4 out of 5 stars for food and service, 2.5 out of 5 stars for décor & ambience
I might totally be making that restaurant name up. Not that it matters, it’s the only restaurant in the joint.
I’m going to preface this by saying that I am not a gambling person, nor am I a smoker, so if you’re like me, it’s still worth walking across the 30 or so feet of casino to get to this little topaz-in-the-rough. This is a sit-down, casual place that’s open 24/7 and does Old Vegas food (with Old Vegas prices). Vegas has become a foodie-centric town, but originally it was a place to get good quality American style food at lower-than-average prices. Then for about a minute it swung to crap quality food at ridiculously low prices as a scheme to lure tourists into casinos. You can still find some of those kinds of deals on Fremont street, but that’s another post.
No, the Chuckwagon doesn’t serve dry-aged angus steaks or lobster tails the size of a Chipotle burrito. They do serve grocery-store quality food at prices just at or a little under what you could make them for at home, with the added bonus of not having to do dishes afterwards.
I’ve eaten there several times, and while I’ve been pleasantly surprised by everything, there are a couple of things that wowed me, and I’d like to share those with you.
- Their chicken fried steak is impressive.
This is a tricky, deceptively difficult dish to make right; it’s relatively easy to overcook the meat, which makes it tough, or undercook the outer batter, which makes it soggy and/or oily. It’s easy to make the gravy too thick, like spackle (been there) or too thin, like whole milk (been there too), easy to make it too bland or over-seasoned, easy to undercook, which makes it taste floury, or overcook, which scorches the milk. While any one of these balances wouldn’t be too much to deal with on its own, if any one of them is even a little bit off – boom, less-than-awesome chicken fried steak. People say I make a pretty great version, but that’s only been in the last year, when UN peacekeepers brought gravy and I into a tensely-negotiated cease-fire AND I decided to forgo the traditional thick breading in favor of a much-easier-to-do-right dredge. The Chuckwagon’s chicken fried steak is a juicy cut of meat - if I had to guess, I’d say sirloin? Maybe ribeye, though, it's that tender – coated in a thick-but-not-too-thick, crispy-but-not-crunchy breading, under perfect sawmill (milk-based no-sausage) gravy, and a single 8oz serving comes with spuds&eggs or spuds&veggies for like $5. You can’t beat that with a stick.
- Their steaks and pork chops are extra tasty.
Soft, fluffy roll, and hiding under those onion rings are yummy, yummy char marks. I didn't get corn on the cob, I've gotten broccoli or green beans, but hey, grain is totally my kind of veggie. via Yelp.com
They aren’t cut especially thick, but they aren’t paper thin, either. I wish I knew for sure what kind of grill they use to cook them; my sizeable gut says charcoal, though how they’d manage that kind of high-maintenance fire in a little dive kitchen is beyond me*. They’ve got great grill lines and just the perfect amount of char. Again, a 10-12oz serving comes with spuds/eggs or spuds/veggies for like $7. Did I mention NO DISHES?
* Fat Girl Update - my gut was right! I asked, and sure enough, they do indeed use a burner diffused by charcoal and lava rocks. You can always count on this action report to ask the tough questions, every time. Back to you in the studio, Rod...
- Their dinner rolls seem to always be plentiful, freshly baked, and still piping hot.
I <3 Chuckwagon rolls. Don't laugh at my poofy hair or lack of make-up - it was a long day and an impromptu photo shoot when I finally remembered that phones are (crappy) cameras, too. via Fat Girl & Fat Hubby
Once again, I have no idea how they do it. I’ve been one of only 2 people in there at 3:45am and immediately woosh, out come light, fluffy, hot rolls and mounds of actual whipped butter.
So, after writing 98% of the above, my tummy started growling and I decided that I simply had to eat Chuckwagon for dinner. They are famous locally for their prime rib, and considering that (1) we've never ordered it, (2) I was reviewing the place, (3) I just posted a few days ago about how much I love prime rib, and (4) we were on our way there, Fat Hubby convinced me that I really ought to order it.
Now, to be fair, I make fabulous prime rib myself, and I've eaten prime rib in this town that was more expensive than a lot of hotel rooms. I thought Chuckwagon's prime rib was satisfactory for what it was, not an amazing deal (like their chicken fried steak) and not disappointing either. Fat Hubby was a little disappointed, and after debating it back and forth for a while, I've settled on 3.5 stars out of 5. Chuckwagon definately brines their meat before roasting; I'm a fan of brining anyway, and I felt that the sweetness helped highlight the beefy flavor, but Fat Hubby felt that it was a little too sweet. It was a little on the chewy side, but not terribly so, and one of the least fatty/gristly slices I've had in a while (which was a minus in my book*). So, all in all I was ok with paying $14 for ~16-18oz of prime rib with sides.
* We call them "Jen Bits" because I love them so and I usually trade some of my "Ryan Bits" for some of his "Jen Bits". We're like Jack Sprat and his wife, I swear.
Fat Hubby decided to try the Philly Cheesesteak.
He and I both agree that it's a horrible Philly, but a fantastic steak sammich with grilled peppers and onions. It's a boneless ribeye steak, flame-grilled to perfection, which is awesome, except that even I (not a Philly fan) know that that's not a Philly. The steak wasn't even chopped up! So, if/when you order it, just know in advance that it was clearly named by someone who'd never actually seen a Philly Cheesesteak in real life, but is still delicious, and you'll be fine. I also love the fact that this is pretty much the only restaurant I've ever been to that I've never had to ask for more butter or sour cream - just look at that baked potato!
So, the next time you’re near Boulder Hwy & Harmon, in your pjs, and in the mood for some delectable cheaper sit-down eats, give the Chuckwagon a try. If you go in expecting a little hole-in-the-wall place, accommodation-wise, I think you’ll have a ball.
I wasn't kidding when I said small - that's the whole casino. Seriously. via UrbanSpoon.com
PS - that chicken fried steak special (above) is now $4.99. Just FYI.