By Tim Mandese, food columnist
My mom always told me not to judge a book by its cover. Turns out it applies to restaurants too.
A recent road trip to Lander Wyoming, found me looking for someplace to grab lunch. The goal wasn’t necessarily to find something to write about, even though there’s always one eye open for something unexpected. This was about to be one of those times.
Today there was just enough time for a quick bite, nothing fancy, just lunch.
When in a town you’ve never been to before, Google can provide some help. Sometimes that decision making process can be a bit complicated.
What to get… A sandwich? Pizza? Some homestyle diner, or what? Scrolling up and down the list on my phone, nothing pulled at my hunger.
Ok, let’s just go to the nearest restaurant and see what they have. The closest place was on the way out of town, but nothing was spotted on the way in.
Oh well, in Google we trust, so I tapped on “Directions”. Getting close to the location on the map, still nothing. “Your destination is on the left. You have arrived.” Again, where is it? Did dependable ole Google let me down?
Pulling into the parking lot of a Shell station to get my bearings to look around, and low and behold, there was a restaurant in the same building.
Honestly, it was a little bit of a let down to think of a gas station restaurant. But it was after all, just lunch.
The good news is, my earlier assumptions would be proven wrong.
Walking up to the front door, it did indeed say “The Antler Steakhouse.” Opening the door, there was an expectation of truck drivers and a waitress dressed in a poofy pink 50s uniform. Oh no, that’s not what you get here.
The first thing that struck my eye was how well-decorated this place was. There was a nice bar with what looked like a great selection. About 12 nicely decorated tables filled the small space, and for a moment, there was an urge to turned around to see if this was really a restaurant next to a gas station. Yep. It wasn’t a mirage.
Taking a seat, it was even more impressive that this cool looking place was hidden away behind a row of gas pumps. A well dressed waiter greeted me and inquired about drinks. “Just water thank you.” He then handed me a menu and said he would be back to take my order.
Ok, this menu wasn’t just a paper menu, or one of those typical menus in a plastic folder. This was mounted on a piece of wood. On one side was a dinner menu, and the other, the lunch that inspired this column.
There was a good selection of items to choose from, but my waiter is back with the water.
Why even taking up your valuable reading time to mention the water? What’s so special about ice water? Firstly, it was served in a mason jar, which tickled this southern boy to no end. It was even topped with a slice of cucumber. Oooo, fancy.
Ok, who goes to the trouble to make a good presentation of…water? If the water was treated with such respect, the food must be treated like art.
Reviewing the lunch side of the menu, there was something called a Banh Mi Sandwich, a marinated steak, pork or chicken with sliced cucumber jalapeno, Asian slaw, and mayo on a baguette. This, at a restaurant next to a gas station.
There’s a chicken sandwich with mozzarella, homemade pickles, and a raspberry sauce, on a brioche bun. Next, a burger, but not a boring beef patty. This was a choice of hand-pattied bison or elk, with all the fixings.
Looking over the list, there’s even a bacon wrapped meatloaf burger. My hunger jumped. My excitement grew, just from reading a menu.
The list of possibilities goes on though. A cheese steak with Cheese Wiz, which was unexpected, but it was obviously a nod to tradition. Another steak sandwich more of those homemade pickles, and grilled onions, on a toasted baguette.
As if choosing wasn’t hard enough, there’s a southeast Asian grilled pork, which is marinated grilled pork, served with fried egg, Asian slaw and rice. Are you as blown away yet?
There’s still plenty on this side of the plank though. Something called Loco Moco sounded interesting. A grilled beef patty, fried egg, something called Furikake, and homemade gravy, on top of steamed rice. What the heck is Furikake?
This is just the tip of this not so typical iceberg.
Is seafood your thing? There’s a mahi mahi or ahi tuna sandwich, fish and chips, and even seafood tacos.
Finally spotting something that both sounded good, but would also test a place that called itself a steakhouse.
The Antler Skewers, are grilled shrimp or steak, with seasonal vegetables, salad of choice, and either bacon Mac, rice pilaf, or potato puree.
After that beautiful glass of ice water, it was going to be interesting to see how the food was presented.
Waiting on my meal, the food coming out to the other tables was like a New York fashion show runway. The table to my left got the bison burger and the table to my right got the steak sandwich. Both of which almost made me clap as they went by.
The salad looked like a magazine photo. Normally my reaction is to ignore the salad course, because it’s just so boring. However, iceberg lettuce, tomato and ranch dressing wasn’t on this plate.
A beautiful mixed greens salad topped with blue cheese dressing so fresh, so creamy it has to be experienced. This tasted like they had a garden out back and picked it just for me.
Up next was the Antler Skewers but the big draw was the side of bacon Mac and cheese. You can see why the bacon took top billing.
There weren’t just a few bacon bits stirred into it, but rather it was covered with bacon. Anything you smother in bacon is going to be raised several notches.
The skewers were equally eye appealing. Four bites of steak per skewer were alternated with pepper, onion and citrus.
The morsels of beef were tender and juicy, and squeezing the piece of orange over them brought an unexpected brightness to the dish.
This was supposedly a small lunch portion, but it felt much more than that. It wasn’t just my hunger, because thinking about them now, the same smile is on my face.
This wasn’t the lunch I imagined, but it was the lunch I deserved. You can spend the same amount for a bag lunch from a clown or king, but this is so much better, and the attention to detail was unexpected to say the least.
And we are talking about just the lunch service at the Antler Steakhouse. There was a whole second side of the menu to explore, and there’s a guarantee that my return is imminent.
If the photos on the Antler’s Facebook page are any indication, there will be much more to report on.
My mom may have told me not to judge a book by its cover, but don’t judge a restaurant by its front door either.
The Antler is tucked away next to the Zander’s Shell station, or more appropriately, Zander’s is next to The Antler. With its Asian flare, wonderful presentation and quality food, you’ll find this to be your go-to in Lander.
You’ll find the Antler Steakhouse at 720 East Main St in Lander. You can reach them 307-335-5058 or on Facebook.