Vegas4Visitors.com Weekly Column by Rick Garman

Want to know what's happening in Las Vegas? You've come to the right place.

Each week you can come here to get the latest news, the juiciest gossip, and the best reviews for the most fabulous city in the world, Las Vegas. Hey... it says "fabulous" right on the welcome sign!

The latest weekly column will always be on this page, but you can go back through the archives (all the way back to 1999!) or take a look ahead and what's coming up next for Vegas by using the navigation on the left hand sidebar.

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Country Music Festival to Launch Linq Event Venue

The new shopping and entertainment destination known as The Linq begins at The Strip between The Flamingo and The Quad, runs along a pedestrian mall between those two hotels, and will lead to the upcoming High Roller observation wheel behind the two hotels. But The Linq doesn't stop there. What is now an empty lot past the under-construction wheel is going to be converted into a venue that can accommodate outdoor concerts, festivals, and events and now the first big thing has been put on the calendar: the Academy of Country Music Awards' Party for a Cause.

The two day country music festival will run April 4 and 5 and will feature Keith Urban, Rascal Flatts, Chris Young, Cadillac Three, Joe Nichols, and more. The event will raise money for various charities including Outnumber Hunger and Feeding America, organizations that operate food banks in local communities, and several military support organizations. It all leads up to the Academy of Country Music Awards show on April 6, which will be broadcast live from the MGM Grand.

The new events area is really just a parking lot, but it will be transformed into a full festival ground with two stages, food trucks, a games area for kids, a marketplace, several exhibition areas sponsored by Ram trucks, and a VIP area. It will take over the bulk of the land from the alleyway that runs behind the hotels on the east side of The Strip all the way to Koval avenue and is big enough for thousands to get their yeehaw on.

Tickets go on sale January 22 at 10am for ACMA "A-List" members (which you can become by joining on their website) and to the general public on January 24 at 10am. Individual passes for the two-day event run a very reasonable $65 and VIP tickets are $255. The latter includes a private viewing area with its own bar and bathrooms, VIP parking, a private bar, drinks, and more.

You can buy tickets and learn more at the Academy of Country Music Awards' Party for a Cause website.

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Vegas4Visitors Weekly Awards

The Giddyup Award of the Week goes to the Bellagio Conservatory, which debuted its Chinese New Year display this week. The display celebrating the year of the horse features giant Chinese lanterns, a koi pond, a traditional Chinese money tree, and a miniature mountain topped by eight faux horses. It is free and will be running through March 1, 2014.

The Unveiling Award of the Week goes to Treausre Island, which has finally released a rendering of what the new front of the hotel will look like when complete (see picture to the right). The three-story mall will feature a CVS and several other tentants including, it is rumored, a car dealership of some type. This is the thing that killed the Sirens of TI show and is under construction now at northeast corner of the building along The Strip and Spring Mountain Road. It is expected to be done by the end of the year.

The Expanding Waistlines Award of the Week #1 goes to Border Grill, which will be opening a second location at the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace this spring. The upscale Mexican restaurant from Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken (aka PBS' "Two Hot Tamales") is going into the space formerly occupied by PJ Clarke's on the first floor of the facility near the circular escalator. The other location at Mandalay Bay will remain open.

The Expanding Waistlines Award of the Week #2 goes to Lola's: A Louisiana Kitchen, which will also be opening a second location, this one in suburban Summerlin in the northwest part of town. The terrific Creole and Cajun eatery's primary location on Charleston Avenue near The Stratosphere, will remain in place but the new one, at 1220 Town Center Drive, will be bigger and offer an outdoor dining courtyard and private events rooms. It should be open in April.

The Ribbon Cutting Award of the Week goes to Bally's, which officially unveiled its new Jubilee! Tower Rooms this past week with the obligatory showgirls helping to show them off. It's all part of a major renovation of the hotel that includes a revamp of the long running Jubilee! show, new restaurants, a revised lounge, and big new shopping complex in front called the Grand Bazaar. The latter has turned the Strip facing portion of the hotel in a mess of construction.

