Game on at Cabela’s cafe

SUNDAY, APRIL 19, 2009

I’m not the hunting type at all. I will likely never create any kind of bang in the vicinity of an innocent, bushy-tailed buck. Still, I was expecting more bang for my buck at the White Pine Cafe, tucked inside the northeast corner of hunting and outdoor outfitting behemoth Cabela’s.

The massive hype and excitement that accompanied the late 2007 opening of the burly sporting goods supercenter has waned enough that Q and I finally felt brave and bored enough to check it out on a recent gloomy Monday afternoon.

I’d been packing around a Cabela’s gift card in my wallet for ages after having earned it from my bank as a result of spending $2,000 using my debit card. I browsed the Cabela’s Web site but couldn’t find anything that grabbed me for under $20 besides a 4-foot, stuffed rainbow trout pillow. I really don’t have a need for yet another one of those, so I decided to treat Q to a meal at Cabela’s in-house cafe.

Cabela’s had us feeling slightly out of our element. By nature, Q and I are creatures that are much more comfortable in retail environments like Nordstrom, Old Navy, IKEA, even Target. Thrift stores, at least for me, are where I’m truly centered and at peace shoppingwise, elbows-deep in the bins of clothing, piles of records balanced in my arms.

Ask Q where he likes to spend lots of time and he’s guaranteed to say Abercrombie & Fitch, whose spendy-trendy clothing and catalogs of fit, semiclad young men frolicking playfully together are enough to cause the typical Cabela’s regular to drop their rods and reels deep into the river of confusion.

Basically, the only times either one of us have ever frequented this type of store over the years have been when camouflage is back in style. Our tummies were growling like Canadian lynxes, but as we walked in the towering doorway, we were immediately drawn to the rock mountain of taxidermy in the middle of the store. Actually, I was even more immediately drawn to the men’s room with a screamingly full bladder, but I have to say what a gorgeous men’s room it was.

I found Q blending in with a small family of Japanese tourists, smiling and pointing and snapping pictures of the dead stuffed critters garishly displayed within the artificial wilderness. Impulsively, I pulled out my camera phone and started clicking away, not sure exactly why I really needed pictures of frozen-in-time prairie dogs with startled looks on their little faces.

I took some shots of Q with his head buried in the mouths of various deadly beasts, faux panic on his face. “Come on Elmer Fudd,” I told him. “I’m so starving I could eat that stuffed wascally wabbit over there. Might be a little dry, but it should be OK with a little ketchup.” I guess when I’d heard that Cabela’s had a restaurant inside I’d thought of something a little more formal, a place with actual menus and table service.

I pictured a more experimental menu full of wild game dishes with a local flair, something more impressive and unique like what they cook up with for the annual North Idaho College Wild Game Feast. The White Pine Cafe, as it’s called, is more reminiscent of the old Kmart cafeteria scene. Not the ultra-cool Kmart cafeteria era of the ’70s and ’80s, when everything came covered in brown gravy and cost $1.39, but the later ’90s Kmart cafeteria era when it became more of a hot dogs and fries affair.

At the entryway to the dining room are two hand-scrawled neon dry-erase boards which serve as the menu. The first words that popped out at me were “ostrich,” “wild boar,” and “elk,” all listed as deli sandwich options of all things. Aw, mom: Not sliced ostrich and provolone on rye again!

Also available on the semiexotic side are the venison and bison brats and the Safari Salad, which I imagine is topped with a chopped mish-mash of all these unusual meats. Otherwise, the White Pine serves up a standard diner mix of burgers, chili dogs and pizza by the slice. Fryer foods are of the essence here, with everything from onion rings and jalapeno poppers to beer-battered cheese curds swimming upstream in baskets of hot oil.

The two soups of the day were “Whitey’s Beef” and “Whitey’s Chicken,” perhaps not the most politically correct soup names ever, but “somehow perfect for this place” as Q not-so-tactfully put it.

I decided to walk just slightly on the wild side and chose the half-pound bison burger and a small order of the cheese curds. Q sneered at the idea of anything but cow and ordered a regular old bacon cheeseburger.

The flow of traffic is set up so that you have to have your cooked meal with you before you can even cross through the pay station and sit down. In other words, they require you to stand around idly for 10 or more minutes at the counter while you watch them slowly grill your burger. This isn’t the most customer-friendly way to do things. People began pouring in the small ordering area behind us, crowding in on us uncomfortably while we waited for what seemed like an eternity for our burgers to finalize. When they finally did, they were just hoisted over the counter at us with a grunt and a snarl.

My bison burger was fine; rich, meaty and flavorful, but with a dissolving bun that led me to give up about halfway through and just eat the patty itself. I’ve had a few bison burgers in my day and this wasn’t really anything to blow my duck call about, passable but ultimately boring on a plain plastic throw-away plate with three weak onion slices and a wither of leaf lettuce.

On the other hand, Q had high praise for his bacon cheeseburger, saying it was “perfectly done” and we both did enjoy the golden-brown beer-battered cheese curd nuggets. I suppose my high expectations were unrealistic, but it wouldn’t take much for Cabela’s to bring their “White Pine” up a few notches on the classiness scale and make it as much of a novel destination spot as the store itself.

Contact correspondent Patrick Jacobs by e-mail at orangetv@yahoo.com. Previous columns are available online at spokesman.com/columnists. For more restaurant and nightlife reviews, music commentary and random thoughts and photos, visit his blog at getoutnorthidaho.com.

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