For probably close to 20 years a small casino called the Nugget under the Reno arch served a half-pound hamburger called an Awful Awful that counted as a Chowhound must in the Biggest Little City. That Nugget changed hands and they changed the Awful Awful, but I haven't it under the new owner. I stopped buy last night and tried it. The good news is that it's still a good burger, maybe worth trying if you're in the area. The bad news is that it's no longer worthy of being called a Chowhound must.
A guy named Dick Graves opened a string of casinos he named the Nugget in western Nevada in the 1950s. John Ascuaga took over the one in Sparks and made it by far the biggest. All of the Nuggets had a big hamburger called the Awful Awful, which stood for Awful Big and Awful good.
The different Nuggets became owned by different people and one guy bought the little Nugget under the Reno arch, I believe in the 1980s. He decided to use his 21-seat greasy spoon diner as a loss leader offering cheap food to lure in customers. It worked for a long time and if you wanted good 1950s diner-style food it was a great place to go. I got many late night breakfasts there. They had a London broil lunch special for about $5.50 that was a great value. But the centerpiece was probably the Awful Awful. He made it the biggest patty of any of the casinos. And he served it on a fresh bun with fresh garnishments and on a basket of lard-cooked French fries dumped from the frying basket into a metal bowl and seasoned with salt and parsley. The price was $3.50.
The combination of quality and price earned the casino diner a lot of attention. It got at least one mention in The New York Times in a story about hamburgers. It also got a favorable review in the Sacramento Bee and a bazillion articles in the local press. These are still on the wall of the diner.
When musician Paul Revere of Paul Revere and the Raiders fame opened a restaurant in Reno in the 1990s he used to advertise he had the second-best burger in Reno, a nod to the Awful Awful.
But you know, Michael Jordan eventually lost a step. Sophia Loren got her first wrinkle. And the Nugget changed hands.
I went in last night to try the burger for the first time under the new owner. The place is largely the same. The sign that proclaims "Nine Out of 10 Vegetarians Don't Eat Here" has been moved from over the doorway to the casino to over the wall where the staff walks.
The Awful Awful is now $5.50. Probably a more reasonable price. You have an option of adding a second hamburger patty for $2.95 or bacon for $1.75, something that wasn't offered before. The price of the milkshakes went up to $4.25. I ordered an Awful Awful and a chocolate shake.
The restaurant is still well-worn. Whereas it used to always been clean, when I sat at the counter last night it was clear someone had not wiped down the counter in a while. There was a half-eaten basket of fries still on the counter. Given the size, you would think that would happen quite often. But the fries were so tasty people find a way to eat them all.
Someone else's Awful Awful came up first and the first thing I noticed is that it looked smaller. This could be my imagination and nostalgia, but this patty looked more in the range of one-third to .4 pounds. I could be wrong.
Finally my Awful Awful arrived. I bit into it and it's still delicious. The bun is first rate. It was soft, fresh and tasted good. It has something burnt and crunchy on the outside -- onions? My food knowledge is failing me in this description. The condiments were good too, although maybe the lettuce was piled on a little too thick. And the patty, while appearing smaller, was still made with good meat and was well-seasoned and cooked. I give it a thumbs up for being a good burger, but I wouldn't recommend someone go out of their way for it like I would a decade ago. The chocolate shake was nice, too.
I waited until after I finished the burger before I tried the fries. It's obvious from looking at it that they still peel their own potatoes to turn into French fries. They had the right consistency. I grabbed one, dipped it into ketchup and bit into it.
Bummer. They don't cook the fries in lard any more.
I asked what they used and found out it was labeled cooking and frying oil. I'm guessing it's the cheap vegetable oil that a restaurant supply company distributes. Obviously much healthier now and PETA approved, but not the same. The hamburger was a little bit of a let down. The fries were a major let down. The only place that might still be serving lard-cooked French fries in Reno is the Santa Fe Basque restaurant, and I haven't eaten there in about six or seven years.
So the Awful Awful experience at the little Nugget in Reno isn't a complete let down. It's still maybe a place to check out. I'd like to try some of the other diner food. Prices have also been raised on it, too. Nothing lasts for ever. In acknowledgment of that I listed Landrums as one of my favorite restaurants in my Chowhound profile.