New chef surprises and delights, all thanks to the family.

STORY & PHOTOS BY MEGG MUELLER

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Chef Adam Ornellas and the Cactus Creek Prime Steakhouse

Nevada is a land of contrasts, and nowhere is that more evident than the Cactus Creek Prime Steakhouse at the Bonanza Casino. One of Reno’s smaller local casinos, the Bonanza offers the charm of the city’s rustic edge; no flashy foyers or marble fountains. What you’ll find is gaming, lots of local color, and quite honestly and surprisingly, one of the best chefs around.

Chef Adam Ornellas is a diamond in the rough, and not just because his food is spectacular, but because of the passion he brings to his kitchen. Ornellas has been on the job for about a year, and his commitment to raising the bar for what he calls “comfortable fine dining” is palpable.

“We’re known for our prime rib,” he explains of the five-time Best of Nevada winner. “Our prime is here to stay. But I want people to realize the heart and passion that’s going into our food. We’re trying to do something different for this town.” 

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Chef Adam’s pan-seared sea scallops with winter English peas, Benton’s bacon, artichoke bottoms, baby gem lettuce, toasted pecans, and lemon egg yolk béarnaise.

Different. Like alligator hush puppies, which were incredibly popular, but also different like switching to fresh cherries instead of dried for his Cherry Duck recipe. Different like a deconstructed PBJ, with noodles made from jam, plus peanut butter powder and toasted bread that tastes somehow like the old favorite, only better.  And different, like with a keen eye toward molecular gastronomy. I had to ask, too; this is the technique behind how something like a lemon foam is made, imparting a bright 3D flavor unexpected in so light a presentation.

For 26 years, Chef Adam has been cooking, and learning. A Michelin-trained chef, he has worked in restaurants from the Bay Area to the Big Apple, but found himself drawn to a simpler lifestyle, and a more intimate kitchen. He speaks of his team as if they are family, and it rings true. I asked how he comes up with his imaginative creations.

“It’s a group effort; we’re like family. We do this together,” he says of his team, Rigoberto Rodriguez, Cesar Partida, and Claudia Villegas. “I am nothing without them. Without them, you’d be looking at McDonald’s bags,” he says as he gestures at a table full of gorgeous plates of food.

Ornellas’ labor of love has paid off in the last year; a few diners balked at the innovative menu and the nontraditional chef behind it at first, but he believes the tide is turning.

“We’re on the upside…people are trying new things now. It’s starting to catch on,” he says.

Ornellas said Reno’s food scene is not what he had thought it would be, and he respects the chances another local chef is taking with his cuisine, too.

“I’ve never met him but my hat’s off to Campo,” he says of owner/chef Mark Estee’s restaurant. “He’s the only other one, that I know of, that’s putting his neck out there.”

The risks Ornellas takes have been noticed. His Harvest menu’s daring creations use local, fresh ingredients that change with the seasons, such as scallops with peas and bacon, or deep-fried turkey with cranberry mashed potatoes. He remembered a recent table, where friends brought in friends, who were hesitant because of the restaurant’s décor. After dinner, they told Ornellas, “Once the food hit the table, I thought I was in Napa.”

Lucky for Nevadans, there’s no need to go that far. Chef Adam and the Cactus Creek Prime Steakhouse are here, and ready to show people a good dinner doesn’t have to break your wallet. And as Chef continues to push the envelope, he reminded me, “Good food is everywhere.”

And now you know where to find it.

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His southern turkey dinner, with flour-dusted fried turkey cutlets, cranberry spotted mashed potato puree, spiced pickled vegetables, and prickly pear relish.
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