A friend was complaining the other day about how hard he works, and I’ll admit he’s an industrious guy.
But he wouldn’t last a shift at All Star Donuts. The humble restaurant at 1615 Las Vegas Blvd. South and its sister at 3650 E. Flamingo Road rarely close for business. The former serves food until midnight. The latter opens at 4:30 a.m. The Boulevard location is open every day.
The surest bet in Las Vegas is finding Sophavy Ly and Jimmy Ly behind the counters, multitasking like one-armed chain saw jugglers. Their workdays average 16 hours.
Of the two, Jimmy is the slacker. He toils only six days a week. Sophavy, the company president, gets one half-day off and still finds a way to raise a family. Her English is better than my Khmer, but for the purposes of our story Jimmy translates.
Americans by way of Cambodia, they do everything but complain about their lot in life. Sophavy and Jimmy are pleased with their doughnuts, chow mein dishes and kolaches.
“In East Coast, say ‘pig in a blanket,’ everybody know,” Sophavy says. “Say ‘kolache,’ only Texas people know.”
If a sausage sealed in a fresh-baked bun is your thing, come in and take a seat.
This is more than a simple small business. This is the place where Sophavy and her friend Jimmy live the American Dream. If All Star Donuts were the Bellagio, they couldn’t be more proud.
They aren’t blind to their status on the Boulevard. The diminutive diner stands in the shadow of a haunted mansion called the Olympic Garden topless cabaret. The business exists in the discarded netherworld between the Strip’s billions and downtown’s renaissance. Luv-it Frozen Custard is its best-known neighbor, but blight, poverty and street crime are its constant companions.
“We have good people and bad people,” she says. “Got a lot of homeless people.”
And a lot of regular customers who arrive at odd hours. To do more business, they realized they needed to serve more than maple bars. Not even cops eat doughnuts at every meal.
“When first open, serve only doughnut,” Sophavy says. “Doughnut after noon nobody eat, so add Chinese food.”
And don’t forget those kolaches, which some folks trace to Texas and others are sure come all the way from the Czech Republic. Wherever they started, kolaches ended up on the Boulevard at All Star Donuts.
If you’re waiting for either Sophavy or Jimmy to complain about the long hours they work and the short money they make, you’ll wait a very long time.
Not that things can’t get better.
“A lot of homeless here, try to make ‘quarter, quarter,’ ” Jimmy says. “They should clean up street. That would help business.”
Metro patrol cars are common sights in the parking lot, and tourists tend to pick up their pace through a strand of the Boulevard that would have inspired street poet Charles Bukowski. But those who stop in are treated to a smile and a variety of inexpensive cuisine for miles around.
“It’s long hours, but you got no choice, got no education,” Jimmy says. “Have to pay bills, pay rent. We keep our place nice and clean. We have good food, friendly service. Locals know you, always come back. Not getting rich, but doing OK.”
A few years ago, a steady customer suggested a name change for All Star Donuts. The new idea: “Topless Donuts.”
“We don’t do that,” Jimmy says, smiling.
Just then two customers come in, order Chinese combinations to go. Jimmy returns to work.
Outside, the asphalt bakes the Boulevard and the midday traffic grinds on. The hustlers, freaks and scufflers shuffle toward the shade.
Inside, it’s another pretty good day at All Star Donuts.
If you’re looking for a reminder of what’s right about this gaudy factory town, or crave a tasty doughnut and kolache, you’ve come to the right place.
The postcard from the immigrants’ American Dream is no extra charge.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.