It’s so easy to take good Thai food for granted in Spokane. There are at least a half-dozen Thai restaurants where diners can feast on well-prepared, authentic Asian fare.
It’s easy to forget that just 10 years ago, there was zip, nada, nothing in the way of restaurants that specialized in the distinctive cuisine from Southeast Asia.
That made Val Chalard something of a pioneer when he opened the Thai Cafe in a slightly seedy part of downtown Spokane nine years ago. In the years since, the amiable Chalard has walked scores of diners through the basics of Thai, recommending a stir-fry or mild yellow curry to neophytes and gently prodding regulars into trying something new.
A couple of recent visits reconfirmed that the Thai Cafe isn’t just the first, but also one of the best. The food, all prepared to order from family recipes, bursts with wild, exotic flavors.
Most people unfamiliar with Thai food assume that it’s all super spicy. Much of it is, but the diner has ultimate control over the degree of heat. I’ve given up ordering anything above two stars. (Spiciness is rated from one to five stars, with five being the hottest.)
One of the tamer choices is a tangy salad called larb. (Pronounced lob, as near as I can tell.) The Thai Cafe’s chicken larb is the best I’ve tried. The Thai Cafe’s rendition comes with chunks of chicken (or tuna), diced red onions, cilantro and peppers. It’s marinated and cooked in a vivid lime-based dressing that gives the dish a refreshing quality.
Of the half-a-dozen curries offered, I’m particularly impressed with the Gaeng Garee Gai, a mild curry with pieces of lean chicken and chunks of potatoes. I like to mash the potatoes and mix them with the coconut milk-curry sauce. The mussamun, with chicken, peanuts and potatoes, is another good choice.
On the seafood side, the Thai Cafe offers deep-fried pomfret - a mild, flaky fish - with either a red curry and bell pepper sauce, a sweet and sour or a spicy chili sauce. In the dishes that feature squid, the kitchen favors the more tender tiny tubes over the sometimes chewy steaks. Also, the Thai Cafe makes its own spicy fish cakes, served with a made-from-scratch cucumber sauce.
The savory garlic prawns contain enough of that fragrant bulb to send diners searching for breath mints. A less potent dish is the fried shrimp mixed with clear “glass” noodles. But that dish contains fewer shrimp.
Other highly recommend dishes are the delicate, crunchy spring rolls, the chicken sate with the slightly sweet peanut sauce and the number 33, stir-fried chicken with peppers, baby corn and mushrooms.
The Thai Cafe is located at 410 W. Sprague. It is open for lunch and dinner Monday through Friday and for dinner only on Saturday.
People were skeptical when new owners bought Jimmy D’s in Coeur d’Alene last spring.Chef Chip Thomas, who previously worked at The Brooklyn Cafe in Seattle after attending the California Culinary Academy, is the son of owners Chuck and Ann Thomas. The couple also owns Gatto’s in Cheney, which serves excellent pizza.
Jimmy D’s menu hasn’t changed drastically, but Thomas has given the nightly specials more of a Northwest focus. That means taking the freshest, often local ingredients and giving them a creative spin. For example, a rack of lamb takes on another dimension when roasted on an alder plank.
During a recent meal, our party started with a heaping plate of calamari, served with a zesty aioli sauce, along with a basket of focaccia bread. Jimmy D’s focaccia is more like a cheese bread, with cheddar, herbs and olive oil on top, not the thin pizza crust focaccia served at many Italian joints. I’m sure lots of people would like this preparation, but I found it heavy-handed.
After the appetizers, I sampled the French onion soup, a rich version that was topped with salad croutons and cheese. The soup was thick and it had a welcome hint of sweetness.
My main course, a boneless, butterflied trout, was a big hit. It was grilled enough to give it a subtle charred flavor, but was still moist. It was smothered with a spicy chipotle sauce that had a intense, smoky flavor balanced by an addition of cream.
Now, if they would only improve the presentation … Instead of a big pile of rice, how about some garlic mashed potatoes and a few well-seasoned veggies?
My companions were lukewarm about their meals. A smoked salmon Caesar had generous chunks of fish, but the romaine was underdressed. Another diner, who is a vegetarian, ordered the veggie sandwich and was disappointed when it was served with a bacon-studded potato salad. Our pleasant server was quick to remove the offending salad and replaced it with a green salad.
We finished the meal on an upbeat note, though. The desserts, made by independent pastry chef Bill Steele of Pastry and More, were first-rate. A carrot cake was rich, but not too sweet and a chocolate decadence was smooth, creamy and, yes, decadent.
The lunch menu is being revamped and the new owners have introduced special attractions on Sunday: live music by Matt Gallatin and deals on steak dinners for two.
Jimmy D’s is located at 320 Sherman Ave. in Coeur d’Alene. For reservations, call (208) 664-9774.
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