The Fast Action Award of the Week goes to the Las Vegas Fire Department, which quickly doused a blaze at the Monte Carlo in the under-construction Double Barrel Roadhouse restaurant at the front of the property last week. The fire caused about $100,000 worth of damage but no one was injured. This will undoubtedly delay the debut of the restaurant, which was supposed to open its doors by April. The fire comes almost exactly six years after a blaze on the roof of the hotel caused millions in damage and some minor injuries.

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Attraction Review: Downtown Container Park

What do you get when you mix a fire-breathing praying mantis, an "immersion dome," stores, restaurants, bars, and shipping containers? The Downtown Container Park, a retail and entertainment complex that has quickly become an indispensable part of the Downtown Las Vegas landscape and a must-visit for savvy shoppers, eaters, drinkers, and fun-seekers.

The facility takes up most of the block at Fremont and 7th Streets, diagonally across the street from El Cortez and just a couple of blocks east of the Fremont Street Experience. Most of it was built out of manufactured steel cubes and recycled shipping containers, which helps to give it a quirky, offbeat, and yet totally safe and friendly atmosphere. It often takes awhile for a place to find its identity, but they managed to do it almost immediately here and you feel the difference throughout the complex.

The offbeat starts in the front with a fire breathing praying mantis sculpture that was originally created for the Burning Man festival. It is 40 feet long and occasionally shoots 12-foot flames after dark, scaring the heck out of unsuspecting pedestrians as they walk by. It's fun all on its own.

There are about 30 businesses including shops and boutiques, art galleries, restaurants, and a barber shop located in a converted train caboose. All of them are small businesses and I mean that in a couple of different ways. First, the shipping containers don't have much floor space, which is kind of cool in that it makes the stores here feel unique and special. Second, there are no "name brand" chain stores; instead they focus on local and independent businesses that can provide a unique atmosphere.

Art galleries take up a number of the storefronts, from independent artists and collectives all the way up to a Disney Fine Art gallery where you can get paintings and sculptures of beloved Magical Kingdom characters. There are a couple of apparel and accessories stores offering one-of-a-kind and hand-crafted items including clothes, jewelry, watches, fragrances, home decor, bath products, and more.

Other offerings include a jointly run shop for the Mob Museum and Neon Museum, where you can get logo merchandise and other souvenirs, plus a company that conducts tours of the Downtown Las Vegas on electric "trikkes" (sort of like a Segway with three wheels).

Food is a big part of the experience here. One of my favorites, the Sweet Spot Candy Shop, has a second location here and there are stores offering all manner of other treats like jerky, cupcakes, kettle corn, and frozen desserts.

Dining includes local favorite Big Ern's BBQ and their terrific, southern style 'cue; Bin 702 serving wine on tap and in bottles plus light sandwiches and salads; a branch of Los Angeles' popular Mexican joint Pinches Tacos; and Pork & Beans, serving sausages and more from Chef Kerry Simon. There is also a gourmet vegan restaurant and a bar called The Boozery, which I think would win if there was a bar naming contest.

A park at the center of the complex features a big children's playground with a massive "treehouse" that kids can crawl through, on, and over plus a big lawn for activities and lounging and a stage for live entertainment. This plus the plethora of outdoor seating (much of it under shade canopies) makes this a great place for families.

And don't forget about the Catalyst Dome, a sister to the Vortex Dome in Los Angeles, which offers space for immersive events, concerts, movies, and more. It doesn't have a regular entertainment schedule but check the website to see if there is anything happening when you will be visiting.

Downtown Container Park
7th and Fremont
Las Vegas, NV 89101
website
Hours & Prices Vary
Vegas4Visitors Grade: A

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Attraction Review: Fire Breathing Praying Mantis

Let's face facts: the Bellagio Fountains are pretty mindless when it comes right down to it. You're watching giant water fountains. Granted, they are cool water fountains timed to music, but it's still just water spraying around. And yet it is endlessly entertaining; one of those things that you have to stop and watch anytime you happen to be near when it is in progress no matter how many times you have seen it before.

