When it comes to throwing down quality libations and killer food options, not many festivals do it better than Life Is Beautiful. Food trucks? Got ‘em. Pop-up spots curated by Michelin chefs? Check. Craft cocktails made with Fernet Branca? Unfortunately, yes. I decided to take full advantage of all the culinary options at my disposal and put together—as best I could—a can’t miss list that you should dip into, should you be attending this year’s Life Is Beautiful. So, without further ado…
Crispy Yellowtail Taquitos, 4:28pm
My first foray into food was with these crispy little bastards from Sushisamba, which were topped with avocado and some roasted corn miso. Now look, these are only “taquitos” in that they’re “small tacos,” so don’t expect your traditional rolled-up, deep fried fare. Bright and flavorful with just the right amount of spiciness, I powered one down in two bites, which didn’t leave much room to savor any flavor notes or subtle undertones. (Is that a thing?) Not sure how smart it was to go seafood right out of the gate, but you gotta start somewhere, and these were pretty damn tasty.
Skin That Smoke Wagon, 4:40pm
This drink is about as complex as its title suggests. The black pepper is a nice garnish—you really taste it when you get down to all the ice—and the lemon juice and vanilla extract go toe to toe on the finish. But the star of this cocktail is the Smoke Wagon Bourbon, distilled right here in Nevada, so you can feel like you’re thinking globally but drinking locally. There’s also Dow’s Ruby Port and a bay leaf in this bad boy. Not sure what that does to the taste but it sounds—and tastes—exotic.
Ruby Fresca, 4:40pm (Guest Drinker, Rob Simas)
My first adult beverage of the day. Apparently if you put the right amount of blanco Fortaleza tequila, St. George Bruto Americano, fresh lime juice, ruby red grapefruit juice and Stiegl Radler in a glass you get a cocktail concoction that tastes like a liquid ray of sunshine. Perfect to smooth out the rough edges of the day, this might just be the quintessential drink to down during that magical hour of sunset. It’s citrusy and not too sweet with a subtle bite of tequila. I feel like I could have enjoyed a pitcher or two all by my lonesome, and I may have while no one was looking.
Dark N’ Stormborn, 5:15pm
Obviously this drink got its name from Game of Thrones, and like Game of Thrones I’m going to get myself killed off quickly if I have more than one of these. The culprit? Fernet Branca. After bourbon and fish tacos, the Fernet dropped into my belly like a drunk uncle showing up to the family Christmas party. Thank God there was some ginger beer mixed in to give it a little effervescence. On a side note, I’m glad they have grass in the VIP area. I may need to lay down and take a nap before Bloc Party comes on.
Flour by Hubert Keller Roasted Vegetable Quesadilla, 5:30pm
I know, I’m going back-to-back bourgeois Mexican, but I can’t pass up food from a Michelin chef who actually happens to be in the back plating the actual food. But before I get my quesadilla, Keller himself comes over to shake my hand. “How do you like it?” I felt weird lying to him and telling him the food was excellent before I had even tried it so I said, “We’ll see,” which felt like a super condescending thing to say. As you can imagine, the quesadilla was excellent. Packed with veggies without being obnoxiously thick, and browned to a light crisp, which is more important than you think.
MTO Cafe Bacon Dippers & I’ll Have Another, 7pm
For my next trick I’ll be pairing breakfast food with a drink made with Death’s Door gin, cardamon, and fresh lime juice. The Bacon Dippers are basically oblong-shaped pancakes with a fat strip of bacon dropped right in the middle, plus a little plastic ramekin of maple syrup. Honestly, I’m not sure why I chose this. I think because it felt like comfort food. It was also the only line that wasn’t 15 people deep. This night may take a turn for the worst.
Curious George, 7pm (Guest Drinker, Rob Simas)
You know how a lot of flavored vodkas basically taste like they dumped chemicals into your glass? St. George Green Chile Vodka isn’t that at all. Made with jalapeños, serranos, habaneros, red and yellow bell peppers with lime peel and fresh cilantro, the peppery punch of the vodka provided a refreshing snap of heat while the depth of flavor added by the other ingredients (Blue Curacao, Rhum Clement Mahina, pineapple, fresh lime juice and Giffard Orgeat) made for a fresh and spicy combination that I need more of in my life. File this under one helluva boozy delight.
STK LIL’ BRG, 7:49pm
STK has an amazing little pop-up gourmet stop in the Downtown Stage VIP area where you can get a crispy lobster tail, snow cones, and this little wagyu slider topped with grilled onions and delicately placed on a sesame seed bun. The bun is toasted to perfection, which makes for a very satisfying crunch before you hit the tender beef. Is it good? There’s a reason you’re getting a photo of the sign and not the burger. Definitely a must-see stop on your culinary tour.
Effie Vodka and Pineapple Juice, 8:15pm
Pedestrian, I know. Slowing down. Need to find a gourmet coffee cart for a little pick-me-up.
Aloha Kitchen Lumpia, 9:04pm, 9:16pm, 9:18pm, 9:21pm
Look, if you’re gonna continue to trot out the free samples, I’m gonna eat ‘em. Plus, I’m pretty sure if you gave me a straw I would drink a glass of that orange sauce. This was the meal steal of the evening.
Kiss My Melons, 10:16pm
Milagros silver tequila, fresh watermelon, agave nectar, something called aloe liqueur, and a little micro basil garnish laid over the top. Not really happy about bringing tequila into the mix, but the watermelon was too intriguing to pass up. If you’re in the mood for something sweet, don’t go this route. It’s deceptively strong.
Coolhaus Peter Cook-ies, 11:45pm
Perfect way to close out the night, and I’m rationalizing the massive amount of sugar and calories by all the miles I’ve walked around the festival site. If you want ice cream on the go, Coolhaus sammies are the only option. Thank you, and good night.