There's no mistaking we're in a casino now, waiting like farm animals in a snaking line of chrome railings, melodied by the carnival clings and dings of slot machines, assaulted by a God-awful haze of cigarette smoke that burns our eyes, creeps down our throats and vandalizes our lungs.
But hold your breath; the line moves quickly, and once inside the restaurant, acrid fumes slink away for the most part. It's worth the trauma -- Eagle's Nest is much better than a casino restaurant needs to be, from ambiance to service to food.
From the classy Indian art inset in glass wall display cases along the waiting line, to the interior's cherry wood walls, granite floors, warm rust wall tile accents and an undulating wood slat ceiling underpinned with teal runners, it's a first-class look.
Even when ordering the buffet, table service is sprightly, with complimentary beverages brought (and refilled) immediately, dirty plates cleared in a flash, and the manager jumping in to bus at busy times. When the buffet gets cranking, plates can be lacking, but anyone behind the service line, chefs included, is on the spot in an instant when alerted.
Casino Arizona easily could have cut corners on the buffet, with menu items that change daily. Weekends generally mean seafood, starring meaty crab legs and tasty boiled shrimp for just $10.50. And where else in town can you get a bells-and-whistles Sunday brunch, champagne included, for just $9.50? Weekdays ring in at just $8.50, but there's no stinting here, either.
Consider the simple salad bar, pristine fresh, gussied with artichoke hearts, turkey cubes, a multitude of prepared salads (try the chopped broccoli, spruced with red pepper and shaved almonds in a spunky mayo), crusty rolls and an enjoyable caesar dressing that's thick, peppery, and tastes homemade. Eat your fill of hand-carved meats, with a rotating cast of juicy turkey breast stuffed with herbed bread, and cream gravy, tender rosemary crusted pork loin splashed with thin brown gravy, or sliced-to-order prime rib with terrific creamy horseradish. There's fried chicken, steak and chicken fajitas sautéed before our eyes, lamb skewers in sweet chile sauce, and wickedly spicy blackened catfish.
Sides might include penne Alfredo, flaky spanakopita stuffed with fresh spinach and some of the best mashed potatoes I've found, creamy with butter and studded with skin-on spud.
There are desserts, of course, towering mounds that are constantly replenished by a white-toqued pastry chef. Your symphony could feature chocolate cream pie, carrot cake, lemon cake, brownies, German chocolate cake, strawberry cheesecake, Napoleons or frozen yogurt -- sugar-free selections, too.
Smaller appetites won't be deprived by menu selections -- offerings span five pages. My choice? A sublime cowboy steak dip, layering fistfuls of thick carved prime rib and grilled onions on a bakery hoagie roll, smeared with that good horseradish and dipped in au jus. Don't waste any remaining jus -- dip the side of crispy waffle-cut fries, too. Five fluffy potato skins have real bacon crumbles. T-bone's a friendly cut, too, 16 ounces grilled and served with a massive green salad, baked potato and sautéed veggies.
There is another restaurant within Casino Arizona, the Salt River Cafe. It's got better-than-ordinary stuff, too -- burgers, patty melts, deli sandwiches and a worthy salute to chef's salad, stocked with obscene amounts of turkey, ham, hard-boiled egg, shredded Cheddar and jack cheeses. But this is cafeteria-line stuff, to be sucked down at metal tables next to the bar, or scarfed from little carts wheeled up to the card tables. It'll do in a pinch, if Lady Luck truly is being a lady one night.