Raku, Las Vegas, Nevada
If you have one night in Las Vegas, get off The Strip and go eat at Aburiya Raku.
Considering the hype and praise it has received, the restaurant delivered on every one of those commendations effortlessly.
Tucked away in a strip mall, this place is tiny. It seats 25, maybe 30 if you count the short counter that faces one of the chefs.
We were advised not to go too early, as the chef is often not prepared for service and the food is slow in getting out. And despite being told (by a friend who frequents the restaurant) that we wouldn’t need a reservation on a Monday night, we made one anyway.
Seeing a line out the door when he drove past the restaurant on the way to pick me up, Cowboy immediately got on his mobile and snagged us a spot.
Raku is an aburiya, so the skewered and grilled occupy the most real estate on the menu. The rest of the fare is mix of izakaya and home-style cooking with a few sashimi thrown in. It’s the type of food that begs you to loosen your belt and throw back a couple of beers.
Despite the fact that our stomachs were still half-filled with steak from lunch at Carnevino we managed to put down nearly 20 plates and still make it to The Strip by midnight for a couple of rounds of desserts.
CLICK HERE to see all of the photos from this meal or click on the courses for the individual snapshots.
Starchy Yam Cakes ($1.50)
Pigs’ Ears ($2.50)
Enoki Wrapped in Bacon ($2.50)
Kobe Beef Tendon ($3)
Meat Guts ($1.50)
Kurobuta Pork Cheek ($2.50)
Chicken Breast Wrapped in Chicken Skin ($2.50)
Kobe Beef Liver ($4)
Noodles, Rice, and Soups
Brown Sugar Bubbles ($4)
The food was uniformly excellent.
Much of it is quite traditional. Like, they had “Smelt Nanban” ($7) chalked up on their board of (about ten) daily specials. Deep-fried and marinated in nanban, a thick, sweet-savory broth, the fish were served cold under a blanket of marinated onions (think escabeche with an Asian slant). Eaten whole, they were quite refreshing.
Also from the chalkboard, we had the “Agedashi Tofu” ($9). This flash-fried disc of house-made tofu – a flying saucer the size of a pancake – was set afloat in warm dashi garnished with scallions and hon shimeji mushroom caps. The texture of the tofu was outstanding – soft and smooth. A heap of salmon roe and chile sauce, which, when mixed in, gave the broth a richer, brinier, and spicier shade. This was fantastic.
So were the “Pigs’ Ears,” strips of crunchy cartilage sandwiched between layers of collagen and fat paved with beautifully bronzed skin. The server pointed to the bottle of chile-infused oil in the condiment caddy. We followed her lead willingly.
The staff speaks English with varying proficiency. But it really doesn’t matter as the menu descriptions are sufficient, if not entertaining.
Like any good Asian restaurant with a stronger affinity to the motherland, there are the occasional, eye brow-raising translations, like “Meat Guts.”
These skewered chunks of pig intestines, set over a shallow pool of broth, were tender and surprisingly clean-tasting. A nose-clearing swatch of Chinese yellow mustard helped chase away any lingering funnies.
“Seafood with Bonito Guts” sounds bizarre. This colorful sashimi dish with pristine cubes of raw salmon and tuna with salmon roe and sea urchin) were the minced and salted innards of bonito fish. Sounds strange? It was delicious. (“Seafood with Bonito Guts“)
But there are a few items that cater to Western fascinations, like foie gras.
We had two dishes with foie gras and they were both terrific. “Bite Size Foie Gras Bowl” was a homey bowl of warm short-grain rice blanketed with shredded lettuce and topped with a seared square of foie gras – a foie gras-don, if you will. A touch of thick tamari at the bottom injected a shot of sweetness into the experience.
“Udon with Foie Gras Custard” was a touch more refined, but no less comforting. Next to the agedashi tofu, this was probably my favorite dish of the night. Essentially a kake udon (a simple noodle dish flavored with miso and scallions) the noodles (thin, like inaniwa udon) were served in a basket and dotted with shards of ice. The custard – really a foie gras chawan mushi – came separately in a cup, covered with a burnt caramel-colored dashi and a single morsel of skin-on duck breast. Each given a bowl, Cowboy and I assembled our own portions, ladling the warm dashi over the noodles and crowning them with a scoop of the custard. The flavors and textures were amazing.
And there’s a small slate of desserts – an obvious accommodation to the sugar-blooded American regulars. We quickly dismissed the green tea and warm chocolate creatures and went straight for the “Brown Sugar Bubbles,” a Japanese cane sugar custard (think flan) topped with milk froth. The Japanese sugar cane, having an earthy, slightly woody, with a nutty flavor gave this dessert a convincing Japanese feel, despite its rather Western form.
Sea urchin appeared quite frequently on the menu, and we eagerly took advantage of that. It came warm, in a thick, restorative broth threaded with silky seaweed (“Seaweed and Sea Urchin“). And it came cold with a poached egg (suspiciously the texture of that scientific wonder, the “63-degree C. egg”) in a mucousy mix of crisp mountain yams, scallions, hon shimeji, and salmon roe (“Poached Egg with Sea Urchin“).* Both were very good.
Prices here are very reasonable. Portions are generous and the quality of the ingredients were notably high (how could one serve raw beef liver, if it weren’t?).
One could easily assemble a meal out of grilled items alone (they average $3 per skewer) and walk out of the restaurant for under $20. The variety from that part of the menu is great. And though they were not the most interesting selections that Raku has to offer, they were all very nicely grilled. The meat items, like the “Kurobuta Pork Cheek” and “Chicken Breast Wrapped in Chicken Skin” were moist and juicy. The “Asparagus” were fat and tender. And our fat bundle of enoki mushrooms was infused with hammy richness from the band of bacon wrapped around it (“Enoki Wrapped in Bacon“).
The grilled “Kobe Beef Tendon” was particularly good – the cubes of gelatin couldn’t have been more meltingly soft. The “Kobe Beef Liver” was the least appealing to me. Cooked on the outside, the inside was raw but warm, which seemed to heighten an off flavor in the liver. I’m sure I would have preferred the cold, completely raw version from the Cold Appetizers menu more.
Dishes arrived haphazardly in waves. There was no sensible order (i.e. cold before hot, small before large, etc.). The kitchen sent out whatever was ready when it was ready.
There was one item we ordered that was beyond the cultural divide for me. “Starchy Yam Cakes,” from the “Oden” part of the menu, was entirely different from what I had expected – something mastic and mochi-like. Instead, these purple yam cakes were firm and bouncy. They had snap. It was like biting into a rubber bouncy ball. Completely bland, it relied solely on the accompanying plum sauce for flavor. Perhaps this was something better enjoyed as a part of a traditional oden (a Japanese hot stew).
The restaurant was abuzz the whole time we were there. I’d say a good 75% of the diners were Asian (being in close-proximity to everyone, their conversations were not difficult to overhear). It being 107 degrees outside, this was not a good day for their air conditioning to go on the fritz (at least I hope it was an exception to the norm); it was very warm inside. With all the hot, steamy food, we sweated up something awful. I’m sure I cleared at least six tall glasses of ice water.
Aburiya Raku is open until 3 a.m., making it a popular after-work spot for the chefs on The Strip. All the big names frequently roll through, as do their staff.
Easily the least expensive dinner I had in Las Vegas, it was, by far, the most rewarding.
5030 Spring Mountain Road
Las Vegas, Nevada 89146
* The oddly mucous-like texture