About 10 miles west of Cheyenne on Happy Jack Road, alert travelers on their way to Curt Gowdy State Park will notice a place in the middle of nowhere surrounded by cars. Those people are all there for good food and good music, served up with a healthy side of patriotism.
The roadside joint is the Bunkhouse Bar and Grill, and it’s open year-round — though sometimes during winter the road to get there might be closed to all but local traffic. That’s not necessarily because there’s enough snow to impede local traffic. It’s just that the road has to be closed well before any areas of concern.
Friday and Saturday nights are when the Bunkhouse — and especially its patrons — really shines. There’s a live band every Friday and Saturday night, playing a mix of mostly country music. Although, guests who stay into the night might find things sliding a little bit more into the bluesy side, with an occasional rogue rock ‘n’ roll riff thrown in.
Before even a single country or blues note is struck, however, the evening kicks off with a song that’s absolutely non-negotiable. It’s “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and everyone in the restaurant stands up, dinner or no, places their right hands over their hearts, faces a row of flags hanging from the bar’s indoor rooftop. There’s the American flag, the Wyoming state flag and flags representing every branch of the military.
Everyone sings loud and proud along with the band, repeating the cherished words they all learned by heart in elementary school.
It’s an emotional experience for many, because when the national anthem is sung at the Bunkhouse, nobody goes through the motions. They feel the patriotism swell in the room and some sing along with tears in their eyes.
After that, and only after that, the band starts a toe-tapping set of country music that invites the room to get up and dance — and many people do.
Meet The Owners
The owners of the Bunkhouse are Terry and Eldon Hongo. Terry is from Ohio, while Eldon is from Hawaii, but the two met in Cheyenne and were married 17 years ago.
The Bunkhouse purchase almost didn’t happen. It was May 2020, right in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. But that’s not why it almost didn’t happen.
The couple had actually been looking at buying the historic Mountain View Inn in Centennial. But something was holding them back. They weren’t sure about the long drive, especially in wintertime, from their Table Mountain property in Happy Valley to the Mountain View Inn.
Just as the couple decided to make an offer on the inn, Rod Romer called to suggest they buy his restaurant, the Bunkhouse, instead.
Immediately, the Hongos knew this was the right opportunity. The Bunkhouse was much closer to where they lived and there would be no worries about getting to the restaurant, even in winter.
Ahead of the purchase, they did their due diligence. That meant not only delving into the financials, but working in the restaurant to get to know the business better. Terry worked as a hostess, while Eldon started doing dishes. Their son also helped out, making it a family affair.
The Hongos closed on the deal May 14, 2020 — one day before the restaurant was allowed to reopen after COVID restrictions.
“From then on, it’s been full-blown,” Terry told Cowboy State Daily. “You know, we just keep going, and we’ve added quite a bit to it. We added the stage outside for Saturday afternoon music in the summertime and a lot of people know us as (easy to get along with).”
They’ve also covered the front deck, which protects not only guests, but the life-size Elvis that greets customers of the restaurant and bar.
Music A Lifelong Love
Eldon has made a national name for himself training bird dogs, but he’s actually been playing music even longer than he’s been working with dogs.
Music has been a constant companion for 55 years, including some years where he was a card-carrying member of the musician’s union in California.
His path has been “like making a 10-fold circle,” Terry told Cowboy State Daily. “He’s coming back full circle to his roots.”
Eldon plays a lot of country western for the Bunkhouse, but his first love musically is the blues.
In fact, at one time he went on tour with Jimmy Witherspoon, a very well-known blues artist.
That love of the Blues is how the Saturday afternoon jam session from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. got started.
“It’s more of a blues band out on the deck,” Terry said.
Right there with The King, Elvis, looking on.
No one is quite sure of the history behind the life-size Elvis statue, but everyone likes to have a picture taken with him.
Last year, Eldon started singing as well as playing guitar. That’s something he hadn’t done to preserve his voice for handling dogs in competitions.
“You know, you have to kind of sing to the dog to let him know where you’re at when you’re competing with them,” Terry said. “So your voice needs to carry quite a bit.”
Now that Eldon is not doing as much with dog handling, he can do a little bit of singing.
“I’ve been married to him for 17 years, and last year was the first year that I’ve ever heard him actually sing,” she said. “Everybody was shocked when he started to sing, not only myself, but everybody in the restaurant that knows him. He is extremely good.”
