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Las Vegas Tourney Journey (Coffee Hack Edition) | Special to Calinfluence

The convergence of a long drive in to Las Vegas (clocking in at 7 hours and 6 minutes from San Diego) + a late dinner (well after 7:30p.m.) + an early start time for both daughters (7 a.m. meet-ups in front of various still-shuttered eateries or lounges off the hotel lobby) = the kickoff to the Red Rock Rave Girls Volleyball Qualifier.

The tournament at morning began with groans, stumbles, and the rifling through of packed bags. The flurry quieted once the daughter athletes left, leaving us the parents — who dutifully stayed out of the way — moments to finally get ready. Actually, that’s only somewhat factual. I continued sleeping in until the very last minute, while my wife helped herd out the girls.

Regardless, that takes us to coffee. With the athletes in and warming up ahead of the parents in the Mandalay Bay Convention Center — spanning across literally 130+ courts — it is left to the parents to forage for caffeine. I regret to inform you that the coffee standard bearer — Starbucks — with two locations within the immediate casino vicinity, gleamed in a cruel seduction. For alas, the line stagnated at 40 and 60 and even 80 customers deep. And the wait — with damnable, frilly, iced and hot lattes — stood at a solid hour.

But so fervent has my drive become to wait as little as necessary anywhere, that this scene unfolding, even amid my quiet desperation, left me formulating viable coffee plans B, C and D.

Coffee Option #1 (that’s not Starbucks): Hazel — Coffee & Cocktails

A few short steps off Mandalay Bay’s hotel elevator is Hazel — Coffee & Cocktails. Part coffee stop / part casino lounge, Hazel offered an array of coffee — from the ubiquitous drip brew to espresso-based variants of lattes and mochas. This presented an immediate improvement over the endless human centipede at each Starbucks.

But that’s not to say that Hazel was ideal. Breakfast sandwiches and morning pastries augmented its coffee offerings — and there in lie the rub. The line shortly after 9:30 a.m. hovered at about 10 people deep, which milled through quickly enough.

But it was the waiting-for-my-egg-sandwich-and-fancy-coffee customer sub-group aligning the fringes of the counter that I was keying in on. As well as the accumulation of empty to-go coffee cups of varying sizes, with orders and names scrawled on each of them. This meant both backlog and logjam for the two baristas to meander through. Uncertain of the caliber of both their drip brew and their egg sandwich-savvy (where exactly is the kitchen?), I opted for a ready-made yogurt parfait for my daughter who, today, had a late schedule of games — and a quick exit. Coffee for me, in addition to breakfast, would lead me elsewhere.

Coffee Option #2 (that’s not Starbucks): House of Blues

It might seem counter-intuitive to look to the casino restaurants for coffee, but that is exactly where I went. With the strong majority of morning-time casino dwellers jumping into the sea of humanity that flowed to the convention center volleyball courts, the restaurants — whichever were open — offered seating WITHOUT A WAIT. I literally couldn’t finish asking for a table “…for two…” before my daughter and I were being led to a booth.

A waiter quickly followed after, and within the span of 1 minute and 45-seconds, I was casually sitting back, sipping hot coffee from an actual porcelain coffee cup. My daughter dutifully hid her yogurt parfait from Hazel to the back and side and front of her, in sync with the roving eyes of floor staff. And along with an actual restaurant came a menu with actual food. I would set my sights far beyond the egg sandwich offerings of Hazel for the House of Blues steak and eggs with hash browns. My daughter, who “doesn’t do breakfast food,” continued sneaking spoonfuls of her parfait until all evidence of its existence eventually disappeared, except for the spoon and hazy plastic cup.

I calculate that I began dining on this sit-down meal before the huddled masses surrounding the Hazel coffee counter received their frilly drinks and warmed breakfast foods from its still yet-to-be-located kitchen. House of Blues at Mandalay Bay — a solid breakfast with decent coffee. And the waiter even sent me off with a topped off to-go cup. Score!

Coffee Option #3 (that’s not Starbucks): Ri Ra Irish Pub

I know, I know. I can already hear the chorus of hardcore volleyball parents with their fingers wagging disapprovingly, proclaiming the gross mis-prioritization of time — for a full-on, sit-down meal over hurrying to the tournament floor as hastily as possible. As my retort — lest I remind you of the hour-long line at Starbucks that sent me on this odyssey to begin with. But also, of course, I gamed out a solid to-go option as well. Enter (for me again) my casino meal mainstay, Ri Ra Irish Pub, located in the mall-ish Shoppes at Mandalay Bay, between Mandalay’s casino floor and the indoor entrance to the Luxor Hotel. Open at 8 a.m., Ri Ra offers an array of sit-down breakfasts AND to-go breakfast sandwiches, as well as to-go drip coffee. The coffee at Ri Ra is admittedly not darkly robust like a Seattle dark roast might be, but it isn’t weak, and it gets the job done. And without a line to wait in for it.

On a recent visit, the bartender poured our coffee quickly, and with time to spare, we found ourselves catching our breaths for a moment there. We sipped from our to-go cups. And got topped off on our way out. All without the hour-long wait. All with the satisfaction knowing we found our hack to the casino coffee system. If Starbucks is your only jam, you’ll have to wait dearly for it. Otherwise, look to the restaurant coffee (and breakfast menu) to get your morning going, without the pain of a long wait.

Jason James Barry is an award-winning journalist and essayist. His travel and restaurant reviews appear in and Great Pacific Review’s features page.


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