The three-day Life is Beautiful festival concluded on Sunday, September 18. And while the first event since Rolling Stone acquired a majority stake in the festival marked noticeably thinner art and music lineups, local chefs and restaurants made for a bright spot in the downtown Las Vegas festival’s culinary offerings.
“If you look at our lineup, the majority of our culinary vendors are local,” says Sharee Macy, the festival’s director of food and beverage. “We have such a great local community and great chefs and restaurants — and we get to showcase that at Life is Beautiful.” There was plenty to eat at the festival’s culinary villages, with highlights including the open fire-grilled meals at the Cookout, the many caviar-infused dishes at Omakase Cantina’s seated dinners, and the array of flavors coming out of the Pizzeria by about a dozen Las Vegas pizza chefs. Below are some of the best bites from the weekend.
La Strega Things by Gina Marinelli of La Strega and Harlo
Chef Gina Marinelli’s Stranger Things-themed prix fixe dinner on Sunday was equal parts playful and thoughtful; the one-hour seating opened with an Eggo waffle — a nod to the TV show — layered with a creme fraiche dressing and caviar. Plated on a TV dinner tray alongside wagyu striploin, bone marrow potato croquettes, and a play on the Cosmic Brownie, the real star of the ‘80s-inspired dinner was the spaghetti. Hand-made squid ink noodles were tossed with crab meat steeped in shrimp oil, parmesan, and basil — all layered with poppable little pearls of wasabi tobiko. The dish made for a great visual — deep black noodles and tender white crab serving as a contrast to the neon green of the translucent wasabi pearls. And it made for a toothsome bite of pasta that was at once briny, spicy, and satisfyingly textured.
Carnitas Tacos from China Poblano by Jose Andres
Coming in as one of the best bargains at the fest, the Cookout featured open-fire meals by top local chefs for $15 each. Standing out among them: the carnitas tacos plate from China Poblano with three tacos, salsas, and chips. Corn tortillas were filled with tender, smoky braised pork and stuffed with cilantro and onions. Even the chips carried a liberal seasoning of a tart and salty pepper blend. Dipping each bite of the carnitas tacos into both the hot tomatillo salsa and creamy avocado salsa made for an ideal lunch while sitting in the shade and listening to performers on the neighboring Huntridge stage. And it’s hard to beat a Jose Andres original at that price point.
The Yukon from Yukon Pizza
Another restaurant on the pop-up circuit, Yukon Pizza popped into the Pizzeria culinary area on Sunday to make the Yukon, a take on a Margherita pizza using a 125-year-old sourdough starter, a tomato sauce with just the right amount of sweetness, garlic confit, parmesan, and a bunch of grande mozzarella. The crust on this four-slice pizza was delightful — thin and crispy, a little charred from the hot oven, and mildly sour, pairing harmoniously with the garlicky pizza toppings.
Chicken Pad Thai from Night + Market
Night + Market from Virgin Hotels Las Vegas made an appearance at Life is Beautiful to serve Thai street food by the downtown stage. When the temperature cooled after dark, nothing could soothe quite like the warm, chewy noodles of the chicken pad Thai. With egg, sweet radish, and crunchy peanuts — and a sauce using fish sauce, vinegar, and sugar — the final product works out to be salty, sour, and sweet. Tightly packed take-out containers came with a cup of red pepper flakes for those who wanted to add more heat.
Tuna Ceviche Tostada from the Black Pearl
The Las Vegas ceviche experts at the Black Pearl slung generous servings of seafood dishes all weekend, with the tuna ceviche tostada being chief among them. Chefs Daniel Arias and Isidro Marquez offer scoops of the stuff at local pop-ups, and the Life is Beautiful iteration combined ahi tuna with crunchy cucumber, red onion, cilantro, black garlic, and a lick-the-plate-clean chile cascabel dressing. It all came served on a tostada chip ideal for both scooping and cutting the heat of the peppers. Even better? The serving, while substantial, didn’t run the risk of making anyone feel too-full before a night of dancing.