Drunker by the bite

Photo by David Robert

My first and only mistake with alcohol was asking the bartender what he thought would be a good pre-dinner drink at the Cactus Creek Bar and Grille. After ruling out Scotch and gin, I settled for a vodka martini straight up with two plump olives.

The adobe-style walls at the grill, which is inside the Bonanza Casino, curve and stop short of the ceiling; the windows melt in the arching walls; everything is out of perspective; fake foliage creeps on the walls. No, that’s not the martini talking, that’s the interpretive, surrealist design of the hacienda.

Our seasoned bartender knew nearly everyone by name, and it was clear to us that this was a locals’ place. I overheard the man sitting next to me address the chef by name, and, without revealing my identity, of course, I asked the chef what he recommended.

He suggested the steak Diane, rack of lamb, halibut, salmon or baby back ribs.

He then asked if this was our first time at the Cactus Creek and, if so, where we were from. When we told him it was, indeed, our first time and that we were from Reno, the man next to me said, “It’s our little secret.”

Chef Bruce added, “We’ve got to let a few people in on our secret.”

The Bonanza Casino opened in 1978. The casino is smoky, with low ceilings and dim lighting throughout—its casino ambience is perfect. I can see why locals flock here: After about three visits, you’re a regular. Can’t say that in many other Reno casinos. This way-north Virginia Street is not the same Virginia Street of downtown—it’s the boondocks of Reno.

Curiously, not until we were home thinking about the evening did it occur to us that nearly everything we ordered, beginning with my martini, contained alcohol in some form or another.

We started with a half-order of the Southwestern clams ($6.95), which were bite-sized and tasty, steamed in microbrew beer with garlic and cilantro butter. So that covered the beer food group. We also had focaccia with butter and garlicky toasted bread that was plenty absorbent for sopping up the clam juice.

Next came the brandy and Merlot course. The steak Diane ($19.95) was four filet mignon medallions sautéed with garlic, shallots, mushrooms and Dijon mustard flamed with brandy and served in a rich Merlot sauce. The plate was like a serving platter!

Dinners come with a choice of baked potato or southwestern rice and fresh vegetables, including julienned carrots, Chinese broccoli and miniature corn.

We also ordered broiled Halibut ($13.95), which was served with a heap of chutney made of mangoes, scallions, green chilies and tomatoes.

We could tell the locals: They were here for dinner. They ordered, ate and left. Our server, Karen, kidded us all evening as if we were old friends—as if we were locals!

With dessert came the final liquor course: the Grand Marnier torte ($3.95) and the Kahlua flan ($2.95). Both were served with drizzled caramel and chocolate sauce. The torte was so beautifully presented it was a shame to have to eat it (but we did), and the flan was delicious.

Somewhere during the meal the servers did the clappy-happy-happy-happy-birthday song for someone at a nearby table. But we were inebriated enough not to mind.