Recently I’ve seen comments made that the best Chinese food in America can be found in Las Vegas. While I agree that Las Vegas serves the most expensive Chinese food in the US, and that some of this expensive food is quite good, one cannot say that Chinese food in Las Vegas' restaurants tops that in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, or even a few other cities.
My suspicion that the comments elevating the status of Las Vegas Chinese food are attributable to a comment made several years ago by Ruth Reichl of the New York Times. In an interview she did say that the best Chinese food in the US was in Las Vegas. However she qualified her statement significantly by saying she was referring to private invitation dinners provided by the casinos to their high roller Chinese clientele. And clearly at the time she made that statement, the high quality Chinese food designation clearly did not extend to Chinese restaurants open to the public, nor does it do so today.
Now there is good and authentic Chinese food to be found in Las Vegas, particularly since the construction of the Las Vegas Chinatown mall on Spring Mountain Blvd. in 1995. Actually there had been better than average Chinese food available in Las Vegas for quite a while. At one point probably 25 or 30 years ago it had been noted by the L.A. Times that a number of casinos served top notch Chinese food, but only after midnight. Presumably this was to satisfy Chinese high rollers who gambled through the night. Then as the Las Vegas Chinese community grew in the early 1990s, a few authentic Chinese restaurants started to open up away from the Strip, such as Emperor’s Table on Decatur and Chinese Garden on Sahara. With the opening of Chinatown Plaza with its roster of Los Angeles based Chinese restaurants including Sam Woo BBQ, 1 6 8, Plum Tree Inn and D.D.’s Café, Las Vegas had truly arrived as a city having a selection of authentic Chinese food choices.
Interestingly, Las Vegas continues to attract Los Angeles area Chinese restaurants that set up branches there. And we’re not talking about large, widely known Chinese restaurants, but rather smaller, niche players, like Shaanxi Gourmet, Dong Ting, Kim Tar and Yunnan Garden. Meanwhile, in the casinos on the Strip, virtually every hotel has opened at least one, if not two Chinese restaurants on premises. An interesting concept was the establishment of branches of well known existing Chinese restaurants in the casinos, such as Cathay House, K J Dim Sum, Sea Harbour (via Vancouver and Los Angeles) and Royal Star (via Santa Monica, and known as Ocean Star in Monterey Park). However, the experiment seems not to have worked as K J Dim Sum in the Rio appears to be the only one still operating.
I'm sure that existing restaurants were used by the casinos to attract Chinese Americans familiar with these restaurants, which seemed like a winning strategy. Indeed, opening a branch of Sea Harbour, likely the best Chinese restaurant in the Los Angeles area and one of the better Chinese restaurants in Vancouver, in Caesar’s Palace seemed like a sure thing. One can only speculate what went wrong as the restaurant never had much success from day one. The reviews were bad from the start and the complaints about the pricing were loud. My guess is that they tweaked the menu to appeal to non-Chinese diners and marketed it as a highly upscale restaurant. In so doing they alienated their core followers as to both quality and price. Meanwhile the brand name was meaningless to the non-Chinese who had never heard of them.
In the casinos the question is whether any of the upscale Chinese restaurants that have opened up are authentically good. In at least one case, Hakkasan in the MGM, the answer is yes. Since its rollout in Manhattan a couple of years ago, Hakkasan has advanced the concept of upscale but authentic Cantonese food in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami and Las Vegas, and has done it so well it makes one wonder why nobody did it before. Whether this will be a growing trend in Las Vegas or not is the $64 question. Wing Lei which opened up in the Wynn a few years ago has a Michelin star, but its menu is decidedly inauthentic, plus apparently they lost the star chef who originally opened up the restaurant. So for now, we’re still waiting for great Chinese food to arrive in Las Vegas at multiple venues accessible to us mere mortals.