Auburn welcomes Imperial Palace Casino at grand opening

Located at the former Iron Horse Casino.

Big casinos are great, but the smaller card rooms have a special place in the affections of patrons, too.

Ryan and Sokha Kunkel are betting on it with the Imperial Palace Casino, which they celebrated last Thursday evening in the digs of the former Iron Horse Casino.

Why the confidence? It’s personal, they say.

“People will come here for the same reason they always have, because it’s personal,” Kunkel said under the shadow of the big sign bearing the new name overlooking 15th Street Northeast. “It’s why small card rooms exist. Everyone that’s in here is a regular and you know them by name, they know the dealers. It’s just different.

“…When you go to the big tribe, it’s great — local tribe, love the entertainment — but you’re one of thousands there. Here you’re one of maybe a hundred,” Kunkel said.

Ryan and Sokha bought the casino in August 2022, and through all the controlled chaos of a multi-phased renovation, have operated it since.

So, what’s new there?

Well, 24-hour gaming Thursday through Sunday, late night and early morning happy hours, a designated pull-tab bar with more than 34 bowls, a VIP gaming room, a 24-hour restaurant that offers an updated menu with new Asian dishes, yet still keeps many of the favorites.

“When we bought the casino back in August, a lot of the regulars talked about how it used to be a 24-hour diner back when it was Steiner Diner before the Iron Horse, so we thought we’d bring it back and it’d be nice to have,” Kunkel said.

Kunkel said his lead chef worked for the Iron Horse for several years.

Card games, Kunkel said, number all variations of blackjack, pai gow, baccarat, midi baccarat, Spanish 21 and player’s edge.

The couple, which Kunkel called “a one-two punch,” are veterans of the industry.

By 2011, Kunkel had been a blackjack dealer for almost 10 years and Sokha for almost 18 years, odd-jobbing it in various casinos in Washington and California, loving the life.

But as they watched a large company gobble up smaller card rooms, one after the other like a ravenous Pac-Man, Ryan said, some of the fun went out of the experience, and in 2011 they left the industry.

That year the couple opened up the first for-profit marijuana dispensary in the state of Washington, ultimately growing that business into five stores. The couple sold that business in 2019, but it still operates today under the name “Have A Heart CC.”

During “free time” afforded by the COVID pandemic, Kunkel said, he noticed Freddie’s Casino was having a lot of financial trouble and was for sale. So the couple bought the Freddie’s in Everett with an eye to turning it around.

“I wanted to get back into casinos, so I bought the Iron Horse and hired the best in the industry, some of whom used to work for me, to operate the business. We are opening a second location this summer in Tukwila,” Kunkel said.