Published by Carson on July 14th, 2017

According to our data, the best times to travel to Las Vegas are from March 5th – May 13th and October 1st – November 18th. These spring and fall months allow tourists to experience Vegas without the scorching heat. We (my wife, Desiree, and our friend, David) learned this the hard way by visiting during one of the hottest periods from July 4th through the 9th. Early July is always hot, but this year was extreme. Temperatures reached 115° F (46.1° C). The hot, dry air felt like the heat wave one experiences opening an oven while cooking, but without respite. All of our recommended July activities will be indoors as a result, which actually leaves most Vegas activities on the table, so to speak.

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Shows in Vegas

We didn’t see every show in Las Vegas: no one could. Instead we trusted reviews and tried to hit the best. This time around we got front row seats to both Ka, a massive Cirque du Soleil production, and Absinthe, a much smaller venue. I didn’t take many in-show pictures out of courtesy. There are plenty online already, and even with flash off the audience behind you won’t appreciate a bright screen in their faces while trying to watch the show. That said, I do have some advice and warnings.

Absinthe

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This was probably my favorite show ever. I also can’t believe these guys don’t get sued more often.

Be prepared for content that is at times sexual, offensive, and harsh. If you’re on the front row you will be roasted and possibly harassed. From the front row, I got some caresses from the beautiful “green fairy” before she dumped some glittery confetti on me. It was incredibly difficult to get out of my hair and off my face. The three of us were also the target of the “producer’s” (the MC’s) crude sexual jokes, which we just laughed at. Don’t make the mistake of trying to talk back unless you’re cool with even more harassment. I also had a rose flung at me straight from a guy’s thong. Without thinking I batted it out of the air backhanded without shifting my position: the audience loved it, and I got some personal and unexpected applause. That’s part of the fun of Absinthe: a good-natured and fun-loving audience can add to the show for everyone.

I can’t emphasize this enough: the show is offensive, and no one is safe. A few people were called up from the audience to participate. One audience member made the mistake of sticking out his tongue when the smarmy producer asked to kiss and make up for a racist joke. His tongue was thoroughly licked. It was disgusting and hilarious, like much of the show.

Absinthe is also sensual and fascinating. The show started with a slightly-terrifying chair-stacking act complete with one-armed handstands 30 feet in the air on an unstable base. Then the green fairy did a mild strip dance (down to pasties, no complete nudity). This was followed a fairly sensual (but tasteful) aerial acrobatic show. There was an intense acrobatic show on roller-skates, a guy flinging water on the audience from his bathtub, a juggling act, tap-dancing, a Cirque du Soleil parody act, and more. All of this was interspersed with irreverent jokes. The juggling act was probably the least interesting part of the show.

If you’re adventurous I’d highly recommend front-row seats. If you want to be left alone, your best bet is in a middle section in a middle aisle. If the idea of being in a spotlight or mocked publicly terrifies you, this might not be the show for you.

Bottom line: If you have the self-confidence to take some mockery, I’d highly recommend Absinthe for a unique and risky take on Vegas shows.

KÀ by Cirque du Soleil

I was pleasantly surprised by Ka. It’s more of a traditional Vegas show. There’s a large auditorium with elaborate stages. There’s no audience interaction, and it definitely has a more polished and refined feel to it. Rather than being a variety show with acts that don’t connect there’s a story throughout. It’s told almost completely wordlessly. All actors speak what’s probably a fake language, or at least a language you’re not going to understand.

We were in the front row for this show, too. It did make it a little harder to watch the performance at some points, as the performers would sometimes fly behind us on ropes. As a tall person, though, I did appreciate the extra leg room, and I enjoyed being able to see the actors up-close. I’d call it a wash, so it’s probably best to get some slightly-less-expensive seats a little further back.

The whole affair takes place on a moving stage that is sometimes horizontal, vertical, and often rotating. There’s an impressive act involving rotating circles counterweighted by two performers. Neither performer is secured in any way, and at one point the lead performer starts jump roping while running to avoid a 40-foot fall. It’s impressive, interesting, and completely engaging.

