RAWLINS — Some menus go the predictable route. But at Michael’s Big City Steakhouse in Rawlins, one thing you can count on is a little bit of unpredictability, and a sense of humor.
“All the names have a story,” the restaurant’s owner Michael Lujan told Cowboy State Daily. “So, everything from items that are named from my sister, to employees who have made an impact, to movie stars who have come in here, to my father to my mother, and even my kids have a place on the menu.”
The Emerson Biggins, for example is a “Joe-sized” award-winning prime rib, named after Luhan’s dad, while Christina’s Mess of Onions with Cusabi Ranch is named after his sister, and was her idea.
Jonah’s Fish is named after one of Lujan’s sons, while the Double Deuce, or the “Big Joe” cut, is named for another son.
Then there’s ’60s and ’70s actor and comedian Flip Wilson’s favorite meal — for real — which is the chili relleno dinner, smothered in Luhan’s dad’s favorite Hatch green chili recipe.
Flip Wilson isn’t the only star who has stopped by the restaurant. Alec Baldwin was there not long after 9-11, eating ham and eggs, because he couldn’t get a plane ticket out of New York City. So Baldwin drove across the country through Wyoming to get to the West Coast, where he wanted to go.
There’s also the “big messy” burger, so-named after a customer ordered the burger for a hangover cure and commented it was the messiest burger he’d ever had. But the star of the burger show has to be the Big Mike. That’s the burger Lujan himself created in the kitchen when he was just 14 years old.
After 50 years in business, there are a lot of these inside stories and jokes listed on the menu, and that’s the way Lujan likes it.
The names may be a little campy, but he believes they also bring people in, and make them part of the restaurant’s story.
And it is quite a story, one that even includes something of a miracle.
Nobody Goes Hungry
Bringing people in and feeding them is a longstanding tradition at Michael’s Big City Steakhouse.
If anyone is down on their luck, Lujan will not send them away hungry. That’s something he learned from his parents.
When Lujan’s parents first bought the restaurant, it was on the main traffic route that brought people through Rawlins. That was right before a new bypass on Interstate 80 was built, changing traffic patterns.
“There were a lot of people who came through here walking, and down on their luck, and transients,” Lujan said. “This was the first place they saw.”
Lujan’s parents wouldn’t chase them off, as many might have done. Instead, they invited them in, and offered them food and drink to give them a reason to smile that day.
“Everybody had something,” Lujan said. “And I’m blessed that I can continue that, and I want to share that with people. So everyone on my staff is trained that when someone comes in and they look like maybe they need a step up, we take care of it.”
As part of that philosophy, Lujan serves a free Thanksgiving meal for the community. Last year, he cooked 85 turkeys.
“It’s a long, long day, but it’s worth it,” Lujan said. “And I start cooking for it the day before.”
That Mini Chimi
All of Lujan’s dishes come with a little something that’s not even mentioned on the menu. It’s a miniature chimichanga, smothered in his dad’s Hatch green chili sauce.
“When I was growing up we were just like everybody else in that we didn’t have the luxury of going out to eat a lot,” Lujan said. “So maybe once a year I remember going to the Sizzler, and I loved that place.”
But there was something Lujan didn’t love, and that was the selection of side dishes.
“You’d get these vegetables that would be like mushy peas and green beans and carrots, like, out of a can,” he said. “They were just gross. And, like, I remember that.”
Lujan took over his parents’ restaurant 25 years ago. He was determined not to serve anything like that alongside his delicious steaks and chicken dinners.
“I wanted something different, something authentic and unique, something that people would remember,” he said.
That’s how the miniature chimichangas became a thing.
“Now they’re, like, famous all over the place,” Lujan said.
In fact, they’ve become so popular, they’re now available as an appetizer, for those who just can’t get enough of them.
Where The Name Came From
Giving the restaurant a new name for the new owner, meanwhile, was a combination of humor, and maybe plain old stubbornness.
“I’m always trying to be funny,” Lujan admitted. “So, I couldn’t think of a name for the restaurant and my dad goes, ‘Don’t name it Michael’s. You don’t want to name it after yourself. You want to name it something different.”
Lujan decided right then that he definitely did want his own name on the restaurant.
Then he started thinking one day how people will talk about all the things they cannot find in their small town. And where do they go to find these things?
The big city.
“So that’s why I call it Michael’s Big City Steakhouse, because it’s what you could get in a big city, but it’s in a small town,” he said.
Lujan is committed to making sure the steaks on his menu live up to the promise of the name, because no one should have to actually drive to a big city for a quality steak dinner.
So he’s got prime rib, he’s got Delmonico steaks, he’s got a porterhouse, and the great “Bobby Bleu” Bland, which is a sirloin smothered in caramelized onions and blue cheese, named after a famous musician that was a favorite of one of his employees.
