A Taste Of Hawaii In Old Las Vegas

A Taste Of Hawaii In Old Las Vegas

The California Hotel & Casino is a landmark of old downtown Las Vegas, and at first glance, it appears very similar to its neighbors such as Binion's, the Golden Gate and the Four Queens. But there is one thing that distinctly sets the California apart, and that is its long tradition of a very loyal Hawaiian clientele. Tour operator Hawaiian Vacations operates five non-stop charters a week from the 50th State to Sin City and many of those passengers book packages at the California.

Just off Fremont Street, it has the typical downtown feel with neon signage over the entrances and a laid back vibe, with none of the glamour or pretense of the newer Strip resorts. It has a unique slate of culinary offerings skewed towards its clientele, almost all of whom come from the islands. There is an outpost of Hawaii's famed (and delicious) Lappert's Ice Cream, the fast-food takeaway Aloha Specialties, and most of all, the Market Street Café, a stereotypical Vegas casino coffee shop open 24 hours a day, but with a distinctly tropical menu twist. The space is simple, a couple of large rooms filled with generic chairs and tables topped with bottles of Heinz ketchup,Tabasco sauce and one distinctive bottle — Aloha brand soy sauce, "made in Hawaii since 1946."

Reason to visit: Oxtail soup, oxtail stew, Chinese fried chicken, combo noodle soup, other Hawaiian specialties

The food: The menu at Market Street Café is mostly American coffee-shop staples like chicken fried steak, spaghetti, pork chops, burgers, and eggs every which way. There's also an all-you-can-eat salad bar, and of course — this being Vegas — a prime-rib dinner special. But practically every casino in the city has a place like this, and the reason to come specifically to the Market Street Café is for what the others do not have: the Hawaiian dishes. These are found in specials of the day, including oxtail stew, served Monday and Thursday; Chicken Long Rice or Lau Lau (Tuesday); Teriyaki Chicken Bowl (Wednesday); Kalua pig with cabbage and chicken adobo (Friday); island short ribs and chicken curry (Saturday); and a seafood catch of the day, often mahi mahi or butterfish.

The morning buffet features a beloved Hawaiian breakfast staple, Portuguese sausage, while the single most popular item — oxtail soup (not stew) — is served as a "graveyard special" nightly after 11 p.m. The chef's specialties on the regular all-day dining menu include mahi mahi, island curry stew pot (beef or chicken), saimin (a very Hawaiian noodle soup, served here with fish cake and Chinese roast pork), a combo soup, teriyaki beef or chicken plates, and Chinese-style fried chicken. There are no shortage of island-inspired options to choose from, and the menu even includes guava and passion-orange juices. "95% of our guests are from Hawaii, so we try to give them what they are comfortable with," said chef Derrick Thompson.

The most popular dish is the oxtail soup, with a very rich beefy broth and five big chunks of oxtail, cooked on the bone to add flavor. It's finished with peanuts for a nice crunchy contrast, and served with spicy sambal chili sauce, soy sauce, fresh ginger and parsley on the side. If you add the sambal it gives the soup a big heat kick, but still not overpowering, and most guests also add sambal and soy to their dish of white rice and alternate this with the soup. "We start serving the soup at 11 each night but the line starts forming at nine, and runs out onto the casino floor," said Thompson. "We serve about 800 pounds of oxtail each day, and more on weekends."

The oxtail stew is much thicker, with a gravy-like sauce instead of broth and lots of peas, and is also quite tasty and served with the sambal, soy, ginger, parsley and white rice. The hearty combo soup — my favorite thing — was excellent and rich. For seven bucks, you get a big bowl of noodles with flavorful Chinese char sui-style barbecued pork, plus shrimp, wontons and fish cakes. All the soup and stew dishes are large, full-meal portions. The Chinese-style fried chicken promised to be marinated with Chinese spices and glazed with teriyaki, but it had little Asian flavor. On the other hand, it was simply excellent fried chicken, with crisp breading and great juiciness inside, cooked to perfection, and like almost everything else here, served with white rice at bargain prices. The teriyaki beef had great flavor, but the quality of the beef itself was just so-so, a bit chewy. If you like teriyaki beef, however, the sauce here is excellent. With these prices, and the congenial atmosphere, it's easy to like everything on the menu.

David Jones Headshot
Phone: 702-883-8801
Dated: August 30th 2015
Views: 569
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