Another Las Vegas trip has come and gone. My body aged another two years from exposure to the harsh Vegas elements over the last 48 hours. Continuous cocktails, extreme heat followed by extreme cold, dehydration, large quantities of food, gambling stress, and second, and third, and fourth-hand smoke. My skin has lost some if it’s childlike elasticity and my joints ache a little more than before. A small price to pay for a nostalgic weekend retreat or gambling with my older brother. That’s what our trips to Las Vegas have become. Blast down memory lane—the good old days.
My youth was spent at the Indian casinos. No, I didn’t live there, but I definitely got to know the ins and outs of the black jack and pai gow poker pits. About 45 minutes east of our home in San Diego are the Viejas, Barona, and Sycuan tribes, each with their own casinos. Unlike Las Vegas you only have to be 18 to play, and in the beginning, before they were completely “vegas style” gambling establishments, they allowed banking, which is where I come into the story.
What’s banking? I’ll tell you. In the context of a casino, ‘the bank’ is the house—the mob boss or “tribal leader” bankrolling everything. So when you sit down at a black jack table and start playing against the dealer, you’re playing against the house, or the bank. The money you win comes from the tray in front of the dealer, and when you lose, your money goes into that same tray.
Back in the late 90s the Indian casinos were just starting to win approval from the local communities, building legitimacy in the gambling world. One of the things they did to shirk some of the risk of having to cover all the action on the casino floor (the total sum of money being bet that they would have to have enough to pay out in case they lost every bet) they used to allow customers the option ‘to bank’. That meant you could sit at a table, put up a pile of cash, and for $1 USD per hand, they would put a marker on your spot so everyone knew you were now the bank. That meant you were representing the dealer’s hand, and actually playing against the rest of the table. If the dealer’s hand sweeps the table, you get all the winnings. If the dealer’s hand busts, the dealer would pay everyone from your pile of cash, and if you didn’t have enough to cover the action, the casino would make up the difference.
You can win a lot or lose a lot….so why do it? The reason to bank is so you can have the dealer’s cards and with them—the dealer’s odds. Which if you didn’t know, always have a slight advantage.
So for every hand we banked, the casino made a dollar off those of us wanting to bank, reducing some of their exposure to risk; and we got to play with the superior odds of the house.
When my dad and his best friend Norm realized that banking was an option, they started going up to the Indian reservation casinos for a few hours here and there. Eventually they became regulars and all the pit bosses and managers knew them as “Dr. Hall” and “Mr. Norm.”
I remember the first time dad took us boys to the casino so we could see where he and Norm had been spending their free time, and the two of them were like celebrities. Jewish, middle-aged, miniature mafiosos who could get you a free dinner at the buffet or China Camp restaurant any night of the week.
“Good evening Dr. Hall!” dealers would shout from their tables. “Oh are these your kids Dr. Hall, they’re adorable!”
“Yep, these are my boys.” He’d say, sounding proud like Mufasa showing Simba his kingdom.
“Look boys, everything the yellow and neon light touches is the casino floor, and this will soon be yours.”
Norm would shake hands with everyone, handing out fives and tens to the waiters and staff, because the more he tipped, the better they took care of him. Unlike my dad, who couldn’t always remember his patients’ names when we ran into them in public, Norm remembered everyone’s name. He also remembered their stories about their husbands who were sick, and he made sure to ask how they were doing? Or he’d follow up on some recommendations he’d given to a pit boss earlier in the week. It didn’t necessarily matter if he knew you, but almost everyone knew him.
My father was known for his look. He wore his black leather jacket and an Australian Acubra felt fur hat every time he entered the casino. I think it was part of his intimidation regime, giving a pickpocket something to think twice about if they wanted to rob him on his way to his car late at night. But he says it was to keep his bald head warm.
This went on for about a year, and until the relationship with my stepmother had gone from casual to serious and he could no longer spend 4-8 hours up at the casinos. So inspiration hit, and he decided my brother and I would do it for him.
The first few times we went with dad and Norm so they could watch over us and bail us out if we didn’t have enough cash on the table or if we somehow got into trouble with some drunk player pissed that some privileged teen just took his mortgage payment. We learned to keep a low profile while we were winning, not to draw attention from the other players, though the dealers and the pit bosses all knew Aaron and I were “Dr. Hall’s boys” and any respect they paid to our father was extended to us.
Though the cling and clang of the slots, the screams of a player winning it big off in the distance, and all the flashing lights were exciting for an 18 year old, banking was actually pretty boring. You’re not allowed to touch the cards, or the money, and the dealer does it all for you. Dad said we had to watch, because sometimes the dealer’s make mistakes, but it was rare. And if we played long enough, the odds would be in our favor and we’d win. Which is why more and more people wanted to bank over time, especially the older Chinese couples who practically lived in the casinos. They knew a loophole in the system when they saw one and jumped on the banking bandwagon with us.
So the house rules required you to play at least a single shoe (6-8 decks of cards) before you’d have “the option” to bank. They’d let you bank an entire shoe, before they’d offer it up to anyone else who wanted to bank and it would go around the table until it came back to you. Sometimes we’d get to bank for hours in a row, and other times, we’d bank for 20 minutes and then have to wait an hour for it to come around again.
So while waiting for the option to bank, we’d have to actually play black jack. And since we were playing with our dad’s money, he wanted to make sure we were playing “by the book” and reducing the amount he’d lose while waiting for the option to bank.
In the car rides on the way up, my dad would quiz us on.
“If the dealer has an eight showing, and you have twelve, what do you do?”
After a few trips I had phrases like “always split aces and eights” memorized, and knew that a two is called a dealer’s ace.
