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Update on the Awful Awful hamburger at the little Nugget in downtown Reno

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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.

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  1. What a great report Steve, and incredible bit of history. Recall driving down the Nevada side of the hill to party in Reno while working the casinos at Tahoe. Still vivid is the memory of catching Paul Revere and the Raiders performing at a little bar somewhere off the main drag in the late 60s.

    1. I agree. Bring back lard! When I see a Mexican restaurant brag they don't use lard, I look for the exit door. Same thing with MSG in Chinese restaurants. Thanks for the great report.

      2 Replies
      1. re: glbtrtr

        I'm not as militant as you, but I know, having grown up in Tucson, that the best Mexican food (Sonoran style, anyway) has that unctuous flavor and nuance that only lard gives. Like most people, I limit my lard intake, but sometimes it's worth "saving up" for.

        one time about thirty years ago I was at Mi Nidito in Tucson, gobbling down tortilla chips and wondering why they were so DAMN good, and when I had to use the restroom (which back in the day you had to go outside for and access from the parking lot) I walked outside and got a Full Nosefull of boiling lard that was wafting through the parking lot from the kitchen. That was a big AHA! moment for me.

        1. re: glbtrtr

          its really our choice, if its lousy even though its technically good for you, no one will go back for more. we will see a lot of closures because the owners tried to make things politically correct. in my little town they have stopped making the typical Chinese "table" noodle that was served with duck sauce and mustard to keep you until your order was cooked. now they are cutting up what looks like tortillas or buying them already cooked, they are terrible!!! i actually bought a can of La Choy fried noodles to keep in the cupboard for when i order Chinese soup. its sad but the good eats we have known will die out, hopefully to be brought back to life (in our lifetime)by foodies in the future that realize its all about taste.

        2. Great review worthy of a once great burger.

          1. Thanks for the nice comments.

            1. Steve...we love the awful awful burgers. We always stop there when in Reno! We love the atmosphere too. Reminds us of the SNL skit..cheeseburger cheeseburger, pepsi, pepsi.

              1. Thanks for the heads up! every time I went to Reno I always made it a point to stop and have a awful awful, but I guess i will think twice about it!! I guess you can now say the buger and fries is Just awful!! what a disapointment,

                1. We love Awful Awful and always stop there when in Reno. Bummer about the fries.

                  1. Interesting. I've never been to the one in Reno but the one in Carson hasn't changed at all in the 15 years I've been here. Still every bit as amazing as the first time I had it and the price is still decent.

                    1. Never had the original, I'll have to try the one in Cartoon City next time I'm in Toon Town

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: MikeDAngelo

                        Just saw an article in the Reno paper that a new place up across from the university called the Wolf Den has been authorized to be the first and only non Nugget casino to be able to serve the authentic awful awful. I guess it's up to us to see how authentic and good it is ;)

                      2. Steve, I'm going to start in the beginning. In 1989 I purchased The Reno Nugget "Little Nugget" from Jim Kelly. At that time the Reno Nugget, like the Carson Nugget, Tahoe Nugget (also owned by Jim Kelly) and J.A. Nugget in Sparks all served the hamburger made famous by Dick Graves, and brought to the state of Nevada from Idaho where it was originally served at restaurants that were owned by Dick Graves. When Dick moved to Nevada he opened several casinos and actually ran them for a short period of time, however while he did own them he served his Awful Awful hamburger. Thus the brand was used by these properties while he owned them and after he sold them as well. In the early 50's Dick Graves and Jim Kelly partnered in the Reno Nugget, after a rather short partnership, Dick then sold his interest and went to Carson City and opened the Carson Nugget. When I purchased the Reno Nugget from Jim Kelly, I asked Jim who owned the service mark and trademark on the name and he stated "nobody, Dick and I shook hands and agreed that we could both use the name at 2 casinos." Well.....since I never had an opportunity to shake hands with Dick Graves, I applied for and was granted the state of Nevada trademark and service mark for the Awful Awful. I immediately notified the other "Nugget" owners that it was not my intention in trademarking the name to tell them that they could no longer use the name, but rather inform them that I would be continuing to use the name, and we should all police it's being used by anyone else. I also changed the ingredients, and presentation of the Awful Awful and I will assure you and all who have ever eaten an Awful Awful and the fries at the "Little Nugget" that I have:
                        1. Never used lard as a frying medium.
                        2. I have always used an 8oz. (1/2 pound ground beef patty) with a 75-80 meat to fat mix.
                        3. If the patty appears smaller, it is usually due to a higher fat mix that got in the patty, and shrunk it while cooking.
                        4. The only thing I have changed in over 20 years in preparing it is we now cook it on a hot top (griddle) instead of a broiler. We did this because of too much flame-up when we are rushed, and have too many patties cooking.
                        5. If the tomatoes are running small we put 2 slices on. If the red onion is running small we put 2 slices of onion on.
                        6. It has been and always will be served in a wicker basket filled with a minimum of 1 pound of shoestring french fried potatoes that are seasoned with my personal secret seasonings.
                        7. The sauce has also remained ours exclusively and is a combination of Russian dressing and other ingredients.
                        8. The bun that I use is baked daily and excluisevely for us by a small bakery here in Reno and has toasted onions on the top and is baked in an oversized mold that we purchased 20 years ago.That having been said, the "Little Nugget" serves what most people consider to be a superior cheeseburger to the small double patty burgers that the other Nuggets serve, and indeed, we serve the Awful Awful that continues to win "Best Hamburger" year after year. If you are interested in verifying the above facts, or are just interested in learning more about a most fascinating Nevada gaming pioneer, I might suggest that you contact The University of Nevada Press and send for Dick Graves oral history. The Wolf Den which has just opened up at the University of Nevada is owned by myself,Alex Kanwetz, George Buddy Jr and Sr. Sig Rogich Cam Solari, Fran Menante, and Curtis Brown. 3 of the above are fraternity brothers of mine SAE's from the University of Nevada, one is my Grandson, one was an outstanding Nevada football player and has been with me for 18 years at the Nugget, and the others are very close friends. The Wolf Den name dates back to the 1930's as a University of Nevada hang-out that was closed years ago.When I found out that the name could be trademarked and service marked I did just that. The location is accurate across from the old gym and north of the new Nye hall. The menu features, of course, the Awful Awful as well as chicken fried steaks, and breakfast burritos. We've got 16 oz. cold drafts and our soon to be famous 32oz. "Blue Thunder" margaritas. Thanks for the space look forward to meeting you R.H. "Last Chance Joe" (bye the way, I own the trademark and service mark on that one too. That's The name of the 30 foot statue in front of JA's Nugget in Sparks.)

