Every time my friends and I arrive at a casino in the Delta region, there’s a palpable excitement. We know good things are about to happen. Parking lot high-fives are followed by hyperbolic gambling predictions. “Those pit bosses are gonna wish they’d never seen us coming,” one of us will say. Never mind the fact that we’re all terrible gamblers with no bankroll and only half-baked betting strategies: We’re always going to bring the house down.
Hours later, either in the wee hours of the morning or after I’ve slept it off, I find myself practically sobbing over a plate of runny eggs and wondering what went wrong and why the comped buffet meal is making me feel like I’ve lost all over again.
That seems like an unlikely outcome, at least when it comes to the food, at Saracen Casino, the Quapaw Nation’s new casino resort in Pine Bluff. The eateries in the casino, most of which are set to open Oct. 20, are designed to make a gambler feel like a winner after a meal there.
“We’re going to be a culinary and hospitality destination like no other in the state, I say even region,” said Todd Gold, director of food and beverage at Saracen Casino. Gold knows that people are going to come to try their luck on the games. “But we want just as many to come here to dine, and then they’ll go play the games,” he said.
Up until about six months ago, Gold was the associate dean of Culinary Arts and Hospitality at UA Pulaski Technical College, a program he started working on 25 years ago. He co-owned and helped revitalize Purple Cow restaurants from 2007-2013. He received the American Culinary Central Region Chef Educator of the year award in 2014, and in 2015 he was inducted into the Arkansas Hospitality Hall of Fame.
Lucus Setterfield, director of food and beverage at the Quapaw Nation’s Downstream Casino in Oklahoma, has been plotting out themes for Saracen restaurants for nearly two years, and he knew he wanted Gold to be a part of the team.
“I lived in Little Rock on and off for 20 years,” Setterfield said. “Todd [Gold] didn’t know about me, but I knew about Todd. Everyone knows about Todd. And we knew that was a relationship we wanted to be a part of.”
Before Setterfield was director of food and beverage at Downstream, he was the executive chef there. After he’d been with the company for about two years, he took part in conversations with members of Quapaw Nation centered around Downstream getting its own cattle and greenhouses.
“It became an initiative of Quapaw Nation to make sure that some of the agricultural products that they take pride in have the ability to kind of shine at the casino,” Setterfield said. “They truly believe in making sure that some of that stuff is never forgotten. How you do it, education of the youth — they strive hard to make sure that people remember what it takes to do things. It really started to feel like ‘This is something different; this is something I want to be a part of for a long time.’ ”
It had a similar effect on Gold when he went to see Downstream’s agricultural program for himself. Along with greenhouses, cows and bison, Downstream has its own beer brewery, coffee roasting company, beehives for honey cultivation and a processing plant 18 miles from the casino.
“So farm to table, pasture to plate, roast to cup, grain to glass … Lucus is doing all of this at Downstream in Oklahoma and I was just blown away,” Gold said. “Two months after that, I sent him a text that said, ‘What kind of positions are you going to have?’ The rest is history.”
Before this reporter and a photographer entered the casino in September, security did a health screening. We confirmed we had no COVID-19 symptoms or exposure and had our temperatures taken by a machine that scanned our wrists.
The sight of a casino after months of pandemic solitude was striking: the building is 200,000 square feet, 80,000 of which is gaming space that holds 2,100 slot machines, 30 gaming tables and a sports book.
“More slots on that floor than anywhere in Arkansas,” Gold said. “It just goes on and on.”
Saracen Casino will have a total of eight different restaurants, four of which are in an area called The Post, which resembles a food court. The Post’s restaurants share a kitchen, but offer four “concepts,” Setterfield said, giving the chefs the opportunity “to get creative in all kinds of ways.”
For example, one of The Post’s restaurants, Delta Farms, has been developed to showcase local produce from Delta farmers. “We wanted Delta food represented in what we did,” Setterfield said. “So the idea behind that was trying to work collaboratively with Delta farmers in the area and see if we can highlight some of their produce, highlight some of the things that they’re doing. We just picked up 30 pounds of honey from a local honey guy.”
Delta Farms will feature items such as a pimento, bacon and cheese croissant, a Creole greens flatbread, a greens and grains power bowl and a smoked chicken salad club sandwich.
Saracen Express is the place to get a burger fix or fried chicken. A variety of street tacos will be available from The Taqueria, including one that’s a tribute to the South. “It has pickled aioli, sweet potato fries, citrus slaw and fried catfish,” Executive Chef Cindy East said. “One of my personal favorites is the Saracen Dog — a hot dog with ground beef [and] our homemade queso, and then it’s pressed.”
