Gambling Gourmand 2: Go Back, Jack

When the Santa Anas sent the downtown air pollution score to a choking 106, my partner and I drove an hour north for a few days of good country air and culinary research at Harrah's Rincon, seven miles northeast of the town of Valley Center (1-877-777-2457). The casino/hotel offers eight restaurants and, as noted last week, sharply reduced room rates through March (go to www.harrahs.com, hit "casino locator," dig down to "Rincon," and then to "hot deals"). If you expect to make Harrah's a habit, be sure to pick up a Total Rewards card in the casino, so they can keep track of your spending and reward you for it with various perks.

But don't bother lugging your penny jar or parking quarters. Even the penny slots require a dollar bill or a ticket bought from the cashier -- and instead of pulling handles, you push buttons and cash out with a slip of paper. As someone who bets my life on the wholesomeness of restaurant food several times a week, I'm not much interested in casino gambling; I'd rather play the one-armed bandit at the laundromat, with its thrilling clatter of falling silver when you win 19 quarters for your five-buck wager.

Not everyone goes to Harrah's to gamble. Our first night there, we overheard three women of a certain age discussing their vacation. Their main interests were the hotel's Jacuzzis, heated pool, and pampering at the spa. Other patrons (including some local families) seemed to have come mainly to eat, since many of the casino's restaurants provide large portions for modest prices.

All venues are overseen by the hotel's culinary team of executive chef Vesa Leppala (from Finland, via resorts in Hawaii and Mexico) and assistant executive chef Jon Palsson (from Iceland, via several San Diego hotel restaurants). Head pastry chef Francesco Santoro creates and supervises desserts for all the eateries. Each restaurant also has its own chef de cuisine, who runs the kitchen and collaborates on the menus with the hotel's executive chefs. Most ingredients are purchased in bulk by Harrah's, but chefs are also free to forage for local ingredients.

Need to Know: All the restaurants (plus the hotel lobby and casino floor) require shirts and shoes; no visible bathing suits or bathrobes allowed. All but Fiore's (reviewed last week) offer the same rudimentary wine list, with inexpensive generic choices by the glass and most bottles under $30. The default house Chardonnay is Robert Mondavi (a respectable jug wine), $6--$6.50 per glass. Similar brands and prices apply to other grapes.

Cabana Cove

After Fiore's, the casino's fine-dining destination, my favorite restaurant is the new Cabana Cove, which brings Pacific Beach to Valley Center via cheerful surfer decor and a menu of classy surfer grub. Well off the casino floor, it's the only restaurant to offer a view of the outer world. It's located at the back of the hotel, past both the spa and the fitness center. Glass walls overlook a curvaceous pair of hot- and cold-running swimming pools, each with a cascading fountain. Daytimes, you can enjoy natural light and vistas of the mountains surrounding the casino. On a damp afternoon, the misty peaks reminded us of Oahu's Na Pali Highway.

Surfing footage runs on small monitors set into surfboard-shaped lamps, which slowly shift through a surfboard-tinted rainbow of Day-Glo tangerine, fuchsia, turquoise, royal blue, and lime. Slick-topped tables display a straw-mat pattern, and the blue carpet is woven with wave designs. Beach Boys, surf-sound tunes, and reggae tracks play during the afternoon; at night, the soundtrack is liable to blast big-band Sinatra-era music, same as what's broadcast over the casino's sound system. Drawing the youngest crowd of any of the hotel's bars, the long semicircular bar at the pool end of the room features juggling bartenders and large-screen sportscasts. (The circle is completed by a matching outdoor bar. There's a Hawaiian shaved-ice machine, but no one manned it -- or missed it -- on a dank January afternoon.)

The bottom of the menu lists "Surfing Sites Where the Food Originates From" and includes beaches in Hawaii, the Caribbean, Asia, Mexico, and France. (Apparently Australia and South Africa had nothing to offer the chefs.) The choices break down into appetizers -- which are sizable -- salads and soups and sandwiches. Entrées are called "Crazy Fresh Surf" (seafood), "Cookin' Mexican" (tacos, fajitas, carnitas), "Kickin' Turf " (meats and fowl); desserts are "Sweet Thangs." The most popular item, judging by neighboring tables, is the half-pound burger.

Meals start with thick Baja-style tortilla chips, fresh and greasy, served with four salsas: a pinto bean-chile dip, oniony pico de gallo, another fresh tomato salsa with less hot pepper and onion, and a spicy but still flavorless tomatillo salsa. One or another will tempt you to overeat before your order arrives.

We started with a "pupu platter" ($13, to feed two); all items are also available as stand-alone appetizers. Two dryish chicken-breast satay sticks were rescued by a sweet Indonesian peanut sauce. Two airy shrimp coated with sweetened coconut came with a chili-citrus dipping sauce. A heap of quesadilla quarters were filled with roasted pepper and oniony, spicy guacamole. A giant Lomi Lomi salmon cake had the texture of crabcake, with a puffy center bound by mayo and lime juice. It was coated in overcharred potato shreds. Alongside sat a heap of oniony passionfruit salsa -- onions are a key flavor at the Cabana.