It is possible that there is a new diversion in Las Vegas that could be even more mindless and yet even more endlessly entertaining? Check out the Fire Breathing Praying Mantis at the Downtown Container Park and the answer just may be yes.

Originally created for Burning Man Festival, the 40-foot long sculpture comes to life each night with some mechanical movement and, most importantly, fire shooting out of its antennae. It's controlled by an operator who will often wait for opportune moments to do it that will often scare the bejeezus out of unsuspecting passersby. It's not on a specific schedule, but somehow that makes it even more of an entertaining time waster. Warning: you could find yourself standing there watching the thing for much longer than you intend to.

The festivities start every afternoon at around 4:30 or 5 when a drum circle is held around the sculpture, mainly driven by kids who want to bang on stuff (note the timing of this will probably change seasonally). The fire breathing happens periodically after dark and is based on the whims of the person behind the controls.

Las Vegas has been sorely lacking in silly stuff like this lately so I, for one, am thrilled it is here.

Fire Breathing Praying Mantis
Downtown Container Park
7th and Fremont
Las Vegas, NV 89101
website
Nightly, Times Vary
Vegas4Visitors Grade: A

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Restaurant Review: Pork & Beans

The list of interesting eateries in Downtown Las Vegas continues to get longer and longer with the addition of fun and funky joints like this one, a restaurant dedicated to the concept of "fine swine."

Pork & Beans is located in the Downtown Container Park (along with several other noteworthy restaurants) just a couple of blocks down from the Fremont Street Experience and right across from El Cortez. The whole place is made out of recycled shipping containers and prefabricated metal cubes so none of the spaces are very large. Here that means you'll probably be getting your food to eat outside at one of the many tables in the facility because inside the restaurant is just a handful of seats.

The menu is fairly simple but endlessly appealing, with credit going to one of my favorite Vegas chefs, Kerry Simon. His KGB at Harrah's has, hands down, the best burgers in town and now he can claim the best hot dogs, sausages, and more here.

Options include the Boss Hog, a spicy Italian sausage with house-made mustard; the Pork-Tuguese, a Portuguese sausage with spicy ketchup and garlic relish; and what is billed as the "World's Best Hot Dog," a classic knockwurst with ketchup, mustard, onions, and more. All are served on amazing, fresh hoagie rolls that will ruin traditional hot dog buns for you forever.

Then you have the beans part, which you should get in classic southern style, with hints of sweet molasses and huge chunks of bacon and knockwurst. I don't even like beans and I loved this. You can get them in Cajun red beans and rice fashion or in their chili, which comes with both pork and beef.

Other non-pork options include sliders with caramelized onions, bacon and red onion jam and a "Fancy" grilled cheese served with aged cheddar, tomato, and basil.

The flavors here were off the charts; savory and sweet in all the right measures. The portions are huge and the prices are more than affordable - everything on the menu is under $9.

Like I said, the list of good places to eat in Downtown keeps getting longer. This place is definitely near the top of it.

Pork & Beans
Downtown Container Park
707 E. Fremont Street, Suite 1050
Las Vegas, NV 89101
702-910-2395
website
Sun-Thu 11am-11pm
Fri-Sat 11am-12am
Vegas4Visitors Grade: A

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Restaurant Review: Big Ern's BBQ

I freely admit that I am a BBQ snob. It takes a lot to impress me and I usually consider any BBQ produced north of the Mason Dixon line or west of Amarillo to be an insulting imitation of the cuisine. That is not to say that all BBQ produced in the American South is automatically good, but generally speaking, if you're looking for the best you're going to want to look toward the places where they say y'all to find it.

Big Ern's BBQ in Downtown Las Vegas doesn't change that assessment for me, but it definitely makes me want to consider expanding my geographical limits a bit.

