As with all things in life, it’s the support staff that runs the show. Such was my valuable lesson at Emerald Queen Casinos in Tacoma and Fife.
After 11 anonymous visits to seven restaurants at the two casinos, I’m almost an expert in navigating the best food deals. Almost. The real experts are the support staff.
My advice: When you visit one of the casinos, cozy up to the staffers and pepper them with questions. “What’s the best dinner deal?” and “Which restaurant is your favorite?” turned out to be bonanza questions to ask. And this was my best question: “How do I get comped?”
Comps – vouchers good for free food – are the best way to navigate casino dining. Without comps, dining there is expensive and, frankly, not a great value. But with the comps, guests dine for free or nearly free.
There’s a catch, of course: Visitors must game for two consecutive hours before being issued a comp. How does it work? Numerous casino workers told me visitors should simply show up at guest services, register for a card, play for two hours (with no breaks – you have to play for two solid hours), return to guest services, and presto, you get a comp for $20 (Fife) and $25 (Tacoma). The comps, servers told me, expire after 24 hours. Posted signs tell you how to redeem the comps and the specific rules.
A server told me 90 percent of customers she serves use comps to pay for their meals. Using that method, dining becomes a bargain, so long as you accept the possibility of losing at gaming, or were going to gamble anyway.
But if you pay out of your own pocket for dining? I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed in the value. Tatoosh Grill at the Fife casino and International Restaurant at the Tacoma casino both offer entrees in the $20-$25 range for dinner. My experience after multiple visits is that the food and service at Tatoosh and International Restaurant just can’t compare with similarly priced Tacoma restaurants such as Asado or Primo Grill.
But, as a co-worker told me, going to the casino is about the gaming – people don’t go there just for the food. Fair enough. That said, here’s what I did find when I went just for the dining:
RESTAURANTS IN EMERALD QUEEN CASINO I-5 (TACOMA)
Hours: Lunch from 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sundays; dinner 5 p.m.-3 a.m. Sundays-Thursdays and 5 p.m.-4 a.m. Fridays-Saturdays
The décor at the second-floor International Restaurant screams generic hotel, but the service and food whisper high end. Scanning a menu filled with bacon-wrapped filet mignon, seared jumbo sea scallops, cedar-planked salmon, lobster tail – the experience whiffs of promise, and does deliver.
Tic-tac-toe grill marks turned four jumbo sea scallops ($20.95) into picturesque creamy ovals, barely warm in the center and succulent throughout, complemented by a rich shimmer of tomato saffron sauce. Lightly sauteed peppers and asparagus added color to the plate, but a tangle of cream-sauced linguine looked insipid and tasted pasty and forgettable.
The same crunchy-grilled vegetables showed up with a silky-tender and perfectly medium rare bacon-wrapped filet ($23.95), flanked by herb-speckled roasted red potatoes (a baked potato or garlic mashers also are options). Both dishes came with soup or salad. Clam chowder was creamy, thick and full of briny, tender clams; a Caesar was garlic punched and lemon doused.
A return visit for lunch found much of the dinner menu at discounted prices and with the addition of burgers and sandwiches. An exceptional Dungeness crab melt ($14.95) – big on crab, but not filler or mayo – was dotted with crisp celery and onions, served atop toasted bread and blanketed with partially melted jack. Slaw on the side was tasty but swampy with a runny dressing.
As with the dinner menu, lunch offers Chinese choices. Honey walnut prawns ($17.95) were a few bucks cheaper than at Tatoosh Grill across the street, but looked and tasted just as delicious. Crunchy breaded prawns were glazed with a creamy honey sauce and served with sugary glazed toasted walnuts.
Service here was doting while still feeling effortless and friendly, although the dinner experience more polished than lunch.
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Fridays-Saturdays and 10 a.m-9 p.m. Sundays. Closed daily from 2:30-4 p.m.
What you like to eat will determine when you visit the International Buffet, located next to the International Restaurant. Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays are surf and turf, Tuesdays and Thursdays are crab and steak, and Wednesdays and Sundays are lobster days. The dinner buffet costs $24.95 per person (a $2 discount for seniors). (Lunch, which I did not try, costs $12.95 for adults, $10.95 for seniors).
One visit for a surf-and-turf buffet on a busy night found a 30-minute wait for a table, and I’m not sure it was worth the wait.
Although the selection appeared vast, and a dizzying array of crab looked mouth-watering on display, the quality left me disappointed. King crab legs tasted sweet and fresh, but the Dungeness legs were rubbery soft and difficult to crack. Jonah crab tasted past its prime, and the stone crab was barely edible. Peel-and-eat prawns were chewy and tasted funky. Meanwhile, the salmon was chalky overdone, and rock fish delivered on flavor, but dismayed with a too-dry texture.
