Taverna Costera - From Poker Pro to Restaurant Owner With Jeff Hwang

Taverna Costera – From Poker Pro to Restaurant Owner With Jeff Hwang

Las Vegas has had a number of restaurants owned by poker players over the years. Violette’s Vegan has been a favorite of the no-meat crowd for some time, and a trio of mixed game players purchased Roma Deli a few years ago and it has become a solid spot for Italian food on a reasonable budget. 

Photo of Taverna Costera in Las Vegas Arts District

Taverna Costera sits right at the start of First Friday where bike riders gather to enjoy the culture of the Arts District.

Now Jeff Hwang, who poker players may know from his acclaimed books on pot-limit Omaha, has opened a beautiful space in the burgeoning arts district. Taverna Costera serves healthy dishes inspired by the northern coast of the Mediterranean sea, from Spain to Italy and Greece. 

The multi-use space includes a coffee shop that serves takeout food as well as cold brew and Turkish coffee, various tea options, and even Boba. The restaurant itself is beautifully appointed and takes up most of the bottom floor. The upstairs is a rooftop with a great view of the sunset over the city, a bar, and a stage for live music. I had the chance to visit recently and get a tour of the place from the man himself, whose Omaha books I have recommended countless times, and even have a beer with the chef.

A First Impression of Taverna Costera

I was seriously impressed with the building. It’s really well put together. Everything from the lighting, to the carefully curated local art on the walls, is classy without being snobbish, clean without being sterile. It is warm, welcoming, and well suited to the food and the region it comes from. 

The inside of Taverna Costera

They’re happy, but not as happy as I was once my fish arrived!

The menu is small, as is typical for a place that serves fresh food. A big menu means a big freezer with lots of food sitting around, most of it prepared ahead of time and dumped in a fryer. Not so at Taverna. They don’t even own a freezer (except a small one exclusively for ice cream) which is a good sign if you like fresh food. Options included appetizers, a nice drink menu, and seven or eight entrees. 

At least two of the entrees were vegan, and they sounded every bit as tasty as the meat dishes. In my conversations with the chef it was clear that he values vegan and vegetarian sensibilities and put a lot of thought into the meatless dishes. 

Our cocktails were solid, refreshing and fruity without being overly sweet, perfect for a mild summer day. But I forgot all about the cocktail in front of me when my main dish arrived. I ordered a fish dish prepared in a paper envelope with vegetables and was blown away by the presentation. 

“Wait until you open it,” Jeff said, and he was right. I opened that paper wrap to release a cloud of steam that smelled like heaven itself. A perfect mix of light and sour and creamy that made my mouth water, and not just figuratively. My wife doesn’t like fish at all, and even she was blown away by the aroma coming from the fish served over peppers, onions, and zucchini in a light sauce. 

Jeff and his staff believe that people can love eating healthy if you give them the right food, and this dish was a prime example of how dedicated they are to that idea. They are doing exactly as promised. Providing food that is good for the body and the soul, meals that make you feel better after eating them, and nothing that weighs you down or leaves you feeling sluggish. 

Every bit of my dish was cooked perfectly and I devoured it. My wife’s Marrakech chicken was also good, but I was ignoring nearly everything else in the room as I emptied that papillote envelope into my face. Delicious. 

Worth Every Penny

Phot of a a colorful plate of food

We eat first with our eyes…

Sure, the cocktails aren’t cheap, and you won’t find half price apps during happy hour or the other bargains you can dig up around Vegas, but that’s not what Taverna Costera is about. You don’t need a huge meal if you get enough quality food. We could have eaten a wonderful meal for around $40 out the door if we hadn’t been gluttons, ordering an appetizer and drinks and then headed upstairs for more drinks and music, but I’m glad we made a night of it and enjoyed the space.

 

After dinner we met the woman who curates the art collection, most of which is for sale. This isn’t your typical coffee shop art with a few pencil drawings and some mediocre paintings by someone who lives down the street. I sell photo prints myself, and I can tell you that everything on the walls of Taverna is top notch. 

The rooftop is a great space. Probably tough to enjoy in mid-July, or even on cold days in January, but for much of the year it will be a grand space, and there is live music every night starting at 8:30. The bartenders were friendly and knowledgeable and the drinks upstairs, though not as fancy as the restaurant options, were excellent. I’m definitely looking forward to spending some time on that rooftop and watching the arts district roll by on one side and the live music on the other.

The coffee shop, Dragon’s Alley, also offers take out made with the same fresh ingredients and for very reasonable prices. Definitely check them out if you just need a quick bite in the Arts District. A cold brew coffee and dragon noodles with shrimp for less than a twenty dollar bill? Yep, I’m in.

Jeff gave us a tour of the building after dinner too. He’s a fascinating guy and a man of many talents who has chased his fascination and done what he loves his entire adult life. He has authored books on baseball card collecting and pot-limit Omaha, worked for the casino industry as an analyst and a writer, written tons of articles on a wide array of subjects, played live music, and is now retired from poker and enjoying life as a restauranteur.  

Congratulations on finding life after poker Mr. Hwang, and for bringing a little joy to the lives of those who visit your space. I’m rooting for the place to succeed, partly because I didn’t get a chance to try the strawberry beignets, but also because I think Vegas could use more food like this. We have enough steakhouses, are inundated with “classic American fare” from famous chefs, and already have a wonderful selection of Asian and Latin influenced spots. But Mediterranean food with a light and zesty flare is a rare thing in Vegas. So rare that I had forgotten how much I loved the food on my trip to Greece. Thank you for reminding me my friend. I’ll be back soon.   

 

 

Written by
Chris Wallace
Professional poker player, HORSE world champion, author.

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