newcomers as Kabuto, a fine sushi restaurant so refined it doesn’t have a sign, just a distinctively long horizontal window. Kabuto came in at number eight on Curtas’ essential list, and for good reason. “This is a place for those who can (or want to) discern the subtle differences between all types of seafood, and are willing to eat this Japanese snack they way they do it over there.” Among the other offerings: Trattoria Nakamura-ya (Japanese-Italian fusion) and Zen Japanese Curry.
“Each of these restaurants were unique to Las Vegas when they opened and really educated eaters about the variations within Japanese cuisine,” Radke says.
Prices range up and down the scale. I got out of Kabuto for just under $100, a bargain considering the exceptional sushi I experienced. Curtas calls Raku the best restaurant in Vegas that everyone can afford. Zen Curry, where a bowl of delicious brown curry filled with your choice of ingredients and fired to your spice tolerance (tip: aim low; these folks don’t mess around) is also quite affordable. Then there’s Big Wong—it’s the one with the windows papered with blown-up copies of its good press, which it’s earned. A lot of the dishes clock in at a gulp-inducing $5, but the quality certainly isn’t cheap. A friend and I rolled out of there stuffed and delighted, and it only cost us $16. “A cheap treasure,” Radke declares.
You can see why this casual off-Strip strip mall needs to be on your Asian-cuisine radar during your next visit to Vegas—and beyond. Potent as this little plaza is, Radke hints that it might get even better: “There’s renovation happening in the center that could lead to even more tasty development.”