Before tucking into your spacious Las Vegas hotel this evening, you can sit down to food from some of the most famous chefs in the country. Bobby, Emeril, Nobu, Mario, they’ll all cook for you there in the desert, and you’ll pay for it. This is all by design, for in the past decade, Las Vegas has sweated to become a food town, a culinary destination to complement its gambling (I refuse to call it “gaming”) and B-rate (if that) entertainment options. Any article about foodie cities in the U.S. must now mention Vegas, as most celebrity, television chefs have set up shop there. I realize these two cities are nowhere near each other and don’t directly compete, but if you want to find a gambling capital that’s also a food destination, Las Vegas bites, and I’ll take Macau over it any day.
I’ll freely admit I’ve only been to Vegas once, and I’ll never go back willingly. It was for an academic conference in my field, Linguistics, and we conference-goers spent most of our time complaining about the place. The facilities were set up so that one had to walk through the casino area before getting to the conference. We stayed at the northern end of the strip and cruised the whole thing and concluded that there’s no there there.
The history of Vegas as a destination is a history of it trying to construct destination-worthy assets. Las Vegas didn’t have an intrinsic, innate culture to start, and thus it could be invented. Yet that renders every new draw there into the feeling of a gimmick. The city is so similar to an amusement park that every new thing, like family-oriented entertainment options or the celebrity chef trend, feels contrived. Not native, and thus not natural. Food just becomes the latest engineered attraction. It’s not the city’s foodie elites driving the trend; it’s the visitors, and the marketing and prices are skewing towards the over-the-top experience.
Vegas, or Macau? Who cares?
Consider the Picasso restaurant in Vegas, at the Bellagio hotel/casino (most of these destination restaurants are in hotels). It centers on original works of art, including at least one Picasso near the entrance. That’s its gimmick. You go to this beautiful space, and it is beautiful, and you look at the art. From some online blogs, it seems the average price is 150 dollars a person at this place. People don’t talk about the food there, just the appearance of the place. Going there is an event, just because Picasso is involved.
I was a grad student at the time of my Vegas visit, sleeping on the floor of a hotel room shared with numerous other grad students to save money. We ate at the remarkably cheap buffets still to be found in the city, unremarkable but adequate food, and drank the free drinks the casino floor would hand out while we pretended to gamble. Still, it’s not just that I couldn’t afford the celebrity chefs; I didn’t want to.
Et tu, Joël Robuchon?
Let us now name-drop: It may have been Wolfgang Puck who started this destination restaurant trend, back in 1992, when he opened a place in Vegas. Today, here a short list of the people there: José Andrés, Mario Batali, Daniel Boulud, Tom Colicchio, Giada De Laurentiis, Alain Ducasse, Todd English, Guy Fieri, Bobby Flay, Emeril Lagasse, Thomas Keller, Gordon Ramsay, Masaharu Morimoto, and I’ll stop here though I could go on. (Et tu, Joël Robuchon?) There can’t be many cities in the world, perhaps no others, who can boast such a list. I can’t vouch for the quality of the food though it’s probably damn high. And congratulations for having one token female celebrity chef. Besides the celebrity name-dropping, there are numerous other destination restaurants in Vegas, such as Bar Masa for sushi and CUT for steak.
Macau’s attractions include the ruins of St. Paul. Snap a photo and then go eat.
Cutting swiftly over to Macau, let us observe quite the contradiction. You can dine in restaurants done by a few of the famous chefs mentioned above, but that’s more for the event, not just the food, because Asians have their own strong food culture and they don’t need TV chefs being flashy. The difference is you can go to a local diner in Macau and get solid fare, where there is no local food tradition in Vegas.
That would be me, entering a small eatery called Café Quinella not far off Macau’s central Senado Square area. Inside the crowded ground floor, the proprietress took one look at my single raised finger and said, “Upstairs”, jerking her thumb that way. Okay, up the very narrow lawsuit-material stairs and I was led all the way to the window. The place was packed. Everyone here seemed like regulars, ordering business lunch specials and quick plates. Waving the waitress over, I ordered “Seafood soup” and “Fish rice Portuguese style” from the menu, two items that could be anything. No mention of delicate preparation styles or artisanal ingredients.
I was brought a clear plastic glass of tea. No wine list here. Three older women sat at the adjacent table, each eating large noodle soups. Four businessmen at the table on the other side ate what is probably today’s special—plates with a large piece of chicken in brown gravy, each with a scoop of rice.
