Most people go to Las Vegas to party and gamble. Neither of those interest me and so of course, I researched what we could eat that you can only get in Sin City.
Yes, there are the gluttonous buffets and various American chains that have not yet made their way to Canada, but one suggestion from my Facebook friends stood out.
“The oxtail soup at the Market Street Cafe at The California near Fremont is amazing!” wrote Mika Inokoshi (who is also a talented photographer that you should hire).
I looked it up. The California Hotel and Casino is not only not on the glitzy Strip, it’s not even on the old Vegas strip. The Cal is a few blocks from Fremont and has certainly seen better days.
I easily found info on this famous oxtail soup on the cafe’s website. Stewed for hours, then tossed in a slowly simmered broth yadda yadda, served from 11 p.m. to 9 a.m. Wait, what? I messaged Mika to ask if it was a typo. It was not. So I asked my globe-hopping parents and sister if they wanted to pay US$20 (so, like a gazillion Canadian dollars with the current sucky exchange rate) to cab to old Vegas after dinner, stay up til 11 p.m., and line up for oxtail soup. “Definitely,” they said.
We wandered around the old Strip to kill time until about 10:30 p.m. We trooped over to The Cal, past signs on the slot machines that boasted “3.5 million pounds of oxtail soup served!” and found the Market Street Cafe in a back corner of the casino.
Then we spotted this sign at the restaurant’s entrance:
NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!! Panic panic panic. Everyone else walking up had the same look on their face too. The manager reassured us that the famous oxtail soup was still available when the adjacent restaurant opened at 11 p.m. WHEW. We got into line, snagging second spot behind a family of regulars. We asked them what else was good, and they recommended the $9.99 prime rib special from 4-10 p.m. Too bad we already ate dinner. As we waited, I noticed two things: the smell of stale cigarettes, and a lot of Hawaiian people. Turns out a tour company runs several non-stop charters every week from Hawaii to Vegas which includes packages at The California. So it only makes sense that Hawaiian (and Filipino) favourites like kaulua pig with cabbage and chicken adobo are woven into the Market Street Cafe’s diner menu of bacon, eggs, and burgers. There’s even a Hawaiian breakfast featuring Portuguese sausage. Ninety-five per cent of the cafe’s guests are from the islands, according to USA Today!
By 11:15 p.m., the lineup had grown, the alternate restaurant was still not open, and we were getting restless. This was going to be superb or awful.
We finally got seated and were handed photocopied menus. Because of the cleaning in its regular area, the cafe was offering a shortened list of dishes. But damn if we weren’t going to finally taste the oxtail soup.
Oxtail is bony and gelatinous, but stewed for hours, it takes on a soft, rich meatiness. It used to be a cheap cut — probably one reason why immigrant families liked it so much — but now everyone’s discovered how delicious it can be. But it can be an acquired taste because of the texture, and to get the full experience, you have to get in there with your hands and suck everything off the bone. (Get your mind out of the gutter.)
Our soup arrived in large bowls with FIVE GIANT PIECES of oxtail each. My parents could NOT STOP talking about how big they were and how many there were, because “oxtail is expensive, you know.” This oxtail soup is $9.99. So yah, they were impressed.
The broth had a beautiful dark brown hue, and was a satisfying change to the cheap, MSG-laden soups at so many nameless restaurants.
Weirdly, what took this over the top for me were the vegetables mixed into the broth. Still slightly crunchy onions, carrots, celery made for a lovely combo with the oxtail and some shiitake mushrooms.
Each soup comes with a small side of minced ginger and white rice. It was a lot of food.
My mom opted to try the Saimin ($6.29), a “traditional Hawaiian favourite.” Also a familiar Chinese dish: ramen noodle soup with Chinese barbecue pork and slices of processed fish cake. I think it was OK. I was too busy slurping on oxtails.
The servers were pretty nice, but disappeared once the food arrived.
In the end, I wouldn’t say we were blown away by the oxtail soup. It was quite good. But for $9.99 and a bit of a food adventure, it was fun.
Market Street Cafe inside The California Hotel & Casino, 12 East Ogden Ave. (off Fremont), Las Vegas. Open 24 hours.