Top 10 new Las Vegas experiences I tried last week

22 July 2019

LAS VEGAS -- Last week's annual trek to Las Vegas marked the eighth time I have been fortunate enough to cover the World Series of Poker. The WSOP trip never disappoints. There is always plenty of drama and untold stories to uncover, and the excitement of a Main Event final table never gets old.

When traveling to Las Vegas, there are certain spots I never miss, but I'm also always game to try new things. This time was no different. In addition to spending multiple hours a day inside the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino watching flops, turns and rivers, we also managed to squeeze in 10 new experiences — and, believe it or not, gambling was not the focal point. Instead, we homed in on another of our favorite pastimes: Good food and drink.

Viva Las Vegas!

10. Lotus of Siam
The Las Vegas Strip is loaded with hundreds of world-class restaurants. But I always try to find an off-Strip restaurant recommended by locals, and Lotus of Siam has been on my hit list for a while.

It was worth the wait.

The family-run Thai restaurant opened a second location early last year, a little over a mile off the Strip on East Flamingo Road. James Beard Award-winning Chef Saipin Chutima and her husband Bill took over the original location in Commercial Center back in 1999 and quickly turned Lotus of Siam into a Las Vegas hotspot, thanks to their Northern Thai specialties and deep wine list. According to the menu, dishes from the north are typically milder than those from central or northwestern Thailand and "consist of herbs and greens, more of a beautiful mountain scenery with a touch of spices that will fill the mind with memories."

Bring it on.

I first heard about Lotus of Siam reading the late, great Dave Malinsky, a professional sports bettor who wrote a daily column before passing away in April 2018. He was a regular, as in he went there daily, and any time I mentioned the place to a Las Vegas local they would agree that it's a must-visit.

We were lucky enough to get a seat at the bar so the wait wasn't too long for a Wednesday night, but I have been told that reservations as long as two or three weeks in advance are recommended, unless you don't mind waiting for a table for well over an hour.
My meal consisted of the Tom Yum Koong (a hot and sour soup with shrimp, lime juice, lemongrass and straw mushrooms), Nam Kao Tod (crispy rice mixed with sour minced pork sausage, scallions, cilantro, red onions, fresh chili, ginger, peanuts and lime juice) and deep-fried prawns with shells, sautéed with the special garlic sauce and topped with ground black pepper.

Yes, we will be back.

9. Downtown Cocktail Room
If you're a regular reader of this space, you know that Downtown Las Vegas always finds its way onto my trip itinerary and this time was no different. And speaking of local joints, Downtown Cocktail Room is a great spot to chill out and escape the zaniness of Fremont Street.
The Downtown Cocktail Room is dark, comfy and a great place to chill and get away.

The Downtown Cocktail Room is dark, comfy and a great place to chill and get away. (photo by Gary Trask)

Better known as simply DCR, this is as nondescript as it gets from the outside. It has a small red neon light that says "downtown" with a martini glass hanging outside on the brick building at 111 South Las Vegas Boulevard.

Inside, it's dark, and it exudes a calming vibe. There's always an easy-listen and upbeat music playlist, and the service is outstanding. The main bar is fairly small with an area of couches to get even more comfortable, and in the back there is a hidden bar behind a curtain with another 10 stools or so.

This is the kind of place where the bartenders take their craft very seriously. Making a cocktail is an art for them, and they nailed it both times we visited. I highly recommend the Bloom Anyway, which is made with jalapeno-infused tequila, Amaro Meletti ("amaro" in Italian means "bitter), fresh lemon, "prickly" pear syrup and guava soda.

Next time, I have to try the DCR Squad Select, because on the menu for ingredients it simply states "If we told you, we'd have to kill you."

Better yet, we'll do so during happy hour when everything in the place is half the price, Monday through Saturday from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.

And you know how much we love Happy Hours in Las Vegas!

(More on that later . . .)

