By Philip Poston
By Jonathan Shikes
By Noah Reynolds
By Gretchen Kurtz
By Kate Gibbson
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Patricia Calhoun
Action" describes the dough you wager in a bet, and the pot's overflowing at the all-you-can-eat Kitchens of the World Action Buffet at the Black Hawk Casino -- Hyatt's recent entry in the crowded casino market. While some other casinos are content with prime-rib specials, the Hyatt's buffet offers seven geographically themed "action" stations. But in choosing your meal, as Kenny Rogers advises in "The Gambler," you gotta know when to hold 'em -- and know when to fold 'em.
According to Hyatt staffers, the "Action" in the Kitchens of the World Action Buffet's title refers not to betting, but to the activity at each of the food stations, where cooks rattle pots and pans in full view of hungry gamblers. But a trip to Burger King offers as many kitchen insights, and as we head toward the buffet lines, the cashier tips us off to the real focus here. "We had one guy, he made it around the world," he tells us. "But he looked like he was about 350 pounds, so it might not have been his first time."
As we attempt to circumnavigate the space, we quickly realize that it's more shopping-mall food court than Las Vegas glamour (although the concept is patterned after a global spread at the Rio in Vegas). Still, there are a few obvious gaming touches: PA announcements summon poker players to the card tables, not the supper tables; a magician/greeter working the area makes coins vanish, only to reappear from behind people's ears and other body parts. Meanwhile, a team of official-looking men and women, walkie-talkies in hand, roam the floor like their pit-boss counterparts.
If they're looking for folks who are trying to consume more than their fair share from the Kitchens, such offenders are easy to spot. Many of the patrons appear to be trying to recoup everything they've lost at the slots in just one meal -- but doubling down at the buffet is apparently encouraged. A full-sized woman a table away starts her feed with a heaping plate of snow crab from Doc's Galley. ("Most people come here for the crab legs," a busgirl tells us.) When her first six clusters disappear, she goes back for more, leaving her husband behind, diligently picking.
We load our own plates with crab. The waterlogged crab legs are a modest jackpot, since they deliver a blast of hot liquid as well as mildly flavored flesh at first crack. The salmon poached in a pleasing cream sauce is a hands-down winner, though, much better than the deep-fried bounty we score from the "Crispy Seafood" bin. Here dull-flavored scallops have spent their final hours alongside deep-fried calamari that taste more of Gates Rubber than Gordon's of Gloucester; scattered between these seafood items are wedges of unidentifiable protein that look like fish but taste like foam rubber. After a few bites, we start thinking that the "Good Luck!" tag at the bottom of our meal receipt ($8.99 lunch, $12.99 dinner) may apply to our eating, rather than gambling, efforts.
Next up: Rosa's Cantina for some alleged Mexican fare. This station features refried and reheated (several times, from the looks of them) beans, as well as watered-down green chile. Ground mystery meat and various sides intended as fillings for barely crisp taco shells make Taco Bell fare suddenly seem as authentic as the cuisine at Tosh's Hacienda. Adios.
We make a run for another border and reach Mama's Cucina. Here the mystery meat reappears as meatballs -- lifeless orbs that disguise their vague makeup with an infusion of herbs. But the pasta du jour, a chewy penne concoction dressed up in a flavorful cream sauce, is as good as any pasta dish we've tried at a major Italian chain. And Mama's manicotti ups the ante even more, with professional-grade tubes (they have just enough bite-back) holding in a delicious ricotta filling.
We're less than halfway around the world, so we can't dally in Italy. Instead, we head to the Far East and find some exceptional fare at Roy's Wok. Roy's bustling staffers also deliver our first sight of real kitchen "action," and the resulting sweet-and-sour pork has a pleasing, vinegary spank that counters the sweet smack of sugar and breading. But other dishes suffer from too much inaction. After sitting in a pan, the ingredients in the beef teriyaki have mulled and mushed into a sort of Pan Asian pudding. The house white rice is a mouthful of various grainy textures, some that squish, some that crack the teeth.
Things are looking up at Joe's American Grill, though, and our little party flushes with patriotic pride. An expertly cooked steamship round of beef has reached pound-cake tenderness, and it's sliced on demand into thick slabs that satisfy. The action figures at Joe's are the most mobile of the day, slicing and serving meat with modest smiles and what almost rates as enthusiasm among otherwise poker-faced staffers. They're very generous with the brown gravy, too, which saves the roasted (read: pressed and formed) turkey.
One table over, our neighbor is also enjoying Joe's efforts. Three plates of crab legs under her oversized money belt, she's forged through her own meat platter and is now attacking a mound of garlic mashed potatoes that could fill the coin buckets sharing space on her table. If Hyatt winners are picked for food intake, we'll soon see her smiling face on the side of some Black Hawk shuttle, her name emblazoned above her calorie intake.
More conscientious eaters can try their luck at the Kitchens' extensive salad station, Martha's Harvest, that brims with healthy deli-quality salads, fresh veggies and dips. The spread also includes a cornucopia of very fresh fruit, as well as more crab legs -- these are cold -- and chilled shrimp.
We close out our whirlwind tour with a few offerings from Pierre's, where the sweet-tooth-boggling array of wonders is another big win for not-quite-full gamblers. Various respectable versions of cheesecake (including one delicious model with a head-spinning, anti-freeze-colored green-apple sauce) deliver the dessert goods, as do a toothy bourbon-pecan pie and a gazillion artfully decorated chocolate nibbles. There's also an orchard's worth of fruit pies, two slices of which fall victim to our next-door diner, who digs deep into pieces of apple and cherry. When she finally heads off into the casino, she leaves behind a few bits of crust -- and half of a third slice.
She's finally had her fill, as have we. "What's wrong?" a table-clearer asks my wife, whose face apparently reflects her difficulty in stomaching her dinner. "You're gambling; you're supposed to be having fun." When informed that we're not really gamblers, she stares at us in disbelief, then asks, "You're not here for the food, are you?"
Thus inspired, we settle in at two of the Hyatt's video-poker machines and enjoy complimentary shots delivered by smiling professionals working the rows of games. Jim Beam pairs nicely with the "ka-ching" of dropping quarters and the stellar rendition of "Luckenbach, Texas" delivered by a quartet playing a few yards away in the Wild Fire Lounge. (The lounge is perfect casino kitsch, an in-the-round stage centered above the bartender island that puts players in closer reach of the spirits than the stage at Denver's Lion's Lair.)
Armed with a pair of ten-dollar quarter rolls and bourbon aperitifs, we feel like stock Vegas tourists. Five bucks later, my wife whispers to herself: "Oh, my gosh!" Six hundred quarters spill into the bottom of her machine, a pay-off from four wild-card deuces.
That $150 payday is all the action we need.