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Strikin' Gold 

by Susan Hamilton & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & P & lt;/span & rospectors of the mid-1800s dreamed big dreams -- of finding gold and striking it rich in the untamed West. And you can bet that when they left the backbreaking work of panning, they wanted to trade in their gold nuggets for lots of good grub.

Two locally owned restaurants salute the prospectors of the Gold Rush days. Everything about both Prospector's restaurants is big -- the bold dining rooms, diversified menus and large portions of American-style food.

I remember being impressed when I dined at the first Prospector's, soon after it opened in May 2003 on the West Plains. I wondered if its second location in the Wandermere area would live up to its older sibling. From the familiar log siding, river rock and sluice water feature outside to the expansive waiting area decked in miner memorabilia and dining room punctuated by huge log beams, Tiffany lamps and rock fireplace, the north-side Prospector's is much like the first, although larger and more like a lodge.

So how's the grub? I remembered the fall-off-the-bone tender mesquite-grilled rotisserie chicken and creamy Yukon gold mashed potatoes I'd tasted the first time I dined at Prospector's. I'd heard tales of Prospector's country-fried steak the size of a hubcap and thick, juicy portabella top sirloin with savory mushroom butter. But tonight, my family and I decided we'd try something different from the menu that features more than 100 items.

Since the appetizers and soups can be meals in themselves, we reluctantly passed them by (though the chicken fajitas, ale-battered onion rings, white gold chili and fire-roasted tomato basil soup were hard to dismiss). Instead, we opted for salads. My husband ordered the garden dinner salad while my daughter chose the dinner Caesar ($3 each). A variety of field greens and bits of veggies were a refreshing and tasty change from the usual iceberg dinner salad found in many restaurants. The Caesar salad sported a tangy dressing with a kick of chipotle, as well as garlic rye-type croutons mixed in with the crunchy romaine and shards of Parmesan. My spinach salad ($4) was unfortunately drowned in very thick honey-mustard dressing, although the sunflower seeds were a nice addition. When we tried the saloon lemonade ($3), the strawberry with real berries was wonderful, but the raspberry was too sweet and plain (sans berries) in comparison.

My daughter couldn't resist the pizza. Hand-tossed and baked in a brick oven, the Hawaiian version with shaved ham, roasted pineapple and three cheeses ($8) was savory, sweet and cooked just right with a thin crust. My husband chose the cedar-plank salmon ($20), which arrived on its own charred plank -- a nice presentation. The fire-roasted salmon was melt-in-your-mouth moist with a subtle, smoky flavor. The accompanying long-grain rice was a bit of a disappointment, with some dry, hard pieces among the nicely seasoned rice. But my shellfish linguine ($21) reminded me of dining on the Italian Riviera. Dressed in olive oil and garlic, the simplicity of the pasta showcased the succulent and tasty crab, mussels and clams -- all in the shell.

Of course, we had to have dessert. The 24 Karat cake ($6) I ordered was enough for four people. The oversized slab of spicy cake was layered with thick cream cheese frosting and sprinkled with large coconut flakes. This house-made confection has a real wow factor. The peach cobbler ($6), not overly sweet, is laced with cinnamon and dotted with small biscuits, making a wonderful ending to a large meal. But the Chocolate Heaven ($7) won everyone's votes for best dessert. The dark chocolate Bundt cake has veins of chocolate truffle running through it. Served warm, it's a creamy smooth chocoholic's dream.

Needless to say, we left with a shopping bag full of food to take home -- all the better to enjoy the next day! Prompt, attentive service (without being fussy) and a comfortable, informal atmosphere -- not to mention the savory food and huge portions -- will have us coming back to Prospector's again, even if we don't have a gold nugget to trade in for payment.

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