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.
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.