Las Vegas may be known as Sin City, but unbeknownst to many, it’s also known for its large Hawaiian community. Hawaiian food isn’t as easily accessible in New York City, so when I went to Vegas last month I made sure to check out a few restaurants (something to hold me over until I actually visit the islands). I’m also squeezing a Mexican spot into this roundup, because it may be the outsider of the list, but it A) more than holds its own and B) is open 24/7 to satisfy those wee-hour cravings.
If a city has its own Chinatown, I’ll be there, regardless of size or reputation. I grew up exploring and eating in Manhattan’s Chinatown and Flushing, the Chinatown of Queens, so I always like seeing what other cities have to offer. Unfortunately we didn’t have enough time to navigate the streets of Vegas’s Chinatown, but I made time to visit Hawaiian Style Poke. This tiny little shop sells poke (Hawaiian raw fish salad, pronounced poh-kay) by the pound or in a rice bowl. Most of the pokes are made with ahi tuna, and come in different mixed varieties like different types of seaweed, garlic, spicy mayo, oyster sauce or soy sauce. I ordered the limu (Hawaiian for “algae”) ahi poke bowl, which features fresh chunks of tuna mixed with limu, sesame oil, sesame seeds and sliced raw onions, then sprinkled with green onions. The limu, sesame oil and a packet of soy sauce give the bowl an umami flavor. It may look like a small portion, but between the large pieces of tuna and the rice, you’ll definitely be full.
Aloha Kitchen is a Hawaiian fast food chain, and there are a few locations in Vegas. I’ve come to learn that Hawaiian food is an amalgamation of influences from American and various Asian cuisines combined with its own food traditions. The adobo fried rice omelette, a Filipino-American hybrid, is a good example of this. It’s ridiculously large and filling, but a bit too salty for me, and I would’ve liked it more with some sauce as well. The loco moco is a more classic, no-frills Hawaiian dish. The combination of gravy, hamburger steak, eggs and rice is very comforting and filling. The mac salad is a standard Hawaiian side, and Aloha Kitchen’s version is nice and creamy. However, my favorite thing here is the spam musubi. It’s a popular Japanese-inspired Hawaiian snack consisting of grilled teriyaki-marinated spam wrapped with rice and a sheet of nori (dried seaweed). Each bite hits several flavors and textures all at once: salty from the spam, lightly sweet from the sauce, crispy from the nori, and soft but dense from the rice. We came back on a separate day just to pick some up to go.
Island Style is a restaurant serving up Hawaiian-Korean food (as well as Korean-Chinese dishes like jjajangmyeon and jjamppong). When we received our banchan, I was rather surprised and amused to see sauteed hot dog slices and onion in a dish. I’m a big fan of their kimchi, which I’ve heard is quite popular in Hawaii. It’s full of strong, nicely fermented and tangy flavors. The kalua pork and cabbage was a little dry and salty for me, though my friend said it was very reminiscent of what he had in Hawaii. The kalbi was marinated in a sweet Korean BBQ sauce, then grilled, and the result was two large strips of juicy, meaty, flavorful beef short ribs. Their dishes, of course, come with a side of mac salad. Several people also recommended Island Style’s meat jun, a Korean-Hawaiian favorite made of sweet marinated meat dipped in egg batter and fried. Sadly, I didn’t have any room left in my stomach, but it’s on my to-try list.
Vegas also has a big Filipino community, which I witnessed when we arrived at Seafood City Supermarket. This Filipino market complex houses a few vendors like Jollibee (a famous Filipino fast food chain) and a Filipino barbecue stand, but I was craving ice cream (as I always do) and dropped in at Magnolia Ice Cream & Treats. Magnolia’s first ice cream shop opened in Waipahu, Hawaii, and it’s made its way here. There were so many flavors to choose from like ube (purple yam), cashew langka (cashew and jackfruit), haupia (Hawaiian coconut pudding) and mais queso (corn and cheese). After a lot of sampling, I used every ounce of self-control I had and got only two scoops: ube and avocado. Magnolia’s ice cream is vibrantly colored, but the flavors were anything but artificial. The avocado was creamy and the ube had actual bits of purple yam inside. They also sell halo-halo and mais con hielo (sweet corn, shaved ice, corn flakes and mais queso ice cream). Yet again, my eyes were bigger than my stomach, but I have to return and try both of them.
El Dorado Cantina might seem out of place in this post, but after eating there I had to include it. Don’t let the fact that this Mexican restaurant is attached to a strip club deter you. Or maybe it’s a bonus. No judgments. Either way, the food is top-notch, and they’re open 24/7, which was a blessing when we came here for “dinner” at 1 a.m. and didn’t leave until nearly 3. I was all ready to order some tacos, but when I saw Paco’s Mole Sample on the menu, I did a complete 180. Mole, a variety of sauces used in Mexican cuisine, gives me life. This platter came with flour or corn tortillas, refried beans and cilantro rice. There were three traditional chicken moles; Oaxacan chocolate (a mole that I’m more familiar with), pumpkin chile poblano and Guajillo chipotle chile. I’m more familiar with the slightly sweet, hearty flavor of the chocolate mole, but the other two were new to me. The Guajillo chipotle mole was zingier and spicier, while the pumpkin mole had an earthier flavor and wasn’t sweet like I thought it would be. The tortillas were a perfect vehicle to enjoy the shredded chicken, sauces, beans and rice. Although we barely finished, we left just enough room to indulge in El Dorado Cantina’s wonderfully creamy flan, a recipe from Chef Paco’s grandmother.