Three partners, all knowing that DB Brasserie at the Venetian planned to close, came together to open a Vietnamese-American restaurant in a section of town that just seemed ready to explore a new type of cuisine.
They schemed together to come up with a menu that was approachable yet daring, a space that was not too big and not too small, and had the moxie to realize that running a restaurant off the Strip was completely different than anything with the backing of a big-name chef or the muscle of a publicly traded casino, let alone the random foot traffic those resorts could pull.
Chef Jamie Tran, Andy Hooper and Jon Schwalb did it, opening The Black Sheep last May in the southwest part of Las Vegas at 8680 W. Warm Springs Road, taking over a former Soulfish Poke space in a strip mall filled with SkinnyFats, a Jersey Mike’s Subs, Carl’s Jr., Plantone’s Italian Market, and Roberto’s Tacos, with a rolled ice cream shop on the way.
Hooper and Schwalb live in the southwest and felt the area was ready for accessible food in a casual environment. “The southwest is one of the faster growing parts of town,” Schwalb says. “A lot of what’s happening here speaks to Jamie’s ability to put her vision on the plate but not make it too intimidating.”
The trio took things fast at first, taking possession of the restaurant in February, then revamping the kitchen to accommodate their needs and redecorating the 1,350-square-foot space with a gray background that lets the vibrant food stand out. “[Soulfish Poke] had done a good job building the space out,” Schwalb says. “It wasn’t a pure ready-to-go space. It has the framework of a restaurant without a kitchen. The conversion was relatively easy.”
All three worked on the design together and themselves. The ideas complement each other and played off each other, all under budget. Mirrors of different shapes greet diners as they enter, while a small L-shaped bar takes up the left side of the restaurant. Small signs talk about girl power leading to the bathroom.
“For us, it was about finding a lot of bodies and rooftops,” Schwalb says. “DW Bistro paved the way years ago. We thought there would be enough bodies. By starting small and realizing that this is a learning experience for us, we’re not punishing guests with the prices. We went small to try to learn what we don’t know.”
So far, the restaurant found success. “We didn’t expect this kind of reaction,” says Tran, who melds her Vietnamese upbringing with French techniques she learned in the kitchens of Daniel Boulud’s DB Brasserie and Charlie Palmer’s Aureole at Mandalay Bay. “The reaction in the community has been a big surprise for us.”
Hooper says family meals Tran made for the DB Brasserie staff during pre-shift convinced him that she had the vision for a menu. “Why are you giving this to the staff [instead of putting these dishes on the menu]?,” Hooper remembers thinking. “From the beginning, we knew that she was special. We got the chef.”
Tran combines comfort with technique in dishes such as Vietnamese Imperial rolls with its mix of Duroc pork and shrimp, pickled heirloom carrots, ninja daikon, and yellow frisee salad, which Tran says is the top seller at the restaurant.
Addictive bao sliders, with the buns made in house, feature housemade pork sausage, fried quail egg, crispy shallots, fresh herbs, and a jalapeño aïoli. Tran claims these require the most effort to assemble, especially when the restaurant reaches capacity, with the bled yolk. She refers to the salmon skin in the tacos as a Frankenstein as well with its salmon belly tartare, tabiko, smoked shishito pepper, and micro cilantro.
The smoky heirloom beet salad takes the vegetable to a new level with golden and red baby heirloom beets, citrus and goat cheese yogurt, spiced walnuts, black radish, must-eat beet dust, and watercress. The dish brings together smoke with sweet with savory.
The braised Duroc pork belly that simply melts sits on a bed of creamy cauliflower puree, sauteéd kabocha squash, and crispy pig ear salad.
“Most people know what they’re getting into when they come in here,” Tran says, although when the restaurant opened. people walked in to order pho. “Not anymore,” Schwalb says. “People pre-investigate.”
At first, Tran wanted to go with her vision of the menu, and that meant that Schwalb initially emphasized her strengths — Vietnamese comfort food with a fine dining technique — just to get customers through the door. Now the focus turns to seasonal dishes as well as Hooper’s vision for the wine and cocktail menu. No dish costs more than $31 (a grass-fed eight-ounce rib-eye steak), while the most expensive wines ring in at $75 for a bottle.
And that leads to regulars, something rare to find on the Strip, and out-of-towners who come off the Strip to find a new gem. “We tried to bring service and guest experience. It’s heartwarming when people soak that in and compliment on that,” Schwalb says.
While Tran misses the Strip’s 10,000-square-foot kitchens, access to more ingredients, and massive walkin coolers that could store plenty of ingredients, the lack of drunk people, a smaller menu, and the ability to really interact with the customers makes the difference. “This is a small space,” Schwalb says. “There’s no place to hide.”
“Everything is pretty much out in the open,” Hooper adds.
While the restaurant hasn’t hit its one-year mark yet, the trio says they plan to focus on perfecting The Black Sheep experience for now and taking advantage of the momentum they generated so far.
“I always wanted someone to give me the opportunity,” Tran says. “Not a lot of people are willing to do that. That’s rare now.”
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