Recently, I’ve seen numerous offhand comments made that the best Chinese restaurants in America are the high-end restaurants of Las Vegas. While I agree that Las Vegas serves the most expensive Chinese food in the US, and that some of this expensive food is quite good, one cannot say that Chinese food in Vegas is superior to that found in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, or even a few other cities.
My suspicion is the comments regarding Las Vegas Chinese food are attributable to Ruth Reichl of the New York Times. In a 2006 interview with Charlie Rose, she in fact did say that the best Chinese food in the US was in Las Vegas. But she added a major qualification: she was referring to private invitation dinners provided by the casinos to their high roller Chinese clientele. At the time she made that statement, the highest quality Chinese food did not extend to Chinese restaurants open to the public, nor does it do so today.
There is good and authentic Chinese food to be found in Las Vegas, particularly since the completion of the Las Vegas Chinatown mall on Spring Mountain Boulevard in 1995. Indeed, there had been better than average Chinese food available in Las Vegas for quite a while before that. At one point at least 25 or 30 years ago, it had been reported in the Los Angeles Times that a number of casinos served top notch Chinese food, but only after midnight. Presumably this was to satisfy Chinese high rollers who gambled through the night. Indeed, this was likely the forerunner to the invitation-only dinners referred to by Reichl. As the Las Vegas Chinese community grew in the early 1990s, a few authentic Chinese restaurants started to open up away from the Strip, such as Emperor’s Table on Decatur and Chinese Garden on Sahara. With the opening of Chinatown Plaza in 1995, and its roster of Los Angeles-based Chinese restaurants including Sam Woo BBQ, 1 6 8 Shanghai, Plum Tree Inn, and D.D.’s Café, Las Vegas had truly arrived as a city having a selection of authentic Chinese food choices.
In the years following the construction of Chinatown Plaza, the Spring Mountain corridor has become a real Chinatown, sprinkled with other Asian influences, as other nearby shopping centers converted into Chinese and Asian centers of commerce and new Chinese shopping centers were constructed. In this regard, Las Vegas was a pioneer in American Chinatowns in that its creation was not spontaneous and organic like all other Chinatowns, but arose in a location chosen by a real estate developer.
Interestingly, Las Vegas continues to be a mecca for Los Angeles-area Chinese restaurants that want to set up satellite locations. And we’re not talking about large, widely known Chinese restaurants, but rather popular niche players like Shaanxi Gourmet, Dong Ting, MaMa’s Kitchen (known as China MaMa in Las Vegas), Kim Tar, and Yunnan Garden. Meanwhile, in the casinos on the Strip, virtually every hotel has opened at least one, if not two, Chinese restaurants on premises. An interesting concept was the establishment of branches of well known existing Chinese seafood restaurants in some casinos, such as Cathay House in the Palms, K J Dim Sum in the Rio, Sea Harbour (via Vancouver and Los Angeles) in Caesar’s Palace, and Royal Star (via Santa Monica, sister to Ocean Star in Monterey Park) in the Venetian. However, the experiment seems to have failed, as K J Dim Sum is the only one of these still operating. It is likely that existing restaurants were used by the casinos to attract Chinese Americans from Las Vegas and Los Angeles already familiar with these prominent restaurants, which seemed like a winning strategy. Indeed, opening a branch of Sea Harbour in Caesar’s Palace, likely the best Chinese restaurant in the Los Angeles area and one of the better Chinese restaurants in Vancouver, seemed like a sure thing. One can only speculate what went wrong as the restaurant never had much success from day one. The reviews were bad and the complaints about the pricing were loud. My guess is that the menu was tweaked to appeal to non-Chinese diners and the restaurant was marketed as highly upscale. In so doing, core followers were alienated while the Sea Harbour brand name was meaningless to the non-Chinese visitors who had never heard of it.
Certainly, casino Chinese food is not to be totally ignored. Ping Pang Pong in the Gold Coast is clearly one of the better Chinese restaurants in town. However, as far as casino Chinese food is concerned, the real question is whether any of the upscale Chinese restaurants that have opened up are good enough to warrant the “best Chinese food in the country” label. In at least one case, Hakkasan in the MGM, the answer is yes. Since its American rollout in Manhattan a couple of years ago, Hakkasan has advanced the concept of upscale but authentic Cantonese food in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami and Las Vegas, and has done it so well it makes one wonder why nobody did it before. Whether the type of upscale Chinese food provided by Hakkasan around the country will be a growing trend in Las Vegas or not is the $64 question. Wing Lei, which opened in the Wynn a few years ago, has a Michelin star, which is more than any Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles can say. But its menu is decidedly inauthentic, dominated by dishes such as egg drop soup, kung pao chicken, sweet and sour pork, and orange chicken. Plus when Wing Lei lost Richard Chen, the star chef who originally opened up the restaurant, the buzz began to fade. As to other upscale casino Chinese restaurants, the ratio between quality and price is so skewed that few diners seriously interested in Chinese food would even care to sample the fare.
So for now, we’re still waiting for great Chinese food to arrive in Las Vegas at more venues accessible to us mere mortals.