Monday, July 12, 2010

Table for 2. The Saloon or the Vault?

The day after Chuck’s marathon photo session in the Occidental Hotel lobby, we wandered into the adjoining 1908 historic saloon for lunch.

As described in the hotel’s web site: “In the rip-roaring days of early Wyoming, the saloon at the Occidental Hotel was famous far and wide. In the barroom, the lawful and the lawless played faro and poker…flirted with pretty ladies…drank copious quantities of powerful spirits – and occasionally shot up the place. One visitor in the early days called the Occidental Saloon ‘a regular gambling hell,’ where high-stakes poker games sometimes continued for days.”

With its long mirrored dark wood bar, multiple stuffed animal heads, and pressed tin ceiling, I could imagine that The Saloon was the scene of considerable carousing – both past and present. The ceiling still bears a bullet hole. It appears that a gentleman was being entertained upstairs by one of the local prostitutes. His angry wife came into the saloon and fired her gun into the ceiling trying to shoot her errant husband in the room above.

This wasn’t our first meal at The Saloon. Two nights earlier we shared a very good shrimp and crab sandwich (whole shrimp and shredded king crab – real crab and not that fake surimi stuff) that came with a wonderful cole slaw. A photographic record of that meal doesn’t exist, since we decided that flash photography in a saloon full of drinking cowboys listening to blue grass (which sounded more like country to me) is never a wise idea.

That evening we shared our table with a couple of other full-time RV’ers. The husband ordered the half rack of ribs and his wife chose the seafood pizza – a very large flour tortilla covered with a white sauce (it may have been alfredo sauce) and large chunks of seafood, including large shrimp. Other menu choices included a pulled pork sandwich, a soft shell crab sandwich, a Kobe burger, a bluegill fillet sandwich, and coconut shrimp or coconut calamari.

While I was pretending to be Martha Jane Cannary Burke (aka famous frontierswoman Calamity Jane and a visitor to the Occidental Hotel), I took a second look at the short menu. I had planned to order the seafood pizza but then spied the wild bluegill fillet sandwich. Now I am not going to tell you how many years it has been since I have eaten bluegill (also known as sunfish or “sunnies” in the Midwest), but I distinctly recall fishing with my parents in Sabula, Iowa along theback waters of the Mississippi. And at a tender age, I was threading my own wriggling worm onto a fish hook. My choice was made. The bluegill it would be with a side of slaw and a bag of chips (this is a casual kind of place).

Chuck’s choice was the pulled pork sandwich with the same slaw and chips. We have learned through our travels that once you are not in one of the BBQ hot spots (Memphis, Kansas City, North Carolina, or Texas) and want BBQ, order pulled pork. Most restaurants are able to prepare good pulled pork, but the same cannot be said of ribs or brisket. And this sandwich was no exception. A slightly smoky and slightly sweet tomato based sauce had been mixed with a generous quantity of moist and juicy pork.

My sandwich contained two thin fish fillets that had been lightly breaded and fried. The fish tasted as mild and sweet as it did in my memory and for a moment I was transported back to my home town along the river.

Both of our orders came with the same great slaw. I spent considerable time trying to identify its unusual flavor. Is it mustard? No. What is it? Finally it came to me – it’s either horseradish or wasabi. Then I saw the cook (Not Chef Norm – this was a cook) exit the kitchen and walk to the bar. So I went over and asked if he shared his secrets. What do I taste in the slaw? I was right. It was horseradish. He adds roughly a quarter of a cup for every quart of slaw. Since I add a large spoonful of horseradish to my spicy V-8 every morning, it is something that I always have on hand. The next time the mood strikes to make homemade slaw, horseradish will be added. I hope Chuck likes it.

We’re not talking gourmet vittles (Do the words gourmet and vittles go together?), but a good food tip is worth at least a half an Addie, and I give The Saloon at the Occidental a 4.0 Addie rating.

Before leaving the Occidental Hotel, we took a quick walk through the Viginian Restaurant, named after Owen Wister's immortal 1902 novel The Virginian. When he came to Wyoming in the 1880s, Wister spent many hours in the Saloon observing cowboys, lawmen, and desperados who frequented the saloon.

Some people believe he wrote parts of the book while staying at the Hotel, and many historians maintain that the author placed the final shootout in front of the Occidental.

Chef Norm Henry has owned his own restaurant, Salt H2O Cafe, which was featured on the Food Network. Prior to coming to the Virginian, Norman was the Private Chef at the Hearst Family's summer retreat, Wyntoon, in McCloud, California.

Dishes made from organic beef range from buffalo rib eye to chateaubriand and filet mignon with béarnaise sauce are served amid the splendor of antique mirrors, Western art, and Victorian lamps. Period lamps light the 19th-century brass-color tin ceiling, and wainscoting accents the maroon-colored walls.

Diners may also choose to dine in candlelit seclusion within a truly unique setting--the old Stockmen's bank vault.

Many thanks to Dawn and John Wexo for their vision of what the deteriorated Occidental Hotel could become and the citizens of Buffalo, WY, who helped the vision become a reality.

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