The charming little hamlet of Boulder City has a historic downtown, lots of resident cheerleaders and, believe it or not, more than its share of decent places to eat. Recently, I made the rounds of these places with some foreign visitors, who were fairly astonished to experience small-town Americana within short range of the surrealism on the Strip.
Boulder Dam Hotel
In 1982, this Works Progress Administration-era hotel became the first Nevada hotel to join the roster of the National Register of Historic Places. It’s been spruced up of late, but the grandiose plans for the quaint upstairs dining room, known simply as The Restaurant, are on hold. Today, you could eat lunch there, but I prefer to dine during the evening at the downstairs lounge called Spillway, a cozy room with an appealing bar menu and a distinctly local feel.
My last visit here was on election night, when the bar was crowded three-deep, and a single harried waitress was ministering to the throngs. The bar menu is a deal, and on less-busy nights, the food comes speedily. One of the best things to eat here is the Cuban sandwich, beautifully pressed, redolent of ham and roast pork, and crowned with thinly sliced pickle and melted cheese.
All the dishes here, in fact, are done with aplomb. The hotel’s version of fish and chips is one of the best around, beer-battered, snow-white cod with a devilish crunch, done with homemade potato chips and a proper tartar sauce and malt vinegar accompaniment. Two giant skewers of prawns, three to a skewer, seem like a bargain at $8.50, sprinkled with Parmesan cheese and dressed in a flurry of butter and chopped garlic.
If you like cheese ravioli, the bar menu features them deep-fried, oozing ricotta cheese, with a thick, pungent marinara sauce to dip them in. And if you’re really hungry, pulled pork with barbecue sauce on a Kaiser roll will keep the wolf from the door until morning.
1305 Arizona St., 293-3510. Lunch only, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. daily. Bar menu served 4-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, until 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday.
Big Horn Restaurant
Appearances aren’t often deceiving in the restaurant milieu, but in this case, the rule applies. From the outside, this cozy, uncomplicated restaurant has an all-American look, but look deeper, and you’ll find that the menu is filled with Moroccan treasures.
To be sure, there are items such as grilled salmon and veal with artichokes on the menu here, but what I’d come back for are the dishes from the chef’s native Morocco. Zaalook is a delicious appetizer of eggplant, tomatoes and garlic, spooned onto flatbread. Kebabs such as lamb, fragrant with cumin and coriander, come on a bed of seasoned rice.
But my favorite dish here is the chicken tagine, fork-tender, on-the-bone chicken, slow-cooked with olives and preserved lemon. The city government, says the manager, doesn’t allow the dish to be served in an actual tagine, or conical clay pot. None of the flavors are lost in translation, though, nor any in a terrific lamb tagine with prunes and apricots.
1300 Arizona St., 294-6005. Lunch 11 a.m.-4 p.m. daily; dinner 4-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, until 10 p.m. Friday-Saturday.
My experience with small-town Chinese in this country has been a litany of burnt cottonseed oil and thick cornstarch batter, but Golden City is a lot better than that, and the $5.75 lunch buffet is a deal and a half. There is one small catch, though. Order tap water, and you’ll be told that there is only the bottled stuff. Is that even legal?
But why complain? You could eat at Panda Express down the street, but there, you only get a couple of dishes and steamed rice for this price. Here, you can chow down on fresh, tasty fare such as Mongolian pork, sautéed green beans, broccoli beef, Mandarin chicken and at least a dozen other dishes, in an all-you-can-eat format.
There aren’t many surprises here, but the kung pao, mu shu and chow fun noodles are all dependable, and nothing on the dinner menu is more than $10.
1420 Nevada Highway, 294-1818. Daily 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Lunch buffet served until 2 p.m.
“Sort of in-between,” hedged the owner’s daughter when I asked her if her father’s cooking was authentic or gringo. “We don’t make it too spicy,” she confided, “but there are plenty of chilies in the kitchen, if you’re a diehard.”
Having said that, the food at this stalwart establishment is good and consistent. Their carnitas are oven-roasted, then crisped on the grill, and the chile Colorado is dusky and pungent. The house specialty is fajitas, served sizzling. For dessert, try fried ice cream, which hasn’t been fashionable since the Hoover administration.
930 Boulder Highway, 294-1937. Dinner only, 4-10 p.m. daily.
This cute wine shop, sidewalk café and neighborhood watering hole serves as a de facto social club for Boulder City’s smart set, if such a thing exists.
There are dozens of by-the-glass boutique wines on hand, plus bottles such as Oregon’s Purple Hands Red. Food is simple, suited to the wine. Chianti platter is a straightforward Italian antipasto platter, while the Italian dip is like a French dip, plus portabella mushrooms and Swiss cheese. If you’re a salad buff, the Cultured Cowboy, chock-full of walnuts, asiago cheese, chopped chicken and barbecue sauce, might be the ticket.
538 Nevada Way, 293-9540. Open daily, Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Friday-Saturday until midnight.