On my first few visits to Las Vegas, I generally stayed on the Vegas Strip. The first time I stayed at a casino off the Vegas Strip was at the wonderful Gold Coast. That property remains close to my heart. Not much has changed at the Gold Coast, so every visit is like a trip to the past. Every December there’s a return visit to the Gold Coast that revolves around lunch or dinner at Ping Pang Pong. If you’re not familiar with PPP, it’s one of the best Chinese restaurants in any casino.
My first memory (actually memories) of visiting downtown Las Vegas all take place at the El Cortez. Unlike the Gold Coast, I still visit the El Cortez regularly. It’s a convenient place to park the car if I plan on hanging out on the east side of Fremont Street. Now that I think of it, I’ll make my last visit to The Beat coffee shop on Fremont East next week. In the course of my travels downtown, I’ll stop at the El Cortez for a little while since it’s right across the street from The Beat.
My first memory of the El Cortez was the wooden panels on the walls by the “sports book.” At the time the sports book was a collection of massive and dated rear projection TV’s that probably stood five feet tall and three feet wide sitting against a wall. The most robust memory from my first visit to El Cortez was playing $3 blackjack on tables with burnt felt while drinking dented cans of beer.
This was a far cry from the Vegas Strip experience and I loved it. The felt is new and the beer is in bottles but I still love it. The El Cortez has cleaned up quite a bit over the years but never lost its soul. It’s not the fanciest casino in downtown Las Vegas but it’s effortlessly vintage. Other properties try to be vintage. El Cortez is vintage.
The El Cortez still has the best low roller blackjack game in Las Vegas. The $5 minimum single deck game pays 3/2 when you’re dealt blackjack has a house edge of 0.30. There’s also a $25 table with the same rules if you’d rather play higher limits. The pit bosses watch players like a hawk, so advanced advantage players won’t be allowed to play very long. However, you should be fine if you keep your bets steady.
The good low rolling at El Cortez doesn’t end at blackjack. Every day, El Cortez offers $0.25 roulette with $1 minimums per spin. That’s another low rolling deal that you won’t find in many other casinos in Las Vegas.
The other games are fine and dandy but the $5 minimum craps game is one of my favorites in Las Vegas. You can find this minimum wager elsewhere with the same 10x odds, but you’ll never roll the dice with people like those you’ll find at El Cortez. It’s a random bunch that has its ups and down but it’s unique. The game is special and it’s unlike any other in Las Vegas.
Like the craps game, the El Cortez is a unique property. It’s not the best casino in Las Vegas. However, it’s a casino that offers an experience unlike anywhere else. In a town looking where casino corporations bring in well-known brands to meet the bottom line, the El Cortez stays true to itself and stands out in the best way possible.


Marc Meltzer covers Las Vegas, gaming and men’s lifestyle for various outlets. Check out his blog at Edge Vegas.
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