My soup arrives, a dark and rich broth. My rice arrives, pieces of fish and green pepper slices in another dark broth, settled into a bowl of rice. It’s full of flavor and tastes like someone knows what they are doing. It’s neither straight Chinese nor Portuguese. I was at a table that could hold four, and thus to no surprise they brought over another solitary diner to share it, asking the normal, cursory, “Is this okay?”, in that way that means nothing besides a “yes” would be acceptable. He, a Chinese man a bit older than I, unfolded a newspaper and we, in the code of diners everywhere forced to share quarters, proceeded to ignore each other entirely. I enjoyed everything and paid less than ten dollars.
These people are natives on their lunch break. I’m the only foreigner. Back home in the USA, I now work in a downtown-like area with tens of thousands of other worker bees and the lunch situation there sucks. Most every option is a version of a sandwich. To me, that little Macau meal was a great lunch in a diner I desperately wish I had near my own workplace. To everyone else in that place, it was just another Wednesday.
Macau is a former colony that still feels like a former colony, a vibe different from next-door Hong Kong. Over in Hongkers, it’s business all the way, but here in former Portuguese Macau, things are relaxed. It must be great to live in a place that has both Portuguese and Chinese food heritages, together with some African and Indian, to grow up here claiming all that as your birthright. To have this food as a matter of course. That’s the difference between Macau and Vegas
That’s why I like Macau. It’s not a beautiful city, besides some old buildings. It has its own share of showy gimmicks like the mega-casinos, the Macau Tower, and the fake “Fisherman’s Wharf”, but much of the city is fairly gritty. The nightlife is weird and utterly unreliable. Besides gambling and hookers, you can’t rely on finding anything there. Still, it’s Asia and Europe together. I can have all the benefits of being a tourist in Asia and then go eat a European meal, with wine, for not much money. It has that “sin city” vibe of Vegas along with the former colonial vibe and the outlier, frontier vibe. It’s not Hongkers, it’s not a world city, and thus it has nothing to live up to. But it has rocking food beyond the celebrity chefs or the high rollers. Without that, I’m not sure I’d go.
I’m not a gambler, almost at all. We grad students played a bit of money on that Vegas trip, mostly on slots, and one a single foray into the roulette wheel I picked the correct number on a $3 bet. I’ve never sat down at a table game like blackjack ever. This limits the appeal of Macau and Vegas, but as someone fascinated by the travel industry, I find the story of both cities riveting. Both bet big on gambling and won. But Macau was a city for quite a while before that, one sliding downward, long eclipsed by its next door neighbor. I have an affinity for second-rate has-been places.
I had several restaurants recommended to me in Macau, but on my visits I found my best moments just choosing an unknown place that looks competent. Chinese food is brilliant but Portuguese food is much underrated, and when in Macau I either eat that or some hybrid. Some think Macanese cuisine developed from the wives of the earlier Portuguese colonists, as they weren’t always from Portugal. They often came from other parts of the then-colonial empire such as Malacca or Goa. This led to the inclusion of non-traditional Chinese or Portuguese ingredients such as coconut, turmeric, cinnamon, and piri piri.
There are dishes in Macau clearly inspired from Portugal, such as the egg tart and pork chop bun, and lots that are Cantonese such as shrimp roe noodles, but Macau mixes things up. They have a sweet-and-sour pork dish but made with tamarind, a more southeast Asian or even Indian ingredient. Macau has samosas that were clearly influenced from Goa, but adapted to a more Cantonese dim sum style skin. Congee, a rice breakfast porridge that the Chinese usually eat with pork bits, is eaten in Macau with crab. Duck and rice are obviously familiar to Chinese but in Macau they make a dish by baking them together, European-style. One of the most famous Macanese dishes is just called African chicken, with a sauce made from red bell peppers, grated coconut, and peanut paste. I don’t do much in Macau besides the eating.
On my most recent visit to Macau, I found it’s changing, a bit. The junket VIP high-rollers from China were somewhat drying up. Beijing was cracking down on the mega casino-hotels, forcing them to include other entertainment besides just gambling. Once upon a time, Cirque du Soleil opened a show in Macau and they failed spectacularly, as people didn’t go there to watch shows, but nowadays a different over-the-top performance called “The House of Dancing Water” is there and it’s doing so well they’re opening a second one. The Asian equivalent of Celine Dion is probably singing in Macau now.
They’re also opening new celebrity, showcase eateries. Joël Robuchon, that ignorant slut, is there. But in Macau, I’ll still seek out the low-key impressive restaurants and diners, because Macau is the type of place where you don’t need to pay celebrity chef prices in order to have great food. The local places do it naturally.