LOSING AT THE TABLES

Harvest Restaurant, Harrah's Ak-Chin Casino, 17 miles west of I-10, exit 162A, Maricopa Road, 1-800-427-7247. Hours: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week.

Five hundred years ago, the European invaders came and stole their land. Then, the white men drove them from their ancestral homes and destroyed their way of life. At first, the outgunned Native Americans tried to fight back. But centuries of war and hostilities didn't help. So now they've changed tactics: Instead of getting mad, they're getting even. An outline of a new Kevin Costner epic? A course description of Stanford University's freshman American civilization class? Nope, it's the 1995 saga of reservation gambling in the Valley.

Actually, from what I've noticed after trips to Harrah's Ak-Chin Casino and the Fort McDowell Gaming Center, the tribes are doing better than getting even. They're getting ahead. A sign in front of Harrah's casino says Ak-Chin is an O'odham word meaning "mouth of the wash or place where the wash loses itself in the sand." I wonder what the O'odham expression is for "place for suckers to throw away money." That's because at both Harrah's and Fort McDowell, the house takes no unplanned losses. In Vegas, there are still ways for brainpower to beat the casino. You can bet a basketball game, handicap a horse race, play "Don't Pass" on the craps table or double down at blackjack--in short, savvy players can try to shorten the odds by using their wits.

Location Info

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Harrah's Ak-Chin Casino

15406 Maricopa Road
Maricopa, AZ 85239

Category: Music Venues

Region: Outside the Valley

But Indian gaming in Arizona requires you to check your wits at the door. Just about everything here is a machine-programmed sucker bet, the kind of action every knowledgeable gambler avoids. It's the twilight of the odds: Slot machines are designed to pay out less than they take in; rule changes stack video craps against you; and if you think you can consistently come out ahead after several bingo or keno sessions, I've got a trunkful of authentic Navajo earmuffs I can let you have at a good price.

Sure, some folks occasionally hit the jackpot on a one-armed bandit. Some folks also get hit by lightning. Statistically, neither is likely to happen to you. But gambling isn't the only way these casinos separate you from your money. If you get hungry at Harrah's or Fort McDowell, you'll also contribute to tribal coffers, unless you feel like driving miles away to eat. Each place offers Vegas-style buffet meals to keep players stoked for action. Unlike most buffet warehouses, Harrah's Harvest Restaurant is an exceptionally spiffy room. The brightly colored carpet features vaguely Indian-looking geometric designs. Wood pillars, murals of fruits and vegetables, and lots of prettily arranged fake greenery make you forget there's a casino just beyond the doorway. And the sconces and chandeliers sport eye-catching silhouettes of Indian warriors on horseback, armed with lances.

The food, sadly, doesn't keep pace with the decor, although that didn't seem to bother most of my fellow diners. This is the kind of crowd that goes through the buffet line balancing a full plate in each hand, fearful that management might at any moment suddenly pull the plug on the all-you-can-eat policy. First buffet stop on my Friday-night visit: the soup caldron. At one time, the clam chowder may have actually had some clams in it. But they'd all been fished out by the time I dropped my line in. Still, at least the creamy broth had a briny air.

The restaurant offers two salad bars. One has the bins of iceberg greenery, tasteless tomatoes, shredded cheese, beets and mushrooms, along with vats of artery-clogging salad dressing. The other sports institutional-quality coleslaw, macaroni salad, potato salad, three-bean salad, marinated mushrooms and those traditional native favorites, peaches in syrup and cottage cheese.

A walk over to the hot table didn't inspire more hope. A sample of the sweet-and-sour chicken confirmed my fears: bony pieces of poultry in a gloppy, gelatinous sauce, tarted up with green pepper and canned pineapple. The fried rice alongside won't remind anyone of the Chinese food Mom used to take out, either. Then there was cioppino, a fish dish for which San Francisco is famous and the O'odham aren't. This version furnished some unidentifiable minced fish, an occasional thumbnail-size scallop and the predictable shreds of surimi in a bit of flavorless tomato sauce. I thought I'd at least be able to get my daily dose of beta carotene by spooning some lyonnaise carrots on my plate. No way. Apparently, "lyonnaise" in the local tongue means "old and woody."

Beef tips proven‡ale--I love the French touch--revealed thin slices of tough, overcooked meat that tasted suspiciously like yesterday's roast beef. Meanwhile, the roast beef at the carving station also tasted like yesterday's roast beef; it was unredeemably dry. Breaded veal parmigiana resembled the model that used to haunt every school cafeteria. Remember why you used to bring your lunch to school? This will refresh your memory. So I filled up on thick, buttered noodles instead. On to the dessert section. An employee spotted me warily eyeing a cookie. "It's a fresh-baked potato chip cookie," she informed me. It's a cookie idea whose time hasn't come--I don't imagine Mrs. Field will be adding it to her repertoire any time soon. A too-sweet brownie, lackluster pies and Miss Karen's yogurt round out the options. As in Vegas, servers will bring over cold beverages, remove your plates, replace your cutlery and keep your coffee cup filled. Harrah's has found a friendly, efficient group. Leave them a couple of bucks when you go. After all, the buffet's not their fault.

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