From the turf side of the menu, the prime rib was dry and overdone, the ham was fine, the chicken cordon bleu and gorgonzola steak trended tasty, but both were woefully overcooked.
Such is life for buffet food: Get it while it’s fresh or suffer the consequences of a short shelf life.
The salad bar impressed with the range of ingredients, but hot plates and unlabeled salad dressings irritated me. Dessert might be worth the price of admission: cakes, tarts, pies, crumbles and ice cream offered an array of sugary choices.
Hours: Only closed 5-6 a.m. daily
Although it’s low on atmosphere – think McDonald’s – the Palace Deli offers some of the best deals in the casino. The menu is a mix of sandwiches and burgers with a fast-service express buffet, plus pizzas. A cheeseburger ($6.50) impressed with price and execution – a thick, juicy, grill-marked patty tasted beefy and was glazed with barely melted cheddar. (At that price, I expected American.) Crisp lettuce, tomatoes and onions added crunch and substance on a sturdy, fluffy roll. Steak fries came on the side.
A barbecue pork sandwich ($8.95) proved an exceptional value with slow-roasted chunks of pork glazed in a not-too-sweet barbecue sauce tucked into a soft, fresh hoagie roll with caramelized onions. Potato salad on the side tasted creamy good.
A Philly cheesesteak ($8.95) would have been better had the meat been tender, not gristly. Grilled red and green peppers and onions and four slices of Swiss made this hoagie sandwich large. Slaw on the side was snappy fresh.
Hours: 11 a.m.-4 a.m. daily
Was I in the Lincoln District? With a mostly Vietnamese menu with familiar dishes such as fresh spring rolls, rice noodle salads and banh mi sandwiches, the restaurant could be a knock-off straight out of Tacoma’s best neighborhood for Vietnamese food, except for one thing: the price. You’ll pay a few bucks less for better quality pho and noodle salads in the Lincoln district. But for fast dining, Asian Garden offers a serviceable, quick and tasty menu of Vietnamese with a few Japanese and Thai dishes, too.
A vermicelli noodle salad (No. 32, $7.95) was topped with crunchy marinated daikon and carrots over silky rice noodles with a puckery side of fish sauce vinaigrette. Flavorful grilled pork and a crispy pork egg roll turned the entree meaty big. Fresh salad rolls ($4.50) were plump with sliced pork and prawns nestled next to crunchy marinated carrots and daikon and toothsome rice noodles. The only thing missing from both? Fresh herbs (mint and holy basil), which come standard for those dishes in the Lincoln District.
RESTAURANTS AT EMERALD QUEEN HOTEL & CASINO (FIFE)
Hours: Breakfast served daily from 6 a.m.-2 p.m. Lunch served daily 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Dinner served daily 4 p.m-closing. Children are allowed.
Never mind the cars passing by on I-5. Just let your eyes glaze over that eyesore to the real eye candy of Tatoosh Grill: a majestic snapshot of Mount Rainier (when the weather cooperates, naturally). Tatoosh Grill, on the third floor of the casino, is a supremely attractive restaurant, by local casino standards, adorned in a palate that jibes well with food: sage, merlot and mocha. Cushy booths invite you to stay awhile, and the staff won’t nudge you out, either. Linen napkins held heavy flatware flanked by glasses ready for a selection from the meandering wine list.
I just wish the food stood up to the appearance. Two out of three visits were quite disappointing. The culprit on two visits was a New York steak. On one visit for dinner ($25), a vein of gristle was almost as annoying as the chewy texture and weak flavor. The cut was simply inferior. On a lunch visit ($18), the New York steak suffered from chewiness and overcooking; a requested medium rare showed up medium well.
A dinner visit found grilled wild salmon ($22) cooked on a cedar plank suffering the same fate: It was dry and chalky, an abomination for a high-end seafood-steak restaurant. Sides were poorly executed – tepid sauteed veggies, oversalted lemon rice, cold potatoes. A frustrating dining experience both visits left us scowling at the prices.
The Tatoosh burger ($10) on a lunch visit was the one saving grace: a char-grilled meaty Angus patty with perfect grill marks came with melted cheddar, chewy and smoky bacon, crisp condiments and a simple swipe of mayo. The burger was simple and straightforward good.
