A Hawaiian island in the Nevada desert
How the California brought Hawaii to Las Vegas
The restaurants aren’t always easy to identify. They often use the word “island” or the pidgin “da” in the title, and sometimes they stress secondary ethnicities, like Filipino or Korean. The menus might have sushi alongside staples like oxtail soup, kalua pork and macaroni salad. But look closely within nearly any Vegas neighborhood and you’ll find it: Hawaiian influence.
Hawaiians have long been an acknowledged presence in Las Vegas, yet while the explosion of other ethnicities (if “Hawaiian” should be considered such) in the valley is regularly noted, the size and influence of the Hawaiian population has been radically overlooked.
“You know they call it ‘the ninth island?’” asks Maile Bennett, an Oahu native now serving at Michel Richard’s Central inside Caesars Palace. “There’s definitely a reason for that.”
“It is (the ninth island),” says construction contractor Milton Vickers, who moved here from Oahu 15 years ago. “The only thing we miss here is the ocean, surfing, fishing.”
“Even though it’s far away from home and nothing’s similar in the environment,” Bennett says, “it feels like home because of the people.”
Solid numbers aren’t easy to come by, but the 2010 Census counted about 16,300 Nevada residents of Hawaiian or Pacific Islander descent, the overwhelming majority of whom live in Clark County. Given the transient nature of Las Vegas and immigrant populations in general, however, that’s almost certainly a serious undercount.
“See how many cars you’re following on the 15 or 215 that have a Hawaiian island sticker on the back window,” says former Big Islander Bruce Goold. “I‘ve noticed a lot more people moving here lately, looking for a cheaper way of life.”
Keep in mind, the entire permanent population of the state of Hawaii is less than 1.3 million, according to the 2010 Census — less than that of Clark County. Yet, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, in 2010, there were approximately 7,000 airline seats flying from Hawaii to McCarran International Airport every week, bringing 260,000 visitors from Honolulu to the desert. Not accounting for repeat visits — of which there were likely many — and travelers continuing elsewhere, about 20 percent of all Hawaiians visited Las Vegas in one year. And some of them stayed.
So, what are all these Pacific Islanders doing in the Mojave Desert?
Well, they’re serving food, certainly. Immigrant populations typically make their mark first with restaurants, and Hawaiians are no exception. Across the valley today there are nearly 50 establishments run by and/or catering to Hawaiians, ranging widely from the casual L&L Hawaiian Barbecue chain to two gourmet Roy’s Hawaiian Fusion restaurants.
Hawaiians are carving a respected spot in mainstream Vegas hospitality, as well, including John Witte, specialty room chef of The Range Steakhouse at Harrah’s, John Emron, sous chef at Social House at CityCenter, and Anuhea Hawkins, sommelier at Nove Italiano at the Palms. Troy Kumalaa, former sommelier at Summerlin’s Vintner Grill, recently moved into wine distribution. And you’ll find many more Hawaiians among the ranks.
At Harrah’s, Witte’s menu includes subtle island touches.
“If I incorporate Hawaiian, it’s a comfort thing,” he says.
Nevertheless, the chef from Kauai insists Hawaiian tradition offers some valuable insights.
“It’s about respecting the land, respecting nature, respecting your ingredients," he says. "Love the food, and the food will love you back.”
Food service isn’t the only industry in which Hawaiians have invested in Vegas. Coming from a place where tourism is king and generosity is a cultural benchmark, Hawaiians are a natural fit for all aspects of our casino industry.
“We deal with tourists all the time, just like at home,” says Bennett, who moved to Las Vegas four years ago.
They are entrepreneurs, as well. Slade’s Polynesian Crafts and the funky Aloha2Go both offer myriad imported wares. TheSilvaShop.com sells a variety of modern Hawaiian fashions, and Designer Distribution Services specializes in moves to and from Hawaii. Rimando Kajukenbo Karate in North Las Vegas even teaches Hawaiian-style street fighting.
The West Oahu Aggregate Company is located in Henderson, and you can find lei makers, hula trainers and auto repair shops throughout the valley. Hawaii-based ABC convenience stores have eight locations in Las Vegas — their only mainland presence. There are local Hawaiian websites, the Ewalu Club for Hawaiian students at UNLV and a Las Vegas Hawaiian Civic Club, whose mission includes presenting festivals like the annual Ho’olaule’a (2012 will be the 22nd) and awarding scholarships to students of Pacific Islander descent. There’s even a competing Hawaiian fest, Pure Aloha, which takes place at the Silverton twice a year, drawing as many as 20,000 attendees.
“It’s not as foreign here (to us) as even California is,” says Bennett, acknowledging similar enclaves in Cerritos and Torrance outside L.A. “My brother lives in San Francisco, but the cost of living here is so cheap by comparison.”
More to the point, it’s significantly cheaper than living on the islands. While Clark County has certainly been hammered by the recession, it looks rosy to a population with as limited opportunities as Hawaiian islanders.
