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New Mexico fare, Santa Maria-style barbecue are a winning combination

The recession brought a lot of changes to the face of dining in Las Vegas, many of which have stuck around as things gradually get back to normal. Fine dining began to fall out of favor as we found ourselves with less money and time. Restaurants continued to open at a pace that’s picked up quite a bit during the past year or two, but most of the new spots are counter service, fusion or both.

The new mash-up of Carlito’s Burritos and Live-Fire-Q, though, takes things another step. If you’ve been around for a while you’re no doubt familiar with Carlito’s, which was an established counter-service spot on Patrick Lane near Pecos Road that specialized in the fare of New Mexico — for years the only place in the valley that did. Carlito’s moved a few months ago to a former Sammy’s Woodfired Pizza location on Sunset Road near Green Valley Parkway, and with it opened Live-Fire-Q, which is, to my knowledge, the only Southern Nevada restaurant specializing in Santa Maria-style barbecue.

This particular style, which originated on California’s Central Coast, may seem a little unusual to lovers of traditional Texas or Southeastern barbecue. It’s cooked over a live fire instead of charcoal (hence the restaurant’s name), with a dry rub, and served without barbecue sauce, though sometimes with salsa. And so, as you can see, no fusion is necessary; these regional specialties from spots nearly a thousand miles apart are naturally simpatico.

The beauty of the mash-up is that you can order from both menus, which is what we did: smoked chicken spread ($5.95) and a half-pound beef tri-tip plate ($13.95) from Live-Fire-Q, and a half stuffed sopapilla ($8.50) from Carlito’s. The menu cautions that because the food comes from two different kitchens it may not come out at the same time, but ours did.

We would’ve liked the smoked chicken spread first, but we do understand the complicated logistics of such a setup, and truth be told, everything else was so hot we were glad to give it a few minutes to cool down. The chicken spread was smooth and smoky, served with crostinis and — the perfect crowning touch — something called a “burnt-onion orange marmalade,” which had not an acrid burned flavor but subtle notes of caramelized onion to balance the orange.

Tri-tip — from a beef roast that’s a specialty of the West — is the signature meat of Santa Maria barbecue, and Live-Fire-Q’s version made it obvious why this once-obscure style is gradually spreading eastward; the simple rub of those culinary basics salt, pepper and garlic highlight the smoky, beefy flavor without adding any distractions. The sliced beef came with the traditional sides, pinquito beans (a little bland, but OK), crisply crusted garlic bread and a crunchy cabbage slaw. We added some Hatch chile salsa (89 cents), which added a bit of fire that was nicely balanced by the slaw.

Carlito’s stuffed sopapillas are available with fillings of chicken, beef, carne adovada or pork verde; we chose the latter, with green chile sauce. The filling was big, meaty chunks of pork cooked with green chiles, which added both zip and depth of flavor, and the green chile ladled over it (along with some melted cheese) had plenty of kick without getting ridiculous. Around and under all that, the pastry shell remained relatively unwilted, and we were grateful we got a half sopapilla, which was plenty big enough.

Actually, that was due to the woman who took our order, who displayed a laudable amount of patience as she helped us navigate the two menus. We liked that kind of service and we also liked the feel of the place, which hasn’t changed much from Sammy’s; the extensive use of saltillo tile perfectly suits the two concepts.

Now that these two restaurants have launched a joint venture, I have to wonder how many similar projects will follow. If they work as well as Carlito’s Burritos and Live-Fire-Q, they’ll be most welcome additions to Southern Nevada dining.

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.

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