When Jamon Jamon owner Rafael Salines Catalá worked at Julian Serrano Tapas at the Aria, he regularly served more than 1200 people a day and managed 52 people in the kitchen. At Jamon Jamon, the small tapas restaurant in a quiet strip mall he now runs, a busy day may mean serving 120 people. His team is just nine people, a small group of cooks, servers, and support staff.
“I do feel some relief,” Catalá says. “On the Strip, it’s daily meetings, business, numbers, HR, and problems. Over here, I have relationships with people; I cook. At the Aria, I was really just writing recipes and then giving them to cooks. Here, I cook every day.”
Catalá debuted Jamon Jamon as a ghost kitchen in the summer of 2020, serving affordable tapas for takeout only from a commercial kitchen in North Las Vegas. After more than nine years of cooking on the Strip, he says, it was difficult to adjust to the time spent at home during the early part of the pandemic. As his ghost kitchen operation quickly found success, he began looking for a restaurant space. Catalá opened the new location, off West Sahara Avenue, for in-person dining just before Thanksgiving 2020.
Catalá is one of many long-time corporate chefs who have chosen to open their own restaurants off the Strip in the last five years. The smaller restaurants offer more creative control, the ability to get to know customers on a more personal level, and an opportunity to step out from the shadow of huge casinos, which can be daunting. Catalá says one of the biggest differences is the flexibility he has in sourcing for the smaller restaurant.
“When you’re at a corporation, you have sort of tied hands. You have to use certain products, which means it’s a little difficult to get 100 percent authenticity because you have to use certain vendors,” he explains. “After nine years, I met a lot of distributors and people, so I’m buying from around the country, trying to get the best products I possibly can. I think the flavors here are a little more pure.”
Among the chefs stepping away from the Strip to open a smaller restaurant in the suburbs is German Castellanos, who spent more than a decade as the chef de cuisine at Valentino at the Venetian, where his love of Italian cooking prompted him to consider the idea of opening his own restaurant. After running a catering company for five years, he opened Aromi Italian Cuisine in May 2021.
Castellanos says working on the Strip helped him hone the vision for what people would love; in particular, his signature chef’s tasting menu is inspired by the chef’s counter tasting menus he would design on the Strip. While the dishes are different, he’s found that the off-Strip audience also enjoyed the experience of dining without making choices about what they want to eat. He regularly cooks four, five, or six-course meals for guests, sometimes for smaller groups, and sometimes for bigger parties of up to 40 people. “When people tell me they loved the tasting menu, to me it’s like a green light,” Castellano says. “Everyone wants to be surprised during their meal, and I love doing that.”
Gina Marinelli, chef-owner of Summerlin’s La Strega and Harlo Steakhouse & Bar, has also seen a similarity between dining options on the Strip and off. She opened Harlo in 2021 — a follow-up to the success of La Strega, which opened in 2019 — to fill what she saw as a void in the suburban dining scene. “The idea was always to bring the Strip out to the burbs,” Marinelli says. “That’s what we tried to do with La Strega, and with Harlo we thought, ‘Wow, what if we can create something that you only experience on the Strip in Summerlin?’ We wanted to go really over the top with the caviar program, an incredible wine program, and really beautiful high-end steaks.”
When Marinelli was approached about opening her first restaurant in the suburbs, though, she says it still felt like a risk.
“I thought long and hard about it,” Marinelli remembers. “I felt like, ‘Okay, this is a risk, but the Strip is never going anywhere.’ With the Strip, you’re kind of always in the background with the celebrity chefs, and so this was my opportunity to come and say, ‘This is who I am, I don’t have a big casino behind me. I live down the street and this is the food that I want to do.’”
Like Catalá, Marinelli was drawn in by the appeal of having creative control. The result, La Strega, which was named an Eater Restaurant of the Year in 2019, is a deeply personal ode to the coastal Italian cooking of Marinelli’s family. This year, Marinelli earned a long-list nod from the James Beard Foundation, which celebrated her work in the category of Best Chef: Southwest. But success didn’t come overnight. Marinelli says it took about a year for her to find a rhythm where she felt like guests trusted her cooking, but once that trust built up, she says it quickly became one of the most rewarding elements of the business. Every morning, she says, the phone rings with people asking what ingredients she has today, wanting to know what the evening’s specials will be.
That connection to guests is also a huge part of why Castellanos decided to move on from the Strip. “Locals in Vegas are really family people,” he says. “They really care about what we’re doing, and they really get it. We see customers a couple of times a week, and that kind of connection is really what has brought us success.”
Because so many Vegas residents are accustomed to the high level of hospitality on the Strip, Marinelli says they’ve come to expect it all over the city. The combination of offering Strip-level service and dining alongside the connection and intimacy available in an off-Strip location has proven to be enormously successful. Marinelli attributes this in part to the way the city has evolved over the last two decades.
“When you’re on the Strip, you have to cook for the masses. The whole world is coming to see you,” she says. “But I think when the Strip started to change, people started taking risks. The restaurants have developed more of a personality, and as the Strip has changed, people are like ‘Okay, this is my shot.”