A friend of mine is playing in the WSOP for the first time this year and he wrote me an email asking about food options. He has particular tastes and wanted my opinion since I have been living inside the Rio every fuckin' summer since 2005. I wrote a very lengthy response in an email. I added a few things and wanted to share that expanded email with you.
So, you're playing in the WSOP, you're hungry, and you're stuck at the Rio because you have less than an hour to eat along with a thousand other donkeys. What do you do?
First tip, avoid the masses at all costs. Luckily, as a member of the media, I can leave for dinner breaks five to ten minutes early in order to avoid the crush of starving players in search of food. I have the luxury of getting a jump start, so my best advice to you is to send someone ahead (wife, brother, friend) to wherever you're going to eat and meet them there. Heck, get them to order your meal before you arrive so your food is there the minute you sit down. The more time you save before you eat means you'll have more to to relax before you re-start the tournament. If you have someone that can do that for you, then you can eat almost anywhere and not worry about standing in long lines.
If you're solo and don't have anyone to scout out restaurants for you, then you're going to get stuck in the massive dinner rush. If you have a rental car, leave the Rio (and I'll tell you those food options later on). If you are stuck at the Rio, then you're limited to the choices that they offer. The buffets are an option (the seafood buffet is above average), but I'm not a buffet person (aside from the Wynn or Bellagio) and that's the last place I'd be during dinner rush. As I stated earlier... avoid the masses.
The Poker Kitchen - After the first week, I'm absolutely sick of the Poker Kitchen. Yes, the food has slowly improved since 2005, but they still boil up kangarooburgers. And don't get me started about the cardboard lathered in government cheese that Pizza Hut passes off as food. Do yourself a favor and avoid that at all costs. Plus, the prices are redonkulous. Last summer, the Poker Kitchen offered Capriatti sandwiches. Those saved me on many nights and are hands-down the best foodstuff that the Poker Kitchen has to offer. If you catch a fresh batch of sandwiches, you're in luck. If not... then they're still better than ground-up roo meat and cold pizza.
Sao Paolo Cafe - I'm boycotting them and urge you to avoid the temptation to eat there. After getting horrible service too many times in a row last year, I simply gave up on this conveniently located eatery. The food is average but the service is absolutely horrendous and they have sent me on uber-tilt so many times that I decided to no longer give them my business. And if you know me, I'm an excellent tipper and very patient and understanding when it comes to service staff, which lets you know how bad things were. I will continue a boycott this year unless I get dragged there for a meeting, and if that's the case, I will do everything in my power to change the location. Heck, if you see me eating in there, I will give you $1. And if I see you eating there, I get to kick you in the nuts.
All-American Bar & Grill - Tasty. I love their blue cheese burger and the rest of their burgers are top notch. The place is open late and even has a limited breakfast menu in the morning. It gets crowded at peak times, but service is usually fast. You can grab a quick bite up front in the bar and watch the baseball game, or head into the back area for a full sit down meal.
Gaylord Indian - This is a hidden gem that is often overlooked mainly because everyone walks by it without even giving it a second thought. The service is quick especially if you grease them up front and tell them that you're playing in a tournament. The food is above-average and if you have a strong stomach and like spicy food, then this is a great option.
Rub BBQ Joint - Delicious pulled pork sandwiches. Sweet tea. Cornbread. Rub would get bad reviews in Atlanta, but for Vegas, it's good stuff. Rub is hectic sometimes when the place gets slammed.
Ping Pang Pong - This place is actually located across the street at the Gold Coast, but it's worth the extra five-minute walk to eat somewhere where it won't be as crowded as the Asian joint at the Rio. My brother loves their dim sum.
In-N-Out Burger - If you have a rental car, drive there (less than 5 minutes) and if you don't have a car, ask a taxi to take you through the drive thru. It happens all the time. In-N-Out is located on Dean Martin Drive and is only a couple of blocks away from the Redneck Riviera. Yeah, I used to live within walking distance of In-N-Out and I ate there two or three times a week. The family-owned California-based food chain has a cult-like following. The cups and burger wrappers have markings indicating bible passages. Peek underneath the cups and you'll see what I'm talking about. Regardless of the subversive-religious messages, the burgers are incredible and you'll want to move to California for the chance to eat them every day. Over at the Tao of Pauly, I recently wrote a review about a recently released book about the behind the scenes story about In-N-Out Burger.
OK, let's recap... if you're solo, I'd highly suggest Gaylord the Indian place and In-N-Out Burger if you make it to the dinner break in your tournament. Honorable mentions go to the BBQ Joint and All-American Bar & Grill, but you might have to wait. And don't forget about Ping Pang Pong across the street.
If you have a rental car, then definitely hit up In-N-Out or some of the fast food joints on Flamingo (Wendy's, El Pollo Loco, and Subway are popular choices and Sonic during breakfast time for their Texas Toaster bacon, egg & cheese sandwiches).
And if you don't want fast food, there are a couple of options within a close proximity of the Rio. There's also a mini-Chinatown along Spring Mountain (a couple of blocks from the Rio) with plenty of different Asian-themed restaurants. Thai. Sushi. Cantonese. Mandarin. Korean BBQ.
The Palms casino has a popular Mexican restaurant called Blue Agave. I've never eaten a bad meal there. Yummy burritos. They have several different types of salsa made from scratch.
And if you're looking for breakfast (before/during/after your tournament) and have a car, I'd try the Orleans or the Palms. Check out their cafes. The Orleans offers cheap specials after Midnight and their regular breakfast isn't too shabby. When I began my Sao Paolo boycott, I frequented the 24/7 Cafe at the Palms for breakfast a couple of times a week.
If you want to spend a few bucks, then go to the cafe at the Bellagio for breakfast. The best omelettes in Las Vegas. Hands down.
OK, and if you decided to move to Las Vegas and live in a short-term apartment or rent a house with kitchenware, then definitely take advantage of that situation and cook your own meals, especially if you are a vegetarian or have special dietary needs. Smith's is the local grocery chain and there are a couple of Whole Foods markets (one on Las Vegas Blvd. south of the Mandalay Bay, two up in Summerlin and one in Henderson). You can cut costs by making your own meals and bringing them to the Rio with you. Plus, Whole Foods has plenty of pre-made meals and sandwiches.
If you're going to be around for a few weeks and bust out of a tournament early, leave the casino for your meals. Why would you eat there every day when you don't have to?
Here's something else that I'd recommend... Clif Bars. I never travel anywhere without a couple hidden in my carry-on luggage. Those energy bars are clutch when stuck on airplanes or in foreign countries when I'm starving. As a writer on a deadline, they come in handy because I can get a quick bite and keep working. And for poker players? They are a great way to keep your energy level up during long hours at the tables.
The key to the WSOP is survival. Most players are so worried about poker they forget about the other elements of success. Personal health and nutrition are always forgotten about. You want to gain an edge? Show up at the WSOP in great physical shape, get plenty of rest before you play, and feed yourself regularly and properly within the constraints of the poker tournament. Get a proper breakfast and snack on energy bars and fruit throughout the day.
Hope some of these tips help. Best of luck this year.
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