Karrie and Kevin Wu own and operate three Chinese restaurants in Las Vegas casinos. They met when Karrie came from Arizona and Kevin from Southern California to work at the Venetian, where Kevin operated the former Royal Star restaurant. (A seafood restaurant called Aquaknox is in the space now.)
Royal Star opened in 1999 and closed in 2006. During that span, the couple opened Noodle Asia at Venetian in 2000 and Ping Pang Pong at Gold Coast in 2001. Noodle Exchange came along at Gold Coast in 2009.
Kevin’s family comes from Taiwan and owned restaurants there before relocating to California. Now, he’s the only one in his family in the restaurant business. Karrie’s family comes from Hong Kong and is not in the business. She studied hotel management in Switzerland, Connecticut, Arizona and at UNLV, and worked at the Phoenician hotel in Scottsdale before moving to Las Vegas and working at Venetian, Caesars Palace, Luxor and at Bellagio’s gourmet Chinese restaurant Jasmine.
As she preps for another busy Chinese New Year, Karrie sat down with the Weekly to talk about Wus' restaurants and cuisine.
Chinese New Year must be a hectic time for you, with three different restaurants that are usually packed anyway. Yes, it’s coming.
Any special plans? Every year we prepare special food for Chinese New Year, like the sweet rice cake, which we make like a big golden block and sell for two or three weeks before New Year. And every year we come out with a special menu of traditional dishes.
New Year dishes are usually symbolic and almost tell a story, right? Yes, the sounds of each ingredient are matched together. Pork tongue is one ingredient we’ll use, because it sounds like you’re going to make lots of money. And sea moss, which is a special vegetable. It looks like hair, but you braise it and it’s really good. Pair it with different meats, and the sound of the dish is like fat choy, which means you’ll make a lot of money this year. Lots of dishes will use golden oyster, too, which is a dried oyster.
Is it true that operating a Chinese restaurant in Las Vegas is like operating two separate restaurants, one for Asian tourists and customers and one for others? Yes, that’s right. We have to satisfy everybody. Chinese guests know what they’re ordering, and sometimes it’s off the menu. American guests might not know much about Chinese food but they come in with expectations. But also, if we have travelers from [other parts of] Asia or from the East Coast, they have different tastes, so we have to satisfy them all.
At the Gold Coast, do you see more locals or tourists? We have a different clientele. It’s mostly locals. We do a lot of word-of-mouth. People who eat here and like it bring in new customers. But we also have hosts who bring customers here instead of staying on the Strip all the time. They like to venture out.
Have you or your husband ever worked as chefs? No, just managers, operators. I like to cook at home. And Kevin’s family is not in the restaurant business anymore but he always liked food from a young age, and has been able to look at it from different angles.
And you worked at hotels and restaurants while studying in college? Yes, all through college. I did my internship at the Phoenician hotel, then came to work at the Venetian and finished my last year at UNLV.
How different was your business back then, when Royal Star was open? When we first opened in 1999 and in 2000, you could do no wrong. Vegas was booming, everywhere there were new things opening and new hotels coming. Five thousand people were moving here every month. It was endless opportunity. Many more people from China would come to Vegas to gamble, millions of dollars in one night sometimes, and get things comped and order whatever they want. They would order the most expensive bottle of wine in the restaurant, and then say “Also, bring me a Sprite.”
You opened Ping Pang Pong at a tough time, right after 9/11. Yes, three months after. It was a special time. We put together a great team to open the restaurant and then that happened and everybody got stuck in Vegas.
It’s become a very popular restaurant. Have you changed much about it? The main menu is the same, including the prices. We have not raised prices for 12 years. But we started doing dim sum in 2007, and we have the same chef doing dim sum from Royal Star. Originally, we were only open for dinner.
How is that you opened Noodle Exchange, another Chinese restaurant, in a relatively small casino at Gold Coast? I think we just had a strong clientele. That space used to be a burger bar, then it was an oyster bar.
And now I can go eat there when Ping Pang Pong is too busy. Yes. Have you tried the hot pot?
I have not. Is it good? You have to try it. We only serve it at Noodle Exchange after 5 p.m. A lot of people come just for that.
What makes it so good? I personally love hot pot so I wanted to serve it so guests could have a unique experience. We do everything in a personal pot, so you order your soup, spicy or not spicy, and there are special herbs in there, 10 different kinds. You can taste the difference in the soup base. Then there’s a plate with all kinds of vegetable and tofu combinations, then you order your meat or seafood. It’s $14.95 or $15.95 with seafood and you don’t need to order anything else. You’ll be more than full when finished. A lot of other restaurants, you have to pay for individual items. We package everything so it’s very convenient.
Sounds awesome. You’ve got to try it.