Chef’s Favorite: Hal’s Fabulous Vegas
Driving along State Road 135 looking for somewhere to eat, you get a sense of normal; the usual, of the same ‘ol, same ‘ol. There’s KFC, there’s Arby’s, there’s Burger King, there’s Hal’s Fabulous Vegas Bar and Grille. Screeeeeeech … back up … what? Yes, Hal’s Fabulous Vegas is like an oasis right in the Nevada desert, right in the middle of unexciting. It even has that inviting ‘Welcome to Las Vegas’ iconic sign blaring out front. Center Grove may be about 2,000 miles away from the glitz and glamour of the real Las Vegas, but you can certainly get a taste of it at Hal’s.
Hal is Hal Yeagy. He knows a little something about the restaurant business, having owned and operated The Slippery Noodle Inn in downtown Indianapolis since 1984. The Slippery Noodle is the oldest bar in Indiana and has been in his family since 1963. Hal’s Fabulous Vegas, as the name would suggest, is Hal’s homage to Vegas and more specifically old-school and the Rat Pack era of Vegas. He says he opened the restaurant because, as a South-sider himself, he couldn’t find a place to get a good steak.
Hal’s Fabulous Vegas, which is at 1133 North State Road 135, just south of County Line Road, is in a location that had seen several different restaurants come and go. Hal bought it in May of 2006 after it had been empty for about a year and a half. A complete remodel of the building turned it into something even Sinatra would be proud of. Why a Vegas theme? Because he says he spent a lot of time there and just really enjoyed it as a relatively inexpensive place to go for entertainment. It also operates, as Hal puts it, on his hours. He says he wanted it reminiscent of Caesar’s more than anything. “You walk in there and you feel like you’ve got money. The place is classic looking.”
Hal’s place is full of Rat Pack era memorabilia that is part of his personal collection. He and his wife designed most of the look of the restaurant themselves all the way down to the carpeting, for which he actually drew patterns the design firm followed. The bar is supposed to look like a blackjack table and is patented for its built-in individual glass coolers. There are slot machines, which, under state law, have had their guts removed rendering them for decoration only. There is a beautiful player piano in the middle of the restaurant which is played every Saturday night by a live professional piano player. When it’s not live, the music at Hal’s is his own collection of Big Band era music. As Hal says, everyone may not love Big Band music but it doesn’t offend anyone either. For groups, there are rooms with names like “The Rat Pack Room” and “The Board Room” which ol’ Blue Eyes reigns over in pictures and, of course, in spirit.
So there’s no arguing that Hal’s Fabulous Vegas is unique and has tons of atmosphere. But what about the food? Hal says, “to toot our own horn, I would say by far we’re the best food restaurant on the south side, and I would say one of the very top ones in the city. We’ve got a great chef. He just does his own creations a lot.”
That chef is Executive Chef Keith Angell. He’s been at Hal’s for three years and has been cooking for over twenty years. He says most professional chefs don’t have a particular specialty anymore; they just know how to cook a variety of different styles. If he had to choose what he has been most exposed to, however, he says it would be low country cuisine, which he often offers at Hal’s. Chef Keith describes low country as the cuisine on the coastal side of South Carolina which is similar to a Cajun Creole but has what he calls little “twists and turns.” He gives examples as dishes such as shrimp and grits, Frogmore stew, and sea crab soup.
He does have a cooking philosophy though. “I like to start with high quality ingredients and do as little to them as possible. I do like to pair them sometimes with ingredients that other people wouldn’t think about. And that allows me to be creative.”
Creative is putting it mildly. Everybody’s doing fish tacos, so Chef Keith does duck tacos with a blackberry corn salsa. They recently hosted a special game night at Hal’s, and it wasn’t the kind of “game” you might expect from a place that is supposed to remind you of Vegas. This game night featured quail eggs, rabbit hind legs, ground ostrich, and kangaroo. If you’re wondering what kangaroo tastes like, he describes it as dark meat with a unique flavor. Overall, Chef Keith describes Hal’s as more of a steak house with a lot of menu creativity. “My job was to make the cuisine match the dining room atmosphere. So, Hal was looking for a little more flair and creativity.” The menu certainly fills that bill with appetizers, referred to as “Opening Wagers,” which include such fare as Casino Fried Oysters and Jackpot Shrimp, which is shrimp dusted in Cajun spiced flour, fried, and tossed in chili garlic cream sauce. Entrees include the Blackjack Burger, Chicken Sinatra, and the Vegas Strip, which is described as the “chairman” of all steaks. Check out the sidebar for Chef Keith’s Coffee Crusted Ahi Tuna recipe that calls for a rub using whole ground coffee, but is fairly simple to create. Dessert, known on the menu as “Going All In,” offers such choices as Berries and Cream Martini and Chocolate Lava Cake. Chef Keith has specials every weekend, and he calls it a dream come true to have such free reign.
He, like many chefs today, goes out of his way to buy local. “If you look top to bottom on our menu, there are so many local things. Even on the duck tacos, the duck is local from Maple Leaf Farms, and the goat cheese is local, too,” he says. Even when they do seafood specials they try to be as local as possible offering dishes utilizing prawns from Coatesville and trout from northern Indiana.
There are those who might submit that the south side of Indianapolis, in general, is not very sophisticated when it comes to culinary taste, so how well does Hal’s creative menu do here? “I’d say it’s been a challenge because it’s mostly meat and potatoes down here, and that is something we do very well here. We’re known for our steaks so that really draws the crowd. But I think we’re starting to draw the foodie population of Indianapolis as well,” says the chef. Hal says the restaurant was slow growing for a few years but has now hit its stride. “The south side has always just been lacking and not for lack of money being on the south side. You drive through Center Grove and you can see there’s a lot of money down here.” He describes the Vegas theme of his restaurant as being much like Vegas itself: “over the top, but it ain’t real.” By the way, he didn’t confirm it, but I understand that what happens at Hal’s Fabulous Vegas stays at Hal’s Fabulous Vegas. cg
COFFEE CRUSTED AHI TUNA
Coat the Ahi Tuna with the coffee rub (recipe below). Sear tuna on both sides 2 minutes or to desired doneness. Top with curry sauce (recipe below).
2 cups whole ground coffee, medium-roast
½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
3 tablespoons lemon zest, lightly packed
4 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons freshly ground pepper
Finely chop zest and mix all ingredients well.
2 tablespoons butter
½ onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
½ carrot, peeled and chopped
1 red apple, cored and chopped
1 tablespoon lime juice
¾ cup chicken stock
1 1/2 tablespoon curry powder
2 tablespoons pickled ginger
1 can coconut milk
Salt and pepper to taste
Melt the butter in a sauce pot. Sauté the onion and carrot, without browning. Add garlic and sauté for 3 minutes. Add apple and lime juice, cover and simmer on low heat about 15 minutes. Add stock and simmer for 45 minutes. Add curry powder, ginger, coconut milk and season with salt and pepper. Increase heat, bring to a boil for one minute; remove from heat. Puree sauce with immersion blender and let cool.
Ann Craig-Cinnamon is a 30 year Radio & TV Broadcast veteran. You may recall her as the host of popular radio morning shows in Indianapolis for many years. She and her husband, John are also business owners. Her lifelong love of world travel led them to start a travel franchise, CruiseOne, in Center Grove. Ann is a writer, travel speaker and author of an upcoming book about her time spent living in Iran.