Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Eating Bison and Elk in South Dakota

We recently visited South Dakota and discovered that bison is to South Dakota what alligator is to Florida and Louisiana - it is on menus everywhere. We had bison as a major part of three meals and had three very mixed experiences. 

Custer State Park has a number of lodges with dining options and we ate at two of them. 

After a day of viewing bison and other wildlife in the park we stopped at Blue Bell Lodge. The lodge is rustic with stuffed wildlife on the walls and paintings and photos of the area and the wildlife. Just what you would expect. We were delighted to find a number of bison offerings on the menu. My wife had bison stew in a skillet and it was just okay. The bison had been cooked a long time and it was mushy and did not have the distinctive bison taste I love. She rated it a 3 out of 5. I got the bison tips in a skillet cooked with green beans, potatoes and mashed potatoes and it was very good, a 4 out of 5. The bison was moist, cooked medium rare as ordered, and the green beans and potatoes went very well together. The setting was wonderful following a day of wildlife viewing.
Blue Bell Lodge dining room.
Bison stew in a skillet with mashed potatoes.
Bison tips in a skillet with green beans, potatoes and mashed potatoes.
The next evening we spent our 35th wedding anniversary at the Sylvan Lake Lodge. This lodge dining room is much more fancy with white table cloths and a more formal setting. The menu was much more extensive and the price was double or more what the prices were at Blue Bell. But the food was at least twice as good. They not only had bison, but elk, pheasant and walleye. We got bison chislic as an appetizer. Chislic is a South Dakota dish of cubed meat, often wild game, either deep-fried or grilled, and served hot on a skewer or toothpick. This bison meat was extraordinary, a 5 out of 5. A nice cut, cooked medium rare and full of flavor. It came with a creamy horseradish Dijon sauce. We both loved it. Judy got a bison tenderloin and let me sample several bites. We both agreed that it may be the best bison we've ever eaten. A 5 out of 5. It cut with a fork, was warm inside, but still nice and pink and juicy. It melted in the mouth. Our picture does not do it justice. I got an elk chop because I don't see elk on menus very often. I find elk very lean and usually over-cooked and dry. But I decided to order it anyway and got it rare - and it came that way. I would have called it a tomahawk rib-eye and it was a very nice piece of meat. However, elk is not bison and the bison wins in the flavor department. The elk was much tougher and it does not have as much flavor as bison. However, that said, it was still very good - a 4 out of 5. This was a very nice restaurant and I would love to eat here again. 
Judy got a hand-made decoration from some visiting artists at the Sylvan Lake Lodge. 
However, the food was the real work of art. Bison chislic.
The chislic was medium rare inside. 
Bison tenderoloin.
Inside the tenderloin - red butter.
Elk chop or tomahawk.
Elk - rare on the inside.
From there to the Wall Drug Store in Wall, South Dakota, just outside Badlands National Park, and one of the worst dining experiences of our lives. Wall Drug is tackiness magnified. Signs are spaced about every quarter mile along the interstate for miles - you almost have to eat there as you've been bludgeoned by the signs. The place fills a full city block and you almost fill slimy as you walk through. It feels like a shopping experience put together by a used car salesman. You feel ripped-off from the time you walk in until the time you leave and you vow you'll never do it again. The website has a picture of a burger on it with a slice of cheese hanging over a thick burger with a big tomato slice and a large piece of lettuce hanging out all sides of the bun and a big quartered pickle spear. My picture shows the "world famous bison burger" we got - a thin, overcooked piece of meat with a single tomato slice that covered about one-third of the bun, an onion slice that was even smaller, two dill pickle slices and a piece of lettuce that covered less than one-fourth of the bun. I don't remember the cost, but it was not cheap and I felt ripped-off. We also got a bison hot dog which was shriveled up from being over-cooked, probably sat in a warming tray for far too long, and a flattened out bun that was form fitted around it with two pickle slices. We both had upset stomachs the rest of the day. Both the bison burger and hot dog rate a 1 out of 5 and that is giving it the benefit of the doubt. 
Inside the Wall Drug dining room.
Look at the picture of this burger and the picture on the website. Such a sad little heap of vegetables to complement the over-cooked sorry excuse for a bison burger. Unfortunately, the picture looks better than it actually tasted. 
And you thought the burger looked bad - this bison hot dog looks like part of the mummified hand of the crook whose hand was chopped off and preserved in a church in Prague. 
This bun was wrapped around the dog - no other comment needed. 
So we experienced bison at its worst and its best. I do love the bison as a South Dakota food theme. 


  1. I got hungry looking at those pictures from the Sylvan Lake Lodge and remembering the incredible food, but your hot dog pictures cured my of that right away. What a disaster. You really should have returned the hot dog, but I guess putting a picture of it on the web is a kind of revenge.

  2. I had to laugh at loud at the comparison to the Prague hand. Excellent visual! We, too, have put Wall Drug near the top of our "Do Not Visit Again" list. Once is more than enough.