Las Vegas’ Chinatown is one of the tastiest neighborhoods in America, offering more than Chinese food. It is a concentration of strip malls packed with all kinds of Asian fare: Thai, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and good Japanese katsu curry.
Curry Zen’s curry is the color and texture of mashed-potatoes gravy; but its flavor delivers the simmered-all-day complexity of Nona’s Sunday gravy. The sauce is vegetarian, which is unusual for Japanese curry; but what’s most notable is the daredevil spice level. Customers are invited to choose between 1 and 10. 3-level has us sweating; 8 makes us cough violently if we swallow carelessly. Those not enamored of very spicy food should start at 1.
It’s curious heat, more like Indian spicy than Thai spicy. You feel it in your stomach more than in your mouth, but it’s no less intense. While it’s easy to sweat in Las Vegas — just walk a couple of blocks outside any afternoon — curry sweat has a purifying character (which is, in fact, a much rarer experience in Sin City). Curry Zen’s blend of fifteen spices is no secret. It’s a checklist of essentials from the Indian pantry, from turmeric to cloves.
Japanese curry is always served with rice, and usually with panko-crusted fried meat. Chicken katsu is everything you’d hope from a cutlet: juicy meat and crisp shell.
Vegetarian options often are a novelty at curry shops, but they are featured at Curry Zen. Vegetable curry is tasty enough, but we especially like spinach curry. It has a texture like cheese dip, reminiscent of Punjabi Saag. Get it topped with cheddar cheese and it is resembles a creamy Indian curry.
One order of curry is plenty of food, but the menu also offers tempting fried snacks. Tiny, crispy, meaty gyoza are much better than you’d expect — evidence that the perfectionist attitude of Curry Zen isn’t limited to its signature dish.