When one thinks of Vegas and spice, cuisine is not always the first thing that comes to mind. Culinary spice, however, can fuel the imagination and heighten pleasure… at least while dining. Spices are merely dried plant parts, but they have been the cause of wars, used as medicine and currency, considered a bridge to the gods and spurred the exploration and discovery of new worlds (Columbus was seeking cinnamon, among other spices, and found America instead). Three cheers for spices; without their discovery, the culinary world would be a dull one.
Puerco in mole with a crispy achiote corn masa quesadilla at Border Grill
When Michael Mina uses Saffron in his Angry Lobster with fideos, shellfish aioli and spicy lobster broth at MGM Grand’s Seablue, he deems the result “magical.” It should be: Saffron is the world’s most expensive spice. Mina describes the taste as “mysterious, yet familiar and comforting” and sources Iranian saffron that is “aromatic, full of flavor and almost purple in color.” The handharvested stigma of the crocus imbues dishes with a luminous yellow hue while providing depth of flavor that is earthy and almost sweetly haylike. The spice’s history backs up its alluring reputation: Cleopatra allegedly bathed in it, and it’s credited with curing everything from the black plague to waning sex drives.
A highly aromatic member of the ginger family, Cardamom is the world’s third-most-expensive spice (vanilla is second). At Origin India Restaurant & Bar, the top-selling Cucumber Pearl martini showcases the delicate warm flavor and citrus undertones of green cardamom, dubbed the “Queen of Spices,” by coupling it with refreshing cucumber. The spice’s black variety, sometimes called “bastard” cardamom, is combined with the green in the restaurant’s Kashmiri rogan josh (an aromatic lamb dish), taking advantage of black cardamom’s smoky, robust flavor. The result: a dish full of layered notes that is simultaneously complex and subtle.
Kashmiri rogan josh at Origin India
Nobhill Tavern’s orange-cinnamon Cable Car martini
The vermilion-hued Annatto Seed/Achiote is called “poor man’s saffron,” as it gives beautiful color but without the same depth of flavor. It’s perhaps an unfair nickname, as it still imparts an earthy, sweet and somewhat peppery taste. Chef Jean Paul Labadie of Summerlin’s Marché Bacchus French Bistro explains it is widely used in Puerto Rican and Caribbean cuisine in dishes that require some time to cook, so they become fully infused with flavor. His achiote-braised chicken and goat cheese chilaquiles with fried eggs and avocado are just the thing to spice up weekend brunch.
The oldest known spice (and the most popular on kitchen shelves), Cinnamon is at once familiar and exotic. It conjures images of oven-warmed baked goods, but it works well in both sweet and savory dishes. The Cable Car martini, at MGM Grand’s Nobhill Tavern, provides palates with a spicy-sweet orange-cinnamon combination. At Mandalay Bay’s Border Grill, chef Mike Minor gives the spice a savory spin in his mole coloradito sauce, explaining it “lends warmth and depth to the dish without intensity.” To learn the secrets of the most authentic mole, Minor traveled throughout Mexico, and has been perfecting it for seven years. For one of the oldest and most authentic dishes of that country, try his puerco in mole served with a crispy achiote corn masa quesadilla.
It would take an extremely dedicated foodie to explore all the varieties of Chili peppers. Their one commonality: All originated in the Americas and were introduced to other cultures via maritime trade routes before quickly being absorbed into indigenous cuisine. Chef Alain Ducasse uses the mild espelette, which is harvested under strict climate and legislative control in his homeland region in the French Basque. This chili brings a slightly roasted, smoky flavor to the rack of Colorado lamb with quinoa and braised oak lettuce that he offers at Mix, at the top of TheHotel in Mandalay Bay. In Origin India’s grilled Canadian rock lobster tail, the chili brings the dish both heat and flavor. “It adds a spicy finish to a very mild protein,” says chef Kuldeep Singh, “and brings out the sweetness of the lobster.”