The scene: With a world-class food scene spanning all sorts of international cuisines and swimming in Michelin stars, Las Vegas has great food waiting around every corner. But for a city that is in the heart of the Southwest and firmly steeped in cowboy tradition, home to the country's premier rodeo and a meat-eater's paradise, the one world-class option missing seems shocking: barbecue. The small handful of quality barbecue restaurants here are all well off Las Vegas Boulevard and aimed more at locals than the millions of visitors, while the few attempts to bring quality 'cue to the Strip have all failed - until now.
The Excalibur Hotel & Casino, with its King Arthur aesthetic and medieval banquets, was the last place I expected to find excellent, authentic barbecue. But after Las Vegas Weekly called it " The Strip's Best BBQ," after it opened in December, I needed to try it. Since I'm not a fan of kitschy theme restaurants, the idea of another Planet Hollywood or Hard Rock Café setting brimming with rock and roll memorabilia was not especially appetizing either. But this is a true Las Vegas gem on all fronts, from the food to the setting to the music, instantly one of the best live-performance venues in a city full of them.
The restaurant is a large, open space akin to a food court, only partially encircled by walls and freestanding in the middle of the Excalibur. The décor is supposed to evoke "Hell House," the ramshackle backwoods shack where the namesake band first came together, but there is little shack-like about it, especially with music-themed art and memorabilia all over the walls. It was formerly the hotel's massive coffee shop and currently seats an army of patrons at countless simple wooden tables covered with just bottles of sauce and rolls of paper towel. Drinks are served in mason jars, a touch that does a good job of capturing a down-home barbecue "joint" flavor. There is a large bar along one side, and a big stage on the other, equipped with a state-of-the-art sound system and hosting live music most nights, with a predilection for local Vegas bands, which in turn brings in a local crowd. As contrived as the place may be, it somehow elevates above that - and the same goes for the food.
Reason to visit: Pork chops, brisket, sausage, ribs, fried pickles and fried grits.
The food: I am very particular about authentic slow-smoked barbecue, and even in the heart of America's barbecue country -- the South, Texas, and Kansas City -- many places don't get it right. The owners of this eatery toured the country, tasting barbecue at legendary places while trying to decide which formula to emulate. They chose the unique Texas style, driven by brisket, sausage and minimal sauce, specifically that of the barbecue capital of Lockhart, home to several great eateries including Kreuz Market. Kreuz, which I've written about here previously, makes its own very unique sausage, with a loose ground filling, almost crumbly rather than formed, and very tasty. Lynyrd Skynyrd BBQ buys it directly from Kreuz, and also had the restaurant's pitmasters come out and train its staff. They originally had a Kreuz-style counter where you ordered directly from meat slicers, but patrons objected and they quickly shifted to table service.