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John Ascuaga, president of John Ascuaga’s Nugget in Sparks and one of the most recognized Basques in Nevada, has emphasized care, quality, and integrity since the casino-hotel opened as a 60-seat coffee shop in March 1955. The mantra has proved successful for the 54-year-old property, which features eight award-winning restaurants.
Ascuaga was born in Caldwell, Idaho, in January 1925. His father, Jose, was a Basque sheepherder from Spain who came to America in 1914. Jose and his wife, Marina, had four children. In 1952, Ascuaga met an important figure in his life: restaurateur Dick Graves. He eventually became food manager for Graves’ Idaho properties, and in 1954 he was named food director for Graves’ Nevada restaurants. Ascuaga’s duties included managing a small casino-café called Dick Graves’ Nugget, which opened in Sparks on March 17, 1955.
When Graves retired in 1960, Ascuaga purchased the business and became sole owner and operator. Today, John Ascuaga’s Nugget features amenities on par with any Nevada mega resort, including 1,600 hotel rooms, a race and sports book, a wedding chapel, and the 1,900-seat Rose Ballroom concert hall and 700-plus-seat Celebrity Showroom.
Ascuaga has been an active and avid rancher for most of his life, residing for the last 40 years on his Genoa ranch. He has owned and operated working ranches throughout his career and at one time supplied the beef used at the Nugget and various other establishments throughout the area.
His charitable generosity throughout the region is renowned. Highlighting those endeavors, Ascuaga has worked for nearly 50 years with St. Vincent’s Dining Room, part of Catholic Community Services of Northern Nevada, serving tens of thousands Thanksgiving and Christmas meals. His Nugget Scholarship program has contributed more than $400,000 to nearly 600 local college-bound students. In July, he was honored with the Jake Lawlor Award, given to an individual who overwhelmingly supports Nevada Wolf Pack sports.
Ascuaga holds a degree in accounting from the University of Idaho and a degree in hotel and restaurant management from Washington State. He has been married to his wife, Rose, for 50 years. They have four children.
In July, Ascuaga sat down with Nevada Magazine at his steakhouse to talk about, among other things, what makes a Basque meal authentic. A sign in the steakhouse informs guests that more than 3.5 million steaks have been served there. Ascuaga says he’s intent on serving 3.5 million more.
Q What’s your favorite Basque restaurant in Northern Nevada?
A My home (he laughs). My wife is Basque. I still feel there’s not really an authentic Basque restaurant [in the area]. They all have a dish or two, but if you go back to the Basque country, I don’t think too many of them would even know what top sirloin is. That’s what most of [the modern Basque restaurants] serve. Don’t get me wrong, they have good food in the local Basque restaurants. The Star and Biltoki in Elko are great, and I like to go to JT in Gardnerville. It has a lot of personality. The Overland in Gardnerville is also good.
Q What’s your favorite authentic Basque meal, then?
A Bacalao codfish, chuleta (pork loin), and red peppers. My wife and I still like our Basque chicken, but we try to make it as authentic Basque as we can.
Q What else is different about the old Basque country?
A In Europe, they live a different lifestyle than we do. They’re much slower—I think we get too fast at times.
Q How have you seen Reno-Sparks change since you opened the Nugget in 1955, for the good or bad?
A It’s all for the good. It’s amazing how dependent we are on computers these days. I’d like to know what the heck we’d do without these cell phones. Everywhere I go everybody’s like this (holds an imaginary phone to his ear). I turn mine off (laughs).
Q What do you think about the assortment of restaurants at John Ascuaga’s Nugget?
A I know everyone thinks I’m being a little egotistical, but we’ll put the quality of our food up against any restaurant in the country. We excel in quality—that’s the number-one reason why we’re so successful because we really emphasize quality in our meats, in our condiments. We have fresh orange juice, not frozen, made from fresh oranges from California. We have all of the fresh vegetables that we can get. We use a tremendous amount of produce from ranches in Winnemucca, and a lot of our onions come from the Pery Brothers in Yerington.
Q Where do you regularly travel to in Nevada?
A I’m not in a position to say I’ve traveled Nevada a lot, but it’s quite common for me to go to Yerington. I had a ranch in Bridgeport [CA]…had a ranch in Smith. I go to Fallon, Elko, Winnemucca, and McDermitt, on my way to Idaho.