Bottom line: This is a great production with some interesting acts. It’s more run-of-the-mill for Vegas shows, but still enjoyable, especially for first-time Cirque du Soleil audiences.

Highly-Rated Shows for Next Time

Given more time we probably would have seen these:

  • Cirque du Soleil – Zumanity: a more sensual/erotic show, and Cirque’s first adult-themed 18+ show. It’s not as crazy as Absinthe, but we’re told it’s fascinating.
  • Cirque du Soleil – O: similar to Ka, but water-themed and apparently very interesting.
  • The Cirque du Soleil Michael Jackson or Beetles tributes, depending on which you’re into.
  • Zombie Burlesque: This sounds more like Absinthe, but a little less harsh. Lots of audience interaction, but not quite as cringey, with lots of humor throughout the show.

I don’t go to Vegas for stand-up or music shows. I just feel you can get similar value with comedy by buying a taped performance, and I strongly prefer outdoor venues or venues where I can buy general admission and avoid sitting in a seat for 2 hours.

Vegas Shopping

We did a lot of shopping, but almost no buying. Wandering the malls is a good time, even if most things you look at are ridiculously expensive.

I don’t want to bore you with the details of shopping. If you got to Vegas to shop, chances are good you already know what store you’re looking to visit. Most major high-fashion brands have at least one store in Las Vegas, so you’ll have no lack of choices. My favorite stores were the home goods stores, especially at the Wynn, where some of the products were actually reasonably priced.

Most of our actual buying was done at Total Wine. The West Vegas (Canyon Gate/Summerlin) store is one of the largest I’ve seen, with more than two entire aisles of bourbon and scotch. We bought over a dozen bottles: all things we can’t get back home. Check laws in your state for shipping or bringing things home via plane or car.

If you prefer to simply wander and have never done it before, keep some things in mind:

  • The height of the ceilings is generally a good indicator of how much you’re going to pay at any given mall. The modern design and towering ceilings at Crystals, for example, indicates that many of the shops will be selling $5k-100k items.
  • When you look at purses, shoes, or really anything else, prepared to be floored by the prices if you’ve never shopped these brands. Initially, I tried to keep my face impassive when I saw or was told a price. Unfortunately for my gambling and shopping, I have a terrible poker face. My advice is to just not care what the salespeople or other shoppers think and enjoy yourself.
  • Don’t be offended or annoyed when you’re followed around a store while shopping. They do this to everyone. The goods are simply too expensive not to keep an eye on people, and they’re also looking for a big commission by helping you.

All the peoplewatching served to remind me that I’m overweight and poor compared to the global elite, but I still enjoyed shopping and wandering in the air-conditioned casino shopping centers.

A Fashion Rant

I need to go on a little rant about the abominations-as-art that Louis Vuitton is selling. Most people won’t be interested in my personal rant, so I’m going to hide it by default.

Read Carson's Louis Vuitton Rant

I’m not going to pretend I’m the final word high-fashion brands. You can clearly see me in the pictures above. They don’t make clothes big enough or wide enough to fit me, and I probably won’t be caught spending thousands of dollars on things that are functionally nearly identically to products under $100. I can appreciate fashion and art, but I’m by no means an expert in either. But one does not need to be an expert to hate this:

That’s a $3,200 bag with Rubens art on it. Also for sale: Van Gogh, Da Vinci, Titian, and Fragonard. Why does this upset me so much?

  • This took very little effort from Louis Vuitton. They just had to download a master’s piece of art, align the image, and have it made to spec.
  • It’s sort of insulting to art lovers to slap the artist’s name in big gold letters on the bag. Would you print “VAN GOGH” on a reprint and hang it on your wall? No, because that’s tacky as hell. It shows that you care less about the art itself (you’re literally covering pieces of it with something shiny) and more about the recognition or prestige.
  • Speaking of tacky, LV has decided to put monograms in the bottom left and right of the bag… right where an artist would sign the name. You know, so you can identify it as Louis Vuitton. Think about this: many of these masterworks are not signed on the front. For example, neither Wheat Field with Cypresses nor the Mona Lisa (pictured first) have a visible signature. The artists themselves felt the work should speak for itself, and their signatures would take away from the piece. Contrast that with what LV has done, putting the names of both artist and fashion brand in bright gold letters. This is probably what’s most upsetting to me. The way in which this was approached is almost definitely contrary to what the artists intended. It takes their work and twists it into an ugly thing of consumerism.