The Latin section of the menu includes four tacos, each vaguely inspired by a different region of Mexico, and all overstuffed. Good-quality seared ahi pairs well with its avocado-papaya salad. Even better is the pork taco with deeply smoked, tender pork shreds. The garnishes are the same as those served with the ahi taco, plus melted cheese, and an odd "Hawaiian slaw" of cabbage, cuke, onion, and slabs of carrot shaped like surfboards -- all in a sugary dressing. Both the ahi and the pork are also available as full-size entrées with more substantial garnishes.

From the "surf" section of the menu, we tried a "Two-and-a-Half-Ton Clambake," listed at market price ($28 that evening). It's the right size for a dinner for two, arriving as a 2 1/2-quart enameled casserole filled with a cut-up one-pound crab (a species with a small body and long skinny legs), a pound of steamer clams, a half pound of shrimp, fingerling potatoes cut into mini-surfboards, a half ear of wretched off-season corn, and, on the side, two slices of garlic bread for dipping. The seafood is tender and fresh-tasting. The cooking medium probably starts with white wine and margarine or spread, and when the clams open, they add their liquid to the broth. This near-superb dish is marred only by the corn and the "marge." Now that trans-fats have been exposed as health horrors, there's no reason but price to use them -- and if butter is too costly, olive oil would taste better than the fake stuff.

We sampled one dessert, a coconut crème brûlée recommended by our server, which proved to be of the heavy, eggy school. It comes with a sweet, gritty Blue Mountain caramel coffee sauce. After tasting the sauce with a spoon, we declined to pour it on.

Open Wednesday--Sunday, continuous lunch and dinner from 11:00 a.m.--11:00 p.m. Appetizers $6.50--$10 (for one); salads $6--$11; sandwiches $9--$10. Entrées $3.49 (one taco)--$24. Desserts $5--$7. Full bar, creative cocktails.

International Buffet

On Mondays and Tuesdays, the three top restaurants (Fiore's, Oyster Bar, Cabana Cove) are closed. The International Buffet is everybody's fall-back -- hey, what's a casino visit without a buffet pig-out? Vegetarians will find this the best choice of all of Harrah's eateries.

"Gold," "Platinum," and "Diamond" members (people who've earned points by spending on games and meals at any of Harrah's Casinos) enter first and eat at comfortable banquettes and booths. Plebes get tight little tables in the middle of the aisle. Once you hit the buffet tables, everyone's equal but for the length of their arms and the scope of their hunger.

The buffet offers (from left to right) Italian, American, Asian, and Mexican-inspired dishes, with a central salad bar and a humungous dessert case.

We started with the small Mexican sector, essentially a roll-your-own-taco station, perhaps because the fillings aren't up to flying solo. Start with the center basket of soft flour tortillas and scoop on passable chicken stew, dry beef strips (posing as carne asada?), or batter-fried fish in the mode of Van De Kamp's. Next, edge right to the salsas, where you'll find red and green cooked sauces, salsa fresca, sour cream, shredded lettuce, shredded bicolor cheese, fresh and pickled chiles, and yucky puréed guacamole fit to play the green-peas role in The Exorcist. Go left for gluey refried beans and rice amended with bits of veggies. Your taco will be edible, but if you're craving genuine Mexican flavors, you'd be better off heading into Valley Center proper for a meal at Casa Reveles on Lilac Street (to be reviewed later).

The Asian section isn't bad for buffet food. The dishes are light, veggie-strewn stir-fries, with decent noodles and the same rice that's served in the Mexican zone. We were pleasantly surprised by a meaty, greaseless egg roll and a tasty fake-Szechuanese sweet-and-sour beef with wok-charred dried chiles.

America occupies the middle of the buffet. The outstanding selection here is fried chicken. I chose a moist thigh in a well-seasoned batter. Accompaniments include bread dressing, mashed potatoes, and cafeteria-style brown gravy. The fried shrimp was disappointing, all batter. Most popular is a carving stand that offers roast beef and roast turkey. The bird looked dry. The roast was rare, but the meat tasted tough and flavorless, with that lack of marbling that tells on lower-grade (e.g., Select) beef. About a month ago, a chef from New Orleans took charge of the buffet -- by now, the American portion of the buffet may offer Cajun-Creole specialties.

Italy, Harrah's-style, was a disaster. The meatballs tasted Swedish, the tomato sauce was watery, the scampi had no flavor, the manicotti skins were hard-baked -- all in all, below the standards of Chef Boyardee canned goods. Farfalle in pesto sauce were okay. There's a giant array of pizza and calzone slices sitting under hot lights. All are thick-crusted. My neighbor at the next table tried a slice, said "Ugh," and abandoned it at first bite.

The salad bar, however, is a joy. It's long and varied, and even the tomatoes were ripe. One half features fresh fruits and Jell-O concoctions (with and without cottage cheese), the other offers green salads and all the relishes you might want, plus several composed salads (macaroni, pickled green beans with ham, pickled mushrooms, etc.).

