As more stories surface to pay tribute to one of the last original Las Vegas legends, few are as heartfelt as those being shared around Kung Fu Plaza. John “Jackie” Gaughan was an inspiration to the family that owns the restaurant.
After the Wong family opened their Kung Fu restaurant on Third and Fremont streets in the 1970s, they quickly attracted the attention of many movers and shakers in Downtown Las Vegas. Jackie Gaughan was among them, immediately taken by a menu called Kung Fu to describe the dual-offering of Chinese and Thai cuisine.
“When my parents moved to the United States during the Vietnam War, they wanted to open a Thai restaurant,” says Alan Wong, general manager. “But in Las Vegas and in most of the country, everyone assumed all Asian food was the same. Jackie Gaughan understood the difference and seemed to know before anyone that it would be big.”
Shortly after Gaughan’s Union Plaza completed its first major renovation in 1982, Gaughan invited the Wong family to move their restaurant, complete with staff, inside the casino. The invitation was historic in that Kung Fu Plaza (formerly Kung Fu) would become the first Thai restaurant inside a resort property, first private restaurant lease in a casino, and the largest Asian restaurant in Las Vegas with a capacity of about 600 guests.
“My father and Jackie Gaughan had a great relationship built on mutual trust and respect,” says Wong. “Because the move was considered so risky, Gaughan gave his word that Kung Fu Plaza could stay at the Union Plaza as long as he made the decisions there.”
Gaughan proved to be true to his word on several occasions. When Kung Fu Plaza’s initial 5-year lease ran out, some executives wanted to open a new casino-operated restaurant inside the resort. But Gaughan wouldn’t have it. Not only did he nullify an eviction notice as soon as he heard about it, but he also authorized an unheard of month-to-month lease based on utility cost alone.
When pressed for an explanation, Gaughan didn’t give one beyond making a reservation for two. He and his wife were regular visitors. They loved the food.
This long-standing agreement remained in place until 1993 when culinary and bartender unions finally threatened a lawsuit, claiming that leasing the space to a privately-owned restaurant violated a union agreement that all culinary workers in a resort must be union members. To ensure the property would avoid a lawsuit and to express their gratitude to Gaughan for his decade-long promise, the Wong family moved Kung Fu Plaza to what was then the earliest beginnings of a new Las Vegas Chinatown.
The restaurant has been located at its Southwest corner of Valley View and Spring Mountain address ever since, a location that the Wong family has used to expand their restaurant delivery service area to include the entire Las Vegas Strip and all of its hotel rooms, as well as Downtown Las Vegas. But that didn’t stop Gaughan from enjoying his Kung Fu Plaza favorites. He and his wife visited the new location for dinner on several occasions.
“Growing up, I always remembered Jackie Gaughan to have this amazing larger-than-life presence, yet he was a surprisingly approachable and down-to-earth guy,” says Wong. “My family and I will always be grateful that he took a chance on Thai-Chinese food and my family before Thai food ever became popular in the United States.”
Jackie Gaughan died recently at a hospice. He was 93. At one time, he owned approximately one-third of the properties in Downtown Las Vegas, believing in the area so much that he lived out his last years in the penthouse of the historic El Cortez. His service was Sunday.
Kung Fu Plaza will continue to celebrate the life of Jackie Gaughan. The restaurant is dedicated to providing authentic Thai and Chinese recipes with the freshest and finest ingredients in Las Vegas. Kung Fu Plaza originally opened in 1973, making it the oldest Thai and Chinese restaurant in Las Vegas.