The first meal of this trip was at Border Grill at Mandalay Bay. We arrived in town, picked up our rental car and made our way to eat because we were extremely hungry! We were seated right away, and looked over the drink menu. Mrs. Nom settled on the pineapple melon sangria, and I ordered the Poloma. The atmosphere at Border Grill is darker than expected, as it does overlook the pool areas, but the bright colors on the walls and the artwork make it whimsical and fun. The main dining room is partially open to the main walk way at Mandalay Bay, so people watching is a nice bonus. A outside Patio area was available but with temps in the 110F range we noticed not many were interested in sitting outside.
Just moments after our arrival, chips and 3 kinds of salsa, red, roasted red, and green tomatillo were delivered to the table. The plain red salsa was plain and watery, reminiscent of something I would expect to find in a retirement home, devoid of spice and character, lest they offend the palates of the timid. The roasted red salsa was better, the fire roasted tomatoes and peppers giving a smokey burn to the salsa. The green was by far the standout, making the red salsas pale in comparison. It was spicy, with a citrus sweetness and tasted of tomatillos. The yellow corn chips were thick and crisp, able to stand up to guacamole and salsa with out cracking or sagging. The bowl had a generous amount of chips which is great, but there was a large amount of broken chip shards on the bottom of the bowl, making the actual amount of chips somewhat limited.
While waiting for our cocktails, we were asked what kind of water we preferred, and we said house/tap water. Vegas, being a desert town has always been about conserving water, with water only being served if you request it. We noticed on the menu a note about their filtered water produced on site, and that each glass would be $.50 a person. We applaud their green approach, but our 1 glass of water each was never filled again. Perhaps this was a reflection on our server more than the restaurant, but with every establishment talking about proper hydration, the lack of water even after mentioning it to the server is pretty bad.
We looked at the menu and decided to start with an order of guacamole for a starter. The guacamole is served on a long oval dish with a side of mixed field greens and tomatoes and an oversized corn tortilla chip positioned like a sail in the pile of guacamole. The guacamole was excellent, creamy and mostly smooth with some nice chunks of fresh avocado and tomato mixed in. Small diced bits of red onion gave the guacamole a bit of texture and a slightly acrid bite. A bright citrus burst from the lime juice brightened the fresh herb flavor from the cilantro and smoothed the slight spicy burn. We weren’t sure if the mixed greens were meant as a garnish or a bit of a salad, so I tried the greens and found them to be nice and crisp and a nice little addition to the guacamole and chips.
Our cocktails arrived as Mrs. Nom and I were ready to order, so I took the opportunity to ask our server about his favorites. I like to do this with lots of servers, as many times the servers can present an option you hadn’t even considered as well as give a look at what the staff considers the strengths of a restaurant. Our server asked what we were in the mood for and I mentioned that I was debating between a pork and a chicken dish. He replied that the pork carnitas was excellent and that you couldn’t go wrong with the chicken tacos. I mentioned the Yucatan pork, to which he replied that the dish was far to sweet for him, but seemed to be popular with lots of folks. Having watched Border Grill’s founding chefs, Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger on Top Chef Masters make inventive sweet and savory dishes, the description of the Yucatan pork sounded great to me. When I ordered it, our server acted as if I was offending him, making the comment “hope its not to sweet” while dismissively waving his hand. I felt this was somewhat odd behavior for a server, and when Mrs. Nom ordered the Steak Nachos, it was almost as if he dismissed us for having poor taste. I overheard him talking to other tables about dishes being too sweet and not a fan of desserts, so maybe he was just having a rough day, but still very odd behavior for a server in a town with as many good servers as Las Vegas.
Mrs. Nom’s Pineapple Melon Sangria was served in a large goblet, fresh chunks of iced pineapple and melon garnishing the cocktail. Mrs. Nom found this drink to be excellent, the sangria starting sweet but finishing with a pleasantly sour bite. The fresh pineapple had a sweet aroma that made the drink feel very summery and fresh. The drink was around 20 ounces, making this a really decent drink for the price.
I had recently discovered the Poloma after reading about a Basil Poloma in the New York Times food section, where it was described as the drink Mexicans use their tequila for rather than the margarita. Always looking to expand my imbibing repertoire and knowing our garden has a bumper crop of basil, I decided to make it at home and enjoyed my version. The Poloma is a simple cocktail, tequila and grapefruit and simple syrup to taste. Knowing that Border Grill tries to be as authentic as possible, I was excited to try a real Poloma. My fresh fruit poloma (the fruit changes according to the season, so your drink may vary!) came in a tall glass served over shredded ice, the poloma was a vibrant pink color from the fresh berries used to flavor the cocktail. The drink was sweeter than I expected, but the slight bitter tang of the grapefruit helped cut the fruit sweetness, making the cocktail very refreshing. I can see how one could drink a pitcher of these, as the Jose Cuervo Tradicional tequila was smooth and well tempered, allowing this drink to go down easily.
Our food arrived, both dishes featuring large portions served on piping hot plates helping to release the aromatic spices and setting the stage for two excellent entrees. Mrs. Nom’s steak nacho platter featured roasted sweet corn, marinated steak strips, guacamole, pico de gallo and chile aioli over more of the thick corn chips. Under the corn chips, a bed of re-fried black beans gave a rich earthy base to the dish. The steak was tender, a slight char on the outside of the strips, slightly smoky and spicy similar to carne asada. The chips stayed crisp and firm long after the dish had been delivered, which is a nice touch, as sometimes when the chips are smothered with toppings they can become soggy and mushy. Putting the layer of beans under the chips may help prevent the sogginess, and ended up reminding us of a layered bean dip, except with really good re-fried black beans.
My Yucatan pork had a large mound of shredded pork that was roasted in banana leaves. The banana leaves remain with the dish, serving as a garnish underneath the pile of pork. The pork was super tender, falling apart from the slow roasting technique used to cook it. Soft yellow corn tortillas, guacamole, re-fried black beans and Spanish rice and a two fried sweet plantains surround the pork. The pork is roasted with orange, caramelized onions and cinnamon, the sweet smell of warm citrus and cinnamon perfuming the dish. A hint of cumin and chile bring a nice smokey burn that counters the sweetness of the orange. The tortillas were thick and slightly chewy, holding up to the juicy pork and allowing me to over stuff them with all of the accompaniments. I didn’t think the dish was overly sweet, having a nice burn that started at the back of the palate and slowly spread over the tongue. The combination of citrus and pork was excellent, especially as the dish engaged taste and smell, which always makes a dish better.
Knowing we had dinner later at Comme Ca we decided to skip the desserts. The table next to us ignored our server’s negative missives (seriously, what is going on in Vegas with the lack of up selling?) about sweets and ordered desserts. The desserts looked delicious, with fairly generous serving sizes enough to share.
Border Grill had an interesting mix of patrons, with lots of very casual families fresh from the Mandalay Bay Beach / Pool and lots of business travelers. Located along the main hallway between the casino and the convention center, Border Grill is a bit of a hike from the main entrance, so to minimize distance, I would recommend parking at theHotel or self park garage and enter Mandalay Bay there near The Light and Red Square.
Border Grill at Mandalay Bay Las Vegas
Atmosphere: 3/5 – Darker than expected due to dark woodwork, whimsical art on the walls, very casual.
Service: 2.5/5 – Stingy on water, somewhat poor attitude
Food Quality: 3.5/5 – Fresh ingredients, good dishes
Taste: 3/5 -Solid dishes
Overall:3/5 – Good place to stop if you are at Mandalay Bay. Better than your average Mexican restaurant.
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