Cruising down the 605 freeway with my pops at the helm, I was still trying to wrap my head around the idea that an oasis of gambling thrived only a handful of minutes away from my house in Redondo Beach, and that all the while I had been ignorant to its location. I’ve visited a little known place named Las Vegas a few times out in the Nevada desert (apparently other people had heard of it too... weird), but as far as I had been concerned, as well as many others I asked, it was the only legitimate gambling option. Thank goodness I was learning the error of my ways. As we made our way towards the exit lane, a towering sign that hung above the freeway eloquently articulated my sentiments: “274 miles to Vegas, 0 miles to Hawaiian Gardens, $100,000 jackpot.” A tingle of excitement percolated through me as my eyes washed over the clever sign. I was going to experience my first local casino at Hawaiian Gardens!
Only a few blocks off the 605 exit onto Carson St, Hawaiian Gardens is a card club (that’s right no slots and all cards baby) within the city of Hawaiian Gardens. It’s well hidden from the freeway but its impressive façade and legion of palm trees boldly appear like an unearthed lost city as you approach. A scaled down volcano replica on an island of crisp grass and palm trees near the entrance, added to the exotic mystique. My dad and I parked the car in the spacious lot speckled with lookout towers, which made me feel like I was in an ancient island fortress for some reason (I have the spirit of an old swashbuckler in me I can’t help it!) and followed the pockets of individuals walking towards the entrance. When I walked in I was immediately surprised by what I saw.
I hadn’t mentally prepared myself in any way and my eyes slowly adjusted to the enormity of the sensory experiences that was taking place in front of me. A giant auditorium-sized room was packed with card tables inhabited by patrons engrossed in their games. I stood stunned for a moment, surveying the layout, but a whiff of food and cards mixed with the chaos of sounds that is so unique to a casino sparked my need for further exploration.
We were supposed to meet with a casino representative that would show us around and I was to find some sort of customer service station to link up with them. As we walked briskly through the stacks of tables and players of all manners of style and ethnicity, I shot occasional glances over at the games- all were playing some variation of poker… naturally. We passed under big illuminated surfboard signs inscribed with the names of the games, the sections, and areas of the casino, until we found a security window tucked into the corner of the casino across from a decorative old boat helm that the pirate in me couldn’t help but give a fierce spin or two.
I informed security that someone was expecting me and after a few minutes a man named Nick, one of the floor managers, dressed in a grey suit came down and greeted us. He would be our casino chaperon for the day and would give us a walking tour.
The casino was built in the late 90s and has gone through a few renovations and expansions to accommodate its increase in clientele. According to Nick, the casino houses 120 tables, around 60 or so can be found in the “Asian Section” which I will soon elaborate on, and over 50 in other sections scattered throughout. The cool thing about Hawaiian Gardens is that there is a wide range of buy-ins, from 1$ to $2 or $40 to $80. Nick took us over to a rambunctious group of mostly women at a VIP section table, where there was over $30,000 on the table! The casino houses games of Baccarat, a card counting game similar to Baccarat called Pan 9, most forms of popular poker such as seven card stud and no-limit hold’em; black jack, and some unique and traditional Asian-style games. Check out Hawaiian Garden’s web site for a full list of their games.
Nick ushered us over to what he dubbed the “Asian Section,” which was a large area of the casino that housed games I had never heard of such as Pai gow poker, a more mellow 53 card game played one on one, often with dice. Pai gow poker is a modified version from the original game of Pai gow dominos, an ancient Asian game used with tiles typically played on a blackjack table in modern days, which Hawaiian Gardens also has. Indeed, it was obvious to me that there was a large Asian population within the card club, and I was fascinated, but not too surprised to hear, that 90% of the casino’s patrons were locals. There seemed to be a fair amount of regulars too as Nick shook hands and exchanged pleasantries with many of the players as we did our walkthrough.
I’m somewhat of a motorcycle enthusiast and I couldn’t prevent my eyes from glossing over the sleek and silver Harley Davidson bike displayed in all its glory on one of the floors. Nick explained to me that they were giving away the custom bike to any poker player (why not me!), who would be chosen at random to spin a prize wheel for the chance to win. A cool rule of the contest is that the wheel spins are progressive, meaning that if the casino calls ten names for example, but no one shows up, then the eleventh person who does go up can spin the wheel eleven times for a chance to win. The casino had all sorts of giveaways, prizes and contests, and nick informed me that they would give over $500,000 throughout the year. You can check out the casino’s other many promotions like their daily cash giveaway at their website.
Like most flourishing card clubs, Hawaiian Gardens holds daily poker tournaments of various lengths and sizes. Nick informed me that they hold anywhere from 1 to 3 tournaments per day, one in the early afternoon/late morning and the other in the evening, providing around 18 tables which can seat up to 300 people. There was only a small tournament finishing up when we were there, but I could see how those tables could fill up with serious players to create an exciting and kinetic energy. I asked Nick when the casino really got poppin', not that it wasn’t crazy busy in the middle of the afternoon on a Wednesday, and he said not surprisingly that Friday nights are when the place blows up. So if you’re in the area and in the mood for some gambling, you know where to be -- and if you don’t you haven’t been paying proper attention!
It didn’t take too long for us to tour the casino, which essentially consisted of two massive rooms and a smaller area in the middle where the bar and restaurant was. It was here at the Lahaina restaurant and bar that my dad and I departed from Nick, parked it at the bar, and ordered a couple Blue Moons. I was impressed with the bar’s selection of beers that consisted of some of my boys like Amstel, Guinness, Modelo, Bud Light, Corona, and my lovely ladies like Stella Artois. The main floor that used to be apart of the restaurant’s entertainment had been converted into more tables for playing, and my dad and I watched all the eclectic players, many in sunglasses and hats, focused on their hands, sipping their drinks, or eating the food that came conveniently on wheeled trays straight up to the table so they never had to get up. Friendly cocktail waitresses in black dresses glided through the crowd, serving drinks and chatting it up with customers. Within breaks of talking with my pops I tried to absorb as much as possible of my surroundings: tiny Spanish galleon ship replicas, coconuts, tropical fish, surfboards, and a whole array of island themed decorations made up the décor.
My dad and I were graciously treated to some food by the casino, and we perused their extensive menu with everything from steak, seafood, various noodle dishes, salads, and bar food. My dad and I were both feeling a little Asian flavor, so I got the chicken chow mein, and the pops got some chicken fried rice. Both were delicious. Our bartender Ramon was friendly and accommodating and showed me his nifty electronic pour spouts (I’m also a drink enthusiast!).
After our meal we stood around and watched some more players, not really having too much time or money to play on our own. We thanked Nick for his hospitality and headed out towards the door, the vibrant buzz of the casino following us closely behind as the cool night air accompanied us to our car. I very much enjoyed my experience there.
Hawaiian Gardens is close, much closer than Vegas as their clever sign advertises; it’s easily accessible, full of friendly locals and regulars, huge cash prizes and giveaways, and provides a relaxed and laid back atmosphere with everything necessary to play some cards whether you’re a serious player or just love to play once in a while. Take a break, relax, and go check out these tropical gardens.