Eventually the casinos realized they were missing out on winnings and they stopped allowing private banking for black jack. Norm learned that you could still bank in the pai gow poker room, so Aaron and I learned a new set of rules and were thrown into the pai gow pit where we took thousands of dollars from Chinese gamblers who yelled at us in broken Engrish because the sign said “only English at the tables.”
Yonaka Sushi- The Best Sushi in Las Vegas
While on this trip down memory lane, I’m reminded of a Las Vegas trip back in 2013 when we ventured off the strip for sushi…..some of the best we’ve had.
Yonaka Modern Japanese doesn’t look like much on the outside. At the end of a strip mall, it sort of doesn’t fit the mold of “modern Japanese tapas style restaurant” like they advertise on their website, but we’d heard good things and decided to go with it.
If ever there was a time where the phrase “don’t judge a book by it’s cover” were true, this would be it. The interior is indeed modern, but compared to the showy palaces of the Vegas strip, it falls a little short. But what it lacks in atmosphere it makes up in taste ten times over.
The chef and proprietor spent time cooking in restaurants all over the world, where he picked up flavors and techniques that inspire the innovative dishes he’s serving at Yonaka today. Traditional dishes like sushi nigiri are served with sauces, spices and little surprising twists.
As sushi lovers, we started to order rolls we know we like but weren’t on the menu.
“Sorry,” the waitress said, “we don’t allow substitutions.”
To that my brother—the kind of substitutions—scoffed and pushed his chair back.
“Phil, let’s get out of here.” He said.
The manager came by and explained the theory behind the “no substitutions rule.” She said the chef puts a lot of thought into creating a dining experience for his guests and if we have any allergies they’d be happy to take those ingredients out, but otherwise, we had to stick with the menu.
We decided to go with it, and I’ll be honest…..if given the chance to go back and make a substitution or two, I wouldn’t change a thing. Yokana really is some of the best sushi in Las Vegas, definitely unique, and worth the cab ride!
Here’s what we had.
To start the meal they served us a little amuse-bouche of green apple and what looked like mung beans, but I wasn’t too sure.
Buta Kakuni- braised pork belly, endive, corn, sweet potato, yellow onion, and cashews.
The Takorizo hot plate with grilled Japanese octopus, chorizo, honeydew melon, almonds, salsa verde with black olive oil.
We ordered one Asian Pillow from the Makimono section of the menu. The was an atlantic salmon and candied walnuts in spring rolls with roasted beet, lettuce, shallots, sun-dried tomato, and thai chili. The candied walnuts added a nice crunch a sweetness to the dish, with the tropical fruit puree for dipping adding a fresh brightness to each bite.
One barometer for a sushi chef’s capabilities are some of their classic rolls, like the spider roll with softshell crab, avocado, cucumber, tobiko, mame nori, and kaiware. Like they did at Yonaka, the softshell crab should be lightly fried and gently salted, allowing the crab flavor to shine in the dish. You can also see Yonaka’s chef selects softshell crabs with “meatier” bodies, which means you get a nice piece of crab in each piece unlike some restaurants that just fry the softshell crab to death.
Yonaka is known for their Brussel sprout appetizer. I’d seen tons of photos on their Yelp page about the brussel sprouts, which was a sign they’d be fantastic since most sushi restaurants aren’t known for their roasted Brussels sprouts dish. The crispy Brussel sprouts have a lemon chili and mint kick with some puffed rice for texture.
The agedashi tofu with daikon, ginger, negi, and nori was also delicious. Probably my second favorite agedashi tofu right now, the first being the fried version they serve at Halu in San Francisco’s Richmond District.
Ever since we discovered spicy scallops hand rolls at Tadashi sushi in La Jolla as kids, I’ve been obsessed with scallop sushi. So we got a few orders of their Hotate (sea scallops) served with an avocado, spicy aioli, and goma.
The Kudamono was fruit salad of strawberries, apples, berries, mint and vinegar he served as a palette cleanser. Really delicious, and the fruit was extremely fresh, which in Vegas, always raises an eyebrow if you know what I mean.
While the Chef has us in a sushi trance we ordered a few more pieces. The Kanpachi (amberjack) was amazing. They served it with a little jalapeno, miso and cilantro.
And since my partner doesn’t like eel, and my brother and I can’t seem to get enough of it, we ordered the unagi (freshwater eel) sushi. They served it with togarashi and thai basil.
The agemaki is baby yellowtail served with avocado, yuzu kosho, and cilantro….that was lightly battered into a tempura.
For dessert we decided go outside the box with Yokama’s Chef and proprietor, who’s cooked all over the world. His knowledge of different techniques, and the interplay of different cultural spices that seem unconventional, but play on those familiar and purest of pairings like salty and sweet, soft and crunchy, etc.
So we got the cheddar flan. This was a super creamy and smooth flan make of cheddar cheese and goat milk. The tang of the goat milk helped balance some of the richness to the cheddar. Each bite was a toss up between savory and sweet. Think of a flan that meets a cheesecake that meets the cheese course for dessert. Yum!
And the entire evening we sipped on a bottle of Sho Chiku Nigori. Light, not too sweet and refreshing. It was sort of a palette cleanser, though it worked really well with everything we’d ordered.
Aside from the fact that it’s not conveniently located in the lobby of whatever resort and casino you’re staying at, there’s no good reason why Yonaka Japanese shouldn’t be the best sushi restaurant in Las Vegas. The fish is as fresh as can be, but more importantly, Yonaka’s technique and mastery of flavor are just the adventure your tongue has been waiting for.