But that still doesn’t reveal exactly how they all got here. That can be explained in just six letters: the Cal.
As chronicled in the book “California Hotel and Casino: Hawaii’s Home Away from Home” (published by, yes, University of Hawaii Press in 2008), Sam Boyd got a toehold in the Las Vegas game in 1975 by building a new Gold Rush-themed hotel off-Strip. The off-Fremont Street casino was greeted with general indifference, and Boyd realized quickly he would need to build a clientele or wither on the vine. He decided, for perhaps the first time in Vegas history, to reach across the Pacific Ocean to the place where he first learned the gambling business when it was legal there pre-WWII: Oahu.
“Sam was ahead of his time,” courting a specifically underserved customer base and never changing course, recalls Boyd Gaming’s John Repetti.
Boyd knew that Hawaiians seemed particularly enamored of gambling but had been denied any legal ways to enjoy it since becoming a state. So, he began offering Hawaiian foods like oxtail soup, saimin and butterfish at the cafe, serving the right kind of sticky rice and, perhaps most importantly, encouraging dealers and floor men to adopt a “hang loose” friendly atmosphere, changing their tuxedos for Aloha shirts and conversing with gamers — unheard of at the time, recalls Repetti, who has been with the casino since the ’70s (he’s now a senior vice president).
If you bemoan the loss of formality and hate how casual casinos have become, blame Boyd. On the other hand, Boyd Gaming today is also the last vestige of the old-school personalized casino treatment.
Boyd Gaming actually has a subsidiary business called Boyd Vacations Hawaii, which contracts a charter airline offering package deals that are so inexpensive, it is cheaper to fly from Oahu or Maui to Las Vegas than it is to fly inter-island — as long as you don’t mind staying in one of their casinos for four or five nights. When the deals were first introduced, they were an almost inconceivable $9.90, he says. Today, they are well into triple-digits but still a value when including the hotel room and food vouchers.
“We just leased a new plane,” Repetti reports.
Shinagawa and others confirm a logical suspicion: that Hawaiians have taken advantage of Boyd’s subsidized vacation flights and stayed.
But Boyd did more than lure Hawaiians with deals. He courted them with parties on the islands and in Vegas. He sent his chefs to Hawaii to make sure they were making the food authentically, and he contracted with an expat Hawaiian to open Aloha Specialties, which serves a broader range of Hawaiian food than the casino’s two cafes. Though today it may now be outclassed by other far-flung Hawaiian spots in town, Aloha Specialities still packs them in.
“When I moved here,” Bennett says, “one of my friends told me, if I got homesick, to go down to the California and cry over a bowl of the oxtail soup.”
Today, says Repetti, the Cal “buys more oxtail than probably the rest of the city combined.”
In 1985, Boyd Gaming bought the Fremont and later annexed Main Street Station. Both also offer Hawaiian food (though other Boyd properties generally do not). Boyd Gaming also continues to host the annual Lei Day event, which it acknowledges has become principally a celebration for Hawaiian locals, who are not necessarily a huge base of gamers. Check the event schedule for the Cal’s function rooms on any odd weekend and you’re likely to see a high school reunion … for a high school on Oahu, Maui or the Big Island. It’s also a regular gathering point for families who have relocated throughout the Northwest and Southwest. Boyd Gaming estimates that 80-90 percent of Vegas visitors from Hawaii stay at a Boyd property.
Repetti doesn’t give specific credit to Boyd for building the Hawaiian community here single-handedly, but it’s hard to deny.
“Live here, and you don’t miss your family (back home) because they come here five to seven times a year,” he said.
Say that again?
“Our average customer comes four to six times a year (from Hawaii),” Repetti claims. “Some come every month.”
And having captive visitors for five-day stretches works out.
“Our customers play twice as long as the average Vegas visitor,” Repetti explains.
Even beyond the Boyd properties, Downtown Vegas has surely caught the Hawaiian bug. The revamped Plaza is home to an outpost of the very respected Island Sushi and Poke Express of Henderson. Las Vegas Club has a Hawaiian jerky store, and Four Queens serves Hawaiian food at their 24-hour cafe. And the list goes on.
How has this Hawaiian explosion happened with so little notice? Unlike most modern “immigrant” populations, Hawaiians have a strong tendency toward assimilation. You won’t find a “Little Honolulu” here, akin to Asia’s dominance of Spring Mountain Road.
“We spread out,” Vickers acknowledges. “I live in Green Valley, my nephew and niece are here, (but) we have people in Centennial Hills, everywhere." Regardless, he says, “We have a tight community, we stick together. Anyone here, somewhere down the line, you know their family.”
And it’s likely that you know an islander, too, even if you aren’t one. The Hawaiian explosion is quietly changing the landscape of Las Vegas, and its strongest effect is likely to be an epidemic of people learning to “hang loose,” as they say. Worse things could happen.
A version of this story first appeared in Las Vegas Weekly, a sister publication of VEGAS INC and the Sun.