An outdoor paradise lies just outside of the small town of Gainesville, Missouri. Visitors call it Rainbow Trout & Game Ranch, but savvy locals know the sprawling resort as Rockbridge, named for the once-bustling town that used to surround the property. Since 1954, visitors have flocked to the family-owned resort to take in the 2,000-plus scenic acres and enjoy some old-fashioned trout fishing. Of course, if you ask a fisherman, they’ll tell you that a homestyle meal is the only way to conclude a day on the river. And that’s exactly what you’ll find at the resort’s restaurant, presided over by longtime kitchen manager Wanda Dalton.
Since 1954, thousands of people have retreated to the family-owned ranch just outside of Gainesville, Missouri.
Dalton was raised on a farm in nearby West Plains, Missouri, and started working for Rockbridge just a few years after graduating high school. “I was the youngest person they had ever hired at that time,” she says. Now, more than 20 years later, she’s glad they took a chance on her when she was a young line cook. Today, she’s responsible for the restaurant’s signature down-home flair, with a menu packed with finger-licking trout specials and hearty country breakfast options. She cites Rockbridge’s “family values” as the major reason she’s stuck around for two decades; still, the freedom to design specials doesn’t hurt. Take, for example, Dalton’s signature Southern-style trout, breaded with cornmeal and zesty Cajun spices.
Dalton isn’t particularly worried about pushing the culinary envelope. These days, she’d rather delight guests with trusted classics and techniques passed down through generations. She’s also passionate about highlighting the fresh trout, which is raised on-site. “I remember the first time I ever saw the fingerlings,” she says, referring to a trout that’s larger than a fry, but not quite full-grown. “I was in the incubation area with the hatchery manager, and I asked him, ‘What are all these numbers?’ They had a bunch of numbers – 3,000 all the way to 45,000 – duct taped to the troughs.” The numbers indicated the number of young fish in each trough, which Dalton found staggering. That same day, she saw the hatchery manager stir some of the incubating trout eggs with a turkey feather. “They’re so delicate and they can’t swim in the egg sacs, so you have to stir them with something really gentle,” she says. It’s a tender approach that’s not dissimilar to her cooking philosophy, which involves her mother’s handwritten recipes. The most important ingredient in her kitchen? “Lots of love,” she says.
What is your favorite ingredient to cook with and why? We have pork chops that we use for pork cutlets, and they are always so tender.
What do you like to cook at home or on your day off? I normally cook breakfast for myself and my family every morning. Pizza is probably my favorite thing to cook at home – I’ll give basic dough a makeover with a bunch of fresh ingredients before I pop it in the oven.
What’s your perfect day of eating in West Plains? It would have to involve [West Plains Chinese eatery] Diamond Head, [West Plains Mexican eatery] El Charro and – I hate to say it – McDonald’s breakfast. I love a McGriddle.
What’s your favorite comfort food? Potatoes. Prepared any way. I’m a potato person. If I’m upset, my staff will tell you it’s loaded hash browns. I try to stay away from them because I’m trying to diet, but loaded hash browns can’t be beat.
What is your first food memory? My mom used to have me make the cornbread for our family dinners. That was always my job when I was younger. I don’t remember all of the ingredients; the only thing I remember about it was it was really good. It was a handwritten recipe that she wrote down a long time ago. Mom believed in a multi-course meal, and she’d always have me doing a side dish like cornbread or mashed potatoes.
What’s the most intriguing dish you’ve made lately? Probably our Southern-style trout. We’re a trout restaurant, so we don’t work with other fish – but one of my favorite foods is catfish, and I kind of miss it. The Southern-style trout is really popular with the staff members who aren’t as fond of fish. It's deep-fried with a cornmeal mix and a hand-mixed blend of Cajun seasonings.
What inspires your cooking? How do you approach R&D, and what inspires that process? If I have an idea, I try to jot it down on a napkin or a piece of paper while I’m working so I don’t forget it. From there, I’ll make it and survey the staff to get an idea of what works. Overall, I don’t always use a recipe – still, it’s very important to taste as you go along. I believe that, if you actually enjoy cooking, almost everything you make will turn out really well.
Rainbow Trout & Game Ranch, rockbridgemo.com