There's a bright spot amidst the gambling gloom, and it's showing up far from the bright lights of Las Vegas.

In recent days, Ameristar Casinos (NASDAQ:ASCA), Pinnacle Entertainment (NYSE:PNK), and Penn National Gaming (Nasdaq: PENN) have each produced quarterly earnings results that beat Wall Street estimates.

The common theme: None has a casino in Las Vegas. None operates a casino in Atlantic City, either.

Patient investors -- and you have to be patient or numb given the recession-induced trashing of casino stocks -- have seen a healthy rise in these companies' shares since early March. On Thursday, Ameristar hit a 52-week high in intraday trading, although the others are still down for the last 12 months.

Coping with the residue of recession
Given the continuing economic erosion and still-rising unemployment, it's possible these companies won't be able to sustain their near-term gains. Each company's quarterly revenue barely beat or barely missed Wall Street estimates, indicating that better earnings came from cutting expenses.

However, each appears to have better control over their future than many of their public and private peers. Unlike MGM (NYSE:MGM), Wynn (NASDAQ:WYNN), and Las Vegas Sands (NYSE:LVS), they have no properties in Las Vegas. Hence, they can cater to people willing to spend money to make a short trip rather than take a longer vacation.     

But back to the earnings …
On Wednesday, Ameristar said it was reinstating its quarterly dividend, thanks to a revised agreement with lenders. The dividend had been suspended following the third quarter of 2008. Ameristar still has a ton of debt -- $1.65 billion -- but it extended the maturity dates for some borrowings to August 2012 from November 2010.

Ameristar, which owns casinos in five states, reported January-March earnings per share of $0.52, blasting past the Wall Street consensus of $0.33, even as quarterly revenue was slightly below the consensus forecast.

On April 24, Pinnacle produced EPS of $0.08, excluding special items, well above the consensus analyst forecast of $0.02 loss. Quarterly revenue also narrowly beat analyst predictions. Pinnacle, which owns casinos in four states and Argentina, closed a Bahamas casino in January. It owns a casino site in Atlantic City that it won't develop in an inhospitable economic climate.

And on April 23, Penn National, which owns casinos and horse race tracks -- sometimes on the same property -- produced first-quarter earnings and revenue that bested the analyst consensus.

Buyer beware
Just as consumers should beware of bear market rallies, potential casino investors should beware of excessive happy-days-are-here-again comments and rising stock prices. The reason: Casino companies are ravenous in the desire to expand, and many are now saddled with debt albatrosses.

Although Pinnacle has backed off its Atlantic City plan, it still has several expansion projects in the works. And Peter Carlino, chairman and CEO of Penn National, has indicated an interest in a Las Vegas property, even though he told analysts recently that media speculation about his acquisition appetite was overblown.

Aggressive expansion was a sign of booming times when casino competition wasn't as intense. If casino companies can readjust their attitudes to fit the new economy, investors may be pleased. For now, these companies appear to be better suited to adaptive behavior than many of their peers.

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Fool contributor Robert Steyer doesn't own shares of any companies cited in this story. Ameristar Casinos is a Motley Fool Hidden Gems recommendation. The Fool has a disclosure policy.