“Steaks are kind of my thing,” he said. “They’re my specialty, and I love making them.”
An Anniversary That Almost Wasn’t
Big Mike’s is lucky to have made it to a 50th anniversary. It’s a combination of long-standing community support for the business, as well as something that he knows has to be, on some level, divine.
Thirteen years ago, Lujan accidently burned his restaurant down to the ground — while he was inside it.
He had been tapped to cater the buyer’s luncheon for the county fair, where all the livestock buyers get together with the youths who have raised pigs and steers and goats and decide whose animals they’re going to buy.
Late the night before the luncheon, after the bar had closed, Lujan started cooking all the meats for the catered event.
“I had 14 briskets, a pig on the smoker, and two lambs,” he recalled.
The lamb he had helped harvest at a rancher friend’s place a few days before.
“We had to chase it around, tackle it, and it was traumatic trust me,” Lujan said. “And so, the guy told me he said, ‘Now you be careful when you cook the lamb. They’re greasy. You’re gonna burn down your restaurant. So, you got to be very careful.”
But Lujan wasn’t worried about that. He was a very experienced cook.
“I told him, ‘I’ve got this,’” Lujan said, shaking his head. “I should have listened, right?”
A Real-Life Moment Like The Matrix
It was about 4:15 a.m. in the morning, and Lujan can still vividly remember every second.
He was making a list. Drain the blueberries. Cut the watermelon. Make the chimichurri sauce for the goat.
All of a sudden, he heard pounding at the door. That was strange, and not just because of how early in the morning it was. His door was usually open. But, for some reason, it was locked that day.
When Lujan got to the door, he saw it was a police officer.
“You’re on fire,” he told Lujan.
“Like I know, I’ve got a pig cooking,” Lujan said.
“No, you’re on fire,” the officer repeated.
Lujan shook his head, still not getting it. “It’s my pig, man.”
Finally, it sunk in after the officer repeated it yet one more time, much more forcefully.
“You’re on fire!” he said.
Lujan’s first reaction was to run into the kitchen as fast as he could go. He hit the swinging doors, and then he hit the floor. The fire had been so hot, all the fire extinguishing chemicals from his automatic fire suppression system had ended up on the floor. Think ice with water on top of the floor, but slicker even than that.
“So, when I came in the room, it was a bit like in the Matrix,” Lujan said. “I hit that floor, and then the ceiling caved in all around me.”
Burning pieces cascaded down, right on top of him and all around him. They went everywhere.
Everywhere but on Lujan.
“It was actually the anniversary of my mom’s birthday that day,” Lujan said. “So, I’m sure that must be why I survived. I’m sure it was because she was watching out.”
Even More To Give
Lujan lost everything to the fire. Every plate, every stick of wood — anything that had been burnable or breakable was gone.
“We had six feet of snow in the restaurant the whole year because there was no roof,” Lujan said. “We had no insurance. We had nothing.”
It took every penny of everything that he’d ever saved, and the sale of every piece of land and every vehicle that he could possibly sell to stage a return with his “Big City” steakhouse a year later.
“It was quite the experience,” Lujan said. “We had to replace everything, and it’s been a lot.”
But that didn’t stop Lujan’s desire to help others. It just meant he had even more to give back.
Every Christmas, Lujan still organizes the Big City toy drive, for example, which last year gathered 1,721 shopping carts full of toys. Volunteers sorted the toys by age and wrapped them, then firefighters and police officers delivered them.
Lujan doesn’t ask about economic status or anything else about the recipients. He just wants their name, age, and address.
“I don’t care about their status,” he said. “I don’t care if they get toys from another organization. I don’t care. Each kid gets about three toys, and we got toys for more than 600 kids last year.”
The toy drive celebrates something his mom used to do when Lujan was young.
“I’d have a random friend come over, someone who didn’t have much at their house or their place,” Lujan said. “They would come over and eat with us and then, all of a sudden, my mom would bring a present out of the closet for whatever age kid. How she knew, I don’t know, but it was magical. The way she took care of everybody.”
Lujan was silent for an emotional moment as he relived the memory. Then he picked the conversation back up.
“So, I do that now with my family and my friends,” he said. “And on Christmas Eve at 4 p.m. my first responders, police officers, sheriff’s, penitentiary, hospital, classic air medical, highway patrol, Sinclair Police, Forest Rangers, you name it. They show up and load all these presents with the addresses and they deliver them.”
The volunteers don’t say where the presents came from, Lujan added.
“They just say, have a nice Christmas,” Lujan said. “Because when I set it up, I just wanted these kids to know that it’s not always a bad day when a fireman shows up at the door.”
Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.