The man with the fuzzy white hair and thick black glasses admired the strip of ham draped over his finger, raising it up to the light the way a jewelry thief might appraise a strand of stolen diamonds. He flipped the meat into his palm and bowed to it three times, deeply inhaling the dank, nutty-sweet cologne. Then in one wildlife-documentary contortion, he popped it in his mouth, and his facial features melted into bliss.
This ain’t any old ham. It’s jamon iberico de bellota, crafted from the legs of prized black-hoofed hogs that roam the woods of southwest Spain snarfing up acorns. At the end of the marble chef’s counter at Mordeo, situated 10 minutes west of the Las Vegas Strip, a haunch is secured to a stand trademarked “5J” for the Seville-based producer Cinco Jotas. This jamon headlines the menu, the first item you see and the first the servers will recommend.
Unlike its Italian relatives, the iberico is not cut in long, wavy ribbons, but in shorter, thicker chips about of the size of sugar packets. Mordeo fans seven pieces around a special domed plate with a votive candle in the center designed to enhance the meat’s melt-in-the-mouth quality. The cost is $28, or $4 a slice, for roughly an ounce. Even with a plank of delicious pan con tomate included, it’s a splurge. But, you know, Vegas, baby.
The value proposition at Mordeo is as slippery as the red carabinero prawns it imports from Spain. While the restaurant traffics in luxury ingredients like caviar, uni, king crab, and dry-aged beef, it feels like it doesn’t always know what it’s doing with them. Why were the pieces of Santa Barbara urchin atop three teeny brioche crostini mangled instead of cleanly shucked? Why was the puck of La Tur, the famed Italian cow, goat-and-sheep-milk cheese that Mordeo serves lightly torched and drizzled with honey, fridge-cold in the center? It’s the food equivalent to a kid who gets a Ferrari on his sixteenth birthday. That these dishes cost $26 and $29, respectively—plus a hilarious $1 surcharge for the extra honey I requested—triggered the rip-off alarm.
On the other hand: On Sundays and Mondays, Luis de Santos, co-owner and master sommelier, cuts the price on every bottle of wine in half. And his cellar list is stacked with big boys, displayed in a giant floor-to-ceiling fridge behind the stunning aquamarine glass bar. This makes for great deals and for great people watching, like the professional poker player and his wife who crushed a bottle of Marques de Riscal 2012 reserve Tempranillo (regularly $688) followed by a 2013 Della Valle Cab (regularly $480) while their son played video games on his iPad Mini. On the lower end of the sommelier reserve list, the $130 Gaja Sito Moresco was more in my budget. On sale for $65, it was pretty much what you’d pay off the rack for the dry and elegant Nebbiolo blend—a crazy deal—and served at the ideal, cool-on-the-palate temperature.
The New Vegas
Driving along Spring Mountain Road, the main artery of Vegas’s bustling Chinatown, restaurants advertising pho, Korean barbecue, bubble tea, and sushi burritos flash by in strip malls decked out with faux pagoda rooflines and palm trees wound up in white lights. None of this was here when Khai Vu, the so-called King of Spring Mountain, arrived with his parents in late 1993 to open the Vietnamese restaurant Pho So 1. “We were literally the only restaurant in our shopping plaza, next to a supermarket and a furniture store,” Vu says. “Everything past Rainbow [Boulevard] was desert.”
The family had come from Saigon earlier that year, stopping in Los Angeles first, where Vu’s uncle ran the original Pho So 1 in Reseda. He convinced Vu’s father, who had been an engineer in Vietnam, to come work for him, learn the business, and expand. He did, and they did, moving to Vegas when Vu was starting junior high.
As glittering spires and replica clock towers rose on the Strip over the following decades, Chinatown evolved, too—into an ecosystem of symbiotic businesses and fellowship for new Americans. Today, it’s where most food-savvy people are eating in Vegas. Along Spring Mountain, mom-and-pops mingle with best-of list-makers like Sparrow & the Wolf, Raku, and Vu’s own District One, which he opened in 2014 after bailing on a boring career in mortgage financing. He bought the place without telling his parents. “My dad called me everyday. He was very worried.”
He didn’t have to be. District One did well, gaining a reputation for lobster pho and bun bo hue, and Vu opened a location in Taipei through a management partnership. The casual Le Pho followed in downtown Vegas in 2016. For number three, Vu reached out to his old industry pal Luis de Santos. They brainstormed several concepts for the grease-stained auto body that would eventually become Mordeo—ceviche, sushi, robata—but eventually Vu decided to indulge his affinity for Spanish cooking. “I love the lifestyle, the way the food is served, the simplicity,” he says. “People in Spain are living life.”
