By Christina Fuoco-Karasinski | February 5, 2021
When We-Ko-Pa Casino Resort opened in Fort McDowell in October, the 166,341-square-foot facility unveiled an experience.
The hotel lobby is an ode to the Yavapai Nation, with Native American design elements, including blue tile in the shape of a river, hanging glass bulbs that depict rain, and oversized baskets.
“We’re proud that we were Arizona’s first casino and are now the state’s newest casino,” says Bernadine Burnette, president of the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation.
“Gaming has been a part of our tribal community for the past three decades and has allowed us to provide financial security for our members and employees. Our upscale new casino will allow us to take gaming to an entirely new level while keeping a Native American look and feel — with design elements of earth, water, fire and basket-weaving that are so important to our culture.”
Among the slot machines’ bells and lights is Ember, a high-end steakhouse that illuminates the We-Ko-Pa experience. Servers like Amy Beath inject humor into the experience, and sommelier Dennis Payne is quick to introduce wines to guests.
The energetic dining space overlooks the scratch kitchen with views of the culinary team, including chef Richard Pelz. A separate piano lounge with live entertainment adds to the vibe.
Pelz’s signature dishes include table-side Ujih Hot Stone, named after the Yavapai word for “ember,” with a choice of thinly sliced Wagyu beef or Pacific ahi tuna ($23) cooked over a 900-degree hot stone. It’s accompanied by truffle ponzu, radish salad and pickled ginger.
The other is the Ember flaming liquid chocolate truffle ($16), featuring citrus-infused cognac, toasted brioche pudding and vanilla bean marshmallow.
“We do this tableside,” Zac Gallo, the casino’s food and beverage executive director, says of the dessert. “It has a citrus-infused bread pudding, and we flame it at the table.”
A wood-burning grill is the centerpiece of the kitchen, with choices of a 6-ounce filet ($31), 10-ounce filet ($42), 16-ounce bone-in ribeye ($39), 12-ounce New York steak ($35) or 24-ounce porterhouse ($65). The high-quality steaks are delivered from Lynn’s Meats in Chicago.
“We’re one of the few in the states that have that quality of beef,” Gallo says. “We’re very specific about the shrimp, crab and oyster, too. The chef, Richard Pelz, is very selective on that. The sea of Cortez shrimp is probably the best shrimp you can have. They’re very specific, not only about how we prepare the food but the quality of the ingredients.”
The steaks and seafood are cooked on mesquite wood that is provided by Paul Bunyan’s Firewood of Guadalupe.
“We bring in tons of locally sourced wood from Paul Bunyan’s,” Gallo says.
Other entrees include pan-seared veal Milano ($34); braised buffalo short rib ($42) with honey roasted carrots and red wine reduction; Ember beef burger ($21) with aged Vermont cheddar, rocket arugula, smoked onions, tomato aioli and pretzel bun; and boursin and kale-stuffed chicken breast ($28) featuring balsamic-glazed baby beets and morita chili chicken jus.
The dimly lit restaurant is illuminated by the five fireplaces throughout the venue — one on the patio fireplace, another at the entryway and three by the entertainment. The color schemes of the restaurant — bronze, gold and copper — represent the flames’ shades.
“Even the blue in the booth is representative of the blue flame, which is the hottest flame,” Gallo says. “Everything has a significance of fire.”
The key to the restaurant is Pelz, who has worked with “some of the best restaurants in the world,” according to Gallo.
“He is extremely talented. He’s very specific and a hard worker,” he says. “He’s here early in the morning until the end of service pretty much every day. Ember doesn’t open until 5, and he’s here about 7 a.m. or 8 a.m. He’s very driven and a very hard worker, which equals excellence for his guests.”
We-Ko-Pa Casino Resort
10438 We-Ko-Pa Way, Fort McDowell
5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday
5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Valentine’s Day dinner
We-Ko-Pa Casino Resort’s Ember is generally closed on Sundays, but it will open for a special Valentine’s Day dinner, 5 p.m. to close.
• The first course is “amuse bouche,” asparagus pot de crème.
• The appetizer/salad choices are poulpe espagnole grille of grilled octopus, pickled onions, wild arugula and salsa verde; or salade d’endives et de cresson de Belgique, endive, living watercress, kumquats, marcona almonds and citrus vinaigrette; or terrine de foie gras et anguille Japonaise with Hudson Valley duck liver, Japanese eel, green apple, caramelized onions and Yuzu gastrique.
• Red pepper sorbet is the intermezzo or third course.
• Entrée choices are filet en croute de moelle osseuse, bone marrow crusted filet, king trumpet mushroom, Robuchon potatoes, asparagus and periguex sauce; or longe d’agneau farci with stuffed lamb loin, artichokes, sundried tomatoes, roasted fennel and lamb jus; or fletan Norvegien roti with Norwegian halibut, Manila clams, chorizo, micro mirepoix and curry lobster nage; or poule des bois champignons features roasted hen of the woods, Russian fingerling potatoes, asparagus tomato confit and black truffle vierge.
• The dessert choices are luscious: le gateau au fromage, manchego cheesecake, strawberry coulis and jalapeno pepita brittle; or chocolate cremeux of caramel almond ice cream and bruleed banana.
• The cost is $150 per couple, with additional charges for some of the choices. Tax and gratuity are not included.