I was all set to proclaim a trend. And then as I set about converting random thoughts to less-than-random words, I was reminded that there’s nothing revolutionary about counter-service restaurants. They have, after all, been around for a few decades.
But here’s the thing: Counter-service restaurants didn’t used to be very good. I clearly remember the evening around seven years ago when I reviewed the original Market Grille Cafe in the Centennial Hills area and was shocked that a counter-service restaurant could deliver so well on so many levels. Great food, prepared in-house? China dishes and stainless flatware? Wine glasses? Interesting, comfortable atmosphere? Whoa.
Plenty of the old guard survive, the ones who served fried or microwaved food on plastic-foam plates with plastic utensils that break when you use them. But they’re being supplanted by a new breed. The remaining negative is that you have to look at a signboard or paper menu at the front of the restaurant, decide what you want and order and pay for it on the spot — and probably get behind some guy and his family who haven’t looked at any of it and who gets up to the ordering person to ask, “OK, what does everybody want?” (But past annoyances prompt me to digress slightly.)
As far as the positives, they’re more numerous. Reduced overhead means prices tend to be lower, with a parallel in the area of tipping. You can choose your own table and keep it as long as you like, and food service generally is quicker.
All of which brings me to Jacques Cafe, which has been open in northwest Las Vegas for a few months. There really is a Jacques, and he really is a French chef and restaurateur. Experience along the way clearly motivated him to create a fairly intimate cafe whose charming decor (stenciled whitewashed brick wall, rough-hewed wood, chalk-decorated ceiling over the bar area, little pot of live grass on each table and thick valances above the windows to help absorb sound), friendly service and well-executed, mostly classic food contribute to a winning formula.
An appetizer of short-rib tacos ($7.95) was very good, the long-braised beef both ultra-tender and packed with flavor, the soft flour tortillas also stuffed with wedges of avocado and lots of shredded cabbage, a much better choice here than lettuce.
Pasta Bolognese ($9.25) was a bit of a sleeper. The linguine, nicely al dente, was tossed with a suitably hearty mixture of meat that tasted like a mix of beef and pork, bathed in an organic tomato sauce that was so deeply flavored we wondered if this French chef has some Italian blood, and served with a cup of shaved Parmesan. It also was a very large dish — especially considering the price — that also made for a nice lunch the next day.
A half-rack of meaty pork ribs ($18.95) was, according to the menu, “slow-cooked to deliciousness for four hours.” I dislike menu hyperbole (the old “cooked to perfection” particularly grates) but it wasn’t an exaggeration in this case because the meat had been marinated in red wine and spices and the long braising melded all of the flavors quite nicely. Roasted vegetables or roasted fingerling potatoes were offered with this one, and the vegetables were a colorful assortment of nicely caramelized but still crisp carrots, Brussels sprouts, red pepper and the like.
The ribs were listed as both organic and hormone-free, and gluten-free and vegetarian options are stated throughout the menu, which also provides sourcing information.
And, as you might expect from a Frenchman, there were tempting pastries in cases near the register, but we’d had too much to further indulge.
So count Jacques Cafe among the new breed of very good counter-service restaurants. And long may it, and its counterparts past and future, wave.
Las Vegas Review-Journal restaurant reviews are done anonymously at Review-Journal expense. Email Heidi Knapp Rinella at Hrinella@reviewjournal.com. Find more of her stories at www.reviewjournal.com and follow @HKRinella on Twitter.