Food Is A Bright Spot
The music is not the only thing that’s extremely good at the Bunkhouse. The food is a bright spot, with fresh ingredients all around.
One dish that particularly stands out is the clam chowder, which Terry makes from scratch.
“I’ve had people from all over the United States and overseas, including from the New England area‚ I’ve even had a judge that used to judge clam chowder, say it’s the best clam chowder he has ever tasted in his life,” Terry said.
The chowder recipe isn’t a family secret handed down for generations. Rather, it was born out of necessity.
“The (former owners) restaurant already had a main base recipe,” Terry said. “And the cook we had at the time, when we took over, he tried to make it and he’d burn it.”
That’s when Terry decided to take over chowder-making duty herself.
“I just kind of use that main base recipe, but I’ve tweaked it,” she said. “So it’s kind of my own recipe, but the way I make it, everybody loves it. And they make me make it every week.”
It starts with fresh bacon sizzled up until it’s browned and delicious, followed by diced celery, onions and fresh garlic fried in butter until fragrant.
Terry makes a roux, which is a mixture of flour and butter that’s briefly fried over medium heat, before adding heavy cream and clam base.
“It’s just a matter of stirring and stirring and stirring, and then stirring and stirring,” Terry said, laughing. “That’s what gets your thickness and consistency throughout.”
Last, but not least, are the clams themselves and diced potatoes, as well as all the seasonings.
The other trick Terry has is to use diced baked potatoes for the clam chowder. Sometimes those are leftover baked potatoes from the day before. Or, if there are no leftover baked potatoes, she bakes about 20 potatoes the day before to use in the clam chowder, which has become a Friday night mainstay.
Focus On The Fresh
Fresh ingredients and hand-cut foods are a particular focus of every dish at the restaurant.
“Every soup is made fresh,” Terry said. “Even our French fries are hand cut. The burgers are not frozen burgers. In fact, everything comes, you know, we don’t normally get anything that’s frozen, other than sometimes we’ll have some fish for the Friday fish specials. That comes in frozen a lot of times because you’re too far away from anywhere to get fresh.”
For steaks, the couple source beef from Nebraska called 1855.
“That’s the highest quality, best quality we can get,” Terry said. “That’s probably the biggest thing that we changed. They’ve always had the 1855, but we’ve gotten, you know, like the better-quality bacon and the better quality hams. We’ll get the whole ham or a whole turkey, not some fabricated stuff, for the clubs and our chef salads.”
Trimmings from the steaks are ground for meatloaf, and that’s one of the reasons why the meatloaf is so popular.
Round that out with a full-on cocktail bar, and the restaurant can dish up anything a diner might want for a Friday or Saturday night out on the town — except it’s not a town at all, but an out-of-the-way gem that locals have come to know and love.
Not The First Bunkhouse
The present-day Bunkhouse Bar and Grill is actually the third iteration of the business. The first was built across the street in 1879. Fire wiped out the two prior restaurants, leading to the present location, which has been up since 1987.
Historical tidbits hang on the walls of the Bunkhouse, a mixture of memorabilia from previous and present owners, as well as hats, sometimes from patrons who have died but whose family wanted their loved one’s hat to hang at the restaurant and bar they loved so much.
Prominent in the memorabilia mix are military items that have been donated to the couple, who are well-known for their support of the military.
“The Star-Spangled Banner” tradition is among things passed down from previous owners, Terry added, but it is something she personally felt very strongly about keeping.
“I was prior military, my son was prior military, my husband’s father and my father were both prior military,” Terry said. “So, we’re very supportive of the military, and that’s why we have a lot of it up here. People have given their lives, they give their all for us, and we should always give back, or at least honor them.
“And, too, there’s too much negativity in the world, and we want to bring a little more light.”
Part of the display the Hongos have added includes a flag for every branch of the military — Army, Navy, Space Corps, Air Force etc. — all of them are present and accounted for.
It was never a question whether the couple would continue “The Star-Spangled Banner” tradition before the band starts playing tunes. It was just understood that it would live on.
“It’s a way for us to respect our country and all those who have served for us,” Terry said. “That’s, to me, very important to honor that every night before the band plays.
“It’s important to let (those who have served) know how much we feel and how much we care about them. And our country, the way the world has gotten, some people kind of forget where our roots are.”
Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.