The Best In the West Nugget Rib Cook-Off in Sparks, Nev., was a big-time throwdown at which 23 professional cookers competed for cash, trophies and braggin’ rights. Over the five-day Labor Day “weekend,” they sold 250,000 pounds of St. Louis-style bones (and a whole lot of funnel cakes, onion rings and roasted corn) to a Rib Nation a half-million strong.
The cook-off template was the same as it has been for years, but other changes have taken place at the property. That’s because the former John Ascuaga’s Nugget was sold last year to Global Gaming & Hospitality, ending a half-century of family ownership.
On walkabout, we noticed the cavernous Basque-Mediterranean restaurant Orozko has closed. The sport book has been transplanted from its downstairs cave and into modern quarters upstairs. The Aquarium Bar and its amazing 6,000-gallon saltwater fish tank are history.
Gone, too, is Trader Dick’s, the retro Polynesian restaurant that first opened in the 1950s and was moved inside the casino from its original site across the street in 1973. A couple of years ago, during another rib cook-off, Nugget chief operating officer Stephen Ascuga told me, “Trader Dick’s is a time warp that’s part of our history, and so iconic I don’t think the ukuleles will ever stop playing.”
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But Bali Hai has stopped calling. The tiki-themed oasis has been replaced with the jam-packed Gilley’s country-themed nightclub-restaurant, complete with mechanical bull and the Gilley Girls, servers whose costumes involve bikinis, leg chaps, cowboy hats and not much else.
Given all that, it was a relief to see that John’s Oyster Bar still occupies a spacious room in a corner off the main casino floor, and it’s still serving its four-star seafood pan roasts.
John’s opened in 1959 as the area’s first oyster bar and has weathered the ensuing voyage well. I sat at the counter and watched a cook create a fragrant pan roast, chunky with lobster, and pour it into a big bowl ($17; options include oysters, shrimp, crab and a combo). The seafood stew is well known in New York City, where it has long been a staple at Grand Central Station’s legendary oyster bar. The inspiration for the Nugget’s version came from there.
Quoting from John’s menu: “This is the aristocrat of all stews and is cooked to your order with the very finest of spices, white wine, clam broth, cream, butter, special cocktail sauce, a drop of lemon and your choice of seafood.”
Put another way: The rich, fragrant broth yields a wonderful texture and sublime flavors that become richer with each spoonful. Add old-fashioned oyster crackers, a splash of Tabasco sauce, an ice-cold beer and you’ve got something special.
Visit the Nugget at www.janugget.com.