Photographs by Anthony Mair
“It’s the first restaurant of its kind because in one dish you can really see the fusion of different ingredients, of new world and old world when it comes to Latin cuisine. That’s why Chica is so special” says Lorena Garcia, the celebrity chef behind the newest restaurant in the star-studded Restaurant Row at The Venetian.
Mike Minor, a Las Vegas mainstay and the man who is tasked as Executive Chef of Chica, puts it a little more boldly, “We’re at the forefront of all this stuff. In 5 years from now, people are going to look back and go, ‘Wow, they really are trailblazers in Latin American cuisine.’ It’s just a matter of time.”
That statement, even if true, might be a bit over-the-top, but that kind of rowdy spirit is seen throughout Chica, a restaurant that encapsulates the manic energy of the woman behind it, Garcia.
Most know the Venezuelan born chef and restaurateur from her breakout stint on the cooking competition television show Top Chef Masters or as the face of the Taco Bell Cantina Bell Menu, which focuses on taking tried-and-true fast food taco shop plates and elevating them.
The same philosophy is on display at the sprawling space in The Venetian, that used to house DB Brasserie. Obviously there’s no comparing the food here to a quick stop taco shop, but the idea of taking something familiar and blasting it into hyper drive is something Garcia, and by proxy Minor, specialize in.
Latin American food has not yet had its day in America. There are certainly breakout restaurants and chefs – fellow Top Chef Master Ricardo Sandoval and his must-visit Los Angeles Peruvian hot spot Picca, for instance – but overall it’s a bit of a surprise that with its wildly aggressive flavors, unique ingredients, and home-style feel, there hasn’t been some type of Latin American fusion dish like the Korean taco that has broken through to the mainstream.
If anyone can do it, it’s Garcia, a riveting personality who, until now, had all of her (current) restaurants located inside of airport terminals – Lorena Garcia Tapas Y Cocina in Dulles International Airport in Washington D.C., Lorena Garcia Cocina in Miami International Airport, and Lorena Garcia Tapas in Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. In fact, Chica is so new that it is not yet even listed on Garcia’s website as an operating eatery (though it does have its own website – www.chicalasvegas.com).
Website impressions or not, there is a lot riding on Chica for Garcia, Minor and partner in the restaurant and 50 Eggs founder and partner in the restaurant John Kunkel, who also has Chica’s neighbor in The Venetian, the trendy Miami import Yardbird, in his company’s portfolio.
For Garcia, this is the beginning of her next brand. She says, “Usually, when you open a restaurant in Las Vegas, it’s the second or third restaurant. We made Vegas our flagship. It’s about the clientele, the location, the concept;, that common thread between my culture, my food, my learning and of course, my partners. It’s a labor of love from a lot of people.”
That means taking influences from Garcia’s vast culinary knowledge and honing it in on different plates. There are, of course, Venezuelan dishes like the various arepas. There are Peruvian dishes like grilled octopus. There are Mexican dishes like the grilled corn lollipops (elote on a stick). There are Argentinean dishes like the empanadas pabellon. And there are Brazilian dishes like the beef tenderloin. And nof courseaturally, many of these dishes incorporate elements of more than one culture, creating a truly modern Latin American fusion powerhouse restaurant.
For those of us who are closely involved with the food scene in Las Vegas, when it was announced that Mike Minor, formerly of Border Grill at The Mandalay Bay and his awesome food truck TruckU BBQ, was going to be executive chef, it was like “Duh. Of course Mike Minor is going to be executive chef.” Minor, who has become a street food legend in Sin City, with his burnt ends bbq burrito, has always been blurring the cultural lines, specializing in regional Mexican cuisine and Southern California style bar-be-que.
Garcia must have seen the same thing many locals see in Minor, considering the way Minor tells it:, “I interviewed (with Garcia) for an hour then we cooked together for the entire day. Before I could even get on the plane to go back to Vegas, I had a phone call offering me the job.”
Minor spent the next month in Miami, cooking with his new boss every day. He has been playing with Peruvian flavors for years, but the rest – Argentinian, Venezuelan, Brazilian – that was where he had to sit under Garcia’s learning tree. Of his experience with Garcia, he says, “She loaded me up with a bunch of great information and skills I didn’t have.”
That brings us to the opening party on May 12, a flamboyant, star-studded affair featuring the obligatory showgirls but also topless dudes playing bongos. Celebrities like American Idol judge Randy Jackson were in the house, dogg. It was a rollicking party that served to set the tone for what was to come.
Going to Chica does feel like a celebration – from the cuisine to the cocktails to the look of the place. The design is stunning, an immediate talking point. Garcia describes it as such:, “The inspiration is old casona.” Think some type of historical Latin American mansion. She continues, “It has indoor and outdoor elements. It’s a modern take on something old.”
