Casa Playa’s in-house masa program sets the standard in Las Vegas

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Whether you’re visiting your favorite hole-in-the-wall taco shop or a fine-dining restaurant in one of the most luxurious resorts on the Las Vegas Strip, everyone knows the simple tortilla is the foundation for most Mexican meals. How that tortilla is made can make all the difference.

Casa Playa at Encore has built its rising reputation for thoughtful, traditional Mexican dining on its masa program, a symbol of this kitchen’s dedication to authentic ingredients and flavors.

“From the beginning, we wanted to adopt the philosophy to use local, sustainable ingredients we can find here or in California, but still keep the backbone of what Mexican cuisine is, and the best way to do that was to start with corn,” says executive chef Sarah Thompson.

There are around 60 varietals of corn found around the world, and Casa Playa uses nine different types of heirloom corn (mostly from small farms in Oaxaca) to craft its own masa, the dough made from nixtamalized corn. The masa is hand-pressed to create tortillas for tacos, enchiladas, flautas and other dishes, or stuffed and steamed to create summer squash tamales ($19) served with mole verde and Thai basil—one of the chef’s favorite items on the menu.

“It’s really an underrated dish and it really showcases the masa,” she says. “We do a less-traditional wrap in banana leaves [instead of corn husks], but we also use coconut oil instead of lard, which makes the tamal lighter and fluffier, not dense and heavy.”

Few restaurants in the Las Vegas Valley are doing in-house masa, and none are likely producing it on the scale of Casa Playa. The restaurant goes through 30 to 50 kilograms of corn per day, which produces 60 to 100 kilos of masa per day once milled. Thompson describes the nixtamalization process as “essentially blanching and shocking it, like you would any vegetable,” except that the dried corn gets cooked in acidulated water to break it down before an ice bath. Then it’s milled with two volcanic stones.

Different types of corn are used for different dishes after an intense testing period to determine proper flavors and textures. “There was a lot of trial and error and a lot of education,” Thompson says. “Some I’ve worked with before I knew I wanted to use, like the Bolito Amarillo, which is super-soft and tender and makes a beautiful tortilla.”

The much drier Red Cónoco is used for crispy tostadas served with blue shrimp ceviche ($28), guacamole ($18) and other dishes. And those tender yellow corn tortillas are moving fast with Casa Playa’s new pork belly al pastor ($105), a popular large-format dish for which the kitchen constructed its own trompo—the vertical rotisserie grill on which al pastor is traditionally prepared—that shows up tableside for interactive and delicious fun, topped off with candied pineapple for the perfect spicy and sweet bite.

It’s a lot of work, but it’s all part of presenting refined Mexican food that still connects to people’s pasts. “Everyone has their own idea of what Mexican food is. I grew up in Massachusetts, where we only had Taco Bell,” Thompson says. “When you come here and look at the menu, you’re going to see things you’re familiar with and talk about everything with your server. The way we execute is not traditional, but the flavor profiles are.”

CASA PLAYA Encore, 702-770-5340, Sunday, Wednesday & Thursday, 5:30-10:30 p.m.; Friday & Saturday, 5:30-11 p.m.

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