Utah Bites

ESCAPE TO VEGAS! Cheap Eats, Legal Weed & a Magic Dragon in Sin City

It goes without saying that you can lap up an opulent, high-roller experience visiting Vegas. But on a writer’s income, that’s not in the cards (so to speak) for me. So I’ve gotten pretty good at enjoying Sin City on the cheap.


Piff the Magic Dragon Photos by Ted Scheffler and also courtesy of Piff the Magic Dragon, Rio Las Vegas & the Palms.


Many years ago, I lived in Las Vegas. I worked at the 24-hour Odyssey Records store there and much later, would be the restaurant critic/food writer for Las Vegas Life magazine. And although I’ve seen a deluge of changes to Las Vegas through the years – some good and some not so good – it’s still a favorite place of mine to escape to. Especially given its close proximity to Utah.

Salt Lake City to Las Vegas

It goes without saying that you can lap up an opulent, high-roller experience visiting Vegas. But on a writer’s income, that’s not in the cards (so to speak) for me. So I’ve gotten pretty good at enjoying Sin City on the cheap. I hear folks all the time bemoaning the passing of the $1.99 steak & eggs breakfast on The Strip, or the demise of the 99-cent shrimp cocktail. But if you play your cards right, you really can experience the thrill of Las Vegas and some really great grub and entertainment for less than you’d probably spend during a weekend frolicking in downtown SLC. Here are some examples from my most recent trip.

I took advantage of a deal at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino: 3 nights at $33 per night, plus resort fees, for a 2-queen bed suite with a fridge, sofa, desk and great views. You can regularly find room rates like this in Vegas, especially if you avoid weekend stays. Sunday through Tuesday or Wednesday is perfect.

I’d chosen the Rio because A) It was cheap and B) the great Penn and Teller perform there. Sadly, they were forced to cancel their shows during my time in Las Vegas due to Teller undergoing back surgery. He’s doing fine, by the way.

Voodoo Lounge @ The Rio

If you’re staying at the Rio, or just visiting there for a show or the amazing views from the hotel’s rooftop Voodoo Lounge, 51 stories above The Strip, there are some inexpensive dining options to take advantage of.

Royal India Bistro @ The Rio

Royal India Bistro (formerly Gaylord’s, if you’ve been coming to Vegas for a while) features a 500-degree tandoor oven and tasty North Indian cuisine. And, while most entrees run in the $20-$30 range during dinner, at lunchtime the Bistro features an all-you-can-eat Indian buffet in a regal atmosphere, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., for a mere $14.95.

There’s also a Vietnamese pho restaurant at The Rio called Pho Da Nang, where you can build your own pho, choosing your broth and protein for 12 bucks a bowl. Accompaniments include Thai basil, lime, rice noodles, sliced jalapeño, cilantro and bean sprouts. Oh, and a couple more Rio steals: Enjoy half-priced bottles and glasses of wine at The Wine Cellar Tasting Room from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. daily, and a burger & beer at The Wall craft beer emporium for $15.

There is no shortage of Hispanic fare in and around Vegas, but no eateries are more popular with the locals than Tacos el Gordo, which is a Tijuana-style taqueria. Most tacos are priced at $2.60 and run the gamut from carne asada and al pastor, to lengua (beef tongue), sesos (beef brain), chorizo, and much more.

There are pretty much always lines at Tacos el Gordo, and separate lines for pork, beef, and various other cuts. The pork (adobada) and beef (carne) lines are always the longest, but you can usually make quick work of the less popular lines where the lengua, tripe and such is served. My very favorite taco is the suadero, which is some sort of stewed pork – shredded and so tender and tasty! For more gusto, be sure to try the adobada fries.

During my visits to Las Vegas, I always take the time to devour a pizza from Grimaldi’s Pizzeria, which originated in Brooklyn. There are a few Grimaldi’s locations in Vegas, including at Fashion Show Mall and at The Venetian.