The bar has assorted plants and pottery hanging above it. The raw station is lit up to mimic a courtyard. The long table gives diners a view of the rotisserie. More private rooms feel like you might be dining on a private beach resort in Cuba or somewhere in coastal Mexico. It is clear a lot of thought went into it.
Says Minor of his first impression of the physical space, “I was blown away. It’s the first time I feel like the food and the ambience and the drinks all come together ast equals. I truly believe here, the flavors that you are tasting and you look at the decor, it all makes sense. All your senses can come together and create one badass experience.”
And that brings us to the food. Because while all the hype and all the opening parties and all the stories behind the place and all the cool design features add to the excitement, none of it matters if the food doesn’t live up its billing. But with Garcia’s cuisine under the watchful eye of Minor – to put it in Vegas terms – it’s a lock you are getting a good meal here.
Start with the ahi tuna ceviche ($16), gloriously acidic and incredibly fresh. Nobody does ceviche better than Peru and this dish shows that off. The tuna is marinated in leche de tigre – condensed milk, ginger juice, lime juice, etc. – and served with choclo or large kernel Peruvian corn and Peruvian potato chips. Slivers of apple give a hint of sweetness. Minor proudly exclaims, “We’re doing a ceviche nobody else is doing.” It’s perfect for the summer and thankfully it feels like summer in Vegas most of the year.
Grilled Peruvian octopus ($14) keeps those bold flavors coming. Spanish octopus is slow poached then charred on a grill along with shishito peppers. The cephalopod is then bathed in tangy rojo mojo sauce and served atop crispy quinoa. The Minor one-liner on this is, “It’s out of this world.” But luckily, it’s in this restaurant, as this is one of the best octopus preparations in town.
Two of the side dishes are two of the best dishes on the menu. Mac con queso ($13) is a dish Garcia made famous on the aforementioned Top Chef Masters. No other dish at Chica brings together so many of her culinary influences so harmoniously as this high-end play on macaroni and cheese. Choclo corn, fresh hearts of palm, and blanched spinach are topped with a rich Mornay sauce (Garcia did train in France, after all) and a healthy amount of parmesan, then baked and crunchified with panko breadcrumbs. It’s a homey spoonful of warmth, the way the best mac and cheese bakes are. Or, as Minor puts it, “When you bite into it, it’s creamy, delicious and really kind of blows your mind.”
Hoppin’ Jose rice ($10) brings Garcia to the southeast United States for this send up of Carolina peas and rice, also known as Hoppin’ John. Garcia explains, “When you make rice in Latin America, usually what people like the most is the toasted bottom.” This is known as the tostado. She continues, “The rice is crunchy and soft at the same time. I put a little bit of guacamole on top to add brightness to the dish.” The dish is rounded out with pancetta and lima beans. Garcia gets the last word on this one, “It’s an explosion of flavors and textures in your mouth.”
Moving to the main courses, the signature dish seems to be the porchetta with crispy yucca hash ($34). A Heritage pig is deboned then rubbed with salt and herbs. It cooks low and slow on the rotisserie for four or five hours, creating the chicharron – crispy skin – that every good pig dish should have. A tender roulade sits in the middle. The bones are used to make a jus. The whole thing is topped with a Brussels sprout and yucca hash that, if served with a sunny side up egg on top of it, would be a breakout brunch dish. A perfect bite with all the elements has this plate really singing. Or, as Minor succinctly states, “It’s like a Latin Thanksgiving.”
The cocktail menu is just as unique, with drinks like flor de la pina ($15) featuring Espolon Blanco tequila, house-made hibiscus-habanero syrup, fresh lime, pineapple, sage and orange bitters. Nazca Winter ($20) is as much about presentation as taste as a cone-like vessel is served aon top a wide, circular glass that emits a “cinnamon fog.”from it. This riff on the pisco sour is made up of Barsol Pisco Quebranta, fresh lime, egg white and aromatic bitters. It’s a showpiece drink at a showpiece restaurant.
Desserts, courtesy of pastry chef Sarah Steele, formerly of Wynn Las Vegas, also like to play with many Latin American cultures. Churro fried ice cream pops ($9) are fun for the whole family as caramel ice cream is coated in churro dust and have a thin churro sticking out of the middle to give the lollipop-like illusion.
Tres leches dulce de leche ($10) is a refined take on the “three milks” cake with toasted meringue and an excellent exotic fruit pico de gallo accompanying it.
Coconut panna cotta ($9) also features the “bells and whistles” so prevalent at Garcia’s restaurant, but here the star is tropical semifreddo.
Garcia knows who she is and knows how she wants her restaurant to symbolize that. She states, “I believe it’s a representation of who I am here in the United States. I’m an American but I’m also from Latin America.” She goes on, “This type of fusion in which you are able to see the interpretation of someone and how all that culture and that connection with your language and your food, you can bring that to the table. That’s what I want someone to feel when they are eating here.”
That’s why Chica is already special and has the potential, as it grows into itself, to become something very special.