Chef Ron Steinmetz oversees the restaurant operations at Casino Arizona.
Chef Ron Steinmetz oversees the restaurant operations at Casino Arizona.
Jackie Mercandetti

Cafe Roulette

The waitress at The Willows slipped up. Working me at the new restaurant inside Casino Arizona-McKellips, she showed her hand too quickly.

She did a good job pushing the food. The chef crafts each dish to order, she had told me proudly, frying the chicken tenders fresh for the salad, and hand-patting seafood into patties for each crab cake appetizer.

It sounded ambitious for an eating establishment where meals come with a side of the ringing cha-ching of slot machines, but then again, I'll gladly eat at any number of Las Vegas casinos. These days, the restaurants along The Strip are among the best in the world (even Bellagio's most casual cafe, Noodles, has a stunning collection of authentic dishes from Malaysia, Thailand, Japan, China, Vietnam and Hong Kong). And has anybody been to Mandalay Bay lately? It's a fantasia of fine dining -- Charlie Palmer's Aureole with its wacky wine angels, Red Square with its caviar tastings, and the new Rumjungle, with its giant fire pit and trendy rodizio suppers.

So when casinos -- and their accompanying accouterment of spas, nightclubs and, yes, restaurants -- started popping up along the outskirts of Phoenix like so many cherries on the slot machine, I had high hopes. It was so exciting when Kai opened up at the Wild Horse Pass Resort-Casino south of Ahwatukee. Kai is one of the best restaurants we have, brought to us by James Beard winner Janos Wilder, and featuring indigenous delicacies with a twist -- like lobster fry bread with roasted corn, avocado and garlic butter.

But alas, my Willows waitress slid me too quickly into the real reason her cafe exists. Since almost everything here is made from scratch, she explained, whatever I chose would take at least 15 minutes. She suggested -- slyly and with a big smile -- that instead of drumming my fingers at the table, I do my waiting at one of the slot machines just outside the restaurant. She could come get me when my food was ready.

Clever lady.

I'm not a gambler, see. Whenever I get the urge to lose all my money with no hope of ever getting anything in return, I simply call a handyman to "work" on my house. And Kai aside, I'm still suspicious about most Valley casino experiences: Usually it's lost wages, watered-down cocktails, and, despite my waitress' boasts, mediocre food.

I have yet to be proven wrong. The best thing about The Willows, ultimately, is that it's open 24 hours, and is sometimes better than Denny's.

The poor showing doesn't make sense. Management just pumped $50 million into expanding Casino Arizona. The casino has a real chef running the flagship restaurant, the upscale Cholla, bringing us dishes like peppered elk with artichoke risotto. Cholla is topnotch, so I know this cooking crew can do better.

The slots promise huge rewards, and the menu gives a good come-on, too, with an eclectic mix of American, Asian, Cajun-Creole and Southwestern favorites. Doesn't this sound good -- egg rolls stuffed with garlic-ginger shrimp, snow peas, shiitake mushrooms and leeks with Thai barbecue sauce? Or broiled tenderloin tournedos with wild mushroom étouffée, grilled asparagus spears and roasted garlic mashed potatoes? And the place sure looks nice, too, an interesting circle-within-a-circle architecture dolled up with lots of modern blond wood tables and chairs, plush sage velvet booths, linen napkins and fresh flowers. The gray-green carpet and tile walls exude class, and I like the contemporary Indian art. Praise the people, especially, who decided to keep The Willows smoke-free.

But when the food finally shows up, inevitably my plate holds coffee-shop fare, under-seasoned and overcooked. This is the classic disappointment, of handsome-looking but flavorless shrimp cocktail, and chicken capellini in an invisible-tasting sauce of tomato, basil, garlic and olive oil. I'd love to sneak in the kitchen and see how cooks can suck the life out of well-meaning ingredients.

That chicken my server gushed about? It's coated in coconut batter so thick and stringy that the breast is a chore to chew. The salad it rests on is acceptable, a bed of spring lettuce littered with cardamom (gingery-sweet spice), cashews, carrot shavings, orange zest and dried currants. But the dressing is a disaster, labeled as citrus-honey yet arriving as gunky oil tinged with orange. A Cobb sandwich is simply weird. Long triangles of grilled crusty country bread quickly grow sodden under a soggy salad of chopped lettuce, tomato, jalapeño bacon, smoked turkey, watercress and avocado in pools of a too strong bleu cheese-Dijon dressing.

Several dishes are simply harmless, like a barbecued beef that's impressive in its girth and creatively spiked with snappy shredded poblano, charred red onion and pepper jack cheese in a nicely sweet sauce. It goes great with lacy thin homemade potato chips. I also might come back -- in a case of 2 a.m. munchies -- for a crab cake poor boy. This is a successful marriage of moist golden-fried seafood, spicy roast corn-chipotle aioli, grilled ciabatta roll and a crunchy slaw of red, green and yellow bell peppers, jicama and purple onion. I like it with a side of cottage cheese dotted with fresh, diced jalapeño.

