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Las Vegas Part 1: The Basics

I love Las Vegas, and that is coming from a budget traveler. I’ve been there twice, both times with my mom and dad. The first time I went was five years ago as a broke college student. My parents took my best friend and I for my 21st birthday. I think I brought about $100 cash with me and felt like a high roller.

This time I brought even less, and my parents didn’t hand me money like it was going out of style (although they did each slip me about $20 at one point – thanks mom and dad!). In a series of posts I am going to tell you all about how I had a great time without breaking the bank.

Accommodations

Okay, I crashed on a roll-away bed in my parents’ Bally’s hotel room, so I stayed free. However, I know there are ways to find budget accommodations, on and off the strip. A traveler I hosted on Couchsurfing recently got a hotel room on the strip for under $50, so apparently it can be done, but I don’t know that from personal experience.

Couchsurfing can be another great option. You can find a host who lives nearby – I actually met up with one for a night out – and stay for free. You won’t have a luxury suite in the Bellagio, but you will have a local on hand for advice on where to go and what to do.

Gambling

I’m not a big gambler. I don’t know how to play any poker games, and I don’t like feeding all my money to slot machines. However, I do play a few slots here and there while in Vegas. My mom and I will find a 25¢ Wheel of Fortune Machine while my dad plays at a table. She’ll put in up to $100 in, and I usually stick with $5 and play slow until a waitress takes my drink order, then watch mom once I lose all my money.

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On this trip, though, I actually won! The first night I was there I put my usual $5 into a “Wheel of Fortune” slot machine. I was down to my last credits and hadn’t won a thing. I thought “well, that was fast” and pressed the max bet button, expecting absolutely nothing.

I hit a Triple Crown symbol along with two other symbols that were similar to each other, and all of a sudden the numbers on the screen showing how much money I had started going up, up, up! It took a while and we had no idea when it would stop.

When it was finally done I had $226.50! I went straight to the cashier’s cage, cashed in my ticket, and put the money in the hotel room safe. In the end I came home with $270, which was promptly deposited into my Adventure Fund savings account.

A note about “free” casino drinks

Yes, you can get a complimentary drink if you are playing on the casino floor. First of all, tip $1 every time, no matter what. I recommend sitting close to the bar or nearby a waitress if you see one. For slots, sit at a machine and wait to start playing until you see her close by. Play slow to stretch out the number of drinks you can get per dollar. If every time you want a drink, you blow $10+ on gambling, you might as well purchase one from the bar.

Food

Las Vegas has some incredible food. I have not had a chance to not dive deep into great cheap eats or high-end restaurants in Vegas. On this trip I hate to admit that I mostly ate orange chicken and pizza from the fast food restaurants at my hotel, but I do have a few suggestions outside the cafeteria.

The best food I had on this trip was at Tacos El Gordo. It is on Las Vegas Blvd., but it’s off of the main part of the strip, and was recommended to me by a local. This is a chain restaurant, which I am typically vehemently against, but it’s a small chain and it started in Tijuana, Mexico.

When we walked in, it was clear that this place was not a tourist attraction, and it was completely packed. You had to stand in different lines for different kinds of tacos – why my parents and I didn’t divide and conquer, I do not know. We got three each of three varieties of tacos: Adobada (spicy pork), Cabeza (beef head), and Asada (steak). They had other stuff on the menu too, but the tacos were no doubt the main attraction.

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Each taco was very unique, and the ingredients were extremely fresh. Highly recommended!

Another great cheap option is the 7-7-7 deal at Mr. Lucky’s 24/7 Café at the Hard Rock Hotel. For $7.77 you get a 7-ounce sirloin steak, four medium sized shrimp, salad, and mashed potatoes (when I was there five years ago it was three jumbo shrimp and you got a roll).

You won’t see this special offer on the menu, but ask and you shall receive. And if you don’t accidentally order four shots of patron to go along with it (if you don’t specify what kind of tequila you want, they’ll bring out the good stuff) you’ll have a full belly and a full wallet.

There is one high-end restaurant experience I can recommend. When I was there the first time my dad won about $600 so we pretended we were high rollers for a night and had the most fabulous dinner at the Eiffel Tower Restaurant, overlooking the Bellagio Fountains.

