Driving into Boulder City is like entering a time warp. Nevada Way is lined with motels crowned by deco-era signage, and downtown has a fudge shop and the sort of WPA architecture that makes you feel as if you’re in an episode of The Twilight Zone filmed during the Roosevelt administration.
The town, a tourist stop since it and Hoover Dam were built in the 1930s, is no more a hotbed of postmodern cooking than Grand Island, Neb. Here, diners and fast-food rule the main drag. So the Dillinger Food & Drinkery, housed in a refurbished drugstore building and named for that notorious Depression-era bank-robber, comes as a major surprise.
The Dillinger is basically a glorified bar with slate-gray walls, door handles fashioned from the barrels of bolt action rifles and framed photos of local denizens, looking happy. There is a picture of John Dillinger himself, looking as if he’d just survived a police beating. Too bad he is not alive to taste the house chili, a bean-free version at its best when crowned with cheddar cheese and onions.
The menu was created by a good ol’ boy from Milwaukee, chef Scott Dombrowski, who made his bones at the Golden Nugget and has lots of creative burgers and small plates. Want pasta? Then the menu will instruct you to cross the street and eat at Evan’s Old Town Grille, the town’s semi-fancy steak house.
That won’t be necessary; the options here should satiate anybody. Those burgers—half-pound beauties cooked over an open flame—come from Central Market, where they are ground fresh daily. The Dillinger Burger has cheddar cheese, apple wood-smoked bacon and a topping of chopped brisket in sauce—a wow factor of 10. I’d also give a nod to the Olive Burger, a weekly special of meat blanketed with Swiss cheese and the most delicious olive mayo the law allows.
During a recent lunch I tackled a fire-roasted artichoke served with a smoked tomato chipotle aioli and the chef’s seafood bisque. Imagine my surprise when the bisque turned out to be as velvety as Engelbert Humperdinck’s vests and the artichoke perfectly blackened around the edges.
Another day I stopped by for the Oriental chicken salad, which turned out to be a near miss. The portion is trencherman-size, with a surfeit of white meat chicken cut into strips and a mix-in of wonton crisps. I like a sesame oil-infused dressing, but this one is cloyingly sweet, and Dombrowski sprinkles on what some people (though not me) might call an abundance of sesame seeds.
Our barbecue pulled-pork sandwich was terrific, better than the overly chopped brisket, and the house rolls into which the meats are stuffed have a yeasty spring. All sandwiches, including the burgers, come with Asian coleslaw, french fries or sweet potato fries. You can’t lose here.
Our sassy waitress, a real pro clad in a black Dillinger T-shirt, told us we had to try the bread pudding, presented warm in a giant square. It might have been good, but I was put off by what seemed to be a drizzle of artificially flavored strawberry syrup squeegee’d onto it.
The strawberry shortcake, though, is poetry—a baking-powder biscuit filled with vanilla ice cream and strawberries surrounded by florets of fresh whipped cream.
What this town needs now is a Bonnie and Clyde hotel-casino.