                        5 Replies
                        1. re: Last Chance Joe

                          I'm an alumni from 1974 (ATO little sister, Kappa Alpha Theta member). Anyhoo, ate there 2 weeks ago and it was like stepping back in time - it was sooo good. So happy to not have to go downtown (always interesting, but still...). Good job. Also, have many fond memories of parties on the lawn behind the SAE house.

                          1. re: Last Chance Joe

                            Thanks for the bits of history, LCJ, and Phi Alpha.

                            Cheers,

                            Dave
                            Cal-Iota '67

                            1. re: Last Chance Joe

                              Thanks for setting the record straight. I apologize for my error. For what it's worth, a friend of mine and an acquaintance of yours was who told me you had sold the Nugget.

                              1. re: SteveTimko

                                Steve, not so. Still own the "Little Nugget", and still going strong under the arch....hopefully for another 20+ years. phi alpha to all little sisters and brothers of SAE. R.H. "Last Chance Joe"

                              2. re: Last Chance Joe

                                It's been 12 years since I lived in Reno and have not had a better burger or frie since. You should consider selling franchises.

                              3. I lived in downtown Reno for close to a year before I had the Awful Awful brought to my attention and tried it. And I was hooked. I don't really know what makes one hamburger more delicious than another one, but this is top-of-the-line. While the smoke of the casino and the worn everything are definitely things that keep me out of restaurants, it is somehow fitting for the Little Nugget. There is also a back door you can enter through that bypasses the smoke. You have to go down kind of a creepy alley to get to it, but honestly, I found those things part of the charm of downtown Reno. (I think I'm the only one that felt that way)

                                Anyway, I had to actively work to control my new addiction. I didn't have any history to compare my new experience with so there wasn't even one iota of disappointment, only a healthy fear of living a block away from that burger and a pound of fries that were the ONLY fries I've ever re-heated in a microwave that still tasted good. I now live in Phoenix and thank god, I haven't found a new burger addiction. One of my friends texted me a few hours ago and asked if I'd ever had an Awful Awful, saying he saw it on TV this afternoon. I guess it was just on Diners and Dives, and it certainly qualifies, haha. White Castles are still my number one addiction, but you'd better believe that I'll be eating an Awful Awful, first thing when I return to Reno.

                                1. Glad to see this old thread get a bump. We've eaten at the Wolf Den a couple of times (one breakfast and one lunch) and that Awful, Awful is great. That's high praise coming from me because we grind our beef and really never eat burgers out. And the fries? Good and SO many of them. We took home over half and reheated in the oven (350 for about 10 minutes). Just as good.

                                  Keep up the good work.

                                  ETA: I just read to the my husband, a Reno native and UNR grad. He knew Fran Menante from high school. His cousins went to school with him. Reno's still a small town, isn't it?

                                  1. I've had the Awful Awful a few times.

                                    It is not the best burger that I've ever had, but it is excellent and a great value. When I get into Reno, for me it's a matter of convenience whether I'll go to In-N-Out or have an Awful Awful. Considering how much I like the Double-Double (I've gone 50 miles out of the way to reach an In-N-Out!), I guess that's about as high praise as any burger can earn.

                                    1. A note. The Nugget at Lake Tahoe has an Awful Awful. It bears NO resemblence to the real thing. None, zero, zip. BIG disappointment.

                                      1. isnt it a shame how they have lost sight of what is good. i remember we would do as kids just about anything our parents requested if the prize was macdonalds fries, then 20 cents. i got some the other day and they tasted like plastic, makes you want to cry. its our choice what we stick down our gullet, toooo much big brother around. you dont go to fast food places because you are on a diet, you go because you are hungry for something good. better get whatever it is before its GONE