California Sourcing is Key to Comfort Food Favorites at Viejas Casino & Resort
Locale Kitchen & Lounge expands dining dynamic beyond 'casino basics.'
"Looking at our existing restaurants, we already had what I consider casino basics, which are a buffet, a steakhouse, and a café. So I thought there was a real opportunity to have a place that was approachable from a price and menu standpoint, while at the same time, not pigeonholing it as a specific concept type,” says David Duran, VP of F&B, Viejas Casino & Resort in Alpine, California, near San Diego. “So that’s how Locale Kitchen & Lounge came to be. It’s simply reflective of where we’re located and what’s grown around us.”
Locale opened inside the new 159-room boutique Willows Hotel & Spa in February, part of an all-new addition to Viejas Casino & Resort, which already had the existing 237-room Viejas Hotel. While the name Locale is a reference to the menu sourcing and SoCal sense of place for guests, it’s also an invitation of sorts for locals to visit the restaurant as a destination on its own and not just a place to fuel up before hitting the casino floor or watching live entertainment at Viejas.
It could be argued that Locale’s deep focus on California-sourced ingredients is actually the restaurant’s de facto concept, but the freedom from an overly defined menu gives Executive Chef Antonio Votta the range he needs to craft an eclectic lineup of inspired comfort dishes he calls, “soulful food done with a high level of attention to detail. Our food is presented in a way where people understand what it is, but it’s reimagined—a little different than what they expected and always changing based on what’s available season-ally,” he says.
“We’ve seen a steady ramp up in our business since the spring, and, in fact, we recently had our busiest Friday dinner and busiest Saturday lunch since we opened,” Duran says. “During the week, our clientele are about 70% casino guests, while on the weekends, it’s about 50% locals.”
Duran and Votta are both Vegas veterans, with their career paths crossing at one point working together at Michael Mina’s American Fish at Aria. Duran also spent time as director of F&B at the Cosmopolitan, and executive director of F&B at Bellagio before joining Viejas, while Votta is a Vegas native who attended UNLV before working for Mina in Las Vegas, Washington D.C., and San Francisco—with stops in-between cooking for Rick Moonen at Mandalay Bay, Scott Conant at the Cosmopolitan, and David LeFevre at M.B. Post in Manhattan Beach, California.
All of that high-level experience elevates the menu and vibe at Locale, where many plates are shareable and deceptively simple on the surface. As the name suggests, sourcing is hyper-local, using notable California purveyors such as Brandt Beef, Mary’s Free-Range Chicken, Specialty Produce, West Central Produce, and Central Meat & Provisions.
“It’s hard to beat the quality of ingredients in California,” says Votta. “It’s not that we won’t use a product if it’s from somewhere else, but our menu needs to be driven primarily by local ingredients for peak freshness and flavors.”
Top-selling items at Locale include gluten-free buttermilk fried chicken; seared salmon with orzo; grilled meatballs with creamy polenta; lasagna with eggplant and béchamel; “Crab Louie” toast with charred avocado; pollo a la brasa for two (a whole, quartered Peruvian-style chicken); and crispy salt-and-pepper chicken wings.
“Customers that are gluten-free are amazed that they can have our fried chicken,” explains Votta. “Instead of using all-purpose flour, we use corn flour, rice flour, and some corn starch to build the breading.”
The pollo a la brasa was inspired by Washington D.C.’s renowned El Pollo Rico Peruvian restaurant. “My wife and I ate there when I worked in D.C., and it was a spot that all the locals talked about,” Votta says. “It’s such a simple concept: charcoal-broiled chicken, fries, and rice. It blew my mind how delicious it was. Every spot I’ve lived in since, I’ve searched out the best Peruvian chicken I could find, so when we had a chance to put it on the menu at Locale, we did it. There’s something primal about picking up a chicken leg and eating it, and that speaks to everybody. It doesn’t have to be highbrow or lowbrow, it’s simply delicious chicken.”
Presentation is another deceptively simple aspect to the Locale menu that has layers of thought put into it before it leaves the kitchen. “For family-style dishes, I want everybody to get the same bite. So when they reach in with a spoon they’re going to taste what everybody else is tasting,” Votta says. “I think back to my childhood being in a Persian household, and when we sat down to eat, the food was displayed family-style, the colors were vibrant, and everything was garnished beautifully. I’d get excited just looking at the table, and that’s the feeling I want our guests to have when they sit down at Locale.”
When customers push back on menu ideas, Locale listens.
While the chef-driven, California-sourced comfort food at Locale has a carefully curated list of can’t-miss dishes, sometimes in a casino environment, potential hits become temporary misses because the culinary details are lost on customers.
For example, one of Locale’s top-selling items is gluten-free fried chicken, which has been popular since the restaurant opened in February at Viejas Casino & Resort near San Diego. However, the fried chicken on today’s menu is different from the opening version, due to customer comments and subsequent changes.
“We had some feedback that the item appeared to be undercooked because we were using dark meat, which we chose because it’s more flavorful that white meat, and after reviewing what we could do with that dish, we just switched to chicken breast instead of dark meat,” says David Duran, VP of F&B at Viejas. “We didn’t want to have to explain to guests why a dish might appear a certain way over and over. Rather than fight that battle, we just want to make sure cus-tomers have the best experience they can here, and certainly not turn them off or create an argument about whether something is undercooked when it’s not. Our guests are the ones keeping Locale in business, so we’re always listening to them.”—MC