Recently, one of the leading Chinese food authorities in the San Francisco Bay area made an astounding discovery. In the small town of Willits, California, he found a Chinese restaurant called Mom’s Buffet, which in addition to the Americanized Chinese buffet, had a Chinese language menu that offered such items as Lanzhou hand-pulled noodles, rou jia mo (Chinese pulled pork sandwich), salt and pepper baked squab, Toishanese congee, and numerous goat dishes. So what was a restaurant like this doing there?
As readers of this column know, ever since the mid 19th century, authentic Chinese restaurants have been tied to a presence of Chinese communities, as few such Chinese restaurants can subsist solely on the patronage of non-Chinese customers. However, authentic Chinese restaurants can survive without a broad-based permanent Chinese community by targeting other groups such as international Chinese students in college towns and Chinese tourists visiting the United States. But even in this context, the existence of Mom’s Buffet in the far, relatively unpopulated reaches of Northern California was a great puzzlement.
As it turns out, Mom’s Buffet represents a different variation on previous themes. Willits is home to Sherwood Valley Casino. As residents of San Francisco Chinatown, the San Gabriel Valley, and other east and west coast Chinese communities know, Indian casinos send buses to ferry local Chinese residents for day trips. And since the restaurant at Sherwood Valley apparently does not serve Chinese food, Mom’s Buffet seems to have filled the void by providing an off-premises authentic Chinese food alternative for the casino patrons. Thus, we have a new category of authentic Chinese restaurants, one for traveling Chinese Americans headed to the casino.
While this may be a new category of authentic Chinese restaurants, the connection between casinos and Chinese food itself is quite historic. As my previous report on Las Vegas Chinese food noted, the bond between casinos in America and Chinese food runs deep. The link between Las Vegas and Chinese gamblers was a natural one, given the great cultural affinity of Chinese for games of chance. In 19th Century Chinatown, locals would slice open an orange and bet on the number of seeds inside! The specific tie between Las Vegas casinos and Chinese food seems to go back to at least the early 1960s. Around that time, the Fremont casino imported New York chef Bill Gwon to run a Chinese restaurant, while the Sands added Chinese choices to its Garden Room coffee shop menu.
When Chinese food arrived at the casinos, the deep-pocketed overseas Chinese high rollers that have been so prominent the past 40 years had yet to descend on Las Vegas, as the laws restricting the immigration of Chinese to the United States had yet to be repealed, and the United States was not particularly welcoming to tourists from Asia. Still, even then, despite the relatively low Chinese American population, Las Vegas was targeting Chinese American gamblers. I remember my uncle from Hawaii flying to Las Vegas every year or two as part of casino-sponsored junkets ferrying Asian gamblers. In this context, the number of casinos on the Las Vegas Strip that offered Chinese food began to grow, particularly at their coffee shops, and generally in the late night and overnight hours.
With the subsequent change in immigration laws, the early 1970s began to see the influx of overseas high rollers from Hong Kong and Taiwan flocking to Las Vegas. And with the 21st century boom in gamblers from Mainland China and other Asian points of origin, the presence of Chinese restaurants in the casinos of Las Vegas is unmistakable and no longer limited to the wee hours of the morning. Few casinos in Las Vegas do not have at least one Chinese restaurant, and some casinos have multiple purveyors of Chinese food. Since its opening 20 years ago, Las Vegas Chinatown had been the primary option for people looking for seriously good Chinese food. But some of today’s casino options, like Ping Pang Pong in the Gold Coast, Lao Sze Chuan at the Palms, K J Dim Sum & Seafood at the Rio and Hakkasan at MGM Grand are just as good.
Not surprisingly, casino food geared towards Chinese clientele then made the jump from Las Vegas to Indian casinos located proximate to Chinese and other Asian communities. This first of these came to my attention through a food message board comment that said the best Chinese food in the San Diego area was not in the Kearny Mesa district, but rather at the second-tier Sycuan casino. Quickly, the availability of Chinese food spread to other Southern California Indian casinos, such that most of them offer Chinese food, either in dedicated Asian-themed eateries, or as part of their buffet menu.
More recently, the Chinese food trend has shifted to Northern California casinos in a very serious way. About 10 years ago, Koi Palace, which I had listed as the top Chinese restaurant in the United States in my only top 10 listing ever, announced it was opening its first branch at the Thunder Valley Casino in Lincoln. Likewise, the only branch of Martin Yan’s San Francisco-based M Y China was opened in the Graton Casino in Graton, CA. After several years the Koi Palace branch at Thunder Valley was replaced by another Chinese restaurant, Red Lantern, while the M Y China casino location also closed down. However, these closings are more reflective of what the proper genre of Chinese restaurant for a casino may be, and not a lack of interest in Chinese food. As anyone who has seen the lineup of casino buses parked along Stockton St. every morning in San Francisco Chinatown can attest, there is certainly a need for many of these casinos to offer Chinese dining on casino premises.
On the east coast, Indian casinos within driving distance of Chinese communities likewise have adopted Chinese dining as an attracting amenity, as demonstrated in Connecticut by Jumbo Restaurant at Mohegan Sun and Red Lantern at Foxwoods. And in a strange juxtaposition, a budding community of Mohegan Sun Chinese workers has grown nearby, leading to authentic Chinese restaurants serving these casino workers and their families, such as Golden Palace in Uncasville and Grand Palace and Ice & Fire in Norwich.
And perhaps unique to California, some cities permit card-only casinos for in-town gaming. Los Angeles-area Commerce Casino once operated a dedicated Sichuan=style restaurant, Wood Dragon, though it has since scaled back the Chinese food offerings into a combination noodle and taco cafe. Likewise, Bicycle Club in nearby Bell Gardens has its Phoenix Café for Chinese food.
David R. Chan is a third-generation American who has eaten at 7,000 Chinese restaurants and counting. He maintains a spreadsheet of each of his culinary conquests — a document he began in the early 90s, when he bought his first home computer. "When I entered the workforce in the 1970s, that coincided with the rise of what we think of as authentic Chinese food in North America," Chan told the LA Weekly Squid Ink blog. "As such, my goal was to try every authentic Chinese restaurant in the Los Angeles area at least once." He has extended his list to New York, San Francisco, and thousands of restaurants beyond. Still, Chan admits, he can't use chopsticks.