When I reviewed Le Thai in downtown Las Vegas a while back, I remember thinking (and writing) that it was just right for the area, and that I could really feel things in the Fremont East district coalescing at last. I felt optimistic for downtown — an optimism that was only reinforced by our more recent dinner at La Comida.
La Comida, which is right around the corner from Le Thai on Sixth Street, represents the further expansion of Fremont East, an expansion that — in restaurant terms, anyway — first was staked out by Eat at Seventh and Carson streets. And La Comida has something in common with both Le Thai and Eat, the first being an elemental name, since “comida” means “food” in Spanish.
But, too, there’s the funky vibe; La Comida, with its mismatched furniture (in a good way), old-fashioned light fixtures, front windows open wide to the outdoors, wooden floor and china that looks like it came straight out of Abuela’s kitchen evoke the feeling of a rustic country cantina. As is the case with the others, the owners of La Comida (Michael and Jenna Morton, he formerly associated with N9NE at the Palms) seem to appreciate the value of drawing a broad demographic in a newborn old district that’s still finding its feet; on this recent evening the sound track varied from Mexican to jazz to ’20s cabaret to rockabilly and Steely Dan, a Daft Punk tune followed by disco.
As for the food? There’s some common ground there as well, beginning with the fact that when you’re going for a broad demographic, you want to be creative enough to be interesting but not so authentic or auteur-y that you alienate a wide swath. And so it was that, yes, dinner started with on-the-house chips and salsa, but the warm chips were accompanied by a just-spicy-enough, slightly smoky salsa that owed much to New Mexico and its dried chiles.
Our starter was the prosaic queso fundido ($11), found on pretty much every Mexican-restaurant menu in town. Ah, but here there was also a difference, in that Oaxaca cheese had been used, lending its smooth, stretchy texture akin to the more familiar mozzarella, and punching it up with not just the requisite crumbled chorizo but also bits of poblano pepper, with some pepitas on top for crunch. And the fact that it was prepared in a square cast-iron dish, which stayed sizzling hot, helped ensure that it remained gooey-soft until we had cleaned out the dish. We ran out of the warm tortillas before we ran out of cheese, which always seems to be the way, but we had plenty of chips to finish the job.
Cilantro or no cilantro? In the Elotes asados — also known as street corn — ($8) it was no, which I found mildly disappointing because I like mine with it, but this was both authentic and well prepared. The four half-ears had the crisp texture that comes from having come straight from the grill, and the zip of lime and cotija cheese.
Puerco ahumado ($18) showcased the pig. Our server described pork shoulder as a lean cut — an obvious mistake to anyone who’s smoked one, although I suppose it could be argued that it is somewhat lean after the fat has been cooked out. Anyway, it was slightly smoky and extremely succulent, the adovada sauce gaining both thickness and a deep, earthy flavor from more of those dried chiles. Beans and rice were beans and rice, the former slightly better than the latter.
But maybe the piece de resistance was the Camaron del Golfo ($18), large, perfectly textured Gulf shrimp lightly sauteed and artfully twisted together. But wait! There was more here — much more, in that this dish was an absolute fiesta of flavors and colors, with soft chunks of butternut squash, thickly sliced chorizo, crisp kernels of corn and juicy cherry tomatoes.
Service throughout was fine, our waiter apparently used to a faster pace than we wanted that evening but quickly adapting to ours. Another thing I liked about him was that he was helpful and efficient, refilling water and our chips basket but didn’t, for example, push those extra drinks.
It was quiet at La Comida when we were there, both inside and outside the restaurant. That appealed to us, who favor the quiet, but we felt sure that things would pick up considerably as the evening wore on, and found ourselves wishing that, 10 or 15 years ago — when we’d have appreciated it as a late-night venue — Fremont East had been what it is becoming today.
Las Vegas Review-Journal restaurant reviews are done anonymously at Review-Journal expense. E-mail Heidi Knapp Rinella at Hrinella@reviewjournal.com, or call 702-383-0474. Follow @HKRinella on Twitter.