When I think of Hawaiian food culture, I dream of the shrimp trucks of Kauai and lau lau fresh from the imu. Of magical delicacies like gas station musubi and fried chicken, or paper-thin sashimi fresh from Hawaii’s warm waters. Instead, I found myself stuffed to the brim amidst the neon marquees and high desert landscape of Hawaii’s Ninth Island.
Ninth Island? That’s right. Clark County, Nevada. Home to a little town called Las Vegas, and by some accounts, a Hawaiian diaspora of more than 50,000, the largest anywhere in the world.
My first stop on this unlikely tour was the sales office of 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 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.
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.
What makes Vegas such a good place to live and work? “It’s cheap!” all three chime. Shizuru worked three jobs to make a living in Oahu. “With milk at ten dollars a gallon, you really have no choice.”
The pandemic was particularly tough at the Cal, as Hawai’i’s blanket travel closure not only severed crucial business but family and social ties as well. But the vibes are coming back. “We have to let everyone know that this is still a safe place, that we still embrace them,” says Karen. “And the food has to be spot-on.”
In my conversations with ninth islanders, food comes up over and over again. It’s a powerful tool to alleviate homesickness and cultivate community. So, if you can’t make it to the original eight, what better way to explore the flavors of Hawaii than a tour of the 9th island?
A Taste of Hawaii Can Be Found on the Ninth Island
When I walk off the hot desert tarmac into Pacific Island Taste, on East Sahara not far from Downtown, no fewer than three members of the family-owned business hit me with “Howzit, braddah,” and “Welcome in!” before I can even get two feet in the door. Amidst a huge menu of classics, I hone in on a bowl of spicy ahi poke, manapua (savory buns usually filled with pork, the Hawaiian adaptation of char siu bao), and a turnover made with mashed taro root, a Polynesian staple.
When the young guy at the counter drops my poke, he informs me, “the taro turnover will be a minute, they make them fresh.” Wait, what? It’s the absolute dead center of a weekday lunch slam, all hands on deck in the kitchen with takeout orders streaming in, and these folks are frying homemade turnovers fresh to order?
“You have to keep the Aloha with you; it’s something you don’t want to lose.”
In the meantime, I focus on the dime-sized, cleanly cut chunks of Ahi, tossed in a not-just-Siracha Mayo studded with salmon roe. The manapua is fluffy and satisfying. Then comes the star, a flaky turnover filled with textural not-too-sweet taro mash and a purple glaze slathered on top. I burn my mouth and marvel at the commitment.
What’s your favorite type of Kava? Tongan, Fijian, perhaps Vanuatu? If you don’t have one, Jai Alboro and the team at 9th Island Kava Lounge in Spring Valley can educate you on the virtues of this Polynesian ceremonial drink-an infusion made with the dried root of the kava plant. The cozy, dimly lit space hosts a variety of community events, from live music to comedy to the occasional graduation party and community fundraiser.
You can choose a variety of kavas from across Polynesia, complete with tasting notes describing the flavor profiles of the kava and the details of the plant’s pleasant mild buzz a little chaser of Skittles or Reeses Pieces is available for beginners who might not be used to Kava’s bitter flavor, along with hand-made jello shots, flavor infusions, and candies made by Alboro and his business partner, Starrie Hawkins.
The lounge not only offers a meeting ground for ninth islanders to gather, but it also serves a wider clientele of Vegas locals, many of whom have no familial ties to the islands but credit Kava as a healthier choice for socializing over alcohol and drugs. Alboro moved to Vegas from Maui about 7 years ago in search of better schooling and sports opportunities for his two kids. “The rat race can wear you down,” says Alboro. “You have to keep the Aloha with you; it’s something you don’t want to lose. It’s a blessing. Not only in my day-to-day, but I also try to practice it in my business too.”
The big picnic table, painted sky blue and placed in the sunny corner opposite Jeanette Battulayan’s beachside wall mural, is the most popular seat at Lefty J’s Island Favorites. Pull up and lean over a big plate lunch of high-quality, traditionally prepared plate lunches of Teri chicken, beef, and kalbi ribs, or Filipino favorites like Ilocano-style Pinakbet- a traditional stir fry dish popular amongst Filipinos in the Hawaiian islands. I had the 5-star special, a meaty mountain barely contained by its Styrofoam container full of juicy katsu, kalbi ribs, Teri chicken and beef, and some impressive Korean-style boneless wings made with a shattering rice flour batter.
