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First Impressions: Johnny Smalls - Mike's Review

As many of you know, I’m a complete slut for tapas.  I love the concept of small plate items because I’m often the person that has minor panic-attacks over menu decisions and always wants a little taste of everything.  You could only imagine the shriek of joy I held on the inside when I got the news that Johnny Smalls, a sort-of twisted bar food tapas place (in the vein of First Food and Bar when First first opened up last year), was having their grand opening at the Hard Rock hotel.  But like most romances sparked on the internet, impressions changed once we met in real life.

Johnny Smalls Logo (courtesy:

Johnny Smalls Logo (courtesy:

Being that Johnny Smalls is in the Hard Rock Hotel, I’ll give it certain allowances, one of which is to have loud music playing in the dining area.  It was indeed loud, but to the point of repeated screams necessary to do such simple things as place an order or to find out if The Wife (who was seated directly across from me) beat any children at work that day.  Placing the order was eventually successful, although to this day I don’t know if The Wife committed any felonies last Friday.

Interior of Johnny Smalls (courtesy:

Interior of Johnny Smalls (courtesy:

The decor was interesting with sound-deadening fabrics trapped behind sound-reflecting glass, greatly assisting the level of volume to be at a steady 11.  At least it looks hip and trendy although not all that functional, much like the sirens of plastic surgery that frequent such resorts as the Hard Rock.  For one more slam about Hard Rock proper, do yourself a favor and valet.  We parked in the parking garage on Paradise Rd., only to thankfully narrowly escape major body damage to the car.  The parking garage was apparently designed to fit clown cars only, which makes it a tight fit for the rest of us when every Affliction-wearing douche bag with a pickup truck the size of the Titanic decides to show up and take their shot at scoring with some drunken young lovely by the pool.

The menu ranges from deep-fried saturated fat with carbs, to saturated fat with slightly less carbs.  I’m not shitting you, Short Ribs and Meatballs are on the “For The Healthy People” portion of the menu.  Granted I’m the last person on Earth that should be dishing out health food advice, but even my morbidly obese ass can’t finagle a justification that Short Ribs are healthy.  I would assume that it’s supposed to be a joke, but the Short Ribs and “Meaty Balls” (as they are called here) are in the company of Grilled Veggies and Lettuce Cups.  Ha ha.

The Wife and I decided to start off with four items, Mac & Cheese Daddy Sliders, Caramel Shrimp, Thanksgiving Dinner Sliders and Smalls Balls.  If I were to cover the experience from best to worst, I’d have to start with the service.  Our lovely waitress was very friendly and eager to tell us about the items on the menu.  The menu has detailed descriptions of each item, so I figured I wouldn’t patronize her and make her explain the intricacies of a Corn Dog.  I wish it was quieter so I could have caught her name and give her a proper shoutout here.  The lovely hostesses checked us in to Open Table (a database restaurants use to keep track of We-the-Consumer among other goodies) so hopefully if anyone from Johnny Smalls reads this, they’ll figure out who it was and give her a raise.  If you’ve ever gone to a restaurant without a reservation and wonder why in the hell they’re asking for your last name, this is why.

Smalls Balls from Johnny Smalls

Smalls Balls from Johnny Smalls

In an Italian joint they would be called Arancine (pronounced are-an-CHEE-nay), but here they are called Smalls Balls ($7), and they were the best thing we put in our mouths out of the four items chosen.  The deep-fried creamy risotto balls were dotted with peas that gave the rich bite a crisp freshness.  Said to be stuffed with Short Ribs, two of the three balls provided barely contained any, with only one of them having noticeable meat.  Turns out the short ribs didn’t really add that much anyway.

Mac & Cheese Daddy Sliders from Johnny Smalls

Mac & Cheese Daddy Sliders from Johnny Smalls

We gave the Mac & Cheese Daddy ($9) duo of sliders a shot because I hoped that it was a terrible idea done in a way that no longer makes it a terrible idea.  Unfortunately, all hope was lost.  A deep-fried patty of Mac & Cheese topped with a slice of tomato and greens.  For it to be successful, the Mac & Cheese would need to have a bold, sharp cheese flavor of which this had none.  If you’re going to put a starch in between starch and have a fairly mellow slice of tomato as a member of the party, there are far too many flavor vacuums involved.  The only way to combat the blandness would be to have a stronger cheese flavor.  Maybe more of a sharper cheddar would be fine, but any Soul Food Mama worth their weight in Black-Eyed Peas will tell you that Velveeta is the ultimate secret weapon. Shhh….it’s the only time I’ll ever advocate the use of a processed food. I promise.

