Johnny Smalls is the kind of restaurant you would expect if The Wizard of Oz put kids in charge of the food, and they just had a riot.
Wild names — Wedgies. Smalls Balls. Octapussy. Hummus Among Us. Asian Persuasion. Chicken Little.
Wild pairings — Alligator bites with Tire Ale batter and “Smoke Ya’ Mamma” remoulade. “Mac & Cheese Daddy” with fried mac & cheese (a Vegas favorite), arugula, heirloom tomato and garlic aioli (and we do mean garlic).
And wild flavors.
Cheap Eats tried the Mac & Cheese Flatbread and found it really did have macaroni on the fluffy bread, along with a slightly spicy, melted chipotle cheddar and gooey Cotija cheese, perked up with green onions, for $8.
The Sea Bass Skewers were superb. Tough to get decent sea bass in the desert, and more difficult still to get a chef to prepare it correctly (P.F. Chang’s still has the best whole sea bass we’ve had in Vegas).
But these were perfect bites of sea bass on skewers, glazed with miso, and served with crunchy mushroom chips. The sea bass was sauteed to silkiness, and just melted in the mouth.
At $12, they’re among the most expensive of all the tapas here, but so wonderful we would return just for these skewers.
We love the attitude of Johnny Smalls, newest addition to eateries in the Hard Rock Hotel’s expansion.
(The hotel spent $750 million to triple in size, from extra pools, new bars, a new hotel tower and ultra-luxurious spa suites with their own private pools, says marketing vice-president Phil Shalala.)
All menu items are small plates, from chips & dips, to “something fishy”, “stuff on sticks”, pizza & flat breads, and more.
The “fabulously fried” selection includes tater tots and tater fries, as well as “avocado bliss” (tempura avocado with ponzu and blood orange, wasabi aioli and Thai chili dipping sauce).
The fried section carries a warning: “Beware, it goes straight to your thighs.”
Maybe this one is thigh-widening: “Smalls Balls” are creamy risotto, with short ribs and parmesan fondue, for only $7. (Gym membership extra.)
Or $7 “Wedgies”, which team tater “babies” in batter, with pepper bacon, seven-year-old Cheddar and chipotle Ranch dressing.
Fried items range from $6 for tempura green beans (more P.F. Chang’s copies) to $12 for a lobster taquito.
As a sign that the inmates are not running the asylum, there’s a special section on the menu with the title: “For the Healthy People.”
(It’s accompanied by a note: “You’re missing out on the fried stuff, but if you insist …”)
There are “vanity veggies” and “three-way salad” as well as shrimp, pork and duck dumplings, caprese salad and that Vegas notion of nutrition, lettuce cups. These are not your usual lettuce cups, however, because they feature spicy, charred shrimp with slaw, mango, cucumber and pomegranate molasses for $12.
All the other healthy items are $7 to $9.
Cheap Eats recommends the “Thanksgiving dinner” — one of six slider duos — as representative of the Johnny Smalls’ approach to food.
Utensils aren’t required. A small plate offers all the traditional dishes that fill a large plate. And it serves a whole mouthful of flavors at once, as you might imagine Thanksgiving dinner reduced to miniature and served on a bun.
The chef takes mini ground turkey patties with stuffing mixed in, and serves them on cranberry buns which are far better than they sound.
The result: A kid’s version of Thanksgiving that you can eat in your hand without all the mess of gravy and other adds that only fill you with empty carbs and calories.
Almost every menu item averages around $7. The most expensive items on the menu are $15 and include shrimp and calamari.
We tried the “Octapussy” for the name and the novelty because it was tapioca-battered with basil and candied orange. At $15, the orange-basil combo was a good contrast to rather pedestrian calamari, but we wouldn’t order it again.
However, Cheap Eats would definitely return to Johnny Smalls, for a small bite or dessert.
Who can resist a “grilled PB & J” with crunchy peanut butter and chipotle peach jam, for $9?
Six signature desserts include “I Scream for Ice Cream”, cheesecake pops, Belgian waffles with caramelized bananas and creamy mascarpone with Amaretto, a “Cream Suckle” (we’re not inventing this), and “Something Chocolate.”
Can’t beat the price either. Every dessert is $7.
Our server, Sabrina, said many customers opt for that grilled PB & J as dessert.
Sounds like something Elvis would do.
More: Johnny Smalls, Hard Rock Hotel, 4455 Paradise Rd. (20 minute walk from The Strip), 702.693.5000; hardrockhotel.com.