Even the most optimistic foodie would have trouble calling Spokane a food destination.
That’s not to say we don’t have great restaurants, but for someone accustomed to the dizzying array of Asian cuisines in Seattle or Yakima’s taco-truck-on-every-corner layout, Spokane’s food can feel a little homogenous if you’re looking outside American classics.
Still, the county is a big place, home to nearly 1,000 bars and restaurants, according to a list we got from the Spokane Regional Health District.
Armed with a spreadsheet, a love of pho and a healthy dose of curiosity, we talked to chefs and crunched numbers to see whether Spokane restaurants are as homogeneous as a first glance suggests.
First, the data. Spokane is less racially diverse than many other Northwest cities, so it’s not surprising our food might reflect that. We counted 126 Asian restaurants in Spokane, including Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Indian, sushi and other types of Japanese food.
Census data indicates Spokane County is about 2 percent Asian and 4 percent multiracial, but Asian restaurants are 13 percent of the county total. (We counted chains like Panda Express as fast food, so they’re not part of that total.)
In spite of the ornate, dragon-themed decor that accompanies many of the Chinese restaurants on Division Street, chefs actually do create authentic Chinese dishes. At Peking North, chef Andy Wang said those foods tend to be ordered by Chinese people and international students.
“American people like American-Chinese food,” said his wife, owner Yuan Zhang. Their daughter, Erica, said the American foods are “too sweet.” They prefer dishes like the Szechuan shui zhu, a spicy, colorful soup made with sole, tofu, baby bok choy and topped with Szechuan peppers.
Jessica Choi, a server at the family-owned New Harbor Restaurant, said she’s seen more white people ordering traditional Chinese dishes off the menu, rather than Americanized staples like chop suey.
Often, she said, those customers are visiting or have moved to Spokane from places like Los Angeles or Seattle.
“Those bigger cities, they’re ordering more Chinese, more authentic,” Choi said.
Arguably the most underrepresented cuisines in Spokane are European. By continent, the largest percentage of Spokane’s foreign-born citizens come from Europe, and about 2 percent of county residents are ethnically 100 percent Russian or Ukrainian, according to census data.
Italian food is well-represented, with 21 restaurants. Yet aside from those, the county is home to just seven European restaurants (and that’s including Irish pubs). They include a Russian and European deli and bakery, a creperie and a German ale house with brats and schnitzel.
Laurent Zirotti is the owner and chef at Fleur de Sel, a French restaurant in Post Falls, and a creperie of the same name on the South Hill. His menu excludes some French dishes he loves, like tripe a la mode de Caen, a Normandy staple that uses tripe and calf feet.
“There’s a lot of pigs feet in French food,” Zirotti said. But those dishes tend to be too different for Americans to order them.
His menu innovates and incorporates other flavors, but Zirotti also tries to challenge people. He keeps pork pate, snails in puff pastry and sweetbread on the menu alongside more comfortable staples like mac and cheese.
“You have to please their palate, but I would say at the same time you push a little bit,” he said.
Mike Jones, who owns Mizuna, said trying something new as a restaurant owner is always a challenge. His menu focuses on fresh, high-quality and seasonal ingredients, and draws inspiration from all over the world. Currently, he’s serving a vegetarian version of bouillabaisse, a French seafood stew, and his menu has included curries and noodles as well.
He said he tries to describe dishes straightforwardly and avoids using foreign words when English ones will work, so the food seems approachable.
“The more you challenge people, the less likely they are to order it,” he said.
Restaurants are among the most risky businesses, with more than half failing in the first year. Trying to build demand for a style of cuisine many people haven’t heard of is a risk Jones suspects many business owners don’t want to take.
“How many people really say, ‘Oh, I feel like Sicilian Italian tonight,’ ” Jones said. On the other hand, he said, “Who doesn’t like to go out for Mexican food?”
In spite of the large Slavic population, Spokane doesn’t have a single Russian or Ukrainian restaurant.
Tatyana Chubenko owns one of the closest things, the Mariupol European Bakery & Deli, with her husband. She said Slavic foods are distinctive, tasty and varied, including staples like borscht, a beet soup, and golubtsi, or cabbage rolls. But they’re also time-consuming to make from scratch, requiring lots of fresh vegetables.
“It’s just not profitable after you spend so much time to cook it,” Chubenko said.
Adding to that challenge, most Americans don’t have an idea what Slavic food is the way they do Chinese, Mexican or Italian cuisine, meaning they’d be less likely to seek it out.
“That is going to be new for most of the people,” she said.
Also missing in Spokane are dedicated restaurants showcasing a particular region of a foreign country’s food. Indian food in America tends to focus on common North Indian and Punjabi dishes like tandoori chicken and curry, rather than venturing into things like the fried dosas common in Southern India or seafood in coconut sauces served in coastal areas.
“That’s probably one of the biggest trends in food right now is more regional identity,” said chef Adam Hegsted, who owns The Wandering Table and The Gilded Unicorn. That might look like a restaurant serving Oaxacan moles, rather than generic TexMex, or a Northern Thai restaurant.
But chefs agree that Spokane is trending in a more adventurous direction. Zirotti said when he first moved to Montana almost 20 years ago, olive oil was a specialty food that you couldn’t find in the grocery store, and “Italian” restaurants served spaghetti and meatballs and alfredo sauce, which he said is questionably Italian in origin.
Hegsted said Spokane has been developing a taste over the past decade for different styles of food, a trend he expects to continue.
“Our food culture is still really young,” he said.
If pushing the limits of your palate doesn’t sound like fun, there’s no need to worry. Spokane remains home to 12 Taco Bells.
Staff data journalist Kai Teoh contributed to this report. This story has been updated to correct the number of European restaurants.
Check out data tidbits, maps and more at http://www.spokesman.com/blogs/know-spokane/.