Star-Bulletin Features

Wednesday, September 5, 2001


Gambling on
a good meal

Las Vegas restaurants cater to
local tastes with home-style
plate-lunch fare

[First of two parts]

Gourmet grinds

By Betty Shimabukuro

Ah, the Vegas vacation. Four days and nights of slots, blackjack and video poker. Plus craps. Only one thing: Local folks cannot go four days without sticky rice and shoyu.

But they don't have to -- nor do local college students or local-guys/gals-now-working-in-Vegas. Or their kids.

If there's one place outside these islands where Hawaii grinds thrive, it is Las Vegas. Just because you're nearly 3,000 miles from home, doesn't mean your rice has to be pilaf.

Las Vegas is a gourmet boomtown, a place where star chefs in growing numbers are catering to the big money of a gambling mecca. It's still a town of $4.99 buffets, but it's also a town of $200 tasting menus.

Vegas' Hawaiian eateries, though, are run by Hawaii people, for Hawaii people and dedicated to the proposition that two scoops rice are better than one and mac salad should contain Best Foods.

If you'd like to trade a little cash for a little luxury, Hawaii folks provide that, too, in the form of chef Jean Marie Josselin's partnership, 808 in Caesar's Palace, and the off-Strip Malibu Chan's.

Consider it a mixed plate. And here's a little tasting.

The California Hotel is Ground Zero for Hawaii visitors to Vegas, so it is only fitting that the most long-lived plate-lunch joint took root here.

Larry Yamagata (Farrington High School, class of 1960) opened Aloha Specialties in 1985, at the behest of his brother and cousin, who were running a gift shop in the hotel. "I decided I liked it here," Yamagata recalls. "So I went back home and put in my two weeks' notice. Kinda brave, but stupid-kine brave."

He was an executive chef for the Sheraton hotel chain at the time, but vested after 20 years and ready for something new. Plus, he had the genes -- his late mother, Haruko, had worked in a Vegas restaurant on Fremont Street years before. "She was the first person to introduce teriyaki to Las Vegas. She was the one to test the market over here."

The mural at Aloha Kitchen is another reminder of home.

In the 1960s, she had run a small restaurant at King and Bishop streets in downtown Honolulu, King's Den. Yamagata used to help out, and the skills learned there are what he leans on as he serves up saimin and teri chicken plates -- not his years running hotel kitchens.

"The funny part is, this is what I never learned in the hotel," he says. "When I came over here -- beef stew and all that stuff -- I don't know how to make that." He fell back on his mother's recipes. "It all came down from fancy stuff to just simplicity."

You'll wait in line to order at Aloha Specialties; it's a busy place. Yamagata sells 300 Spam musubi every day and goes through 3,000 pounds of saimin noodles -- flown in fresh from Hawaii -- monthly.

Things have gone so well that the family has opened a second restaurant, Ross J's Aloha Grill, in Green Valley, outside the casino zone. It's named for Yamagata's first grandson, who died in a motorcycle accident on Maui just after graduating from high school. The grandson's plan had been to work for his grandfather in Vegas.

Yamagata's son, Dean, runs Ross J's; another son, Greg, and a nephew run Aloha Specialties. "I just come nighttime, fry cook or whatever." He'd like to open a third place, on the west side. "Before I retire, before I die, I really want one more."

In contrast to Yamagata, with his many years in Vegas, Dayna Lam Ho and her partner, Jolene Machado (both Castle 1994), opened Hawaiian Style Cafe just six months ago, off the Strip near Summerlin, where lots of Hawaii people live.

The two have been friends since high school and a couple years ago began discussing opening a restaurant together, based on Machado's culinary training at the Travel Institute of the Pacific in Honolulu.

Last year they came into some money and made the move. "We did our research and there's a lot of Hawaii people who have moved here," Ho says. Plus, "the competition was very, very slim, compared to home."

Their 20-seat restaurant serves up okazuya-type specialties, as well as traditional Hawaiian foods such as laulau, kalua pig, lomilomi salmon, poke and even poi. It's already been written up in the Las Vegas Review Journal, which brought in some new business.

Ho and Machado have had to deal with the double whammy of moving to a new city (where, by the way, the temperature topped out at 105 degrees last week) and starting a new business, but that Hawaiian-kine security blanket is making it easier, Ho says. "The guy who helped us with our loan, the guy who helped us find the place -- all Hawaii people."

"Mom, we stay at Sun's. What you like?"

Hiwa Baxter is calling home from Sun's Barbecue and Tempura House, near the University of Nevada Las Vegas, to offer Mom a choice of the Korean plates served here. Hiwa personally is partial to the meat jun and chicken wings.

Derek Baxter brought his family from Waimanalo to Vegas in a job change. The move's been OK, he says, but it sure was nice to find a place like this, with the tastes of home, "and it's served with rice."

