Every day, Taiwanese-American Cheng Chen boards a shuttle in Diamond Bar and makes a one-hour commute to Pechanga Casino and Resort in Temecula. This isn’t for work. Chen is retired, an avid gambler, and Pechanga is where he chooses to spend his money and time. It is one of the largest casinos in California and, with a 200,000-square-foot gaming floor, there are plenty of entertainment options.
“To be honest, I don’t like the buffet very much,” he whispers in Chinese, leaning in, when I ask him about the food. “So I come here every day.”
"Here" is Blazing Noodles, one of two Asian restaurants on the 500-acre Pechanga property. The menu is an amalgamation of Chinese specialties, mostly from the southern parts of China. Chef Timmy Che hails from Macau and spent his life working in restaurants in China before immigrating to the United States for a cushy Las Vegas chef gig at the contemporary Chinese restaurant Fin at the Mirage. He started at Pechanga just a couple months ago and says he's settling in well.
“I like working at Pechanga more,” Che says. “It’s less fine-dining than Vegas and there are more repeat customers. I like having regular customers and being able to tweak my flavors based on their feedback.”
Repeat customers like Chen make up the bulk of his clients, after all. According to the Casino City Times, a newspaper of record when it comes to the world of gambling, half of the patrons at the Pechanga resort are Asian-American or Asian tourists, which is proportionally three times higher than the Asian population of Temecula.
To appeal to these clients, the menu at Blazing Noodles is authentically Chinese, with a Cantonese flair. You won't find cloying sweet orange chicken or deep-fried cream cheese wontons here. Family-style portions abound, and options such as barbecue pork noodle soup and roast duck with egg noodles show off Che's casual side. Wok-fried Maine lobster and steamed striped bass are options for those who want something a little more upscale, and are no doubt the favorites of the high rollers.
“Next, I want to install a fish tank and be able to serve live fish,” Che says.
But it’s not just Taiwanese and Chinese customers that frequent Blazing Noodles. Che says he gets a mix of Vietnamese, Filipino and Korean patrons as well.
Asians, after all, are known for their prolific gambling habits. According to the book Asian American Society, an encyclopedia on Asian-American life in the States, a 1999 survey of San Francisco’s Chinatown found that one-third of Asian respondents reported gambling at least once a week. A 2003 survey of Southeast Asians found that half had gambled within the last two weeks and nearly half had bet more than $500 in the last two months.
Most casinos have shuttle services for their guests; in the San Gabriel Valley, where there is a significant Southeast and East Asian population, these buses have been so numerous that one city council had to restrict their access because of clogged streets.
"I am retired and I find casinos very exciting," says Kathy Woo, a longtime customer of Pechanga. Woo makes regular trips over from Los Angeles County. "It gives me excitement in my life."
While the resorts are all-inclusive in their marketing, the need to cater to Asians is quite evident in their dining options. Nearly every major casino has a Chinese restaurant on-site; if there isn’t a dedicated concept, there’s a significant selection of Asian dishes on at least one menu. This is to peddle to a phenomenon broadly known as the "Chinese stomach," in where Chinese people eat at Chinese restaurants everywhere they go, be it Italy, the Canadian Rockies or Palm Springs.
I saw this phenomenon play out in my own upbringing. As a child of Taiwanese immigrants, whenever I went to Las Vegas on family vacations in the 1990s, my parents would always make a dedicated stop in Chinatown for seafood before continuing onto the Strip. Back then, there weren't as many Chinese food options in the major casinos. That, of course, has dramatically changed. Today in Vegas, there's an entire Chinese-themed resort with five distinctive Chinese dining concepts.
Southern California casinos have firmly embraced the specificities of their Asian clients. Morongo Casino in Palm Springs has a restaurant dedicated to noodles, with Vietnamese vermicelli soups and Cantonese lo mein as two of the highlights. Fantasy Springs Resort, also in Palm Springs, has a significant dim sum menu, catering to the brunch crowd. Commerce Casino, though it doesn’t have a dedicated Asian restaurant, has a large Asian menu section at its Arena Sports Bar and Grill. Fried rice, pho and shrimp wonton soup are among the selections. Most impressive is Harrah’s Resort in San Diego, which has a restaurant that rivals the Chinese banquet halls of the San Gabriel Valley. The menu is littered with spicy jellyfish, abalone congee, sea bass clay pot, and of course, lobsters cooked with all different sorts of toppings.
While the restaurants are mainly Cantonese-themed, Vietnamese and Thai noodles show up occasionally, no doubt to appeal to the Southeast Asian demographic. Seafood, which is a symbol of luxury in Chinese culture, is a continuous motif. Pechanga and Harrah’s have their menus in both English and Chinese text. Chilean sea bass and lobster are ingredients that are repeated in many menus across Southern California casinos. They also happen to be the most expensive dishes.
The Asian crowd is a major market for these casinos, and that doesn't seem likely to slow down anytime soon. According to Bobby Cheng, the manager at Blazing Noodles, the Lunar New Year season is their third biggest holiday of the year, just trailing behind New Year's and Christmas.
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“The energy here during Chinese New Year is incredible,” he says.
Che concurs, noting that the Chinese greeting for the Lunar New Year is gongxi facai, which translates to "wishing you fortune and prosperity."
“They’ve come here to make their fortunes,” he says.