I have played pai gow, and I have emerged victorious.
It seems the Lucky Dragon, the newest from-the-ground-up hotel in Las Vegas, lives up to its name — or did for one particular weekend, anyway. Lucky Dragon, which opened in December on Sahara Boulevard, near Stratosphere and Circus Circus, is China-centric and aims to lure Asian travelers.
As my name implies, I am not Asian. My friend Clare (also not Asian) and I thought it might be fun to depart from the usual Vegas routine and delve into an Asian-immersive visit at the new place. Our three tea-steeped days brought good food, good fortune (in everything but ride-hailing GPS — more on that in a moment) and a chance to learn a few Asian cultural lessons, such as the fact that the number that comes after three is bad luck. I won’t mention that number and bring down badness on myself, but I will note that the hotel has floors one through nine, but no floor between three and five.
Eight, on the other hand, is a very lucky number, and it’s featured in the room rates ($68 to $188, less than half what you’d pay on the main part of the Strip), on the resort fee ($18, about half what bigger resorts charge) and on the menu at the blue-bathed Pearl Ocean restaurant, where $8.88 will buy you a starter of crispy tofu, stewed chicken claws with abalone sauce or black fungus with black vinegar.
They were out of chicken claws, so we did the tofu, along with some fluffy, fresh shrimp har gow and shrimp, pork, mushrooms and crab roe shui mai dumplings, followed by flavorful dishes of tender steak cubes in wine-wasabi aioli and plump honey-glazed prawns with walnuts. We’ve had these dishes at other Chinese restaurants, but they’re honed to the ideal with quality proteins here. Pearl Ocean also offers seafood fresh from tanks, including Dungeness crabs and lobsters.
The Dragon’s high-end Cantonese restaurant, Phoenix, features edgy delicacies such as deer tendon, sea cucumber and green-lip abalone. We didn’t dine there, but I did enjoy three chubby pork belly bao (folded, steamed buns) at the grab-and-go, 24-hour Bao Now eatery on the casino floor. This restaurant also offers dumplings and bubble teas (loved the mango), and I noticed that in the morning, it also carried croissant egg sandwiches, a nod to the occasional non-Asian breakfast-seeker.
When I first stepped into the casino, a separate building from the hotel over which dangles a beautiful, 1.25-ton glass dragon, I stuck out like a very sore Irish thumb. At that moment, I didn’t hear a word of English spoken at the pai gow and baccarat tables or at the pagoda-shaped bar. Later, non-Asians would drift in, some of them locals.
I was determined to learn pai gow poker, a card version of the original tile game. (The dragon plans to add the tile version soon.) It’s a two-hand game: a five-card hand and a two-card hand. I bought some chips and laid down a timid wager, because that’s how I low-roll. The dealer won the big hand; I won the small. It was a push, so I lost no money.
“You can play this for hours without losing a lot of money,” said Jordan Seager, the hotel’s marketing director vice president and my instructor. “It’s a safe game, and it’s fun.” I agreed, emerging $15 up after winning a second hand.
Truth told, I don’t play a lot of table games. I typically just throw a small amount of money at slots, and the Dragon’s seem to be looser than those at the popular end of the Strip. Maybe I just had a good day. If you’re a high roller, know that Lucky Dragon recently expanded its VIP gambling lounges.
Our hotel room at the Dragon held everything we’d expect — comfy bed, flat-screen, plenty of plugs, big shower, robes, safe, etc. — but some Chinese touches we didn’t expect, such as a peaceful lychee tree mural and pink windows that cast the room in a rosy glow. Instead of a coffee maker, the room had a hot-water pot and two packets of black tea that we found surprisingly nice.
There’s no fitness center here (and the hood’s a bit dodgy for an early morning run), but there’s a pool, and a spa features Asian-themed treatments, including reflexology.
We ventured out from Lucky Dragon by ride-hailing Uber and Lyft (much cheaper than cabs), and nearly always, our driver’s GPS led him or her to the nearby Golden Steer restaurant rather than to the Lucky Dragon. A phone conversation clarifying our location ensued, and we felt like we were playing telephonic Marco Polo. Let’s hope GPS catches up with the hotel’s existence soon. By the way, I was told the Golden Steer is a great steak place with a fun mob history, but that’s another story for another visit.
Our drivers took us to a Cirque Du Soleil evening (part of our Asian theme since many of the performers hail from Asian countries), Ka at MGM Grand, where the gasp-inducing spectacle takes place on, above and around a 360-degree rotating stage.
We also hunted down some Strip restaurants featuring Asian cuisines. At Aria Resort & Casino, we indulged in an elevated version of Thai comfort food at Lemongrass. A four-course signature tasting menu included a beautifully presented chicken and shrimp satay followed by one of the best versions of aromatic, lemongrass-infused tom yam soup I’ve ever had and a perfect pad thai. A banana dessert was included, but we were too full to take it on.
Another night, we were delighted by the clever Japanese-inspired flavors of Masaharu Morimoto’s new restaurant at MGM Grand, Morimoto. The Iron Chef still reigns when it comes to deft and creative dishes using delicate fish such as hamachi (yellowtail), which just happens to be one of my favorites. Hamachi arrived not only as sashimi but also in a delicate, jalapeno-topped taco. Other wondrous dishes included subtly spiced rock shrimp tempura, a tender braised pork belly atop rice porridge, a piquantly dressed salad circled by shaved bonito, and something called ishi yaki bop – a rice dish topped with buri (king yellowtail) that our server prepared tableside by gently searing the fish against the side of a hot river stone bowl filled with rice that caramelized a bit, paellalike, at the bottom.
We did break out of the Asian-centric theme for a couple of lunches. At the Palm, inside the Forum Shops at Caesar’s Palace, we enjoyed delicious, hefty salads (mine ahi tuna; hers fresh crab), and we went full-on Anglo at New York New York’s Nine Fine Irishmen, where we people-watched at a patio table over Harp and Smithwick’s beers. I enjoyed my perfectly turned fish and chips, and Clare exclaimed over the bangers, mash and cabbage. Sometimes, you have to get back to your roots.
Meanwhile, back at the Dragon, there was one more Asian opportunity awaiting: formal Chinese tea service. After a day milling with the huge Strip crowds, we were ready for this serene activity in our much quieter hotel. Tea sommelier Lola Zhao measured, steeped and poured our choice – green Qinba Wu Hao, grown on Daba Mountain in Shaanxi province — in the lobby Cha Garden.
We savored our tea while watching a throng of folks check in for the weekend at the nearby desk. I’d say 75 percent appeared Asian or of Asian descent. The rest were a mixed bag — maybe taking advantage of the low room rates, or maybe, like us, just lucky enough to be enjoying a weekend of cultural immersion.
IF YOU GO
Lucky Dragon, 300 W. Sahara Ave., luckydragonlv.com
Ka, MGM Grand Resort & Casino, 3799 S. Las Vegas Blvd., cirquedusoleil.com/lasvegas
Lemongrass, Aria Resort & Casino, 3730 S. Las Vegas Blvd., aria.com/en/restaurants/lemongrass.html
Morimoto, MGM Grand, mgmgrand.com/en/restaurants/morimoto.html
The Palm, Forum Shops at Caesar’s, 3500 S. Las Vegas Blvd., thepalm.com/las-vegas
Nine Fine Irishmen, New York New York Hotel & Casino, 3790 S. Las Vegas Blvd., newyorknewyork.com/en/restaurants/nine-fine-irishmen.html