Untrodden Tastes Up-and-coming restaurants in South Lake Tahoe

  • The Best of the Best
  • Spicy Flavor: Azul Latin Kitchen
  • Cozy Romance: Cafe Fiore
  • 5 Stars: Jimmy's Restaurant

Despite its reputation as a destination with world-class skiing and gaming, South Lake Tahoe has not always been known as a mecca for gourmands.

“Honestly, our food scene has lagged behind a bit compared with other destinations and metropolitan areas,” says Nick Ashmore, owner of Café Fiore.

“Twelve years ago, you could count the good restaurants on one hand.”

The South Lake Tahoe Foodie Scene

But for foodies, the south shore is experiencing a renaissance with more and more new hotels, shopping centers, and restaurants cropping up. 

Ashmore says the Marriott complex has finally taken hold, with luxury retail and high-end restaurants settling in.

There’s also a new downtown project nearing completion called The Chateau, which will house more restaurants. And with a new Hard Rock Hotel coming to town, optimism abounds.

“With the recession, the dining options in South Lake went downhill,” says Hard Rock executive chef Jonathan Snyder, who worked in his parents’ restaurant, the Dory’s Oar in South Lake Tahoe, in the 1980s and has since ascended in the culinary world, working alongside the likes of Jean-Georges Vongerichten at the Bellagio’s Prime Steakhouse.

“Things are turning around now,” Snyder says. “Chefs are sourcing higher-quality ingredients.”

The revival is good news for epicureans, whose options for vibrant happy hours and unforgettable dinner experiences are on the rise.

More dining options means restaurateurs need to work hard to win diners’ loyalty, however. 

I think competition is good. It means you need to bring your A game.

Upcycled, South of the Border: Azul Latin Kitchen

A trip to Azul Latin Kitchen is worth it just to marvel in the environmentally friendly décor. 

The restaurant’s back bar is comprised of old dressers, nightstands, and book cases, with bottles of tequila stacked inside.

Chandeliers modeled from old milk crates hang overhead.

“The terminology we use is ‘upcycling,’” says partner Danny Scott, adding that the inspiration comes from San Francisco restaurants like La Urbana, which uses recycled material to create funky backdrops.

Azul opened serendipitously just a few months ago, on July 24.

“Unbeknownst to us, it was National Tequila Day,” Scott says.

And it’s fitting: The restaurant has 40 tequilas on the bar menu, and mixologists employ freshly-squeezed juices in its house-made margaritas.

Pro Tip

Try the signature dish Lomo Saltado, a Peruvian-inspired plate of slow-cooked beef over a sauté of peppers and onions, fingerling potatoes, green rice and cilantro, with a dollop of queso fresco.

Located at the base of Heavenly—perfect for après—Azul is the brainchild of the same restaurateurs who own the nearby, popular Base Camp Pizza.

Chef Mark Vaccaro traveled extensively through South and Central America, and he brings that field experience to Azul’s menu.

The restaurant’s signature dish is the Lomo Saltado, a Peruvian-inspired plate of slow-cooked beef over a sauté of peppers and onions, fingerling potatoes, green rice and cilantro, with a dollop of queso fresco. 

The taco menu is inventive, too. Tacos are stuffed with such surprises as Thai curry, pork belly, and coconut beef. 

Throughout the menu, Chef Vaccaro uses organic produce from the Sacramento Valley and sustainably raised, antibiotic-free meats.

Review: Azul Latin KitchenBy Clark Vandeventer

Bring your Chapstick.

That’s one little piece of advice I can give you, because this place makes the best margaritas in Tahoe, but when the salt touches your lips in the already dry air, you’re going to want that extra coat of moisture.

My personal favorite is the Smoky Jalapeno, which I’d describe as a margarita for whiskey drinkers.

Take a big salty sip, savor, and pull out that Chapstick.

Azul Margaritas

Whether it’s mixing candied jalapeños with pickled mangos in the Thai Curry Taco or the peppers and goat cheese in their Garden Fajita Taco, this place does not lack in creativity. The entrées are just as good.

My wife and I are partial to the Enchilada Suizas and the Pulled Pork Flauta.

The vibe is both hip and welcoming. There’s live music regularly, and it’s got that touch of authenticity and integrity achieved only in a restaurant, like here, where you can spot the owner busing tables. Managing partner Danny Scott is darn good, and looks after every little detail.

That’s why Azul Latin Kitchen is my go-to place in South Tahoe. If you slide into the bar after a day of shredding at Heavenly, there’s a good chance you’ll be sitting next to me while I’m knocking back a Smoky Jalapeño.

Old-School Romantic: Café Fiore

Cafe Fiore Lake Tahoe

Situated between the shores of Lake Tahoe and the base of Heavenly, Café Fiore is a special-occasion restaurant housed in an A-frame that once served as haven for 1960s-era hippy ski bums. 

With original redwood paneling cocooning diners, it has a cozy cabin feel and northern Italian cuisine.

During peak times, make reservations: Café Fiore has but seven tables. “If it’s your anniversary or birthday, we’re that restaurant you pull out a special dress for,” owner Nick Ashmore says.

Menu standouts include the eggplant crepe appetizer, which was featured in Gourmet magazine (thinly sliced eggplant and smoked salmon, with a sherry-cream and sun-dried tomato sauce). 

The Di Mare alla Fiore main dish marries prawns and scallops in a white wine, caper, and lemon-butter sauce, served over a bed of linguini. 

Save room for the house-churned white-chocolate ice cream. “It’s based on an old family recipe we inherited with the restaurant,” says Ashmore. “We make a gallon daily.”

Jimmy’s Restaurant

Chef Maria Elia - Jimmy's restaurant

Jimmy’s at The Landing Resort & Spa, a new five-star boutique lakeside hotel in South Lake Tahoe, offers up wood-fired Greek and regional California cuisine from celebrity chef Maria Elia, author of Smashing Plates: Greek Flavors Redefined

Elia, whose family comes from Cyprus, brings a modern, fresh approach to the traditional Greek fare she grew up with. 

Guests tuck into private dining alcoves with fireplaces for the katafi-wrapped feta with raisin-oregano dressing and carrot keftedes, or the pulled-lamb burger with beetroot tzatziki.

Jimmy’s earned the 2014 Wine Spectator Award of Excellence for its glass-enclosed wine cellar, which features more than 2,000 hand-selected bottles from 250 labels.

Pair Elia’s inventive plates with a Greek wine, or sidle up to the backlit, onyx-walled bar for a Greek mojito made with ouzo. The vibe here is hip and contemporary—and the views of Lake Tahoe are unparalleled.

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