Aside from the precious jamon, bar-goers of Madrid and Barcelona might not recognize Vu’s freestyle tapas. Sake and cilantro flavor the housemade morcilla, yuzu kohso on the ham-and-potato croquetas. There’s a Caesar salad with sesame oil in the dressing (overwhelming), and Chinese broccoli tossed with crisped diced chorizo (spicy and smart). The ocean trout tiradito, coral strips of raw fish dabbed with salty, musky truffle-soy vinaigrette, nods to the Nikkei cuisine born from Japanese immigration to Peru. Vu works in an Iberian grace note with very thin slices of habanero-stuffed Spanish olives. Each sheer wisp is a tiny flamethrower lighting up the fatty trout.
The New Steakhouse
At this point in the evening, every seat at Mordeo’s bar and the chef’s counter was occupied, and ham whisperer had moved onto the entrée portion of his meal. I pried my server, an energetic Orange Country exile who approved of each item we ordered with a “Yeah, baby,” for gossip. The man was the ringleader of a local wine club that had become semi-regular at Mordeo. He’d been there since five. Several dead soldiers lined the chef’s counter in front of his group, including a bottle of Opus One, the king of Napa Cabs, $620. You buy that bottle, Mordeo throws in a tomahawk rib eye the size of a tennis racket.
Mordeo is not a steakhouse, but it is at its best if you treat it like one. The best meal you can have here starts with creamy Shigoku oysters, a Japanese breed farmed in Washington State, before moving on to a big steak, dry-aged and grilled over binchotan.
Guests in the market for a single-serve steak have one option, a skirt served with sautéed mushrooms and chimichurri. Otherwise, it’s a 44-ounce porterhouse ($130) or that 42-ounce tomahawk ($138), which easily feeds two to four. If you’re lucky, as I was, there may be a daintier 40-ounce T-bone on special, the smallest and least expensive ($108) of the three. If the prices seem loony, consider what the high-rolling Vegas market will bear: Domestic, non-Wagyu steaks of similar size fetch triple digits at SW Steakhouse at the Wynn, BLT Steak at Bally’s, and Gordon Ramsay Steak at Paris. CUT by Wolfgang Puck at the Venetian charges $235 for its 40-ounce dry-aged tomahawk chop. A $10 Uber ride to Mordeo could save you nearly $100 on nearly the same steak.
I say nearly because CUT’s rib is dry-aged 50 days, whereas Mordeo’s marquee steaks go for a minimum of 90 and up to 150, like my T-bone. Some aficionados argue there are diminishing returns in dry-aging beef that long, but Vu disagrees. To him, the older the better. While I can’t attest to the biochemistry of dry-aging, I do know that I’ve had many “dry-aged” steaks that lacked the X-factor flavor the process introduces, and Mordeo’s T-bone was definitely not one of them. My server presented the steak on a black slate platter, carved into medium-rare dominoes and arranged around the charred bone like a mosaic. A second server dipped a bundle of rosemary into a saucepot of warm tallow and brushed the beef with the rendered fat. In each slice of filet and strip, the upfront umami of prime Angus beef gave way to a deep bass note of blue cheese. You taste the age on this beef, and it tastes good.
Vu’s program will push those limits. Pat LaFrieda, one of his beef suppliers, is aging a few 180-day ribs for Mordeo’s one-year anniversary in July, and Vu keeps a stash of 200-days in the back for vertical tastings, though he admits, “Those are not for everybody. It’s almost like foie gras—you can have one slice, not a whole [liver].” (Speak for yourself.) The restaurant’s Instagram tempts with photos of upcoming experiments like porterhouses cured in koji and Wagyu ribs marinated in pink peppercorns and fish sauce.
The affogato for dessert has a cool Southeast Asian inflection, as well. Instead of espresso, Vu pours silky Vietnamese coffee over a scoop of aromatic vanilla ice cream. Perfect churros accompany for dipping, bringing the meal full-circle back to Spain. As I dunked my last churro, three members of the wine club broke into song, passing around the 12-inch bone from their steak to use as a microphone as well as a snack to gnash at between verses. Whether Vu and de Santos have created a tapas bar, a neo-steakhouse, or something else is TBD. That they’ve created a restaurant that’s fun to be in is already obvious.