Thanksgiving Dinner Sliders from Johnny Smalls

Thanksgiving Dinner Sliders from Johnny Smalls

Going significantly downward in quality were the Thanksgiving Dinner ($8) duo of sliders.  Where Thanksgiving between two buns is a magnificent idea made famous by The Bobbie from Capriotti’s, this version of Turkey Day was a disaster.  Using a Ground Turkey patty, it was overly spiced, greasy and tasted like indigestion.   The only highlight of this dish was the little Cranberry-Nut bun they used. Otherwise, it was one of the worst bites of food I’ve had in a while.  This was, of course, until I popped a Caramel Shrimp in my mouth…

Caramel Shrimp from Johnny Smalls

Caramel Shrimp from Johnny Smalls

The Caramel Shrimp ($15) is up there with the worst plates of food I’ve had. Ever.  The shrimp tasted like they were out in the sun getting a tan next to the pieces of skin-wrapped silicone that turns the Hard Rock pool into a reality TV show.  Unbearably fishy in taste, bordering on putrid, this wasn’t the only problem with the shrimp.

I’m going to go out on a limb with some assumptions, but looking at the menu, there’s a whole lotta deep-fryin’ going on in the back.  The temperature of the oil was obviously too low for our order of shrimp, as the batter that surrounded them was a grotesquely grease-soaked bulletproof shell.  Every time you put something in the deep-frying oil, the temperature goes down, and if the deep-fryer can’t get a chance to breathe to raise the temperature back up or if too much shit is put in one basket at the same time, these little grease-saturated fishy nuggets would be the result.  A proper high temperature of oil would sear the outside of the batter and not allow the grease to soak in.

The Wife and I decided to throw in the towel on Johnny Smalls after this miserable quartet was set before us.  Much to the dismay of our lovely waitress, we felt it wasn’t worth it to go on a hunt for the dishes that worked.  All of these problems could very well have stemmed from freak bad night in the kitchen, or it could be indicative of what you get here.  I don’t know.  I’m not going to say that I’m going to totally write off Johnny Smalls after this remarkably bad experience, but I’m not too sure how quick I’ll be to go back for them to change my first impression.


Johnny Smalls

Hard Rock Hotel & Casino
4455 Paradise Road
Las Vegas, NV 89169

(702) 693-4414

Johnny Smalls (Hard Rock Hotel) on Urbanspoon

Mike Dobranski is a professional musician, amateur blogger, eater of good food, poker junkie, master of the inappropriate comment and bad husband to a wonderful wife.

Follow Mike and Tasting Las Vegas on Twitter at @TastingLasVegas.

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8 comments to First Impressions: Johnny Smalls – Mike’s Review

  • Donna Wilburn

    Ok, I get the what do you think of Match? A new tapas place on Silverado Ranch (I think) that has an interesting idea of fusion tapas. I haven’t been yet, waiting for you guys to guinea pig it

  • Hi Donna! We went to Match after it first opened up and wrote this –

    A few weeks after writing that post, either I or Michael tried to go back on a total of 3 separate occasions and it was either in the process of closing or closed for the night during posted business hours. I haven’t tried to go back (and I don’t think Michael has either) since. Not worth it.

  • Jack


    You are a clown! Johnny Smalls Rocks, great menu! Great Vibe even with the loud music, it is the Hard Rock, maybe you’ve never been there.

  • Jack – The menu is fine, although could certainly stand to have a few less battered and deep-fried items. It’s the execution of the menu that was the biggest point of concern here. And in the post I did say that it gets certain allowances because it’s in the Hard Rock, but even with that, when you have to yell your order to a waitress standing right next to you, that’s a little bit too much for a restaurant setting, no matter where it is.

    Thanks for reading. I’m glad my foam red nose and squirting flower on my lapel is now justified!

  • Al

    I, too, had an awful meal at Johnny Smalls.

    The caramel shrimp was particularly disgusting.

    Almost everything on the menu is fried as you pointed out, and the fry oil must have been shot because everything was soaked and dripping with foul, brown oil on our unfortunate visit.

    Truly disgusting meal. I’ll never forget it, nor will i return.

    Good to see a review that calls them out.

  • Hi Al, thanks for reading! Just curious, any chance you happened to go last Friday? Just checking to see if it was a solitary bad night.

  • Al

    No. I went a couple of weeks after they opened. They apparently still hadn’t changed the fry oil when you went.

  • scott

    Please note if you receive a Delta food voucher due to your flight being cancelled, Delta will tell you they are valid at all Hard Rock restaurants – except it appears nobody has told Johnny Smalls this. Whether this is their fault or Delta’s, their manager was quite rude anyway. We will not be back to the restaurant or casino. You’d think maybe you’d want to treat a delayed and stressed traveller nicely, wouldn’t you? Apparently not the case at Johnny Smalls.

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