When I saw this article, I just assumed it was Las Vegas. And I was correct. So, who deserves credit for this phenomenon?
Fodors: Most likely, it is the California Hotel and Casino, located on Fremont Street in Downtown Vegas. “The Cal,” as it is lovingly known, plays the starring role in the birth of the Ninth Island. Sam Boyd, of Boyd Gaming, started his career working a gambling barge off the coast of Oahu and went on to be one of Vegas’ most prolific and celebrated hoteliers and marketing brains. His California Hotel and Resort opened in 1975 to tepid reviews and meager sales.
Boyd turned his attention across the Pacific, marketing The Cal to Hawaiians with attractive package deals, subsidized flights, and home comforts in the form of traditional Hawaiian food (which we enjoy) and a laid-back, informal style of hospitality. Hawaiians took Sam Boyd’s long-shot marketing gambit and ran with it, turning the Cal into a generational destination of family tradition, connectivity, and collective memory. Many Hawaiians migrated to work at the Cal and in Vegas’ greater service industry, bringing their families and relatives and building a thriving community.
For us, during the last 25 years, we have moved our “base of operations” in Vegas from the Strip to downtown. The primary reasons: less expensive hotels, and a choice of plentiful and reasonably priced Asian food. We often met my Mom, and other relatives from both the Valley and LA in downtown Vegas. While we do not go as often since my Mom has passed on, it does bring back fond memories of our many trips there.
Forors: To this day, the Cal is the kind of place where guests come back year after year, bringing gifts from the islands for their favorite cocktail waitresses. Dealers and hotel staff ditch suits in favor of Hawaiian shirts. In the sales office at the Cal, I meet Karen Shizuru, Nathan Young, and Mercy Griggs who are all transplants from Oahu.
“This place offers a feeling of safety and comfort. When we say ‘Aloha Spoken Here,’ we mean it,” says Shizuru, Sales Representative at the Cal. She means this quite literally, as she frequently switches between mainland English and Hawaiian pidgin when she answers the phone.
But there is one more big attraction, with a cult following. Oxtail soup is a dish that is so beloved and conjures so much nostalgia that everyone seems to have an opinion about it, and it’s particularly dear to ninth islanders. Although the Cal’s version is rightfully famous, many Cal staff quietly inform me that they prefer the oxtails on offer at Lanai Express, an otherwise unremarkable lunch counter buried on the casino floor of the Fremont, another Boyd property down the street.
Personally, I think the oxtail soup at the nearby Main Street Station is the best in Vegas. Once you try it, I swear you will never go back to Osso Buco. Veal shanks look very similar to oxtails, but it does not have the intense flavor and texture of oxtails.
So, just about all the Hawaiians at the Cal, the Fremont, or Main Street walk around with a coupon book, particularly at mealtime. Don’t ask me how they can afford to gamble for an entire week. Many restaurant and cafe items are specific to Hawaii, including Loco Moco, Spam musubi, saimin (similar to ramen), plate lunch, and grilled mahi mahi.
Often, there are more Asians in the casinos, creating an “island culture” about 3,000 miles from home!