Grimaldi’s Pizza with Meatballs

A Grimaldi’s pizza is a beautiful thing: lightly charred in a coal-fired brick oven with the best quality ingredients. A pizza large enough to feed two starts at $11 and if you visit Grimaldi’s on Tuesdays all glasses, carafes and bottles of wine are half-priced.

Sadly, although Grimaldi’s has expanded with a number of locations in the West, there aren’t any in Utah yet. On my way to Grimaldi’s in Las Vegas I happened to pass a stand-alone building with lots of cars and people out front – it looks like a nightclub and is called Planet 13. This is something else you won’t find in Utah … yet.

Planet 13 Superstore

Back in my hotel room, I Googled the place (again, thinking it was a nightclub) and discovered that it is a 40,000 square foot cannabis superstore and entertainment complex that was voted the #1 Las Vegas marijuana dispensary. Well, never having set foot in a cannabis dispensary before, I had to check this place out. What I found at Planet 13 blew my mind (and I was not stoned).

Planet 13 “Edibles” on Display

I sort of expected a pot dispensary to be pretty funky, with a bunch of stoners in tie-dye T-shirts selling the pot products. You know: “Hey, man wanna get really f**cked up???” Boy, could I have not been more wrong! Walking into Planet 13 is more comparable to visiting an Apple Store than a headshop. The place is completely modern and professionally run, with a humongous inventory of recreational cannabis (remember, this is in Nevada), cannabis extracts, edibles, and infused products – all displayed in sleek glass cases. The Planet 13 “entertainment complex” even includes a coffee shop and a Rickety Cricket Pizzeria Bistro (great for the munchies, I’d guess) on the premises. Who knew?

I’ll get back to cheap eats around Vegas in a minute. But first, I have to tell you about the most fun you can have in Las Vegas with your clothes on. An absolute must if you visit Las Vegas is a show at The Flamingo Hotel & Casino called Piff the Magic Dragon. In an upcoming article, I’ll devote more space to Piff, an interview I did with him, and his show – a preview of what you might look forward to when Piff the Magic Dragon comes to the Eccles Center in Park City to perform on Sunday, December 22nd. For now, just the basics.

Piff the Magic Dragon

Piff – a Vegas-based British magician and comic who performs in a “dragon suit” (I put that in quotes since it really doesn’t look very dragon-ish), was just recently voted by the masses as Las Vegas’ Best Magician, Best Comedian and Best Headliner in the 2019 Best of Las Vegas Awards. That’s a three gold-medal, Triple-Crown achievement that’s never been accomplished before by anyone. When I asked him what’s next after winning the Triple-Crown he said, “The Quadruple Crown.” Why, of course!

Piff’s illusions are second-to-none and his combination of magic and comedy is truly unique. His deadpan sense of humor is combined with “The World’s Only Magic Performing Chihuahua,” Mr. Piffles, and a stunningly gorgeous and simultaneously hilarious showgirl/assistant named Jade Simone (aka Mrs. Piff).

Jade Simone aka Mrs. Piff, Yours Truly & Piff the Magic Dragon

I’d encourage you to visit YouTube or Piff’s website to take a look at some of his videos. Once you see his performances on America’s Got Talent, you’ll be hooked like me. Oh, and his shows at The Flamingo are priced at around half of what you’d pay for, say, good seats at a Cirque du Soleil show or something like Absinthe, and the Piff theater is intimate with not a bad seat in the house. Do yourself a favor: Take in a Piff the Magic Dragon show in your lifetime – either in Las Vegas or here in Park City in December. You’ll laugh until it hurts and be unable to wait until the next opportunity to see Piff.