In the eternal words of Fishrox (Who?), "Life's short. Eat dessert first." This is the place to do it: Francesco Santoro, a third-generation pastry chef from Foggia, Italy, pulls out all the stops with an extravaganza of expertly made sweets. The dessert cases are 2/3 as long as the entire international concourse, with fruit pies and cookies, layer cakes, cheesecakes, and cream pies. Many items are offered in sugar-free versions. There's also hot bread pudding, warm caramelized bananas, ice cream and hot fudge sauce, and a bowl of whipped cream to drown in. The only limit on quantity is your appetite -- or your conscience.

The brownies are fudgy, the oatmeal-raisin cookies satisfying. The coconut cream pie is a dreamy, airy chiffon. The tres leches cake is airy, too, but more like uno leche, whipped cream sprinkled with cinnamon between the cake layers. It tastes good anyway. You're not supposed to take home food from an all-you-can-eat buffet -- but we saw a lot of cookies diving into handbags.

Lunch Monday--Friday 11:00 a.m.--3:30 p.m., $10; dinner Sunday--Thursday 5:00--9:00, weekends to 10:30 p.m., $13. Weekend brunch 10:30 a.m.--3:30 p.m., $14 ($17 with two glasses of champagne). Alcoholic beverages extra. Special all-you-can-eat weekend dinners (Friday clambake, Saturday barbecue, Sunday steak and shrimp), $17--$22. Full bar.

San Luis Rey Café

This casual restaurant is the source of the hotel's room-service meals, and the menu and wine list are almost identical to the latter's offerings. Open 24/7, it offers a breakfast special from midnight to 3 a.m. At lunch and dinner, the bill of fare includes sandwiches, salads, a pasta du jour, sports pub-style appetizers (chili fries, buffalo wings, shrimp cocktail), and American comfort-food entrées such as steaks, pork chops, and chicken fajitas.

The roast beef is your standard, old-time Vegas casino version: It's over an inch thick, cooked to a beautiful rose-red at the center. But the only tender part is the browned rim, where fat pockets soften the meat. The center of the slab is lean and tough -- a mediocre grade. It comes with a tasty baked potato, a lightly cooked veggie medley, plus butter and sour cream for the spud, horseradish sauce and "au jus" for the beef.

A bacon-wrapped meatloaf is a good choice, tasting just like somebody's mom's. The formula seems identical to a recipe that ran in Cook's Magazine in September 1996: It's a giant meat-muffin, packing a weight of about a pound (including a little breadcrumb filler). The loaf is free-form, so it browns on the sides, and it's baked until the bacon crisps. It comes with mushroom gravy and hand-mashed potatoes with pieces of skin, fried onion "crisps" (like Durkee's, but these are house-made), and the same veggie medley as the roast.

Desserts include apple pie à la mode, a seven-layer chocolate fudge cake, and a "New York deli" cheesecake, with your choice of strawberry, caramel, or chocolate syrup (or none of the above, for New York purists). The cheesecake has a thin crust and a pleasing sour cream undertone -- but it doesn't compare to the refined ricotta cheesecake at Fiore's.

Open seven days, 24 hours. Half-pound cheeseburger $8, other entrées $11--$15. Full bar.

The Rest: Club Cappuccino, Corner Grill, Fortunes

Club Cappuccino used to be located at the crossroads between the casino mouth and the Garden Tower hotel elevators. It was closed during our visit for relocation to another site farther inside the casino, with reopening scheduled for February 15. It will offer espresso drinks, baked goods, and light eats. Open seven days, 6:00 a.m.--11:00 p.m., weekends until 2:00 a.m.

The Corner Grill is the casino's fast-food venue, mainly a pit stop for gamblers to grab a coffee or Coke. Rotisserie chicken is the most serious entrée; sandwiches, soups, burgers, and franks fill out the menu. My boyfriend bought a hot dog. He ate two bites, I ate one, then we ditched it -- but we're picky about our dogs. Open seven days, 11:00 a.m.--6:00 a.m.

Fortunes is the casino's requisite Asian eatery, but we didn't try a meal there (on numerous passes, we never saw more than a single table occupied). I hear that their main business is on weekends. Chef Pan Po oversees a purportedly authentic menu, but on paper it resembles a collection of SoCal's favorite Chinese-American dishes (kung pao chicken, general's chicken, sweet-and-sour everything, etc.). Noodles are the specialty. Most entrées are priced around $10 and top out at $18. Open seven days, 11:00 a.m.--11:00 p.m., until midnight weekends.

This restaurant is closed.

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I found Cabana Cove excellent - ordered the blackened fish sandwich and had lunch overlooking the pool area. I've also tried the buffet before for brunch. It was $14 if you have a player's club card. The food was ok, not outstanding by any means, but think it us a good value for $14. Info and Reviews of Harrah's Rincon Casino, Hotel, comps and table games here: www.sdcasinoreview.com/HarrahsRinconCasino

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