I know the works are in the public domain. It’s completely legal for Louis Vuitton to bastardize the art and turn the masterworks into something the artists themselves would despise. It seems at least a little hypocritical to build these bags as an “homage” to the masters while disregarding their work and wishes.

/end rant

Restaurants in Vegas

Forgive me if these get a little long, but I do love talking about new dining experiences. We went to several high-end restaurants, but weren’t above eating soft mall pretzels (not pictured, because everything about the image would be gross). Here are my top recommendations:

Best Value: Gordon Ramsay’s Burger

Yes, the restaurant is just called “Burger.” This isn’t a cheap place, but by Vegas-celebrity-chef standards it’s an amazing bargain. Don’t be intimidated by the line that perpetually stretches out the door. This place, like Ramsay himself, is extremely efficient. The place was packed, yet people moved through quickly and our food was on time.

By the way, did you know Gordon is British? You can tell, because there’s a Union Jack on nearly every object in the restaurant.

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Ahi tuna sliders and poutine with extra cheese

Tuna sliders were okay, but I felt the healthy amount of bread overpowered the fresh ahi tuna inside. If I were to do it again, I’d probably just ditch the bread. The poutine was just as rich as it looks in the photo. It was good, but nothing worth writing more than a couple sentences about.

We also ordered chicken wings. The wings were absolutely amazing. I’ve had competition wings from world-renowned BBQ joints that weren’t as good. Seriously, my mouth is watering just thinking about them. The wings were mind-blowing. Get them. Notice two are already missing in the photo below. I dug in and got my hands sticky before taking a photo. Then I couldn’t stop eating. This picture comes courtesy of Desiree’s greater restraint. Get these. I wouldn’t even feel bad ordering 2-3 orders for my entire meal.

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We ordered and split a forest burger and a bleu cheeseburger. I love blue cheese, but I found it a little disappointing. The flavor combinations just weren’t hitting the spot for me, but the burger was cooked well. The forest burger, on the other hand, made me wonder whether we should just eat here all week. The duck bacon adds a savory and salty flavor that really brought out the flavor throughout, and the tremor cheese gives it a rich, smooth flavor that really compliments the mushroom flavor. I sometimes find the funk of mushrooms overpowering, but this was well-balanced.

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I paired my burgers with an Innis & Gunn beer per the server’s recommendation. It’s apparently Ramsay’s favorite, and I can see why. There’s a great malty flavor with lots of oak flavor with vanilla and toffee notes. It’s not so strong that it will overwhelm a dish, either. Our server started strong but finished weak and distracted, so I wasn’t able to order another one — but I would have.

Gordon’s Burger was a great place to eat, and at $14 for the wings and $15 for the burger, it should be accessible to most people.

Highly recommended: Hellfire chicken wings, forest burger, and an Innis & Gunn Oak-Aged Beer.

Best Fine-Dining Experience: é by José Andrés

This was a 21-course fine-dining experience with set courses, though I was able to put in a request for pork-free dishes which was honored with amazing substitutions. Make sure to make any special requests early. The total was $250 per person plus $150 for the least-expensive wine pairing. I’m going to say right out of the gate that the wine pairing was fun and well-paired, but probably not worth it for the price. $250 might sound like a lot, but consider this: we had 5 people waiting on just 9 of us nonstop. That’s just under $12 per course with food prepared using gourmet ingredients by a master chef and an expert assistant. We were able to talk to the head chef the entire time and ask questions and get background on the food and preparation. It was the best fine-dining experience of my life.

