There's only a one-letter difference between "Vegas" and "vegan," but until recently the two could not have been further apart. For years, the best herbivore option in Sin City has been a nondescript shop on Spring Mountain Road called Ronald's Donuts that sells vegan doughnuts.
Imagine my excitement when all 150 pounds of me read that Steve Wynn, the man behind the Encore and Wynn resorts, had gone vegan and mandated that the restaurants at these hotels have vegan menus, although I assumed that meant boring salads with pre-packaged carrot sticks, soggy tofu and absolutely no nutritional value.
Vegan chef Tal Ronnen, with whom Wynn collaborated to create the menus, said he's seeing a change in attitude toward vegan dining not only in Las Vegas but in the rest of the country as well.
"I think it's slowly changing," Ronnen said. "In North America, the word 'protein' is almost always synonymous with 'meat' and vice versa. But chefs I've spoken to across the U.S. are getting more requests for vegan items. [In Las Vegas] we've heard that most of the big properties have started offering vegan menus."
At Bellagio, diners can enjoy Sensi's vegan risotto or an assortment of vegan Italian dishes at Osteria del Circo. The menu at Border Grill in Mandalay Bay features organic black bean tacos and portabello mushroom mulitas. At Aria, six vegan entrees are available at BarMasa, and eight dishes — including vegan paella — are on the menu at Julian Serrano.
I went vegetarian in 1997 and vegan about eight years ago. Until a recent excursion to Wynn and Encore, my diet and I had always shunned the culinary heaven that is Sin City because nearly every casino and hotel restaurant had shunned us first.
After getting to my room at the Wynn, I opened the book atop the desk to see what sorts of fun I could get into. To my surprise, the initial page was a vegan room-service menu. Instead of trying to entice me with a spa visit or gambling, the first thing Wynn wanted its guests to read is its in-room vegan meals. This means nothing to carnivores, but to people of my ilk, this is unheard of.
More often than not, ordering at a non-vegan restaurant goes something like, "Yeah, I'll take the salad with no cheese and no dressing and a glass of water." But later that night at Lakeside at Wynn, a plate of bread showed up, and the server told me which breads were vegan. Then he brought vegan butter. I started with an arugula salad ($14) topped with candied nuts and sherry vinaigrette that set a standard for the rest of my trip. At this moment, the combination of the salad and the room-service menu made me realize that when it came to vegan meals, Wynn meant business.
Next was "clam" chowder ($15) made with a cashew-cream base and smoked oyster mushrooms that Chip, my surf-and-turf-loving friend, enjoyed as if it were the real thing. For the main entree, I ordered "crab" cakes ($20) made with toasted pasta, tomato confit and ancho-garlic aioli and a side of asparagus, but I didn't get a side of asparagus ($14) — I got an entire asparagus farm.
I don't usually eat breakfast, but the prospect of a pre-noon meal in Vegas of something other than strawberries was too good to pass up, so the next morning at Society Café Encore consisted of a blood orange mimosa and (faux) egg flatbread ($13). The drink was yummy, but it was the nearly foot-long flatbread with spinach, two types of vegan cheese, fake eggs and vegan sausage that I'll come back for. If you're vegan and hung over (and you're in Vegas, so you are), this is a mandatory must-have.
Lunch at Wazuzu wasn't necessary, but in Vegas what is? With gluttony on the brain, I began with a vegan crunch roll ($18) — string beans, cucumber and avocado topped with Japanese rice crackers — and a California roll ($12) made with avocado, cucumber, asparagus and brown rice wrapped in seaweed. After mixing wasabi and ginger, I downed the four-piece crunch roll in seconds and felt that, finally, I was experiencing a side of Vegas previously unknown to my taste buds. Typical casino lunches used to consist of my sneaking French fries off friends' buffet plates. This, however, was no typical casino lunch.
Two minutes later, I ate one of the six-piece California rolls when the word "no" reentered my vocabulary. Then more food came out. With the vegan drunken noodles ($24) — made with fresh rice noodles, Thai basil, sweet soy sauce, chiles, onions and Gardein chicken — I crossed that line between eating too much and becoming a raving glutton. I didn't finish the noodles, although they were the best dish I had during my visit.
After a 90-minute run on a treadmill, a power nap and a shower, Chip and I headed downstairs to a late dinner at Okada, a modern Japanese restaurant with a private garden and floating pagoda table. The lights are dim at Okada, and more than once it crossed my mind that I was at a serene date spot with one of my best guy friends and not a woman.
The treadmill had helped clear some space in my belly, so my "gluttony-or-death" mantra was back by the time dinner began with sake and an edamame and heirloom tomato salad ($10). Served with black sesame, balsamic reduction and a thin flatbread, this is Okada's take on the traditional tomato mozzarella salad, with tofu replacing the cheese. For entrees, I ordered a vegan crunchy roll ($18) with avocado, agedashi edamame tofu ($12) and an assorted vegetables plate that came with corn on the cob. Dessert consisted of sorbet ($4.50) that was light enough so I didn't feel as though I went overboard with dinner — even though I did.
I weighed myself before checking out on the TV screen (isn't technology great?) and discovered I had gained 7 pounds in about 36 hours. For once, I was leaving Las Vegas with a smile and wondering how quickly I could return.