Robert and Christine Ishihara opened Sun's in June 2000 as newlyweds. They wanted a business they could run together and came across this former Chinese restaurant for sale in the classifieds.

Their customer base is largely drawn from among Hawaii expatriots and Korean nationals attending UNLV, but gradually others such as the Baxters are finding them as well. "We're past the stage of throwing money into it," Robert Ishihara (Roosevelt, 1969) says of the new business.

Sun's offers Korean specialties Hawaii-style, plus tempura and plate-lunch favorites -- from kal-bi and chop chae to chicken katsu and mahi tempura. There's also macaroni salad, "and to make it a well-rounded meal, there's kim chee," Ishihara says.

His wife ran a Japanese/Korean restaurant in California, so she provides the kitchen know-how. Ishihara, a jeweler by trade, runs the front of the house. His restaurant experience is as a long-time plate-lunch consumer.

"I was single for 48 years, going to all these drive-in restaurants."

Those many planes carrying tourists from Hawaii to Vegas make it easy to fly in fish, saimin noodles and other fresh items. The Hawaii restaurants also depend a great deal on Hosoda Brothers in San Francisco, a distributor that keeps them supplied with Portuguese sausage, Hawaiian Sun drinks and perishables such as poi.

Supplies, they say, are not the problem, but staffing can be, once a restaurant grows enough to require help outside the family. Las Vegas is a very transient community and it's hard to hold onto trained workers.

Employee turnover "is so unbelievable," Yamagata says. "I cannot even count how much dishwashers we had here since we opened -- maybe 60 or 70."

His solution is to put his family to work, and beyond that the extended family of Hawaii people in general. "Probably 80 percent of my staff is Hawaii people." He says he trains them from dishwasher up to line cook.

"It's more comfortable. can talk pidgin and all that. Communication is good."

Waipahu High graduate Kevin Martinez is
executive chef of Malibu Chan's.

Gourmet grinds

By Betty Shimabukuro

Most of the restaurants catering to Hawaii tastes in Las Vegas are casual operations, but two restaurants are taking a more upscale approach.

In 1999, Warren and Cathy Seta opened Malibu Chan's, in a well-heeled neighborhood not far from the Strip. Their aim was to introduce Pacific Rim fusion to the area. "We wanted East meets West and we thought East would be Charlie Chan," Cathy Seta says in describing the name. "And we wanted something California, so we came up with Malibu."

A year later, Jean Marie Josselin, chef/owner of A Pacific Cafe restaurants in Hawaii, opened 808 amid the glitz and glam of Ceasar's Palace last year, giving Hawaii Regional Cuisine a place in the Vegas vocabulary.

Josselin sent Wes Coffel from one of his Maui restaurants to run the kitchen, along with cooks Jesus Cruz and Noelani Planas -- for whom life outside Hawaii is a brave new world.

They found themselves in the land of big spenders. "High rollers come in who just won or lost $5 million," Coffel says. One repeat customer shares the wealth whenever he wins and one night passed around $1,300 just to the staff.

On Christmas Eve they served a private party of 25 people. The liquor bill alone was $72,000, Coffel says. "And I can't spend $22 on a case of beer," Planas interjects.

Both 808 and Malibu Chan's are aiming beyond the Hawaii crowd, toward the sophisticated gourmet set.

"Vegas has become such a mecca for great chefs and great food," Warren Seta says. "They could build a restaurant on top of a mountain here, no parking, and it would be packed."

The Setas also own a teppanyaki restaurant, Mizuno's, in the Tropicana Resort and Casino.

In their new place, they told chef Kevin Martinez was to challenge the clientele, but not to scare them with anything too drastic. So the menu includes ribs with Korean sauce, teriyaki chicken on pizza and in Caesar salads.

"That's our philosophy -- give them things that taste good to us, that they're not familiar with," Warren Seta says. "Of course, we don't serve Spam."

Yes, those exotic foods. Raw fish, for instance. Cruz says it's hard even to get the kitchen staff to try it.

"To taste the raw items, it's like they're eating lizards or something."


Plate lunch fare

Aloha Kitchen, 4745 S. Maryland Parkway (702) 895-9444
Aloha Specialties, California Hotel (702) 382-0338
Hawaiian Hale, 3620 W. Sahara (720) 362-6922
Hawaiian Style Cafe, 136 S. Rainbow Blvd. (702) 319-8401
Tropics Bar and Grill
1617 Decatur (702) 870-9858
Ross J's Aloha Grill, 4451 E. Sunset Road, Henderson (702) 435-5600
Sun's Barbecue and Tempura House, 5006 S. Maryland Parkway (702) 262-9889

Upscale dining

808, Caesar's Palace (702) 731-7996
Malibu Chan's, 8125 W. Sahara Ave. (702) 312-4267
Mizuno's Japanese Steak House, Tropicana Resort and Casino (702) 739-2713

Plates from Hawaiian Hale.

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