East worked with Gold at Pulaski Tech.
“Our executive sous chef [at Saracen], Manley [Clark], he’s one of our culinary school graduates, so you can see a little bit of a theme going there,” Gold said. Clark is one of the near dozen UA Pulaski Tech culinary graduates currently working at Saracen. Gold said a couple more have been interviewed so he expects that number to grow.
The fourth restaurant in The Post is Coffee & Sweets. Fresh donuts will be made in an automatic machine right in front of the customer and then topped with either a sugar glaze or powdered sugar. Guests can also have a cappuccino made with the Quapaw Nation’s O-Gah-Pah coffee, which is roasted at a facility about a mile away from Downstream Casino in Oklahoma.
“We have one guy that runs it,” Setterfield said, “and he roasts all the time. He packages it, he does everything with it. We get beans in from about 13 different areas of the world, 16 different countries.”
Outside the food court, the casino will also have a bar/brewery, The Legends Sports Bar. On the menu there: cheese curds, BBQ ribs, brisket, burgers, several different sandwiches and a variety of wings. The bar will also have a cheesesteak, but it won’t call it a Philly cheesesteak because the cheese will be house-made with Quapaw-brewed beer. The beer cheese sauce will also be served as an appetizer with house-made pretzels. “It’s like the pretzel is just kind of there so you don’t have to drink the beer cheese,” East said with a laugh.
Legends has a stage for live music and a drop-down projector for sporting events.
Displayed in a glass case above the bar are six gleaming beer tanks made of copper, brass and stainless steel. Each tank holds 132 gallons and has the capacity to produce 1,000 pints a week. Four of the tanks are fermenters and two are “bright tanks” where the beer is transferred after fermentation to be conditioned and carbonated. The system, from Global BeerCo out of Reno, Nev., cost roughly $200,000.
“So this beer goes nowhere else,” Setterfield said. “It’s only sold on property. It’s kegged here, we do all our own marketing, we design custom tap handles. It’s been a smashing success at Downstream. It takes up about 25 percent of our draft beer sales. We sell a whole lot of draft beer, so that is a massive market.”
Another place to eat, although not expected to open until early Nov., is the Quapaw Kitchen. It resembles a sectioned buffet area, but because of the pandemic nothing will be self-served. Servers for each station will stand behind stanchions and work directly with the chefs behind the lines to plate customers’ food.
“Anything and everything you can imagine goes on in here,” Gold said. “We have a sushi roller, a roaster…”
“A hibachi grill,” East said. “We’re going to do a Creole Asian fusion station. We’ll have pizza, a Southern roots section, a chocolate fountain.”
“You’ll have Rice Crispy treats and marshmallows on a stick and you can dip them in white or dark or make it a tuxedo,” Gold said.
“We’ll do the dipping for you,” Setterfield added.
Rather than the ubiquitous buffet self-serve ice cream machine, Quapaw Kitchen features a rotating display case for up to 12 flavors of gelato. The server will use a pedal to rotate the circular refrigerator.
It’s important to Gold and Setterfield that all the cooking is done in front of the customer.
“A lot of buffets are coming out of the kitchen with pans of food. That doesn’t happen here,” Gold said. “Our focus has been for this to be culinary and hospitality because it’s front of the house, too. It’s customer service, it’s anticipating your customers’ needs. I don’t want the ice to jingle around in the bottom of the glass; I want us to be there with a full one before that happens.”
Red Oak Steakhouse will be Saracen’s premier high-end restaurant, and it’s slated to open sometime in early November. The kitchen and a dry-aged cabinet for meats are visible through a window from the casino floor. Red Oak will be managed by Mark Lopez, former beverage manager at the Capital Hotel. Joseph Coleman, formerly of the Little Rock Marriott, will serve as executive chef.
“We’ll serve everything from duck to lamb to pork belly to halibut,” East said “And we want to bring in fresh fish. It’s hard to get fresh fish in Arkansas. It is expensive, but when you get that beautiful fish in, it makes a huge difference.”
“We’ve got a great company that we used at the culinary school. Seafood.com does an unbelievable job. The fish is not 30 hours out of the water when we’re cooking it,” Gold said.
The steaks served at Red Oak Steakhouse will come from Quapaw Cattle Co.
