Vegas' glory is in the details, and Penn knows where to find them

 

The Minneapolis Star Tribune

Sorry, Gray Line. We wanted a tour guide who is like Las Vegas itself - loud, larger than life and at least a little bit naughty.

Enter Penn Jillette.

He's loud. Ever hear him on TV, radio or in his stage act? He is not the silent one in Penn & Teller. He's larger than life: 6 feet 6 and, well, we're afraid to ask him how much he weighs.

As for the naughty part, either go see Penn & Teller, who celebrate their fifth anniversary of presenting quirky and mind-boggling illusions at the Rio in Vegas on Sept. 27, or read on.

Gray Line will take you to the volcanoes at the Mirage, the Neon Museum and the Rio Masquerade Show in the Sky. Instead, Penn recommends these five Vegas spots that are easy to find and hard to resist.

-Lotus of Siam

The Web site says the restaurant is only three-quarters of a mile east of the Sahara Hotel, but let's just say it seems like it's on the other side of the world.

"It's in a seedy shopping mall," explains Penn, who has lived in Vegas for 15 years. "There's a rip-off wife-swapping club in that area. There's a secondhand store that benefits AIDS patients, a Chinese restaurant, a Mexican restaurant. It's the kind of place that you'd never go into."

Except for Lotus of Siam.

Gourmet magazine called it the best Thai restaurant in the country. And other dining and travel magazines have raved as well.

"Even knowing (about the reviews)," the devilish Penn says, "when your cab pulls into the mall, you're really going to think your cab driver's going to roll you."

After consulting a map, I drove to the Lotus. When I saw all the Mercedes, Audis and Lexuses parked in front of the restaurant, I felt that my PT Cruiser was safe.

The restaurant would never win any design awards. The no-frills place looks like a Vietnamese restaurant that was decorated in the 1980s and hasn't been updated. At least the glowing reviews and photos of stars on the wall (Billy Joel, Pat Sajak, etc.) are more encouraging than the locale.

Compared with other top-rated restaurants, the prices at Lotus of Siam are "stupid cheap," as Penn puts it. Salmon nam-tok costs $17.95, panang curry $9.95.

I'd recommend the lime drink, a Thai cousin to lemonade. Penn's favorite dish is sea bass with drunken noodles.

-Peppermill

Imagine a dark, neon-lit Perkins on steroids _ with a swank 1980s-style bar featuring water that burns.

The menu is as extensive as TGIF's plus breakfast anytime. And the Peppermill never closes.

For Penn, the Peppermill holds special interest.

"That is the restaurant I went in with Paul Provenza at, I think, about 11:30 p.m. and we stayed there `til 8 a.m. and the whole `Aristocrats' (movie) was thought out, laid out, planned, budgeted and scheduled," Penn recalls the fruitful 2005 session. "We went in to talk as friends and ended up being partners in making a documentary."

Calling the Peppermill more "truck stop than casino," Penn says, "It's the kind of place you can sit for 10 hours, ordering cups of coffee and the occasional English muffin and no one bugs you."

Of course, he might bug the servers, who wear short skirts with suspenders. In fact, one time he tried to buy a Peppermill waitress outfit for his then-girlfriend, but the restaurant doesn't sell them.

"But after an `oh c'mon' and a little money," Penn said, "we got a used Peppermill uniform, which I'll tell you functioned better off site than on."

Ba-dah-ba-bing.

He didn't have as much luck with the burning water. In the Peppermill's sunken bar with its exotic tropical drinks and 15 plasma TV screens, there's a fire burning in the middle of a water fountain. Yes, only in Vegas. And only at the Peppermill.

Penn wanted to have water that burns in his own home. But he was given the thumbs down by the Peppermill proprietors.

"It turns out that they have protected their patent from nut jobs like me and not only (from) having the uniform but having someone able to dance pantyless in the uniform around water that burns," he complains. "They were ready for me."

As for the food, Penn prefers the fruit plate or the patty melt. As the sun rose after a long night, I opted for the huge pieces of French toast.

-Fremont Street

This is old downtown Las Vegas. Tacky doesn't even begin to describe it. Penn used the words "lower class" and "carny."

"If you want to get a deep-fried Twinkie," Penn points out, "you can go to the Minnesota State Fair or Fremont Street."

Fremont is where you go for kitschy souvenirs such as Elvis nightlights and rattlesnake key chains. Or to the Beef Jerky Store, which sells everything from octopus jerky to dried minnows. Penn said he likes to hang out at the Starbucks patio on the pedestrian mall and just watch the world walk by.

"It's the serious, no-kidding-around gamblers," he says. "It's not as much of a tourist-y feel. It's a whole different flavor, vibe and heart than the rest of Vegas."

Fremont is where Penn bought his wedding ring.

"When we got married, I gave my wife my mother's wedding ring, which meant the world to me," he says. "And then we bought my ring in a pawn shop on Fremont Street. Those rings kind of sum up our whole lives - the top and the bottom of the way we live. And I'm very proud that I have a wedding ring from Fremont Street because you know this ring has an amazing story and you also know that we'll never know it. And that's everybody who walks by on Fremont Street."

-Liberace Museum

This shrine to Liberace makes Elton John look tamer than Barry Manilow.

Check out the garish outfits (the rhinestone-lined, floor-length blue diamond mink), the even more outlandishly decorated pianos (a mirror-covered grand) and the equally ornate music that plays throughout the two-building complex. And don't miss the over-the-top jewelry (260 diamonds on one piano-shaped ring) and the glow-in-the-dark cars (the Stars and Stripes red, white and blue Rolls Royce is my favorite).

Penn calls the museum perfect. "Once again, it's in a strip mall, which is important to me; they seem real American to me. You see how much he loved the fans and how much they loved him and how goofy and psychedelic and yet completely honest his show was.

"Liberace is the show that the (Rolling) Stones are trying to do. I loved that when he was onstage, there was absolutely no cynicism whatsoever. You really see the 12-year-old boy with the towel strapped to his neck as a cape, parading in front of a mirror. That's just the beauty of art to me. Lenny Bruce said, `The purpose of art was to stand naked onstage.' And Liberace, with all his rhinestones and everything else, really was standing kinda naked onstage."

-Bellagio

Did you think Penn was going to ignore the Strip entirely? No way.

Anybody who has been to Vegas knows about the elaborate spectacles inside and outside the Bellagio. Penn, of course, has a different take.

Inside, start at the botanical gardens, which are an extravagant cornucopia of color, fragrance and design. Proceed to the casino floor and then, head to the Gallery of Fine Art, where the works of Picasso, Warhol and Ansel Adams have been exhibited.

Says our guide: "If you walk fast from the casino floor into the art museum, you can really get the feeling of one show business. I love when you have that moment at the Bellagio when you realize Picasso, a table dancer and Bach all have the same job."

___

IF YOU GO:

Lotus of Siam, 953 E. Sahara Av., 1-702-735-3033, www.saipinchutima.com

Peppermill, 2985 Las Vegas Blvd., 1-702-735-4177, www.peppermilllasvegas.com

Liberace Museum, 1775 E. Tropicana Av., 1-702-798-5595, www.liberace.org.

Bellagio, 3600 S. Las Vegas Blvd., 1-702-693-7111, www.bellagio.com

Fremont Street, between Main St. & Las Vegas Blvd.

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