A return visit to sample the Chinese side of the menu proved a good move. Although the dishes seemed wildly overpriced, the execution proved solid. Honey walnut prawns at lunch ($18) were crunchy with a creamy sweet honey sauce and fragrant sugared walnuts. Signapore-style chow fun ($12) was simply Singapore-style rice noodles kissed with curry powder and stocked full of shrimp and chicken and snappy wok-grilled veggies. Hot salt pepper chicken ($14) was crunchy pepper flecked breaded strips sauteed with peppers and chiles and wilted greens.
Pacific Rim Buffet
Hours: Brunch served from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday. Lunch 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Mondays-
Saturdays, dinner is served from 4 p.m.-10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays and 4 p.m.-midnight Fridays-Saturdays.
Note: Children are allowed at this restaurant.
A buffet with decent sushi? Sign me up. Pacific Rim Buffet offers a hodgepodge of surf, turf and a modest selection of Japanese-style sushi and salads. Priced at $19.95 for adults, $17.95 for seniors and $8.95 for kids during dinner hours, the buffet proved a better bargain than the sibling International Buffet. (Lunch prices are $12.95 adults, $10.95 seniors and $6.50 children).
Sushi is a main attraction. A half-dozen maki rolls were basic – a California roll, tempura shrimp, smoked salmon and cream cheese among them – but all were tasty and fresh. A seaweed salad was salty and crisp and an octopus salad was tender and enlivened with a punchy rice wine vinaigrette. A fermented radish salad might not appeal to all palates, but I dug in for seconds.
Prepared salads beckoned: green bean, tuna, tomato, red kidney bean and garbanzo salads all came with interesting dressings and the veggies tasted crunchy fresh. I appreciated four soup choices, including the excellent clam chowder that is served at all the casino restaurants.
A selection of a half-dozen Chinese dishes included Mongolian beef and lemon chicken; it could be amplified into a full Chinese meal with a selection of barbecued pork, egg rolls and pot stickers.
Surf and turf rounded out the offerings: salmon, fried fish and shrimp, Cajun chicken and beef bourguignon. Dessert was the same as the International Buffet: A lot of it.
Hours: Breakfast is served daily from 7-11 a.m. Regular menu served daily from 11 a.m.-5 a.m.
Go for the sandwiches, not the pizza. Chewy crust, greasy cheese and a tomato sauce that tasted straight from a can made for lousy pizza. A veggie ($9.95, small) was only redeemable because of the fresh, crisp tomatoes, onions and peppers. A pepperoni ($8.95, small) tasted tediously like kindergarten food.
Instead, stick to toasted subs. They’re not cheap at a cost of $4.95 for half and $7.95 for a full, but they are decently prepared. Meats are generous (although processed) and the bread was fresh and crunchy toasted. Cheese choices were better than average with havarti, pepperjack, Swiss and cheddar. Veggies were varied and extremely fresh. The smoked salmon sub was the hit of my meal, with a mayo-kissed smoky salmon spread complimented by crisp veggies on parmesan bread (white and wheat also are choices).
THE CASINO LOCATIONS AND DETAILS:
Emerald Queen Casino I-5
Where: 2024 E. 29th St., Tacoma
Information: 253-594-7777, www.emeraldqueen.com
Restaurants: International Restaurant and International Buffet, both sit-down restaurants with a dinner price point $20 and up; the fast-casual and moderately priced Asian Garden Cafe (Vietnamese food and sub sandwiches under $10); and Palace Deli (burgers, pizza and a buffet for less than $10).
Best food value: Cheeseburger ($6.50) at the Palace Deli
Smoking: Allowed in the casinos because both are on tribal land. While smoking is evident, the ventilation system keeps it in check. A nonsmoking area is in the casino; smoking and non-smoking sections are in the restaurants.
Emerald Queen Hotel & Casino
Where: 5700 Pacific Highway E., Fife
Information: 253-594-7777, www.emeraldqueen.com
Restaurants: Tatoosh Grill, a higher-end concept, and Pacific Rim Buffet are in the $20 and more entree range. The fast-casual Paradise Deli is in the under $10 range.
Best food value: Subs ($7.95, whole; $4.95, half) in the Paradise Deli
Smoking: A nonsmoking area is in the casino. Tatoosh Grill is completely nonsmoking, as is Paradise Deli. Pacific Rim Buffet has smoking and non-smoking areas.
Tips, tricks to navigating the casinos:
Comps: Head to guest services to sign up for a gaming card, which gives you comps of $20-$25 for food. See casino for details.
Free drinks: Nonalcoholic beverages such as soda, coffee, tea and cocoa are free.
Tax-free: Because the casino is on tribal land, there is no tax.
Servers: Ask servers and casino floor workers for advice to navigate dining at the casino.
Kids: Unless you’re dining at Tatoosh Grill or Pacific Rim Buffet at the Fife Casino, kids are not allowed.