“We know where it is, we know where it comes from. That’s why we feature it so heavily everywhere,” Setterfield said. “That’s why we have a dry-aging case here and at Downstream.”
“Chef Derek Smith, our chef de cuisine, we got him out of Memphis, but this land was his uncle’s land,” Gold said. “He sold it to the casino. We all call him Uncle Wink. [Uncle Wink] doesn’t work for us, but he’s in here every day.”
“He quickly became family,” Setterfield said. “Uncle Wink had a conversation with us and he said, ‘My nephew, he cooks at Folk’s Folly [Prime Steakhouse] in Memphis.’ That place is old school, wonderful. Our executive chef and sous chef went to Memphis and recruited him. We gave him Red Oak at Downstream for a night. We said, ‘You write the menu,’ and it was one of the most successful nights we ever had. All of our VIPs came through and said, ‘We want him to cook for us all the time. Everybody does great, but that guy just showed us something completely different.’ And he worked with us for about eight months at Downstream. We offered him a job on the spot. I was like, ‘I don’t know where you’re going to fit in the grand scheme of things, but we need you to be part of our story. We need you to be part of our success,’ ” Setterfield said.
One of the desserts at Red Oak that Gold is excited about is a bread pudding souffle inspired by one he had in New Orleans at Commander’s Palace.
The Employee Market Center will be a place for the employees to relax and eat a hot meal when they’re on break or before or after their shift. The center has its own restaurant. “It’s not buffet leftovers,” Setterfield said.
On the last leg of the tour, I asked Gold what it was about Saracen that convinced him to take the job.
“I was 25 years deep in the culinary school,” he said. “I could’ve easily done my next 16 to 20 years worth of work there and retired. So it really had to be the right thing. I’m a project guy. I built the culinary school; I was a project owner on that thing. I helped build the Arts Center in North Little Rock for Pulaski Tech. I was on that construction team. I love construction, I love projects, I love new things, I love getting things set up, hiring people. So why not take on the biggest construction project the state of Arkansas has ever seen with the largest hiring pool of almost 400 food and beverage people? You can’t take on anything bigger than that. I’ll be 48 in a few weeks, so it’s now or never. Do I want to make a move like that after 50? No.”
Carlton Saffa, chief market officer at Saracen Casino, made sure we got to see the new Rational iCombi Pro ovens the chefs and Downstream are cooking in — essentially a combination steamer/convection oven/smoker. Saracen Casino is the first place in the U.S. to have them, Setterfield said, and it has 13. It can boil eggs in their carton, or cook octopus in a four-step process, or air fry a chicken, and it can do those things simultaneously.
Greg Bolton, executive sous chef at Downstream, was smoking a pork butt in one of the ovens when we arrived.
The ovens have a touch screen on the side, much like a smart device. Items are selected by picture and dragged into a “shopping cart.” Bolton selects several items at once. “It will tell me when it’s time to load them, each one will cook at a different time and it will tell me when they’re done. The cabinet itself will automatically tell you because I have built these programs inside the system.”
Each rack has its own corresponding LED light. The light blinks to let you know which shelf is ready to come out. Or the oven can just text you when dinner’s ready.
“It’s a new world as far as consistency, and it saves energy,” Bolton said.
The ovens also clean themselves. Bolton showed us one of the ovens running a washing cycle. If I didn’t know any better, I would’ve thought it was a fancy dishwasher.
The first phase of development at Saracen is the casino and the restaurants, opening Oct 20. The second phase, which will include the resort with 300-plus rooms, a spa, a resort-style pool and a convention center that can host a concert for 1,500 people or a convention-style event for 2,000, will complete the project. The question of when phase two might be complete has a lot to do with the future of the pandemic.
“We made the decision late last year to phase Saracen to focus our attention on getting the gaming floor up,” Saffa said. “With COVID, that proved to be smart,” he said.
“I don’t know anyone today who wants to be in the convention/hotel business — not a great business from a profitability standpoint at the moment, but ultimately a game floor of this scope will include a hotel and event center. The hotel lobby and first four floors are shelled out and the foundation of the convention center is in the ground. The question is, of course, what’s the outlook for the future on COVID,” he said.
None of the restaurants at Saracen Casino will allows smoking. Eventually, smoking will be allowed on the casino floor, but as long as the state mask mandate stays in place, smokers will have to smoke in certain designated places outside the casino floor.
Saracen Casino will run soft openings the third week of October before its grand opening on Oct. 20. Legends Sports Bar, The Post and all the beverage centers will be open.