Best bets, hidden treasures on and off the Strip

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LAS VEGAS -- Ever since Las Vegas' formative years, dining and entertainment have been considered primary activities No. 2 and No. 3 -- trailing just behind gaming.

That gap has closed further, however, as the quantity of restaurants and shows here has multiplied exponentially.

But all those options now pose the inevitable dilemma: where to dine, what to see and how to maximize enjoyment in the City that Never Sleeps -- in 48 hours or less?

Multiple Web sites, polls and "Best of ..." lists direct clients around town with reckless abandon -- and often to disappointment.

Amid the immense display of wealth in Vegas, it seems the most valuable commodity is still information.

But few visitors are privy to the ultimate payoff: genuine insider info. So, the $64,000 question surfaces. Where do savvy locals and those in the know go to eat and play?

With some regret, and at the risk of shutting myself out of the following little-known -- or undiscovered -- gems, my innermost Vegas secrets are hereby revealed.

Read on, learn and, of course, pass this valuable knowledge on to your clients:

• Tucked inside the off-Strip, low-profile Gold Coast Hotel and Casino is Ping Pang Pong, famed restaurateur (Royal Star) Kevin Wu's casual and innovative Chinese Kitchen.

Featuring flavorful dishes like pan-fried softshell crab rolled in rice paper and sauteed lobster in ginger and green onion sauce, this affordable little place also offers a unique dim sum menu.

Patrons enjoy watching the chefs wok'n-it-up in the exhibition kitchen while dining alongside lots of Chinese locals. For now, it's open for dinner only.

• Still considered the "mother of all shrimp cocktails" is the 99-cent shrimp cocktail at the Golden Gate Casino on downtown's Fremont Street.

The cocktail sauce has the perfect zip, it's served in a glass goblet and it's available 24/7.

• Shades of TKTS NY in Vegas: With many show prices flirting at or near a hundred bucks, Tickets-2Nite is a welcome new addition to the local scene.

Recently opened in the Showcase Mall -- appropriately across from New York, New York -- the outlet offers same-day tix at half price, plus taxes and a modest service charge.

Available shows change daily, and the box office opens at 2 p.m.

The breakfast buffet at the Orleans, available Mondays through Saturdays, comes with a minimal wait. • My vote for the hands-down, Best Breakfast Buffet for the Buck is the spread at the Orleans.

Available from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m., Mondays through Saturdays, it's quantity and quality for $5.45, with minimal -- if any -- wait time.

• Craftsteak, an innovative and popular new restaurant in the MGM Grand, focuses on the simple yet careful "crafting" of each menu item.

Using only fresh ingredients from small family farms and day-boat fishermen, chefs take care to focus on the flavor and essence of each dish without oversaucing or fusion.

It's a potentially pricey spot -- unless you order the three-course Market Menu dinner offered nightly for $39.

• True to its theme, the Spice Market Buffet at the Aladdin has a unique Middle Eastern food station featuring authentic hummus, hand-rolled baklava and spiced lamb skewers.

Vegetarians also will find plenty of choices on the multi-station buffet, but carnivores are not forgotten.

At only $19.99, it's the lowest-priced, upscale dinner buffet in town.

• The latest -- and hottest -- in a parade of adult revues sweeping the Strip, "X -- An Erotic Adventure," sizzles with edgy sexiness at the Aladdin (See story, What's new in the city where grown-ups play).

Featuring dancers working to a pulsating score, "X" is pushing the envelope of adult entertainment.

• Cruising the town looking for a late-night Chinese food fix? It's right here -- center Strip. The Venetian's Noodle Asia serves up a satisfying selection of rice and noodle dishes until 3 a.m., supplemented by a dim sum menu.

In fact, the kitchen is open all night to satisfy the whims of the casino's high rollers, but you didn't hear that from me!

Gimme some more, you say?

Often in plain sight or hidden somewhere off the Strip are more of Vegas' Best Bets and Hidden Treasures.

But they won't be revealed -- or possibly uncovered -- until next time. So stay tuned.

David Yeskel, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based freelance travel writer, estimates that during his 27 years of exploring Las Vegas, he has stayed in more than 25 hotels, eaten more than 400 buffet meals (that's about 5,000 shrimp), seen 200-plus shows and slept a cumulative total of 15.3 hours. He can be reached at [email protected]

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