Chef Lefty Battulayan grew up in Kuai and graduated culinary school before moving to Vegas to cut his teeth on the Strip’s restaurants, eventually rising to a variety of high-level executive chef positions during a 20-year career. In 2018, he and his wife Jeanette made the leap and opened Lefty J’s. Of Filipino descent, Chef Lefty brings his years of technical experience to bear on a collection of pure-comfort Filipino and Hawaiian classics which draw members of both diasporas to the picnic table in the corner. “We have a lot of visitors, both Hawaiian and Filipino, who find us looking for that taste of home,” says Chef Battulayan. “That’s what we want to offer. When you sit at the picnic table and experience that flavor, it just takes you there.”
The Great Oxtail Soup Debate
I’m nearly catatonic from two straight days of poke and plate lunches but there remains a crucial bit of reportage to do: we have to talk about oxtail soup. 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.
I feel like I’m approaching the unmarked door of a speakeasy as I timidly ask the cashier if I’m in the right place. She gives me a wry smile and pulls heaping ladles of oxtails from a warmer on the line, broth slick with rendered beef fat glistening in the slot machine lights. Oxtail soup is a dish so hearty, that it seemingly can drown any gambling sorrows. But it’s well made, too, with hints of warm spices and meat that slides clean off the bone. You know those meals that make you feel like you’ve been let in on a little secret?
You know those meals that make you feel like you’ve been let in on a little secret?
The Cal’s oxtail soup draws long lines to Market Street Café, but only after 9 pm. Hotel staff explain to me that if they made this bowl of pure satisfaction available for an early dinner, guests would drift off to bed and the casino floor would be crickets all night long. I pull up at around 11:30 pm, and Market Street Cafe’s overstuffed booths are still full of families.
The soup itself has a clear broth, ample oxtails, and aromatics of carrots, celery, and mushrooms, and comes served with a big ramekin of cilantro and chopped fresh ginger. It’s a slightly more artery-friendly version of its rogue cousin at the Fremont, and the big chunks of fresh ginger give a piquant contrast to the richness of the oxtails. Is it better than the one at Lanai Express? I don’t have the expertise to say. Could I eat them both on the same day again? Hard yes.
Eating this soup, slumped in a wooden chair in a carpeted and brass-railed dining room that reminds me of the church dinners and banquet restaurants from my youth, amongst families and elders wrapped in the Aloha that permeates the Cal, it strikes me that the Cal is a king of the anti-Vegas, eschewing all the permissive bad behavior and anonymity of “What Happens Here Stays Here” to create a space for family, familiarity, and comfort.
My trip to the 9th island had no beaches, no blue water, no Oahu rainstorms, and no luxury ocean view rooms. But a strong feeling of Ohana travels between Vegas and Honolulu. And if you can’t fly into HNL, bending over a bowl of oxtail soup with all your Ohana at Market Street Cafe might be the next best thing.
A Quick Guide to Ninth Island
Enjoying the vintage shops in the Arts District or taking in the Fremont Street experience? Pacific Island Taste’s exceptional poke, scratch-made lunch plates, and freshly baked pastries are just off East Sarah Avenue.
Grab the greatest airport snack of all time at Lefty J’s Island Favorites, located conveniently to-and-from the airport on Twain Avenue, just a jump from the Las Vegas Convention Center at the Westlake.
Experience Kava at 9th Island Kava Lounge in Spring Hill. Follow Jai and the team on Instagram for intel on live music, events, and karaoke.
Or, head to where it all began: The Cal. You might catch Bruno Mars dining quietly at Aloha Specialties, whose bona fide island plates attract the singer for a taste of home when he’s in town. If you’re brand new to gambling, the Cal’s reasonable rates and friendly, patient gaming staff are a great place to learn. Take your beginner’s luck winnings to Market Street Café every night after 9 pm and buy your party a round of oxtail soup.
Editor’s Note: Per the Hawaii Tourism Board, Fodor’s recognizes “the proper use of the Hawaiian language, ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i,’ which includes the ‘okina [‘], a consonant, and the kahakō [ō] or macron.” The Hawai‘i Board on Geographic Names was created to “assure uniformity and standardize spelling of geographic names to communicate unambiguously about places, reducing the potential for confusion.” In order to ensure our readers the best experience reading our Hawaii travel guides, we follow the standardized spelling, but hope to expose readers to the importance and cultural significance of the written Ōlelo Hawai‘i language.