I won’t post all 21 courses here, but I will highlight some of my favorites. I apologize if some of the photos are slightly blurry. I always feel like a little bit of a tool taking my phone out for every course, but I made the mistake of hurrying the shots and not giving the camera time to focus. Next time I’ll just deal with the social anxiety and take better pictures.

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We were served cocktails and socialized with the other early couple while waiting for the rest of the group to arrive. We were then led back to a much more intimate room in the back of the restaurant where this fun “sangria” dish was waiting for us. The dish was refreshing and light to start with light watermelon basil flavors. The watermelon is covered in what I believe was frozen tempranillo sangria.

Fast-forward past the beet rose and “stone” (sheep’s milk coated in chocolate) dishes (both paired with a Raventos Rosé), past the Spanish pizza margarita, and you get to my favorite dish above. This is called “wonder bread,” and it’s incredible. The bread is an apple meringue with foie gras and fresh sliced strawberry. It’s like a peanut butter sandwich, but richer and much more interesting. The bread collapsed in your mouth and stuck with a texture like dense cotton candy. The flavors inside are savory and sweet. Usually I hate the sweet/savory combination, but the foie gras was light enough that it worked perfectly. This is the one dish we’re most considering recreating. I doubt we could manage the appearance of the bread, though.

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Here we had some air bread filled with tomato and olive oil and topped with a very hard-to-pronounce meat. I believe it’s prosciutto, though. Because I requested no pork (I just think pigs are too smart to eat, if you want to know) I was given a meaty truffle instead.

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I tried to capture our check creating a dish with some fire. I believe the final product was a light cheese with not-so-sweet pudding.

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I’m already getting long-winded, so let’s fast-forward to the “empanada,” my next favorite dish. This is a cotton-candy “empanada” filled with foie gras and corn nuts. The taste was nutty and smooth, almost like chunky peanut butter with less sticking to the top of your mouth.

As I said, I’m just posting highlights here. I’d recommend checking out this video, which only differed slightly from our experience, if you’re interested in all courses. If you’re looking to fill your stomach with hearty helpings we have recommendations for that as well, but I’d recommend showing up slightly hungry as we did. If we were famished we might have been a little more impatient for the food to come out, but as it was we enjoyed the entire 2-hour experience.

Highly recommended: Everything. Book early and enjoy.

Best New Place: Chica by Lorena Garcia

Chef Lorena Garcia is a notable and well-respected female celebrity chef in a profession dominated by white males. When we learned she’d opened a restaurant in Las Vegas we had to stop by and try it. The renovation of the space reportedly cost $3.7 million when DB Brasserie. That may seem like an absurd amount of money, but for a nearly 10,000 square-foot space in Las Vegas it’s actually below average.

Lorena has been both praised and criticized for her lack of “classical” training. Personally, I can’t bring myself to care at all as long as the food is good — and it was. The food is a sort of south-and-central-American fusion from Venezuela, Mexico, Peru, Brazil, and Argentina. When we see Brazil and Argentina you can bet we’re ordering steak.

I ordered a Brazilian beef tenderloin medium rare on top of California grits. The steak was extremely tender and delicious. It’s maybe not the best steak I’ve ever had in my life, but I only have myself to blame for ordering something with very little fat. If you love a little sweet mole with your meal, I’d strongly recommend the strip steak that Desiree ordered. It was equally as tender, and had a complex flavor that left me looking longingly at her plate after I was done. We’re not big fans of very sweet cocktails, so the Regaliz De Fresa was a natural choice. It’s essentially a much more interesting gin and tonic with shaved strawberry, star anise, lemon oil and tarragon. I was also happy to see New Holland’s Dragon’s Milk on the menu: a semi-sweet high-point barrel-aged imperial stout that pairs well with almost anything.

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We were also lucky enough to be around while chef Garcia herself was present, which is not at all common. It likely had something to do with several filming crews that were in and around the Venetian that day. I believe the “real” housewives of somewhere went to Vegas, which I couldn’t care less about. Meeting chef Garcia was an excellent experience, though. She was kind, gracious, and very friendly. We liked something she said when we mentioned we liked the vibe of her restaurant. I’m paraphrasing closely here:

A lot of times the kitchens are very aggressive. There’s a lot of yelling and anger. And I tell them, “guys, take that aggression and turn it into passion.” I’m very lucky to work with passionate people, and we have a different mood in the kitchen that our servers carry out.