The only sure bets with The Willows are in the round-the-clock breakfasts, and desserts. Then again, it's hard to mess up three eggs, skillet-fried potatoes, toast and a choice of apple-smoked bacon or sausage patties, especially for just $4.95.

Confections are as ostentatious as the casino's Showstoppers Live musical tributes (impersonators of the Temptations, Elvis, Tina Turner, Gloria Estefan and such). Chocolate bombe is a monster, with frozen layers of white chocolate mousse, chunks of Snickers, Butterfingers, Reese's peanut butter cups and caramel sauce. And I can see making a periodic midnight gorge of the Big Jim Dandy sundae, loaded with three scoops of ice cream, whole banana, nuts, chocolate chips, maraschino cherries, sauces of strawberry, chocolate and caramel, and whipped cream.

But in the end? I've got better chances at the blackjack table.

Blue Coyote Grill, 9700 East Indian Bend (in Casino Arizona at Talking Stick), Scottsdale, 480-850-7777. Breakfast, lunch and dinner, daily, 24 hours.

The staffers at Casino Arizona's other new restaurant, the Blue Coyote Grill, aren't nearly as smooth in their sales pitches as their colleagues at The Willows. It can be a hassle even to pry a menu from these bored folks.

This is a different Casino Arizona, though, the one called Talking Stick, located a few miles north of the McKellips property. (Confused? There's the Casino Arizona on McKellips, a permanent building with pretty ponds and ducks outside. Then there's Casino Arizona-Talking Stick on Indian Bend, housed in a high-tech tent and celebrating last month's expansion that doubled its size and brought in the restaurant. Both are owned by the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.)

Maybe the staff here isn't as excited because Blue Coyote is first and foremost a sports bar, with an incredible theater of 26 giant plasma TVs. I doubt there are too many people coming here looking for fine dining; in fact, the place is popular with local construction workers and reservation firefighters, lured in for a quick quarter-pound hot dog for just $2.99. The best thing about Blue Coyote, ultimately, is that it's open 24 hours, and is a fantastic place to catch a baseball or football game.

This new casino is pretty cool, rising in dual 27,000-square-foot fabric shells. It glows like pink bubblegum at night, and competes with its sister operation by being the only one to offer poker. A friend of mine loves the place since winning $100 at the slots; I run into the same luck as I did at The Willows, though.

No jackpot on food.

Asian food is everywhere these days, and it's in this gambling hall, too. Ingredients are fine, like the chicken in a sweet and sour bowl with bell peppers and onions over rice, but the sauces are horrid. The S&S is thick and sticky, and if it's homemade, it should be grounded. Bad sauce ruins teriyaki chicken wings -- no way I'm licking this sugary stuff off my fingers, and when I try to wipe it with a napkin, the sauce is so thick and sticky it tears the paper. Pot stickers and spring rolls barely limp through with an everyday spicy mustard sauce. And the dipping sludge that comes with an otherwise tasty tempura fish and chips is -- and here I quote from my notes -- "gross fiery molasses."

I feel pretty smug when a companion orders a rib eye, and finds it average. What, a 10-ounce cut of grilled meat, with fries or baked potato, for $9.99, and it's not amazing? Who'd a thought? But she has the last laugh when I get stuck with sliders, absolutely the worst sandwiches I've ever had in my life. I cannot believe these are "grilled to order," because it's impossible for one person to do this much damage to the rubbery tire-quality meat in a single pass. Too bad that, like all other Arizona businesses, our casinos stop serving alcohol at 1 a.m., because I can't believe anyone would accept such a mess without a whole lot of cocktails.

The luck of the draw is required here. In tricky twists, some of Blue Coyote's sustenance isn't so bad. Thai salad is a safe choice, tumbled with thin sliced chicken or shrimp in a peppery rub, mushrooms, cucumber, julienne red pepper, bean sprouts, iceberg, celery, tomato and carrot in a sweet thin dressing. A club sandwich does fine in a big sports game or middle-of-the-night pinch. There's nothing wrong with the crunchy bacon, deli sliced turkey and Swiss cheese combo. I'm okay with Asian chicken wraps, bringing three iceberg lettuce cups with curly carrot strings, crispy rice noodles, and crumbled chicken tasting of soy, mushroom and water chestnut. Breakfast plates hit the spot, too -- particularly the burrito stuffed with eggs, chiles, potatoes, onion and sausage.

Then, ching-ching-ching -- I suddenly hit pay dirt. I'm as shocked as I would be if I ever hit a winning combination on slots, but Blue Coyote has an incredible wor won ton soup. This is the best four bucks I've ever spent in a casino, with a huge bowl of rich salty chicken broth packed with silky pork dumplings, bay shrimp, pork slivers, fresh bok choy and shallots.

The success of the soup goes straight to my head. I find a sparkly slot machine. I feed all my coins into an Alaskan-themed bandit, hoping to line up pictures of baby seals or walruses and win the big jackpot.

Silly, silly me. I win nothing, of course. I empty my purse of cash, and don't even get a single quarter back. Blackjack, burgers, poker, pasta -- for me, this casino stuff is crap all around.


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