Pechanga Resort Casino: A Major Player Gets Even Bigger

The pool, spa and tower suites are new, and the fried oysters are as good as ever

The Pechanga Resort Casino expansion includes a new 4.5-acre pool complex.
A new junior suite at Pechanga.

The Pechanga pool, spa and tower suites are new, and the fried oysters are waiting. But first, check-in.

We’re standing at the newly remodeled front desk at Pechanga Resort Casino and another “guest” isn’t giving us much privacy. He’s leaning on the counter just a few feet away from us. Wait, is he…Pitbull?

This guy really resembles the bald-pated pop dynamo. Pitbull is, in fact, headlining tonight in the casino’s new, 40,000-square-foot Events Center. I nudge my wife. She looks up at me and I nod in Possible Pitbull’s direction. She sneaks a glance. “Is it him?” she whispers. I shrug. He’s a dead ringer—but would Pitbull have to stand at the check-in counter? Would Pitbull be this rude? Wait, never mind, I don’t think Pitbull would be flashing a California driver’s license.

The real Pitbull.

This is the second time we’ve driven inland to the hot-air-balloon-filled skies of Temecula wine country to stay at Pechanga. The first time we didn’t know what to expect. For this return visit, we couldn’t wait to come back and indulge in the just-opened spa and pool and drop our bags in a dual-room, resort-tower suite.

A $285-million renovation has bumped the hotel-room count to 1,090 rooms. Even by Las Vegas standards, this place has heft. It’s 200,000 square feet of gaming space is the most among 10 local-area casinos. Pechanga’s 13 restaurants and 4.5-acre pool complex rival any casino resort on the West Coast. It’s safe to say Pechanga—a one-hour drive from San Diego; two hours from Los Angeles—is playing in the big leagues. 

My wife and I have come back to see and experience the burgeoning spectacle. We’ve returned for all the amenities you find at a gaming mecca, as well as to re-experience one particular offering. Indeed, one of the top things on our to-do list is order another plate of the most perfectly prepared fried oysters ever shucked, breaded and served. 

Pechanga’s new pool and spa

The Spa Pechanga entry.

The spa-aah. A great spa first intoxicates you through the nose with the unique bouquet of lavender, eucalyptus and lemon essential oils. Imagine those aromas mixed with that “new-spa” smell.

But before pampering, some sweating. The front door on the ground floor of the two-level Spa Pechanga opens to a serene lobby and a state-of-the-art fitness studio. The gym includes two Peloton stationary bikes. Fifty minutes and 550 calories later, I’ve taken my first spin class led by a video-viewed instructor.

Then on to the bliss that resides in 17 treatment rooms. Here’s one treatment you have to see to bee-lieve: The Healing Honey Massage. The process entails being coated with natural honey. Then a beeswax thermal pad is placed on your back, followed by the application of a hydrating milk-and-honey facial mask. It all creates a very pleasant mental buzz.

After being induced into a mushy state of physical numbness at the spa, my wife and I zombie walk to the adjacent pool complex and our sofa-appointed cabana (one of 27). The Cove is beautifully immense, covering the size of four football fields. The largest pool is a 7,500-square-foot, infinity-edge gem, centered by a swim-up bar and 18 immersed bar stools.

A cabana at The Cove.

Options abound at The Cove. You could watch TV at the swim-up bar, or stake a claim on a chaise lounge on the extensive swimming pool tanning ledge; or there are half a dozen water-skimming day beds in the water.

Too serene? How about a run on the waterslides? One is open-air, the other is an enclosed tube. We try them out and give two thumbs up for being fast and fun, but not extreme.

Still, the cabana was moving at the speed we were seeking. We sandwiched a light lunch between naps–inside the wood-paneled cabana, and outside it on ergo-dynamically perfect lounge chairs. We also made use of the Coola sun-care kit (sunscreen, lip balm, after-sun lotion) that comes gratis with a cabana.

Note: We didn’t see anybody that looked like Pitbull at the pool, though, we were slumbering much of the day.

Pechanga dining, and fried oysters

Umi Sushi & Oyster Bar.

Pechenga has more than a dozen eateries, ranging from casual to elegant. On our first visit, we ate at the high-end Great Oak Steakhouse. This is where the surf-and-turf specials are delivered by veteran servers like Amanda, a two-decade veteran of the casino-resort.

Amanda was skilled enough to deduce that I would prefer port wine butter rather than roasted tomato-kalamata compote on the Chilean sea bass. Then she went out of her way to ask around and confirm that the band playing tonight at the Cabaret Lounge would go on earlier than the DJ at the Eagles Nest Nightclub.

Then there’s the magical Umi Sushi & Oyster Bar, overseen by chef Kiyokuni Ikeda. He toiled in Tokyo sushi bars before coming to the U.S. to study under Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto. Ikeda’s kitchen produces a seafood steam pot with a mesmerizing fresh herb white wine broth that you’d swear is imbued with healing properties.

Ikedo also delivers magical, seemingly simple fried oysters that are panko breaded—but under the crunchy exterior there’s the briny, warm gushiness of a perfectly fried oyster. It’s this delicacy we’ve been looking forward to; even dreaming about earlier in the day at the cabana.

There’s so much that could be written about Ikedo’s sushi, or his enthralling, dry-ice-infused seafood platter entrees. Indeed, this unexpectedly wonderful restaurant is a microcosm of the who-would-have-thunk-it oasis that is Pechanga. There are numerous reasons to make the trek to Temecula—the Journey golf course right out back, the enormous second-floor poker room, the vintage concerts (not necessarily Mr. Worldwide, but Boz Scaggs, Tony Bennett, and the like).

We’ll keep going back for all those things. When it comes to bigger being better, Pechanga proves the cliché true; but Umi fried oysters also demonstrate that delicious details come on small appetizer plates. J&J