I hate asking famous people for pictures, but she was incredibly gracious and genuine.

Highly recommended: strip steak, regaliz de fresa cocktail, tuna ceviche appetizer

China Poblano by José Andrés

China Poblano is one of the more interesting concepts I’ve ever heard of: Mexican and Chinese fusion. The name comes from the story of a Chinese girl sold into slavery into Mexico. She ended up being highly admired by the people of Puebla and making her mark on the culture, particularly in the traditional clothing that remains in place today.

Decoration-wise, the place ends up looking a lot cheaper than it is. Rather than having an integrated style, I felt like the Chinese and Mexican styles clashed. There were tchotchkes everywhere, including dragons interspersed with luchador masks on one wall. Tables like ours have slideshows that alternate between photos of people that appear either Chinese or Mexican. Cute, I guess, but it’s just not my thing.

I wish I’d taken more pictures, but I was starving. That was bad news for David, who offered to pick up the check. Maybe he felt guilty for talking the place up and then bailing on me during a work-related trip a year or so back. I thought there was no better way to drive this lesson home than by ordering dozens of dishes. (Just kidding, sorry for the bill!)

The queso fundido was delicious, though I wish there was more of it. The tortillas that came along with it were good, but I’d probably have preferred tortilla chips instead. Lotus chips were probably the best appetizer, though, with star anise salt on fried lotus root. Pretty much all of the tacos were delicious. I particularly enjoyed the taco nopales y queso and brisket-filled tacos. On the meat side, I enjoyed the Mongolian beef lettuce and the tuna ceviche pictured above.

For some reason, several of our dishes were extremely slow or totally forgotten. I can’t say what was wrong that night, but I’m assured it’s not a common thing. We also ordered the chocolate terracotta warrior, which is mostly Mexico in flavor and Chinese in design.

No one wants to look weak when cracking a tiny piece of chocolate, right?

Cucina by Wolfgang Puck

This wouldn’t have made my list for a dinner place, but the lunch prefixe is a pretty good value for a mall shop.

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I was very impressed with the service here.

More Things to Do in Las Vegas

Gambling

Everyone knows you can gamble in Las Vegas. Personally, knowing the house is going to win in the end takes a lot of fun out of it for me. We’ve worked hard to make that money, and losing any significant amount seems wasteful. That said, we did play some craps. It’s probably my favorite, since the table is usually cooperative, and there’s a lot more interaction. It’s a bit complex, but easy enough once you get the hang of it. We made a few hundred as a group in a rare defiance of the odds. You can gamble pretty much anywhere, but I prefer the wider walking areas and less-cramped spaces at the Palazzo.

Fuente Cigar Bar

We’re all three non-smokers, but there’s nothing like sitting down by a well-lit fountain and smoking a cigar with some scotch. I feel like old-school Vegas would approve.

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If you’re new to cigars, remember: don’t inhale. In fact, you might want to practice not inhaling with cigarettes before showing up and making yourself look bad. I usually grab a Connecticut-style light cigar to avoid making myself green. Smoking a cigar once every few months does not qualify me to grab my own shade-grown mega cigar.

Be Lazy in Your Hotel

Whether taking advantage of Nevada’s legal pot or just feeling lazy, there’s plenty to keep you occupied. Room service at the Palazzo worked out pretty well for us. Like most things in Vegas it’s more expensive than you’d like, but still enjoyable.

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You can also just lay around in your robe… unless you’re my size.

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I don’t know why I don’t get more modeling gigs.

4th of July Fireworks

I hate pushing through the crowds, watching a single show, then pushing back through the crowds and waiting 45 minutes in traffic just to get back. This year I really enjoyed watching the fireworks from the window of our hotel room all over the city.

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I love that this photo captured us, the city, and the calm romantic moment.

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