Work travel is overrated. It sounded glam when I was in college and a recent grad. Traipsing around new cities on the company dime? Sign me up! Now I know it’s more of a tease than anything else. Multiple day trips to Manhattan for my last job got me little more than nose prints on the high rise window as I thought of all the fun things I wasn’t doing.
But some work trips? So worth it. Like skipping down the Las Vegas strip while attending CES (that’s the Consumer Electronics Show). I was lucky to get to travel with my work friend KentuckyFrench who has an adventurous palate and masochistic liver.
The Cosmopolitan boasts one of the newest restaurants, from hometown chef Jose Andres: China Poblano. I had high hopes when we sat down at China Poblano, an intriguing mix of Mexican and Chinese food. The interior was energetic and the idea of fusing two distinct cuisines with, presumably, so little in common may have been a misfire in the hands of any chef but Andres.
My expectation of fusion put the carro ahead of the burro. I hoped for a mad scientist approach to plates with both unfamiliar and favorite flavors intermingling. Instead, at first glance, the menu offered one half Chinese food and one half Mexican food with each side keeping its foot firmly in traditional territory. I was worried this was less of a fusion experiment and more of an upscale KenTacoHut compromise: separate menus, one roof.
Digging a little deeper into the menu, KentuckyFrench and I unearthed promising crossover items. Like Jaleo, China Poblano focuses on shareable small plates. Once we singled out our targets, KentuckyFrench and I ordered with courage, ready for something unexpected. And if that failed, we always had the salt air margaritas to lick our wounds.
The first of our plates arrived with great promise: A pair of Viva China tacos. Cupped in housemade tortillas – so light! so delicate ! – they were a taste of China in taco clothing. Slightly buoyant beef tendons were brushed with sweet-spicy peppercorn sauce and paired with petite slices of green scallions and tender Kumamoto oysters. The tacos would benefit from a touch more solidity than the scallions were able to deliver – maybe some slices of crisp radish? – but the overall flavors of sweet and peppery were presented nicely with the unique mouthfeel of tendon and oyster.
Next up were classic steamed beef buns and tuna ceviche. They were just what one would expect, and hope for, from the dishes: the steamed buns were little doughy pillows delivering savory diced beef in a sweet-tangy sauce. The tuna ceviche was the deep ruby color that gets my incisors excited to dig in and the creamy avocado accompaniment complimented the fish without distracting from the real star. My favorite, though, was a fascinating dish called Like Water for Chocolate which included neither water nor chocolate. Featuring bite sized portions of fried quail pitted against sweet dragonfruit, rose petals and chestnuts. The flavors popped off one another, especially the sweet fruit and chestnuts, though it was a challenge to get all elements into one bite.
We closed the meal with the silencio, duck tongue tacos. Nose to tailfeather cooking, indeed. Frankly, I was impressed something so tiny could be its own protein a dish. It was curiosity that drove me more than flavor, but we lucked out since the flavor was good. Admittedly, it was tough to get through the chewy texture of the tongue. It was kind of like biting through a line of fat in an extra-marbley steak.
Despite our initial disappointment, Jose Andres’s China Poblano turned out to be just what we wanted that evening: something avante garde which is, paradoxically, classic Andres.