HULETT — Visitors here might be forgiven if they assume that the Ponderosa Cafe is a dive not worth diving into, but they would also be completely wrong.
Despite the establishment’s dive bar appearance — especially prominent during the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally — the bar and restaurant known by regulars for its “crabby” chef, features a surprisingly high-end dinner menu that includes delicious prime rib and steaks, all while surrounded by curiosities that won’t fail to start interesting conversation.
That makes the Ponderosa Cafe a hidden gem that deserves a spot on any Devils Tower itinerary.
The restaurant is owned by Michael Dean Coronato, a chef from New Jersey, who is no stranger to the restaurant scene. He’s catered for very large crowds over his 30-plus year career. That includes backstage catering at Bruce Springsteen concerts, among other famous rock stars.
Coronato is aware the exterior of his restaurant gives off a dive bar vibe and that it fools quite a few folks, particularly during Sturgis.
“They expect the worst, and then it ends up being the best meal,” he said. “I’ve got 980 reviews (on TripAdvisor) in a town of 300 people. I have more people telling me it’s the best meal they’ve had while they’re on vacation.”
First Big Surprise — The Menu
During Sturgis, Coronato shuts the restaurant part of his establishment down, and just runs everything out of the bar that’s behind the restaurant. He also pares the menu down, to keep up with the thousands of bikers who roll through town during the two-week rally in August.
But, even during the Sturgis Rally, Coronato’s menu is still a pleasant surprise. Yes, burgers and fries are on the menu, but there are also relatively healthy options, too, like peel-and-eat shrimp, and a balsamic chicken salad with mozzarella balls and fresh tomatoes.
Outside of rally season, though, the menu gets even more surprising, as Coronato has more time to think about food. That’s when the New York strip steaks, prime rib, and bison ravioli in a roasted tomato pesto cream come out.
Coronato also enjoys themed nights, like Mexican or Chinese. That keeps things interesting, both for the diners and the chef.
“We can match with anybody,” Coronato said. “We definitely can match with anybody.”
Second Surprise — All The Curosities
Coronato’s restaurant/bar is filled with conversation starters that give it a fun atmosphere that’s bound to bring out an interesting story or two.
Like that random, Goodfellas flask that’s in a glass case in the bar.
Michael’s brother, Bob Coronato, who runs the Rogues Gallery down the street, is the one who procured that particular item.
As the story goes, the Coronato brothers were listening to Howard Stern on the day that American mobster Henry Hill called into the program. Hill’s life, and his association with the Lucchese crime family, was chronicled in the 1990 true crime story movie, Goodfellas.
“He was in witness protection,” Tom Coronato told Cowboy State Daily. “But he announces that he’s … kind of coming out of witness protection. And, basically he was selling like little paintings online at eBay.”
Bob Coronato looked at the paintings on eBay but decided those wouldn’t be worth nearly as much as a personal item, with Hill’s signature. So he contacted Hill through eBay to get his phone number, and then told Hill over the phone that he would buy something personal, if Hill would take a photo of himself holding it, as well as signing his name to it.
So, Hill sent a whiskey flask with a slip of paper inside that has the words, “I think you’re funny,” written on it, along with a photo of Hill holding the flask up.
Over time, other people have added interesting memorabilia to the walls as well, to the point the restaurant is now using its ceiling space to display new items.
“When he’s not looking, I have to take s... down,” Tom Coronato told Cowboy State Daily.
Occasionally, that something turns out to be a random item a traveler put up without asking first. Like a license plate from South Carolina, for example.
“I thought Michael put it up and he thought I put it up,” Tom Coronato said. “Weird random stuff like that finds its way here all the time.”
An Italian Sense Of Humor Keeps It Interesting
Michael Coronato’s earliest memories in the kitchen are of his family’s Italian bakery in New Jersey.
“Ironically, I’m not a great baker,” he said. “But I remember all the smells, and being in the kitchen. There were long wooden tables and the big mixers and an oven as big as this room.”
Watching the action in the bakery was Coronato’s first hint of what he calls “the juice.”
“One minute, there’s nobody, the next minute there’s a bus,” Michael said. “You bang (the orders) out and you’re like, ‘Yeah.’ Then it goes back to nothing.”
It’s the juice that attracted Coronato to the restaurant business. He has worked in some high-end restaurants along the way, including an Italian restaurant in Jersey, learning to sauce and sauté all kinds of things.
The restaurant required a special “edition” dish for every day of the week. And that’s where he came up with his favorite, go-to name for Italian dishes, one that he uses to this day — Senza Nome.
“Bison Ravioli Senza Nome — sounds elegant, right?” he asks with a mischievous grin. “Senza Nome in Italian means no name. That’s my favorite dish.”
Why Regulars Call Him The Crabby Chef
Michael Coronato has earned a reputation from locals as the “crabby” chef. But that’s something of an inside joke to those who know him, because he’s not really all that cranky.
“I come from New Jersey. I talk loud. People think I’m always yelling,” he told Cowboy State Daily. “I’m not yelling, I’m not yelling, I’ve said that a million times.”
Eventually, it was easier to just go with “Yeah, I’m cranky,” than to explain his New Jersey upbringing to the world at large.
One of his brothers got the idea to start making “crabby” chef stickers with favorite cranky chef mottos.
Like “F… the Kids Menu!” And “We don’t give a d…. how you did it back home.”
The latter is actually more of a reminder to Michael though, than sassing the customers.
“Nobody here cares how I did it back home (in New Jersey),” Michael Coronato said. “And I get asked, you know, a million times, ‘Why did I come to Wyoming?”
His stock answer — which has become a sticker as well — was that it “Seemed like a good idea at the time.”
All kidding aside, Michael considers Hulett home, and loves it there. While he knows he’ll want to retire soon, he has no plans to move away once he does retire. That’s why he’s got a few important stipulations for whoever may want to buy the restaurant from him when he’s ready.
“It’s gonna have to be to the right person, and I’d work with them until they have their own direction,” he said. “Because I don’t want the quality to go down. I want to be able to come sit here (and eat) after I sell it.”
Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.