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.

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.

Red Rock Cafe, Fort McDowell Gaming Center, just west of Beeline Highway on Fort McDowell Road, 837-1424. Hours: Breakfast, Monday, midnight to 5 a.m.; Tuesday through Friday, midnight to 10 a.m.; Saturday and Sunday, midnight to 11 a.m.; Lunch, Monday, 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, noon to 3:30 p.m.; Dinner, 4 to 11 p.m., seven days a week. The fare at Fort McDowell's Red Rock Cafe did have one remarkable quality: It made the Harvest Restaurant look good in comparison. Unlike the Harvest Restaurant, the Red Rock Cafe sports a dull, generic, coffee-shop look designed to make you eager to return to the casino. There are some negligible bits of greenery and mostly bare walls, except for a few historic landscape photographs and pictures of Indian notables. Color is supplied by your fellow patrons, most of whom seemed to be bola-tied Milwaukee retirees and their bingo-obsessed wives. Before you decide to eat here, ask yourself this crucial question: Do you like mayonnaise? Though this is an Indian enterprise, it's catered like a Midwestern church social. Take the macaroni salad, slathered with enough mayonnaise to throw a herd of buffalo into cardiac arrest. Or the Dan Quayle-inspired potatoe salad, dripping with hundreds of flavorless calories. There is something called Southwestern macaroni salad, too. Apparently, adding a few red beans and a handful of baby corn to any pasta dish automatically turns it into a regional specialty.

You could get the meal started in two other ways, neither a significant improvement. On the evening I visited, guests could have ladled themselves out a thin, watery tomato vegetable broth. Or they could have foraged at the greenery table, loading up on exotic delights like cherry tomatoes, pickled beets and kidney beans.

Each evening the Red Rock Cafe features three main dishes. Don't get your expectations up.

Barbecued ribs are wretched. You know those fragrant specimens, laden with butter-soft meat and moistened with tangy barbecue that you get at places like Honey Bear's? Well, Red Rock Cafe doesn't have them. Instead, it has a chafing tray full of gristly, fatty bones that even in retrospect make me uncomfortable. Entree option number two was game hen. That's a euphemism for puny, bony chicken, fowl not remotely worth clucking over. Breaded catfish fillet had the virtue of palatability, which immediately assures it a spot in Red Rock Cafe's culinary hall of fame. The thick, meaty fillets come battered and fried, neither too greasy nor too dried out. No wonder the staff had to keep replenishing this tray, while the ribs and chicken lingered.

To avoid starvation, amble over to the side dishes, where the Red Rock Cafe bats .500. Corn cobbettes, drowned in a scary-looking vat of yellow liquid, strike out. So do the flavorless beans. But somebody had the good sense to cook up wedges of butternut squash and sprinkle brown sugar over them. And the medley of steamed broccoli and cauliflower is simple and effective, as long as you don't ruin it by adding the "cheese" sauce in the adjacent tub.

What's for dessert? You guessed it--Jell-O. And that's a highlight. There are three odd-looking, odd-tasting mousses--chocolate, vanilla, strawberry--that will lead no one into the Valley of Temptation. Cherry pie--all glunk, no cherries--is abysmal. Best bet: Track down a chocolate chip cookie--like the catfish, they also go fast.

I've been to Vegas often enough not to expect much in the way of casino buffet food. After all, casinos are in the gambling business, not the food-service industry. And nobody goes to a casino just to eat. But clearly, Fort McDowell and Harrah's can do better. Whatever you've come here to feed--a machine or your belly--it's a bad bet.

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