We had cocktails, appetizers, wine, dinner & dessert – the whole nine yards. Everything was expensive and came in small portions, of course, but it was all delectable. I specifically remember my dad tipping our waiter 25% with a $100 bill. So, if you have $500 to spare for dinner for four, I would definitely recommend the Eiffel Tower Restaurant.

 

Of course, you can also enjoy plenty of classic Vegas sights for free. Here are my favorites:

  • Visit the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas Nevada” sign. Take an Uber instead of a taxi and ask your driver to wait while you snap a quick photo.
  • Walk the strip and wander in and out of all the fancy casinos and malls.
  • See the Bellagio fountain show before heading inside to check out the glass ceiling and indoor botanical garden.
  • Check out Freemont Street. Go at night to see the light show on the ceiling.

Up Next: Las Vegas Part 2: Street Art Tour.

Top Ten Restaurants in Lawrence, KS

One of the things I love most about Lawrence is its support of small local businesses. High quality local restaurants thrive here. There are plenty that I still need to try – there are many qualified restaurants not included here for that reason – but for now I will share with you a list of my personal tried & true Lawrence local favorites. You will notice similarities throughout – great service, atmosphere, and food – but take note also in the fact that this list has a wide variety of cuisine types, which I believe represents the diversity Lawrence has to offer. 

 

1. Free State Brewing Company

Free State is my personal favorite, and I’m not alone; it repeatedly wins multiple categories on Best of Lawrence. It was founded in 1989 as the state’s first legal brewery in over 100 years! Literally everything on the menu is good…no, outstanding. The locally brewed craft beer is top notch and never disappoints. I especially love trying their seasonal brews. With daily food specials and $1.75 select pints every Monday, Free State is always a great choice.

My Top Picks: Fish & Chips, Mushroom Gorgonzola Gnocchi, Stormchaser IPA
Pro Tips: If you take advantage of the great Monday beer special be aware it will be crowded. Go at least once during March for March Mustard Madness.

2. The Burger Stand

The Burger Stand is a Lawrence original and a local favorite, known for its gourmet burgers and fries. Whenever old college friends are back in town they almost always want to hit up Burger Stand.

Burger toppings include habanero-cactus jam, chipotle-cocoa ketchup, truffle butter, and more. There are several gourmet fries to choose from as well – truffle, duck fat, and Cajun to name a few. The restaurant also boasts a large selection of French fry dipping sauces to choose from. If you’re not feeling adventurous but still want to taste the excellence of Burger Stand, fear not – they also offer a classic burger and regular fries. 

To maintain honesty and transparency, I will tell you there have been a few times when my burger has been under cooked. It does not always happen, but to be on the safe side I recommend ordering it slightly more well done than you actually want.

My Top Picks: Black & Blue Burger with blue cheese, granny smith apple chutney, and assorted greens; Truffle Fries with guajillo-chili dip
Pro Tip: Get all of the dipping sauces, and get two of the garlic aioli and guajillo-chili dip

3. Johnny’s Tavern West

Johnny’s is a local chain with two locations in Lawrence (north and west) and eight more around the Kansas City area. Even though I happen to live the closest to the west location, it is my top pick regardless; I have just had really excellent service here.

With great service, food, and beer selections, and TVs galore, it’s a great place to watch a game. It gets crowded during sporting events and is a fun place to watch – I have given hugs and high fives to plenty of strangers during March Madness – but is still family-friendly and never out of control. The menu has something for everyone: nachos, burgers, pizza, salads, sandwiches, and more. 

My Top Picks: Espi-Nacos with beef, Simmons Wings
Pro Tip: When going to watch a game arrive about one hour early to get a good seat.

4. El Potro Mexican Cafe

Three words: Free. Cheese. Dip. Yes, you read that right. Along with the classic complimentary chips and salsa, El Potro also gives each table a glorious little bowl of cheese dip. This place is always busy, but it is huge and can accommodate lots of people. I order something different every time and have never been disappointed. 

My Top Picks: Queso Potro Especial (aka free cheese dip), Steak Fajita Quesadilla
Pro TipServing sizes are huge. If you’re a cheese dip freak like me, order from the Ala Carte and Sides menu – you’ll have plenty.

