Sheridan Su has cooked in Michelin-rated restaurants, food trucks, even the back of a beauty salon. Now he's serving creative Asian-American fare - in a tiny locals'casino
At first glance, the Eureka Casino is unremarkable. A notch above the city’s ubiquitous video poker taverns — but second-rate to slick Strip properties — the 49-year old slot parlor on East Sahara Avenue still assaults the senses like a typical locals’ casino: with garish carpet, cigarette smoke and the clang of penny slots singing like a siren hungry for a Social Security check. But there’s also a surprising instance of good taste. Past the haze of Newports and promise of progressive jackpots, diners can strike food gold at Fat Choy, where Chef Sheridan Su is eschewing safe bets like shrimp cocktail and prime rib in favor of creative Asian-American fare.
You might wonder why Su, 30, would choose to settle in this gritty part of town. The Southern California native not only boasts a degree from the Culinary Institute of America, but also spent six years earning experience and accolades at various high-profile restaurants, including Joël Robuchon at The Mansion, Social House, Wazuzu and Comme Ça. Wouldn’t his talents be better appreciated on the Strip, or perhaps in the newly gentrified East Fremont Street?
“We want to raise the profile of the area,” he says. “Besides Lotus of Siam, the nearest dining options are a couple of overpriced chain restaurants. When I envisioned Fat Choy, I wanted to strike the right balance between an affordable neighborhood place that makes our local clientele happy, but with dishes that are interesting enough to attract foodies from all over Vegas.”
Trucks, trials and travails
A small casino off the beaten path is hardly an unconventional choice compared to Su’s initial solo ventures. In 2011, he invested his savings in Great Bao, a food truck serving playful riffs on Taiwanese steamed buns. While it was a hit with street food aficionados, Su was not as pleased with his own project. He quickly learned that the perks of a roving restaurant — cheap initial investment, low overhead, fewer hours — were anything but.
“I thought I was getting a super deal, but the truck kept breaking down,” he says. “Suddenly a $6,000 project had turned into a $30,000 project. My bank account was dry, my credit cards were maxed out, and I had a few hundred dollars left to my name.”
Like other desperate people in the digital age, he turned to Craigslist for salvation. That’s where Su came across an unusual offer: a local beauty salon was looking for someone to operate an on-site café for its customers. It was an affordable brick and mortar option for Great Bao, but Su was unsure about the peaceful coexistence of soy sauce and shampoo.
“I told myself there was no way,” he says. “People would never come. It was just too weird. But Jenny (Wong, Su’s fiancée and partner) told me, ‘Do what you do, and if you do it well, people will find you.’”
Wong was right, even if Su describes the first few weeks as brutal.
“There were days when I’d buy $200 worth of produce, then make $14 in sales,” he says. It took three months before Su ever saw a profit. After another seven, customers were spilling over from the café’s six seats into the salon area.
That’s when the business changed management and cut ties with the chef. Su was unsure of where he’d land next; he only knew that it would not be at a celebrity chef’s mega-restaurant.
“After Comme Ça, I decided that I’d never work for anyone else again,” he says. “I’ve learned a lot from my mentors, but I wanted something more. I had a very clear idea of what I wanted. It was time to execute a vision that was mine rather than someone else’s.”
That vision began to take shape as early as age three, when Su participated in the immigrant’s version of Take Your Kid to Work Day.
“My mother is from Taiwan, and her first job in the United States was working in a Chinese restaurant seven days a week,” says Su. “The only way I could see her was to tag along. To me, the kitchen was this giant playground, and that magic was never lost.”
A kitchen to call his own
Now, after paying his dues in a truck and salon, Su finally has a legitimate kitchen to call his own. Fat Choy, born from a handshake deal with Eureka owner Ernest Lee, opened in January, and so far the chef has successfully kept his promise to please different palates. If bone marrow or Peking duck bao are not what you crave after a round of Wheel of Fortune, there are also more familiar options like Ms. Wong’s spaghetti and meatballs — inspired by the first meal Su’s fiancée ever cooked for him.
And whether he’s making American classics or his grandmother’s recipe for Chinese noodles, diners can expect him to do it with the same pride and care of a fine dining chef.
“Sheridan is one of the most consistent, even-keeled cooks I know,” says chef and Comme Ça owner David Myers. “He has the tactical calmness of a fighter pilot or surgeon.” Myers, who first mentored Su at his acclaimed Los Angeles restaurant Sona, describes him as Buddha-like before wondering, “But inside, who knows what the hell is going on?”
Su admits that frayed nerves do exist beneath the surface. He’s anxious to see if his latest move pays off — not just for him, but the dining community as a whole.
“Making that jump from employee to employer is one of the scariest things you can ever do,” says Su. “Chefs on the Strip become comfortable making six-figure salaries, so not too many are willing to take the risk of going off on their own. I hope that my leap of faith can help inspire others to join me and contribute to a real Vegas dining scene — one that’s off the Strip, for the people.”
fat choy in the Eureka Casino 595 E. Sahara Ave., 794-3464, eurekalasvegas.com
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Fried pork sauce noodles Su’s version of zhajiangmian, inspired by his grandmother’s recipe, starts with fresh strands of wheat noodles bathed in a black bean sauce. Nuggets of crispy pork belly are strewn across the top for added richness, while cucumber, carrots and daikon sprouts lend a cool, fresh flavor with each bite.
Kalbi steak and eggs Fat Choy reinvents an all-American breakfast favorite by replacing a boring cut of beef with flavorful Korean short ribs. Even to Su’s surprise, it’s a hit with the locals. “An older gentleman who used to eat at the restaurant (before it was Fat Choy) was coming in every day and complaining that I took his steak and eggs away,” he says. “So I decided to run a special, replacing the traditional steak with something more interesting. He gave it a try and loved it.”