Bonanno’s Chicken Cutlet Parmigiana

If you happen to be hankering for a quick, filling meal before or after a Piff the Magic Dragon show at The Flamingo, although it’s not much on ambiance I suggest the Flamingo Food Court. Specifically, there’s an Italian fast-service spot called Bonanno’s New York Pizzeria. I wouldn’t suggest ordering the pizza there, since it’s overpriced starting at around $7 per slice. I do, however, recommend the very generous serving of chicken cutlet parmigiana with ziti or spaghetti, marinara sauce, and a garlic roll, selling at about $14. Be careful, though, to not opt for a 9 buck Stella Artois alongside, as I foolishly did.

Gheymeh Stew at Hafez

One of the best meals – and the biggest bangs-for-the-buck – was at a restaurant just off The Strip on the edge of Las Vegas’ Chinatown called Hafez Persian Cuisine. You’re gonna love this place. First, it’s very roomy and atmospheric with lovely decor, and there’s rarely a wait for a table. The Persian family who runs the restaurant couldn’t be more friendly or helpful with menu tips. And an order of a delicious stew called Gheymeh that can easily serve two people rings it at only $15.25. It’s a savory stew of oh-so tender chunks of slowly-braised beef with saffron and yellow split peas in a tomato-based sauce, topped with toasted almond slivers and a huge mound of saffron flavored basmati rice alongside. Hafez also offers a daily lunch special priced at $9.50 with a choice of chicken koobideh, boneless chicken kabob, beef koobideh, or fried fish.

Palms Empathy Suite Balcony Pool

Not far from the Rio and from Hafez is the dazzling Palms Casino Resort, a hotel and casino called “different by design” and the “unstatus quo.” Unveiled just this past March 1st, Palms is a place that boasts what is said to be the world’s most expensive hotel room, the Empathy Suite which goes for something like $100,000 per night. That’s gotta make even Trump jealous.

Well, here’s the good news: One of the best meal deals I found in Vegas during this last trip was at the Palms. It was at a comfort food eatery called Lucky Penny, which looks nothing like a comfort food eatery, and definitely doesn’t look cheap. This is one of the most attractive bar/restaurants I’ve been in quite some time.

I was amazed that I could get in and out of Lucky Penny, enjoying an excellent meatloaf meal with mashed potatoes and broccoli too humongous to finish, plus two glasses of Argentine Malbec, for $32 plus tip – a total of 40 bucks.

Lucky Penny is open 24/7 and features complete American comfort food meals (with sides) typically running under $20, such as Turkey & Dressing, Liver & Onions, Hearth Oven Brick Chicken, Samual Adams Batter-Fried Fish, plus sandwiches, paninis, burgers, soups, salads and a plethora of other options – all at very affordable prices. The service is top-notch, as is the beautiful decor. You’ll feel very lucky when you spend your well-earned dollars at Lucky Penny.

And finally, I never visit Las Vegas without making an excursion to New York New York Hotel & Casino. It’s not because I particularly love New York New York, but because that’s where Greenberg’s Deli is located.

Greenberg’s Corned Beef & Swiss on Rye

Although New York New York is mostly faux NYC, Greenberg’s actually delivers damned good NYC-style deli fare, including overstuffed sandwiches, really good matzo ball soup, egg creams, black & white cookies, and more. A hot sandwich on your choice of bread (rye is the correct choice) with corned beef, pastrami or beef brisket and a kosher pickle runs $11.95. Now, that may sound like an expensive sandwich, but not when it can feed two people or leave you with plenty of delicious leftovers for later.

So, there you go. There’s plenty of good, cheap eats in Las Vegas, legal weed and Piff the Magic Dragon – quite possibly the best show you’ll see in this lifetime or the next. Viva Las Vegas, baby!

Culinary quote of the week:

A little bit of this town goes a very long way. — Hunter S. Thompson on Las Vegas




Food writer Ted SchefflerOriginally trained as an anthropologist, Ted Scheffler is a seasoned food, wine & travel writer based in Utah. He loves cooking, skiing, and spends an inordinate amount of time tending to his ever-growing herd of guitars and amplifiers.

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