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Chef‘s influence evident at Broken Bow‘s Bonfire Grill
by Phil Soreide, Betty Sayers and Pam Soreide
One of the least profound insights the Rural Foodies have gained from a year or two of seeking out the best dining experiences to be had in rural Nebraska is that who’s in charge in the kitchen makes a huge difference as to what ends up on your plate.
Take for example Afif Espindola, a chef who earned acclaim for some years in high-end hunt clubs and luxury dude ranches. Well known for his way with wild game (he marinates chukar in a balsamic-garlic-flavored mayonnaise with herbs, quickly pan-sears it, and serves it with apricot-jam-flavored sauce) Espindola came earlier this year to be the executive chef at the Bonfire Grill in Broken Bow.
Oh, lucky Broken Bow.
An historic venue
The Rural Foodies have come at the recommendation – indeed invitation – of long-time Broken Bow residents Mary and Roger Pirnie. We could have hardly chosen a better time of year to visit — Nebraska’s many-breasted sand hills are at their prettiest, stretching out like wrinkled green velvet in the afternoon sun.
The Bonfire Grill is inside the historic Arrow Hotel, right on the town square. Built in 1928, the Arrow was the town’s first three-story building and featured a restaurant, beauty salon, barbershop, ladies dress shop and a ballroom. Saved by local citizens, totally renovated and added to the Historic Register in 1984, the main floor received a second facelift in 2005 and today is an appealing blend of modern amenities with the ethos of an old-West hotel.
As we approached the wide, brass-fitted doors, the scene included colorful flower boxes and the pleasant sound of laughter and light chatter from people seated under the awnings of the bar, nibbling on the popular nacho appetizer and sipping icy drinks. Inside, we are greeted by Terrazzo floors, original embossed tin ceiling tiles, and dark, richly polished wood. To one side is the Bonfire Pub, a hospitable bar with a view of the square. To the other is the Bonfire Grill, featuring booths made from some of the original hotel room doors complete with the vintage room numbers still in place.
Do petals count?
We are seated near a wide window with a clear view of the street. After we order aperitifs we ask about the onion rings and are informed they don’t actually serve onion rings at the Bonfire, instead offering onion petals as a side dish. A small debate ensued. We are trying to find the best onion rings in Nebraska, after all. Do petals count? Our hostess reminds us coaxingly that the Nacho Supreme with fresh pico de gallo is the most popular appetizer, but in the end we ordered the onions and weren’t disappointed. They were nicely breaded, with a pleasant salty-sweet flavor enhanced by a creamy dipping sauce.
Conversation, which had been at a full boil, simmered as we contemplated the menu of Bonfire baby back ribs, prime rib, grilled pork tenderloins in a pineapple marinade, chicken fried steak or chicken fried chicken with white pepper gravy, and several other specialties. The Bonfire sirloin with a seasoned dry rub was highlighted as a special for the evening, so we requested that, the flat iron steak, the pan-seared walleye with mango salsa, and the grilled halibut, served with tarragon lemon butter.
A little on the side
In our experience the attention given to the “side” dishes is very telling in the restaurant’s approach to food. Even a nice steak is disappointing if accompanied by nothing but overcooked broccoli and a baked potato too long in the warming oven. To their credit, all the sides at the Bonfire were first rate — nice, crisp salads with a variety of greens, the broccoli bright green and just the right degree of al dente, the coleslaw especially flavorful and crisp. We were particularly taken with the Buffalo Chips, potato slices battered and deep fried to a delightfully spicy, crispy crunch. People who ordered those had to share.
No complaints on the meals. The walleye with mango salsa was flavorful as it was colorful; the halibut a delight, the Certified Angus sirloin and flat iron steaks were succulent. The service was thoroughly professional, efficient and unobtrusive. Our hostess and server answered every question, whether it concerned food or facts about the historic hotel, with alacrity.
We regretfully decline dessert
If you visit the Bonfire Grill, we would advise you to save room for Chef Espindola’s desserts. As our server displayed and described the raspberry-chocolate decadent torte, the spice cake with cream cheese topping, the crème brule, and the meringue cookies they looked fabulous and promised to taste even better.
However, we had already arranged for coffee and a slice of rhubarb cake at our friends’ house, and as it turned out, the dessert we had was truly just as delightful, the ambiance even cozier and the conversation convivial.
And in the end, that’s what we like about food. Oh, sure, we like the taste and the texture and all, but meals for humans are about more than that — they are a chance to make connections, to be together, to socialize in a shared activity. Sitting down to meals is one of the things that makes us civilized.
Our thought is just this: if you’re going to be civilized anyway, why not be civilized at someplace like the Bonfire Grill?
Who to Contact
509 South 9th Ave.
Broken Bow, NE 68822
Hours: Monday–Thursday, 11:00 am to 9:00 pm; Friday-Saturday,11:00 am to 10:00 pm; Sunday, 11:00 am to 2:00 pm. Bonfire Pub, Monday–Saturday, 11:00 am to 1:00 am.