5. Mad Greek

The Mad Greek is a family-owned-and-operated local restaurant bringing old family recipes from Greece and Italy to Lawrence. Every time my family visited me when I was in college they would request that we go to “that Greek place” to eat. My favorite time to go is for the Sunday lunch buffet, which includes the most popular Greek and Italian menu items. You can also enjoy drinks and appetizers at a discount during happy hour every Monday-Thursday 4-6pm.

My Top Picks: Roasted Feta Cheese, Gyros Dinner, Falafel Dinner
Pro Tip: Take advantage of the 11am-2pm Sunday lunch buffet for $11.99 to sample and enjoy the restaurant’s best dishes.

6. Yokohama

Being the first place I ever dared to try sushi, when my best friend made me go there because it was his birthday, Yokohma holds a special place in my heart. I don’t come from a family of very adventurous eaters (no offense mom, I love your cooking!) so I didn’t experience Japanese cuisine until college. Once I tried it, Yokohama quickly became one of my top choices for places to eat out. The decor of the main dining area is very modern, but the restaurant also has a room with a low table and cushions where diners can get a more authentic experience.

My Top Picks: Jayhawk Roll and Hungry Roll
Pro Tip: 
Rumor has it the location on 23rd Street is never crowded and they sometimes give customers free appetizers. Disclaimer: I have never tried this myself…but should! 

7. Aimee’s Cafe and Coffeehouse

Aimee’s is a wonderful little cafe on Mass Street. It’s primarily a coffee shop, but I like to go there for the food. The coffee is good, but doesn’t stand out from the crowd. The food, however, is outstanding. The people who work there are also extremely friendly and customers are treated like family. Local artists’ work is displayed on the walls and changed out regularly, so there’s always something new to see. The atmosphere is cozy and relaxing with  comfy couches and chairs mixed with the regular cafe tables.

My Top Picks: Biscuits & Gravy with Hash Browns, Club Sandwich
Pro TipEverything is made from scratch so you may wait 15-20 minutes for your food. If you don’t want to sit and wait call for carryout about 20 minutes before you want to pick it up and eat at the nearby park if it’s a nice day. (This was my go-to hangover cure when I lived within walking distance in college).

8. Terrebonne

Terrebonne is a tiny hole-in-the-wall Cajun & Creole restaurant in downtown, Lawrence. A counter splits the restaurant in two sections: a small dining area with four tables, and the kitchen. From the deviled eggs and hush puppies, to the jambalaya and po’ boys, you can’t go wrong with this menu. They also make shakes with home made ice cream! Everything is cheap, but the quality of the food is far from it. Don’t be fooled by the fact that I only have one “top pick,” I am really stuck on this one. Everything here is amazing – I can narrow down the main dish easily enough, but as far as sides go you just have to go multiple times and try them all!

My Top Pick: Shrimp Po’ Boy
Pro Tip: 
Get a main dish, a side, and a dessert. Take advantage of the small patio seating area during nice weather.

9. Biemer’s BBQ

Biemer’s is the kind of place you go on a Saturday afternoon when you can go home immediately afterwards and take a long nap. The food is out of this world and comes in huge portions, of course, and the beer is cheap. It’s perfect if you’re hungry and on a budget. I love that you can get a single rib  – I like ribs but I’m not one to eat a slab, so having one or two to munch on the side is awesome.

My Top Picks: Pulled Pork Sandwich, Ribs, Cole Slaw
Pro Tip
Biemer’s is closed on Sundays

10. Limestone Pizza

Although Limestone has been open since April 2014, it is the newest restaurant on this list. The Owner and Executive Chef was previously the Executive Chef at Free State (#1 on the list) so you know the food is good. Limestone supports local farmers and does everything it can to be green and protect the environment.

The restaurant has a fun yet laid back atmosphere, which includes a wood-fired oven that can be seen from the dining area. Even though it seems to have a minimalist menu the choices are all unique and sure to please. I try to order something new each time I go, once you find your favorite that can be a challenge. They also have a spicy-sweet red sauce on each table that is to die for. I highly recommend slathering it on your pie, or at least using it as a dipping sauce for the crust.

My Top Picks: Mushroom Pizza, Farmer Pizza
Pro Tip: 
Order something different every time. You won’t be disappointed.

 

Have you been to any of my top ten Lawrence restaurants? Do you have any faves not listed here? Tell me about it in the comments!