8. The Spare Room at Downtown Grand
The timing worked out for me on this trip so that I was able to attend a special preview of The Spare Room at Downtown Grand Las Vegas. The new showroom features live comedy weekly with Don Barnhart’s Hypnomania and Delirious Stand-up Comedy, every Wednesday through Sunday at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. It's intimate and casual with maximum seating for under 100 people, and the price is right at just $29.99 per ticket. If the snapshot of the two shows that I saw is any indication, this might be one of the best values in Las Vegas.
I was particularly blown away by Barnhart’s Hypnomania act. I've been to a hypnotist show a handful of times before, but this was the funniest and most entertaining, by far. Bonus points for Barnhart, who has gone overseas multiple times to perform for U.S. troops and also offers a free hypnosis download that helps soldiers who return home and struggle with anxiety and PTSD.

7. RE: MATCH at The LINQ
If you haven't visited The LINQ Hotel + Experience on the Las Vegas Strip in a while, things have changed dramatically. In fact, the new stuff they are trying out here may very well be the future of casinos.

After attending the opening of the new 45,000-square-foot, "futuristic" sportsbook at the Caesars Entertainment property, which also features the the now iconic High Roller, back in October, we returned last week to see the finished space, which was unveiled in early June.
In addition to virtual reality, a 24-station esports room, the first hologram games to appear on the Las Vegas Strip and LED art on huge video boards that follow the flow of guests walking by, there is also a four-player Mario Kart experience, a massive Pac-Man game and the Pulse Arena, which houses all the newest slot and video games.

The main attraction is RE:MATCH, and I love how they knocked down the wall that previously separated the casino floor from the Strip. It completely opens up the space, and as you sit at the RE:MATCH bar you have a perfect view of the one of the best "people watching" areas on the planet.

The bar at RE:MATCH features interactive touch screens with virtual sea life. The best way to describe it is as a digital aquarium filled with sharks, sea turtles, stingrays, an octopus and other creatures, and once an hour a participating guest is awarded a free drink while playing the game. This is definitely not your father's Las Vegas Strip cocktail bar.

And if you think this kind of space is totally geared toward the all-important millennial generation, guess again.

"We started down that path, what we've really found as we dug into our research is that there are certain behaviors that transcend all generations," Matthew Kenagy, Caesars Entertainment's senior director of strategic development, told me. "Most people come to Las Vegas as couples or in groups, and they want to have different experiences and they want to control their experience. That's what we thought about when building this space. It's not just about millennials. It's about building something around that mindset and how people enjoy consuming content today."

6. The Barbershop Cuts and Cocktails
For a guy who doesn’t have a lot of hair, I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Cuts and Cocktails.

The name pretty much gives it away. Cuts and Cocktails, which opened just inside the Strip entrance at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas back in the spring in the former home of the cocktail lounge called Bond, is a high-end barbershop where you get your hair cut while enjoying a complimentary stiff drink.

What's more, behind the mundane "Janitor" door at the far end of the shop is a speakeasy that features live bands, private events and karaoke nights. (Quick aside: The number of hidden "speakeasies" popping up in Vegas seems to be growing by the month. I smell a future Top 10 . . .).

The haircut isn't cheap ($70), but then again, nothing is cheap on the Las Vegas Strip, and the free cocktail (a choice of whiskey, bourbon, or beer) definitely softens the blow. Other services such as facials ($60), shave ($50) and "clean-up" ($35) are also available.

5. Eataly at Park MGM
Full disclosure: I was never a big fan of the Monte Carlo. So, I was thrilled to see Caesars do away with it and rebrand to Park MGM, which was introduced and renovated piece-by-piece and was completed last year.

A great new feature at Park MGM is the Eataly food district, a concept that can also be found in Boston, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.
The 40,000-square-foot market space offers a dozen Italian restaurants with a mix of casual and more sophisticated options. All the food is displayed in big glass cases so your mouth will water as you make your way around, and the huge, floor-to-ceiling windows in the front make you feel like you're out on the Strip, even though you're inside with controlled temperatures.

Quick tip: Take advantage of the multiple happy hour specials, chef workshops, free tastings and other deals that are offered daily.

The bar celebrated its VIP grand opening party with an appearance by Shaq.

The bar celebrated its VIP grand opening party with an appearance by Shaq. (photo by Beer Park)

4. New inside bar at Beer Park
Beer Park, the rooftop deck bar at Paris Las Vegas, has always been a favorite spot to stop for drink al fresco and take in the view on the Strip and the Bellagio Fountains. Last week, the bar introduced a new 10,000-square-foot space, and celebrated its VIP grand opening party with an appearance by Shaquille O'Neal.

