If asked to conjure up mental images of Las Vegas, it's unlikely that Jojo's Jerky would come to mind. The store, which sells jerkies, sauces and marinades, is squashed inside a shipping container. And, all around it, are other shipping containers – all filled with small businesses trying to make their way in a city that does big, brash and commercial better than any other place on earth.
The Downtown Container Park covers everything from jewellery to gourmet hot dogs, but the common theme is that everyone has to squeeze their vision into a 39-square-metre metal box.
Hans Hippert, who runs Jojo's Jerky, says: "The space is definitely a challenge. It makes you overthink every little nook and cranny. When we got a fish tank in, we had to take out one of the windows."
The company started off selling at farmers' markets, and the new permanent premises carries off something of a market vibe. But the Container Park is not alone.
It's part of a fledgling, very un-Vegas part of Downtown Vegas, just to the east of the flashy Fremont Street Experience. This once dicey part of town has been given an overhaul, with plenty of small, independent bars and restaurants moving in. It feels like the emerging cool part of a real city rather than another add-on to a super-sized resort playground.
"A couple of the guys who work here are now looking to buy homes downtown," says Hans. "And my wife and I's date nights are always downtown. But I wouldn't have been caught walking around this area five years ago – the speed of change is incredible."
Much of the impetus for this change has come from one particular moneyed-up downtown resident. In 2013, the Zappos shoe company moved into the old Las Vegas City Hall, bringing 1600 staff with it. CEO Tony Hsieh decided to throw in $350 million to rejuvenate the surrounding area, a considerable chunk of which went in interest-free loans to housing developments, would-be restaurateurs, artists and start-up companies. This provided quite the lure, and the local authorities threw their weight behind it.
The results are considerable. The Container Park might be the kooky, smile-raising centrepiece, but Fremont and Carson Streets, in particular, are now brimming with spots that can try something different without having to have the big, clanking resort machines behind them.
Carson Kitchen is the oft-cited darling of the area, serving up unashamedly rich food in a convivially cool space. But Glutton, a few doors down on Carson Street, is perhaps the best encapsulation of the vibe. It's cosily-sized, but open, with natural light pouring in through wrap-around windows. After a few days of dining in cavernous, dark Strip restaurants, the normality of it is surprisingly refreshing.
But the feel that it could be in any American city doesn't mean it has an identikit menu. The short rib scramble with roasted mushrooms, pickled shallot, potato, caramelised onions, red wine reduction and blue cheese toast, for example, is identifiably comfort food. But it's comfort food with a few twists and unexpected ingredients.
Owner/ chef Bradley Manchester says he wanted it to have "a street restaurant feel, like in San Francisco, New York City or Chicago."
Formerly the executive chef at one of the large resorts, he says: "I got tired of doing that, so I saved up money and negotiated with the Downtown Project."
Glutton opened in April 2015, but Manchester says every month sees something new and different arrive. "I love having repeat guests. That's a huge thing for me – it's great to have that neighbourhood feel."
The new developments downtown are starting to have an effect on the Las Vegas Strip too. MGM's new big project – The Park – may contain a large arena, but what's most interesting about it is the series of smaller bars and restaurants that are in the open air rather than cocooned within a big casino-hotel-entertainment complex.
Among these is the Beerhaus, which is hardly the most dainty place on earth, but forcefully puts forward the case for microbrewed beers, many of which are brewed locally. Again, this is somewhat unusual for Vegas – it's a city where scale matters, and the big resort chains buy well-known, branded beers from multinational breweries. Finding something you've not heard of before can be quite the challenge.
But one look at the menu here shows there's a Nevada craft beer scene bubbling under the radar. Sample sizes aren't officially on the menu, but ask and they'll be served up for $2 a pop. That makes working through the local contenders considerably easier, and while the Crafthaus Evocation Saison and Sin City Say Hello to Amber have their merits, the crisp but flavourful Joseph James Citra Rye is the one that makes you want to upsize the glass. Las Vegas may be discovering the joys of small, but it's OK to make the odd exception…
United flies to Las Vegas via Los Angeles from both Sydney and Melbourne. See united.com.
If staying downtown the Downtown Grand is contemporary and keenly-priced, with rooms from $60. See downtowngrand.com.
SEE + DO
The Downtown Container Park is at 707 E Fremont Street, and takes up a block. See downtowncontainerpark.com.
Glutton is a few blocks away. See gluttonlv.com.
Beerhaus at the Park is part of the larger Park complex. See theparkvegas.com/en/restaurants/beerhaus.html.
David Whitley was a guest of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority and Travel Nevada.