Author’s Note: On November 17, 2005—a little more than a year after this article was published—the Westward Ho Hotel and Casino closed permanently after more than 40 years in operation. Although, sadly, you can no longer go there to get a Mega Dog or a 99¢ margarita, we’ll leave this article here for its historical value.
Before I visited Las Vegas for the first time, a number of people warned me that I’d hate it. To be sure, there are any number of things about the city that one may find off-putting, and it can be quite an expensive place to visit—even if you don’t count money lost by gambling. But my first impression of Las Vegas was that it was like a giant amusement park. Everything was built on an absurdly large scale, but the excesses almost seemed to make fun of themselves. I found it absolutely delightful to go from one casino to the next, watching how much effort each establishment put into looking gaudier and more over-the-top than the next. Whether it’s better blackjack odds, looser slot machines, a faster roller coaster, or a flashier pirate show, every business has some gimmick to convince the tourists to spend their money there. And of course, like an amusement park, everything in Las Vegas is designed carefully to make you feel that the money you’re spending is well worth it; you’re experiencing one-of-a-kind attractions.
More is Less
Down at the unfashionable north end of the Strip, older hotels cater to families and travelers on a budget. Instead of competing to be more luxurious than the place next door, the casinos lure customers with an extremely effective marketing technique: really cheap food and drink. However much common sense may try to hold you back, it’s hard not to be drawn in by a sign promising a 27-ounce (0.8 liter) frozen margarita for 99¢. One of these signs is outside a nondescript hotel-casino called Westward Ho. This is as no-frills as a casino gets in Las Vegas. There are no celebrity performers or erupting volcanoes. Just slot machines, table games, and the cheapest (not to mention least expensive) food in the city. And they still think big when it comes to food.
In our never-ending pursuit of kitsch, Morgen and I decided to check out Westward Ho’s margaritas a couple of years ago. It took us quite a while to find the bar that sold them, and let me be frank: they were awful. In that 27-ounce glass there was perhaps one microdroplet of tequila—it was basically a very sweet slushy lime drink with a faint hint of alcohol. So when we returned this summer, we brought our own supplementary tequila, which I must say enhanced the experience considerably (while still making the price a bargain).
We needed something for that drink to wash down, so we went to the deli in the back corner that features the casino’s star culinary attractions. For 99¢ you can buy your choice of a shrimp cocktail or a basic hot dog. The shrimp cocktails were every bit as impressive as the margaritas: a small plastic glass filled with shredded lettuce and topped with a handful of baby shrimp and a dollop of cocktail sauce.
A Matter of Size
But if you’re willing to splurge, $1.49 will buy you the largest hot dog I’ve ever seen, a 3/4-pound (1/3 kg) Mega Dog. These are no mere foot-long hot dogs; using a dollar bill as a rough measure of 6 inches, I estimated the Mega Dog to be 14 inches (35cm) long—about the size of three standard hot dogs. Last year I couldn’t quite bring myself to purchase one, but on our most recent trip I decided it was one of those experiences I just had to have. The gentleman in front of me ordered his with the works—cheese, chili, and sauerkraut—and because of all the overflowing toppings it had to be cut in half just to fit on a plate. But those toppings cost extra; I was looking to get the most bang for my buck and a half, so I got a plain dog and added some ketchup and relish myself.
Hot dogs are not one of my dietary staples, so I can’t say with much conviction how the Mega Dog stacks up taste-wise against its more compact cousins. I didn’t find it particularly objectionable, though, and certainly on a calories-per-dollar basis, you’re getting more than your money’s worth. Our biggest culinary disappointment at Westward Ho, in fact, was their advertised 5¢ cup of coffee—Nickel Nick’s Java Shop, alas, was closed late at night when we were there. That struck me as odd, since cheap coffee would seem to be a good way to keep patrons awake and gambling into the wee hours of the morning when they’ve had a few too many margaritas.
Westward Ho is not the only place in Las Vegas that sells extremely cheap food, but it’s my favorite. Quality aside, the idea that you can get stuffed for less than $2 (and still have enough money left over to play nickel slots) is strangely reassuring in a town where money is so easy to lose. —Joe Kissell