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The Dish: A dining dynasty
Story by Brock Radke and
Photography by Sabin Orr
After decades cooking in the valley, restaurateur family the Woos find their latest good fortune at the Hard Rock’s Fú
The year-old Fú at the Hard Rock Hotel looks like any other Asian restaurant poked into a corner of a Las Vegas casino, a contemporary space where you just know you’ll find noodles and barbecued pork and such. This is the new wing at the Hard Rock, and with the high-limit Dragon Salon offering pai gow, baccarat and big money blackjack just a few steps away, Fú’s location makes all kinds of sense.
But this is not any other Asian restaurant. The food and service here is the culmination of one family’s nearly four decade-long experience in Las Vegas. Fú is a Woo family restaurant. Not everyone knows this, and that’s partially due to technical difficulties.
“When we were at Woo (the restaurant at Palazzo), Theresa had trusted me to take care of our customer database,” explains Tony Woo, the youngest of three siblings. “My computer was full of every email address from that place and our previous restaurant, Mayflower, and I thought I’d better back it up.” He saved the info on a disc and a flash drive, thinking two backups are better than one.
When the family signed on for Fú, of course Tony wanted to inform years and years of friends, fans and regulars that their favorite Las Vegas Chinese food was back. “My computer crashed, but I thought, no problem. I grabbed the disc and it was completely blank. I tried the jump drive and got ‘Your drive is corrupt.’ I couldn’t believe it. Thirty years worth of data, gone.” But some longtime customers still found Fú, and when they did, they had the same question: Why didn’t you tell us? “I wanted to!” says Tony.
Switch up that style
If you didn’t know, now you do. The menu at this comfortable, upbeat restaurant draws from the cuisine of all three of the Woos’ previous projects — the original Mayflower, on Paradise Road near the airport; Mayflower Cuisinier at Sahara and Decatur; and Woo on the Strip. The family matriarch, Ming See Woo, is back in the kitchen and she’s cooking dishes she loves: shrimp and pork wonton or Hong Kong-style noodle soups, fresh scallops stir-fried with bold XO sauce, yang zhou fried rice with roast pork and shrimp, and sweet crab with ginger and garlic.
Las Vegas Chinese restaurants always have dual personalities — authentic dishes are for Asian tourists and gamblers and others are Americanized for mainstream appeal —and the Woos are experts in this dynamic. “That’s why we have some different dishes with Thai and Korean and other flavors, because there are younger people at the Hard Rock and we want to give them something spicy and interesting,” says Ming See.
Switching up styles is something this family is totally comfortable with, having executed distinctly different dining concepts in town. Henry and Ming See Woo moved to Las Vegas from Hong Kong in 1969, and though restaurant life was in the bloodline, they worked casino jobs until 1976. “My mom’s parents had a very popular food stall in Hong Kong, and her grandfather lived in Toledo, Ohio and ran a restaurant and gaming hall,” says Theresa. A grandfather on the other side of the family was a cook and had retired in Vegas, and his cousin operated a coffee shop downtown. Henry worked as a dealer and Ming See got a job as a dishwasher; once Ming See learned English, she worked her way into the hotel pantry, where she thrived.
Here come 80 more
The couple dipped a toe in the restaurant biz by partnering for a short time with an established Chinese joint near the Sahara, where Henry worked, before going all in with Ming See cooking at their own original Mayflower on the east side. Their kids, Peter, Theresa and Tony, all worked there. “In the beginning it was a very Americanized menu, but that changed once we started attracting Chinese tourists,” says Theresa. “We’d have buses heading to the Grand Canyon pull in and we’d serve 80 people at once. Then we’d have a few minutes to reset for another 80 people.”
As a teenager, Theresa experimented with other jobs, including scooping ice cream at Vegas’ first Häagen-Dazs in the Dunes. “They kept the ice cream so frozen, forming the scoops made my arms hurt.” Her mother would massage her forearms every night, and eventually convinced her daughter to come back to the restaurant: Then I won’t have to massage you and you won’t have pain, and you’ll make more money. Tony, the youngest, enjoyed growing up in Las Vegas.
“I was always the only Asian kid in my class,” he says. “I didn’t even know I was Asian until the fifth grade, when someone said I was Chinese and I was like, ‘Really?’ And we lived on the east side, which was more rural and cowboy-ish. It was really different, small-town living.”
The Mayflower was one of the most popular Chinese restaurants in town when the family had to move it; the airport claimed its shopping center for future development in the early 1990s. By then, Peter and Theresa had returned to Las Vegas after finishing college and had new ideas about what the restaurant could become.
“We didn’t want to lose customers, but when we moved to the west side we had to change the concept to fit that area,” says Theresa, who helped introduce fusion flavors to the repertoire. They changed the name to Mayflower Cuisinier to reflect a French influence and upscale style, and Peter and Ming See teamed in the kitchen while Theresa and Tony ran the dining room. (Henry suffered a stroke several years ago and moved into a supervising role.)
