Jobless in Vegas, on a budget and having fun

LA Times | Travel

Not long ago, my bank account resembled a plump, feathered nest, so I visited Las Vegas at least twice a year for shopping and spa treatments. Green Valley Ranch masseuses unraveled my kinks, and then I'd sit in a poolside cabana and eat grapes. Later, it was Patrón shots at Blush. Funny ...

By Leslie Tellez // 05.07.09

Not long ago, my bank account resembled a plump, feathered nest, so I visited Las Vegas at least twice a year for shopping and spa treatments. Green Valley Ranch masseuses unraveled my kinks, and then I'd sit in a poolside cabana and eat grapes. Later, it was Patrón shots at Blush.

Funny how unemployment changes everything.

After taking a buyout from my job in November, I longed to return to Vegas. But could the city be chic and cheap? Or at least, cheap and cool? I was a formerly employed person who'd once watched, and discreetly ignored, Maxim photo shoots at the Green Valley pool now my itinerary could not scream "budget traveler." I could not, for dignity purposes, visit dodgy hamburger stands or Circus Circus. But a shrimp cocktail might be OK.

A friend living in the Vegas suburb of Henderson offered to put me up on her futon. And so began what turned out to be my best trip to Vegas (my Thunder From Down Under bachelorette party notwithstanding).

Day 1

We started on loud, bossy, neon-filled Fremont Street, a place I'd never been. The amount of energy here could power a small country. We gaped at the curved projection-screen canopy over our heads before wandering into the Golden Gate Casino, established in 1906. The deli is known for its $1.99 shrimp cocktail, and the dish was surprisingly good for the price. A tumble of plump shrimp, swimming in a ketchup-horseradish sauce, filled a tulip-shaped sundae glass. Signs warn patrons not to smoke in line and not to steal the glasses. How enchantingly old school. But the jeans-and-T-shirt-wearing crowd said "Midwestern tourist" more than hip gambler.

Satiated by our shrimp dinner, we walked down Fremont to the Downtown Cocktail Room, a dark, chic bar that specializes in classic cocktails. We sipped Negronis and Cosmos as ambient house music drifted.

Day 2

Feeling clearheaded and calm, I started the day with a very un-Vegas breakfast: a $6 bowl of granola, banana and almond milk at Henderson's Go Raw Cafe, a strip-mall joint on Windmill Lane that specializes in raw food. The all-naturalness would, I hoped, counteract the sin of my first gambling experience.

An idea flashed: Maybe I could win enough to stay unemployed for several more months. Several casinos offer free gambling lessons, but Excalibur, with its King Arthur theme and Australian all-male revue, seemed the least threatening. Just before 11 a.m., I dropped off the car at the free valet and headed to a roulette table. The dealer patiently explained how to make a bet -- the weirdest rule: "Don't hand me your money, just place it on the table" -- and what the numbers meant. Afterward, I was too shy to squeeze my way into anyone's game. Instead, a funny, friendly dealer lured me to a craps table, where I blew $20 in less than five minutes. No more gambling.

That evening we hit the Rack, a fetish and lingerie shop in a gritty strip mall off East Sahara. The Onyx Theatre, a small venue in the back of the store, hosts plays, film and comedy. That evening's show was Shakespeare's "Henry V." Tickets cost $15, which seemed a bit high, but when will we watch Shakespeare in a fetish shop again? For the next three hours, broken up by a short intermission, the actors wrestled with Elizabethan English and roared through battle scenes. When the curtain came down, we poked around the massage oils and debated visiting one of the sketchy-looking bars nearby. Instead, we cruised by the Artisan Hotel, where the funky lounge has gilt-framed art on the ceiling. Justin Timberlake blared, and my $12 glass of wine came with a twinge of guilt.

Day 3

We fueled up for our hike at Ronald's Donuts, a vegan doughnut shop on Spring Mountain Road. The 90-cent soy-cream doughnut was so rich it made me want to box it up and mail it to my meat-adoring friends with a note saying, "See? Vegan is not scary!" We drove to the Valley of Fire, Nevada's oldest and largest state park, where trails wind among red sandstone rock formations. It was my first time so far from the city, and my jaw dropped.

Big, orange-pudding spoonfuls of rock are plopped across the horizon. Some rocks have nubby faces, and others look as if they've been painted with a rust-dipped paintbrush. We hiked through quiet canyons and rock cracked under our feet. There was no breeze. No animals squawked. This place could easily be Mars. I wished I had visited sooner.

On the way back we grabbed a bowl of $7 pho at Pho Kim Long II, in Vegas' Chinatown. The neighborhood -- a dense collection of strip malls, each with its own bakeries, restaurants and bars -- begs to be explored. Who knew Vegas had so much ethnic culture?

But we had an appointment at the Boneyard, a dirt lot where old casino signs go to die.

The nonprofit Neon Museum runs the Boneyard, and it's not hard to see why the tours often sell out. Lifeless neon signs lie everywhere, close enough to touch: the dainty white heel of the old Silver Slipper Gambling Hall; the tall, space-age letters of the Stardust; the curlicued Sassy Sally sign, which still reeked of sassiness despite its empty tubes. Aladdin's lamp was there too, and the old Caesars Palace logo. Our guide recounted each sign's quirky history. The visitors were wide-eyed, fascinated. We soaked in Vegas' past and this little oasis that values the old over the new.

That night we stopped for dinner at Lindo Michoacan, a restaurant on Vegas' East Side where photos of famous guests, including producer and actor Gael García Bernal, hang in the lobby. The fresh salsa shouts of guajillo chiles, and we gobbled guacamole and pork in a zingy chile verde sauce.

A man with a tinkly keyboard tapped "Oye Como Va," and there was no place I'd rather be. I wanted to wrap up the moment and keep it in my wallet. I wanted to wrap up the whole trip. Vegas is not just the high-priced adult Disneyland I used to revel in. It has spirit and (dare I say it?) soul, and it was totally worth dipping into my severance package.