Courting all Tastes
Photos by Alan Weiner
I grew up in North Jersey. That meant we were privileged with a few things, more so than other places. I’m referencing such wonderous cultural characteristics as:
People talking loudly and in your face, giant hoop earrings and lots of hairspray, and malls! If, instead of The Garden State, they had just called New Jersey The Mall State, everyone, everywhere would understand. Groups of tourists used to flock to the town of Paramus for their holy mall trinity – Paramus Park, Bergen Mall and Garden State Plaza.
These were day-long excursions – shop till you drop kind of deals. No doubt, somewhere between The Gap and Champs Sporting Goods, pangs of hunger would creep in.
So, you went to the food court, looking to reenergize and excited at the prospects of finding delicious nourishment. That plan sounded great except for one thing: there was never any delicious nourishment. It was one fast food joint after the next and none of them good. Whether it was the typical Americanized Chinese food or the “famous” hot dogs or the quickest-way-to-get-diabetes cinnamon rolls, the mall food courts never failed to disappoint on the promise of always being disappointing.
While I grew out of my mall days – as most New Jersey teenagers do – my hatred for underwhelming food courts has continued to this day.
Food halls, on the other hand, are a thing of wonder. Currently trending throughout the United States, food halls take the concept of the food court and gives it the My Fair Lady treatment. They’re all class, baby.
I’m writing about them as if they are new, but they are not. Grand Central Market in Los Angeles, for instance, has been around for more than 100 years. What is new about them is how they have now moved beyond New York and LA and into cities like Las Vegas…and the mainstream consciousness.
Block 16 Urban Food Hall, taking over a dead weight spot on the second floor of The Cosmopolitan, has breathed new energy into the corridor to and from Marquee, the resort’s signature dance club. Named after the original den of sin in Las Vegas, the historic area of First Street between Ogden Avenue and Stewart Avenue, this iteration doesn’t have the naughty factor the original did in 1906, but makes up for it with one tasty bite after the next.
For executive chef John Courtney, taking on this project was a necessity. Of food halls, he says, “I see it as the future. I wouldn’t call it fine dining but service style. And the way you treat your guests have started to meld with quick service. These six [restaurants at Block 16], in their own way, they treat the guests as if they’ve sat down at [Restaurant] Guy Savoy last night for dinner.”
Courtney has made his bones as a chef who knows how to open dining concepts. From neighborhood bars like Born & Raised to downtown hot spots like Carson Kitchen, the chef was there when these eateries found their way onto the foodie map.
Block 16, however, turned out to be more than the chef bargained for. Courtney states, “At the time [I took this project on], I thought that was a brilliant way of relaxing my mind a little bit and focusing more on management style and logistics for bettering myself as a chef. I come to find out that’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. To carbon copy another chef and their recipes and their menus and put it in another town is by far the most difficult thing I’ve done as a chef.”
He spent up to ten days at each of the brands represented at Block 16, crisscrossing the United States and learning the specifics about what makes each place so special. Courtney quickly learned that each outlet cooks their own way.
How does one replicate six exact styles? Add onto that the difficulty of procuring necessary items, like, say, a 55-gallon drum of fish sauce from Thailand, and you can understand the hurdles that presented themselves to the chef.
Can a 10-day training period suffice? Can one perfect beloved foods from around the country in that short a period? Is a week and a few days enough to master these tastes and then teach them to the nearly 150 employees working for Block 16? Courtney reflects, “I was pretty nervous the whole way through. Opening six projects at once, what chef has done that unless they have opened an entire hotel? It doesn’t really happen very often.”
Then there is the everyday challenge of transporting food. Unlike West Side Market in Cleveland or St. Roch Market in New Orleans, or just about any other food hall in the country, Block 16 is housed in a hotel. While the food is served on the second floor, much of the cookery is done on floor four, where the food hall employees have taken over a portion of the banquet space to do their prep work. Says Courtney, “Trying to see the logistics of things, that’s really what this challenge was, how do I get donuts brought down fresh every hour and 300 of them at a time? What team does it take to get them from point A to point B, keeping within health and safety standards, and maintaining the quality of the product as well?”
Whatever process Courtney and the crew at Block 16 have come up with, so far, it’s working. On a recent Saturday morning visit, each of the five open restaurants had lines and it was difficult to move around the communal space with so many heads foaming at the mouth, ready to eat.
As for what to eat, that’s really the beauty of this project. Searching far and wide, the team behind Block 16 chose two brands from Portland, Oregon, one from New Orleans, one from New York City and one from Nashville. As for the sixth eatery, well, they kind of just made that up.
The most well-known food supplier at Block 16 is Pok Pok Wing, an offshoot of James Beard Award-winning chef Andy Rickert’s Pok Pok in Portland. It’s an ode to his time in Thailand. Rickert changed the game as far as how Thai food is viewed in America and his chicken wings became legendary. Here, Ike’s Vietnamese Fish Sauce Chicken Wings are as good as the ones at the original Pok Pok, but Courtney thinks it’s only a matter of time before another dish earns the same type of buzz. He says, “Khao Soi is an amazing curry with fresh egg noodles we make every day. Chicken, fresh coconut creme, crispy noodles. It’s just a hidden gem.”
Fans of fowl will flock to Block 16, not only for Pok Pok Wing, but also for another specific type of chicken. Hattie B’s Hot Chicken is legendary in Nashville but as the hot chicken craze has grown, their presence has become known outside of Music City. Plates of chicken, from mild to hot, are served with sides like Southern greens, pimento mac & cheese, and creamy cole slaw. Heat seekers will lock in the “Shut the cluck up” option on the heat-level chart. Make sure to film your friend if he or she tries to beat the heat – you might end up with a YouTube hit as your friend cries, not ready for all that hotness.
Lardo, the other Portland based eatery, is all about the sandwiches. There are spins on American classics like the Bronx Bomber, which features shaved steak, house provolone “whiz,” roasted and pickled peppers, vinegar mayo, and shredded lettuce. And there are interesting fusion items like the Pho’rench Dip, which utilizes shaved beef, hoisin sauce, sambal mayo, Thai basil, and pho broth to create this Asian comfort sandwich.
My personal favorite – at least so far – is District: Donuts. Sliders. Brew. I fell hard for the donuts and coffee on a recent trip to New Orleans and upon opening in Las Vegas, these doughy treats immediately shot to the top of every donut list in the city. These light, fluffy sweets include flavors like blueberry cheesecake and brownie batter. At the New Orleans branch, they rotate over 100 kinds of donuts. In Las Vegas, for now they are sticking to about 10 with the eventual aim to work in all the different flavors. There is also a selection of breakfast biscuits and kolaches – similar to a croissant sandwich – and beef, pork, and chicken sliders. Between the donuts and the Vietnamese iced coffee on tap, there’s a lot to like here.
Tekka Bar: Handroll & Sake is a Block 16 creation in conjunction with Takashi Segawa, whose other Las Vegas hits includes Monta Ramen, Kabuto (sushi), and Sushi Mon. Check out the toro hand roll, which utilizes toro-mio, tuna fat, to get an extra layer of lusciousness into the fish.
The sixth outlet, Ghost Donkey out of New York City, featuring mezcal, tequila, and nachos, is slated to open this month.
As for the food hall trend, we can expect to see more in Las Vegas as eaters continue to become more involved with their food selections. Says Courtney: “The guest is so educated from the farm-to-table type attitude, fresh ingredients, local farmers, where things are coming from - now people are wanting to get quality food at a quality price but a little bit faster and not have to do the whole service sit down model.”
Welcome to the Block.