“The food changed a lot when we moved,” says Tony. “The original Mayflower did a lot of American-Chinese but also authentic Chinese, clay pots and steamed fish and barbecued ducks. But that was not all we wanted to do. Mom started to experiment with a lot of different flavors and it became true fusion — an Asian portobello burrito, ravioli, Japanese things like pan-seared tuna.” The Cuisinier also ditched family-style service in favor of individual plating, and it worked — a new clientele arrived, loving traditional lunch combos like kung pao chicken with garlic scallion noodles plus soup, and creative dinner entrees like Mongolian grilled lamb chops with cilantro-mint sauce and sake-miso-crusted sea bass.
Is that Sheldon Adelson at the table?
The new Mayflower was a favorite for many locals, including Sheldon and Miriam Adelson. They were regulars in the days before the Venetian and Palazzo opened. “I don’t remember what he ate, but I remember what she ate: Chinese chicken salad,” recalls Theresa. One day, when Adelson and then president Rob Goldstein were prepping the Palazzo, Theresa joked about opening a food cart in the expanded convention center to sell those salads. “Rob Goldstein said, ‘Why would we give you a cart when you could have a restaurant in the new hotel?’ And that was the start,” she says.
Woo the restaurant opened in 2008 on the northern end of Palazzo’s mezzanine-level retail mall. This time Peter was running the kitchen. Having served as opening chef at both Luxor’s Papyrus in 1993 and for seven years at Hard Rock’s Nobu starting in 1998, he had developed an artful style that would help elevate the family cuisine. It was a $6 million project, and quite the daunting task.
“The clientele was very different and we had to adapt to that, and it was much larger. I think we opened with a staff of 100,” says Theresa. Tony calls the experience surreal: “That’s your name, right there on the Strip, and you want to make sure everyone enjoys everything. But at that scale, we wondered: Can we be hands-on like we were at Mayflower? And you can’t, you have to trust other people to help you do things.”
As it was with other casino venues that opened at the peak of the recession — famed chef Charlie Trotter’s seafood restaurant just downstairs closed after two years — Woo struggled mightily. Vegas visitors filled up the Palazzo but roamed next door to the Venetian to eat, drink and play, bypassing the restaurant. There were other Asian options, too. “You could go to four different Asian restaurants over four days (in Venetian and Palazzo) and still not hit our place,” Tony says.
After two and a half years of tumultuous business, the family and their partners called it quits. Peter moved on to cook at Social House. Ming See retired and became nanny to her grandkids, “the best job I ever had,” she says. Tony was expecting his first child at the time, and worked as a manager in a few restaurants before shifting into mortgage lending, a nice match with Theresa’s new career as a realtor.
Mom, you’re hired
A couple years later, the Hard Rock came calling, and Fú proved a natural fit. “Not only was this close to where our actual roots are, where we started, but it’s also a return to more of a casual dining experience with some of the traditional Chinese food mom feels comfortable with.” Ever-energetic, Ming See came out of retirement; now she handles nanny duties on her days off.
The cooking continues to adjust to fit a diverse demographic. There are Wagyu beef sliders and hoisin sauce-topped duck buns to match the expected honey walnut shrimp and Mongolian beef. The Asian gamblers order what they want, off-menu, and the rest of us feast on Thai-style basil chicken in lettuce cups and crispy pork chops with five-spice seasoning. “I think the food now takes from all three past restaurants, but mostly the first two, though there is definitely a little of Peter’s influence as well,” Tony says. (Peter is currently prepping a new restaurant concept in an unnamed casino resort.)
“When our old customers come in, it always seems as if they all know each other, so I tell them to tell others,” Tony says, solving the lost data problem. “That’s how the Mayflower built its reputation, by word of mouth. That’s the best way — slow and steady. I guess that’s how it’s going to end up here, too.”
Fú in the Hard Rock Hotel, 522-8188. Sun-Thu, 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m.; Fri-Sat, 11:30 a.m.-midnight
May we recommend:
Spicy Thai basil minced chicken lettuce wrap. Chopped chicken in a lettuce cup is a standard on so many Asian restaurant menus, and often a bland one. This one doesn’t take it easy. Thai chiles bring an intensity that won’t hit you at first, as you’ll be marveling at the bright flavors of lime juice and fish sauce that flavor the chicken. You’ll really begin to enjoy the crisp, cool lettuce and freshness of the basil, and then: boom. Let the endorphin rush begin.
Baby back pork ribs with honey plum glaze. Have you ever ordered an appetizer and then ordered it again as your main dish? You’ll be tempted to double up on these luscious, tender pork ribs, basically the epitome of everything you want ribs to be — then slathered in sweet and sour richness that only amplifies the succulence of the meat. Chinese barbecue is so underrated.
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