Even in Buffalo there is hearty disagreement over who makes the best Buffalo hot wings. But there is little debate about who invented the now ubiquitous snack that has become a foundation of bar food across the globe. In a nutshell, the now famous story goes that Teressa Bellissimo, who along with her husband Frank owns the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, NY, had a late night visit from their son and several college friends. Forced to whip up a quick snack with just a few things on hand, she came up with the idea of throwing chicken wings in the deep fryer and then tossing them in hot sauce. The rest is culinary history.
“Authenticity” has become a key word in the modern foodie’s vocabulary, and up until last week, if you wanted to try the real thing, the original Buffalo wing, you had to go to the Anchor Bar in Buffalo. That all changed when Frank & Teressa’s first spin-off opened, the brand new Anchor Bar Las Vegas, inside the Grand Canal Shoppes Food Court at the Venetian/Palazzo casino resort. The Sin City Anchor Bar will of course serve Teressa’s classic recipe wings, but also features several Northeast specialties and new items not found at the original, like Beef on Weck sandwiches and Buffalo Chicken Cheesesteaks.
But the new Anchor Bar and its famous chicken wings is hardly alone in the pantheon of regional specialties from across the country (and Mexico) that you can try in Las Vegas – and often no place else. Today’s incredible Las Vegas dining scene was originally built by importing clones of famous fine dining eateries like Le Cirque and Spago, and this strategy eventually trickled down to burgers, wings, hot dogs and more. For example, along with its more highbrow menu items, Spago brought the original California-style pizza to Nevada, and now you can try many of the nation’s most beloved regional foods in Las Vegas.
The Motor City is surprisingly well represented in Vegas, starting with an outpost of Detroit’s famous 1917 hot dog joint, American Coney Island, in the D Hotel in Downtown. The stand has its own direct access from Fremont Street and is open 24 hours a day, serving the original specialties like secret recipe chili sauce on its dogs. Just a few blocks from the D is the freestanding Pizza Rock Las Vegas, in turn an outpost of what I have argued is the single best pizzeria in the nation (read about it here), Tony’s Pizza in San Francisco. At the Bay Area mothership Tony uses seven different ovens, burning coal, wood, gas, and electricity to impeccably recreate the greatest distinct styles of pizza from around the world, like Roman pies and better than in New Haven New Haven-style. In Downtown Vegas, his Pizza Rock “only” has four ovens, but the most unique regional offering here is also among the nation’s rarest, Detroit style pizza. This is cooked in a rectangular steel pan whose origin is murkily derived from the auto industry. The result is a lighter, less bready take on New York Sicilian – which Pizza Rock also serves, along with authentic New York-style calzones. Even in Detroit it is hard to find real Detroit style pizza, but in Vegas it’s now easy. There is a second Pizza Rock location at the Green Valley Ranch casino resort in suburban Henderson, and the Downtown one was just voted Best Pizza in Las Vegas 2015 by readers of the city’s Journal Review newspaper.
Las Vegas is so popular among visitors from the 50th State that it has been called “the ninth Hawaiian island.” Not surprisingly, this is reflected in an abundance of Hawaiian eateries, most of them small and off the main tourist route. But if you want to easily try a slate of great island dishes under one roof, look no further than the Market Street Café within the California Hotel & Casino in Downtown. Fans line up over an hour in advance for the single most popular item, oxtail soup, which is served nightly as a “graveyard special” after 11PM. But at almost any time of day (or night) the 24 hour eatery serves up Hawaiian options like chicken long rice, lau lau, teriyaki chicken bowl, Kalua pig, chicken adobo, chicken curry, island short ribs, island curry stew pot, saimin, Portuguese sausage, and seafood catches of the day such as mahi mahi or butterfish, all washed down with choices like guava and passionfruit juices.
Generally considered the nation’s very first fast food chain, White Castle is famous for its small, square “slider,” which Time Magazine deemed the most influential burger in human history. But while the concept of the slider as a mini-burger has been widely imitated, no one actually does it White Castle-style, which means steamed so the soggy bread becomes glued to the meat in a way only fans who grew up with it (like me!) can love. White Castle is an oddly dispersed Northeast, Middle Atlantic and Midwestern product – until last year, when the privately held chain ventured West of the Mississippi and opened in the heart of the Strip. Lines stretched down the block and on more than one occasion in the first few crazed weeks, the 24 hour store sold out of burgers. It is still wildly popular, but now you can actually get in. If you haven’t done so before in your life, you can use a visit to Vegas to finally see what the White Castle phenomenon, so powerful its patrons are known as “cravers,” is all about.
Like the Buffalo Wing, the most common tequila cocktail in the world, the Margarita, has a colorful creation story, directly traceable to Hussong’s Cantina in Ensenada, Mexico. Here, in 1941 a bartender invented the drink for its namesake regular, Margarita Henkel, daughter of the German Ambassador to Mexico. If you don’t want to make the trip to Ensenada to try a margarita (and tacos, burritos, etc.) at the source, there is only one other option: the world’s sole Hussong’s satellite, which is in the Shoppes at Mandalay Bay.
I would (and have) make the argument that Brooklyn’s Di Fara serves the single best rendition of the uniquely identifiable New York-style pizza in the Big Apple. Guess where Di Fara expanded to? Yep, Vegas. Di Fara first expanded into Nevada off the beaten track but recently opened within Caesars Palace in the middle of the Strip. Up and down the coast of Maine, seafood shacks are famous for the signature dish of the state, the lobster roll. Poor imitations abound, but you can try the real thing at Lobster ME, with two brick and mortar Vegas locations (Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood and the Venetian/Palazzo) plus a food truck. No New York deli is more famous than Carnegie Deli, where countless Presidents and celebrities have wolfed down the grossly oversized pastrami and corned beef on rye sandwiches, equally gargantuan combo sandwiches, and Jewish-style specialties like matzah ball soup, brisket and potato pancakes. All of these and more – including Carnegie’s world famous New York cheesecake – are available at the Carnegie Deli in the Mirage. If you have never been to a really exceptional New York deli in New York, Vegas offers a second chance.
Michigan specialties seem to be over represented in the Nevada desert, and that includes Cornish pasties. While these are clearly an English invention, they thrive in this country as a regional specialty of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, thanks to immigrant English miners. Now a beloved Midwestern snack, the Cornish Pasty Company brings the real thing to Las Vegas. Craving Cajun or Creole food? No chef is more closely associated with New Orleans cuisine than Emeril Lagasse (though he is from Massachusetts) and at his Emeril’s New Orleans Fish House in the MGM Grand he serves up the full monty, with oysters, gumbo, BBQ shrimp, crawfish etoufee, shrimp po boys, redfish and jambalaya.
There are a few iconic regional American specialties largely missing (at least in notable quality) from the Strip, including Philly cheesesteaks and Italian pork sandwiches, the pork tenderloin sandwich of Iowa/Indiana, many true Southern specialties, and Chicago’s Italian beef sandwiches and deep dish pizza. The Strip has also long had a drought of great barbecue, and while this continues, ‘cue fans can get some great ribs and other smoked specialties by venturing a little further afield. Vegas is home to three branches of Memphis Championship BBQ, the mini chain of multiple BBQ Champ Mike Mills, so prominent in competition barbecue that his nickname is simply “The Legend.” It is the real deal.
Every major casino resort on the Strip has a Chinese, Japanese and Italian restaurant, but on your next visit, consider the myriad American regional specialties the city offers.