Before we get to Shaq, the indoor space will be a welcome addition for Beer Park when it's too hot to sit outside or a desert shower passes by. It features a very hip and chic design with living-room style, comfortable seating, a circular bar and a "pub-like" menu of snacks, burgers and nachos. There are also plenty of high-def TVs and bar games like darts, basketball and Jenga.

Shaq was the perfect celeb to help ring in the opening. The room was filled with about 500 people, and the 7-foot-1 mountain of a man could not have been more pleasant. He posed for annoying selfies, giving pretty girls and any kids preference, and hung around for over two hours. He even challenged a few of the kids to a game of Pop-a-Shot Basketball.

3. New Happy Hour at The Cromwell
OK, back to some more Las Vegas Happy Hour discussion.

Last year, we took one for the team and scoured the city for 10 of the best happy hour specials available. One of them was at The Cromwell, the innovative boutique Strip property, which was offering $1 vodka martinis and cocktails every day from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Interlude bar and $5 draft beers from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m.

That special has been revamped and, in my mind, is even better, with $2 vodka cocktails and beers offered Monday-Friday from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Interlude is a very cool, open-floor spot located smack-dab in the middle of the casino floor, with a video poker bar and leather couches. If the drink special and best table game odds on the Strip don't draw you in, the free live music most certainly will.

2. Planet 13
I'm admittedly not a big cannabis guy. Unlike all of the cocktail-talk above, my experience with marijuana is actually quite limited. But with dispensaries starting to open all over the country and around 60 of them in Nevada bringing in approximately $500 million in revenue annually, I figured it was my duty to check one out.

And once I read that the immense Planet 13, located a mile off the Strip behind Fashion Show Mall, was bringing in over $5 million per month, I knew that was the venue I had to experience.
From what I can gather, Planet 13 is the Costco of dispensaries. You are greeted by 13-foot-tall LED lotus flower structures and an 18-foot outdoor water feature with even more LED lights. According to the company, at 112,000 square feet, Planet 13 is the largest dispensary in the world, with the actual shop, open 24/7, accounting for 15,000 of those square feet.

The place is immaculate and the service is impeccable, even for a rookie like me. There's an LED interactive floor and laser art in the lobby, and after perusing the glass counters full of medical and recreational products, including vapes, oil, edibles like cookies and brownies, and cigars, I decided to purchase something a little more in my wheelhouse: cannabis-infused beer. That's right, Two Roots Brewing company offers beer that has half the calories of an alcoholic beer and, as my salesperson said, "no hangovers."

Of course, I couldn't drink it in the store. Recreational marijuana lounges are a couple years away from becoming a reality in Nevada, so products must be consumed or inhaled in the privacy of your home or hotel room (although the smell of marijuana is omnipresent up and down the Strip these days).

The verdict? While the $4 Two Roots IPA wasn't as refreshing as my usual Lagunitas or Harpoon IPA, it wasn't bad. Definitely different, and definitely something I would try again. Maybe next time I'll get even more adventurous and try one of those chocolate chip cookies.

1. Top of the World at The STRAT
Formerly known as The Stratophere, the new The STRAT Hotel, Casino and SkyPod has been introducing an array of new amenities and features since its official rebrand earlier this year

But that doesn’t mean they've done away with what made the structure so famous. While I have attended a conference at the top of the renowned Stratosphere Tower, which at 1,149 feet is the tallest freestanding observation tower in the U.S. and the second-tallest in the Western Hemisphere, I had never gone up to the Top of the World restaurant, which revolves 360 degrees every 80 minutes, providing complete views. There are many excellent places for a cocktail in Las Vegas (as you can tell from this Top 10, we've tried many of them), but it's difficult to beat the combination of quality food, drink, service and vistas that Top of the World provides.

Next time we visit, we'll be sure to hit up the newly remodeled Observation Deck that just opened last week and features 108 Drinks and 108 Eats by James Trees.

Related Links
The Cromwell Details
The LINQ Hotel + Experience Details
Downtown Grand Las Vegas Details
Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino Details
The STRAT Hotel, Casino and SkyPod Details
Park MGM Details
Paris Las Vegas Details
The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas Details

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