The man behind the pit is Los Angeles native Big Ern Loya, a former Zappos.com employee who quit his job at the Vegas-based online retailer to pursue his passion: BBQ. He obviously studied the craft of making the stuff because this is serious 'cue. We're talking St. Louis style pork ribs, pulled pork or chicken, smoked beef brisket, hot links, and more all cooked slow over hickory and oak logs. The meat is tender and the sauce is sweet, just the way I like it (sorry, vinegar lovers, this one's for the rest of us).

We sampled the pulled pork and the brisket and while it may not have been the best BBQ I have ever eaten it is awfully darned good and certainly the best in Las Vegas by a mile. Add a tiny bit more smoke to the meat and I'd put this up against the finest the south has to offer.

You can get the meat by the pound, in sandwich form, or as a combo platter with your choice of cuts and sides like mac and cheese, pork and beans, or potato salad.

Prices are downright cheap. Sandwiches are all $7; platters top out at $15 and that's with three different meats and two sides (so pretty much a full meal for three people); a half-rack of ribs is $15 and a full rack $25; or you can get any of the other meat at $15 per pound.

The restaurant is located in the Downtown Container Park, a shopping and entertainment facility just a couple of blocks from the Fremont Street Experience and across the street from El Cortez. The place was built out of recycled shipping containers and pre-fabricated metal cubes, meaning that the restaurant itself isn't that big. There are only seats for about a dozen people inside but there are plenty of places to sit outside around the complex including tables in the shade.

The South still wins the BBQ wars but with places like Big Ern's on the case the battle just got a lot more interesting.

Big Ern's BBQ
Downtown Container Park
707 E. Fremont Street, Suite 1050
Las Vegas, NV 89101
702-834-7845
website
Sun-Thu 11am-11pm
Fri-Sat 11am-1am
Vegas4Visitors Grade: A-

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Restaurant Review: Pinches Tacos

The popular Los Angeles chain of Mexican eateries came to Las Vegas with no small amount of furor. It seems that the word pinches, which the company insists means cooks or kitchen help, can be used in some cultures to be a dirty word. A local city councilman objected to the name, saying it was offensive and inappropriate to be used in a family venue, and tried to get the company to change it but threats of legal action against the city quelled the angst and profane or not, Pinches has arrived in Sin City.

It's located in the Downtown Container Park on Fremont Street, just a couple of blocks from the Fremont Street Experience and diagonally across the street from El Cortez. The concept of putting businesses inside of recycled shipping containers and metal cubes means that the restaurant itself is tiny, with only a handful of seating, but there are lots of outdoor tables in the complex, many of which will be shaded on hot days.

The menu is about as classic, authentic Mexican as you can get: tacos, naturally, of all variety including chicken with mole, marinated pork, Angus beef, fish, shrimp, cactus, veggie, and more; burritos with a similar range of options and the choice of regular or wheat tortillas; sopes; tortas; enchiladas; taquitos; flautas; quesadillas; soups; and more. This is more - and more interesting - than anything you're going to find at Taco Bell. Even the sides include things like cactus and Mexican corn on the cob served with cream, cheese, and chili powder.

We sampled three of the tacos (chicken, beef, and pork), which you can get as a combo plate with beans, rice, and tortilla chips. Unlike a lot of fast food places where various tacos taste pretty much the same, just with different meat, these each had their own personality. The chicken was simple in tone and texture; the beef was bold and flavorful; and the pork had a deep, slow-broiled flavor. All delightful.

Prices are crazy inexpensive, with single tacos all under $3 and the bulk of the other main courses and combo plates all under $9. You can't get one taco at some of the Mexican joints on The Strip for under $10, so getting a full meal of really good ones for that cost is like a miracle.

Who cares what the name means? It's muy beuno!

Pinches Tacos
Downtown Container Park
707 E. Fremont Street, Suite 1050
Las Vegas, NV 89101
702-910-3100
website
Sun-Thu 11am-11pm
Fri-Sat 11am-1am
Vegas4Visitors Grade: A

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