What’s With the Spokane Contempt?


“Spokane Doesn’t Suck.”

Did it take a young, Texas migrant who moved here recently to defend his new home by marketing apparel decorated with these words? Derrick Oliver loves Spokane.

Spokane is Washington state’s second largest city—for now—with over 200,000 residents. It could be overtaken by Tacoma any day now. Yet, if you ask folks around here what they think of Spokane, basically ‘it sucks.’ Travel & Leisure magazine didn’t do the city any favors last year by declaring it as the third least attractive big city in America. It was referring to the residents. Why would a publication conduct such a survey, let alone exactly how it ranked the 10 cities on the list?

Spokane just don’t get no respect.

My wife and I felt it was time to visit Spokane. Previously, we had only once come here many years ago; it was driving through at night on our way back to California (where we lived) from the Canadian Rockies. We’ve been living in Washington for over 30 years so far, and not once did we go. I have to be honest that even now Spokane wasn’t a destination so much as a waypoint to Glacier National Park. Still, we decided to spend three nights here.

We were happy we did.

Our motel was in the downtown area. It would turn out to be a great place to stay, for not once did we need the car except on the last day. We walked everywhere we needed to go. Riverfront Park was only blocks away. Nearby there were plenty of restaurants, breweries, cinema and bookstore.

Downtown is a curious animal right now. In some perverted way, I could say it was deserted. Big name stores are moving in, redevelopment is in full swing and all the elements of a commercially vibrant core are in place. Yet, I never got the feeling of big city frustrations, like traffic and crowds. Literally, a traffic jam is five cars in a row. Why are there so many one-way streets? Surely, city planners are preparing for the future, because I could almost always cross the street without a single moving car in sight, whether it was ‘rush hour’ or the weekend. A fleet of sparkling clean, modern buses bunch up at the transit center, ready to take passengers to all corners of the city, but there didn’t seem to be many riders. There are very few people walking the streets. The situation is like a dream for tourists. It was as if downtown was all mine.

Riverfront Park is Spokane’s biggest attraction. Its 100 acres sits prettily by the Spokane River, featuring a clock tower, carousel (currently closed and being renovated), IMAX theater and miles of footpaths, including a portion of the Centennial Trail that continues on for over 20 miles all the way to Idaho.

Riverfront Park

The most famous part of the park is Spokane Falls. What a spectacular feature to have in the middle of the city. Crossing the foot bridges over the river let us see up close the waters roaringly cascade over several volcanic rock ledges. There is enough energy in these falls that the city at the turn of the century decided it was a source for generating electrical power.

On the north side of the river, in the Kendall Yards neighborhood, we visited a new market that would be the envy of any city. Open for only two weeks, My Fresh Basket has a wonderfully designed, lofty interior housing the various departments over its generous floor space. One of the grocery employees was busy polishing each mini watermelon. The store was obviously a source of pride among employees. There appears to be considerable redevelopment in this part of town that used to lay idle for a time after a history as a nexus for rail yards.

My Fresh Basket

Fruit aisle, My Fresh Basket

Auntie’s Bookstore is an independent bookseller with a large stock of books, both new and used. In feel, it lies somewhere between Seattle’s venerable, multi-storied and rambling Elliott Bay Bookstore (the original Pioneer Square store) or Powell’s City of Books (in Portland) and a typical, characterless Barnes & Noble. It was fun to roam through the store. I can only hope it won’t be forced to close its doors in the face of the Amazon onslaught. I did my bit by buying a few books.

Auntie’s Bookstore

A local arts-loving developer saw fit to purchase the old Clemmer Theater and convert it to the Bing Crosby Theater, presumably in tribute to Crosby who both grew up in Spokane and performed at the Clemmer.

Bing Crosby Theater

We finally hopped in our car to visit the engaging Manito Park and its beautiful gardens. Flower lovers and photographers will have much to admire within its 90 acres: conservatory, European Renaissance-style garden, perennial, rose, dahlia, butterfly and Japanese gardens. The park is surrounded by historic homes along lovely tree-lined avenues.

Dwarf Shasta daisy, Manito Park

Duncan Gardens, Manito Garden

If you’re a sports fan, and especially if you follow college basketball, you’d know that Gonzaga University, in Spokane, consistently does well in men’s NCAA basketball. In fact, last year, it reached the Final Four. Gonzaga, you ask? It’s not in the Big East, not even in the Pac-12, but in the West Coast Conference. The success of the team, a David among Goliaths, could be a metaphor for the town it represents, a little town making its mark, full of potential, and ready to take aim with a slingshot.

 

Northern Chinese Treats at Beijing Restaurant (San Gabriel, CA)


Exasperation sometimes ends up for the better. Along the San Gabriel Valley Asian food mecca of Valley Boulevard, I was looking for a restaurant (whose name I couldn’t recall) where several of us had wonderful noodle soups many years ago. (At my age, my memory plays tricks; Kam Hong Garden is in fact in Monterey Park on Garvey Avenue, less than a mile away.) After searching along most of ‘The Magic Mile,’  I turned into a mini-mall I recognized and came to an agreement with my wife and sister-in-law that we’d eat somewhere here regardless. Kam Hong wasn’t there of course, but Shanghai No. 1 Seafood Village was, and so was Beijing Restaurant, both on the second floor. Our less than impressive visit to the former two years ago made the decision for us.

Beijing Restaurant was packed for lunch, a good sign. The impressive menu is more like a slick catalog than something to order from. This was no ordinary menu. The restaurant serves what is regarded as authentic Beijing-style food where wheat, lamb, pork, offal and river fish rule. Boiled yellow croaker, braised intestines in brown sauce, ‘sizzling squid head,’ spicy kidney, ‘wandering liver tips,’ lamb spine hot pot and fried lamb bones appear alongside chicken hot pot, kung pao chicken, moo shu pork and sweet-and-sour pork ribs. Fish here tends to get served whole. Beijing duck is on the menu.

Beijing Restaurant

Our inability to read Chinese limited us pretty much, so the English ‘translations’ had to suffice. I often wonder how much more non-Chinese-reading customers would order from better descriptions.

Sauteed Green String Beans was impressive, both in size and appearance. The seared beans reminded me of blistered shishito peppers. These would’ve been perfect if the beans retained crispiness, but they were a little mealy. Still, the sauce of sliced garlic and savory ingredients raised the dish above the ordinary. Even with dried red chiles, the beans were only a touch spicy.

Sauteed Green String Beans

Sauteed Green Beans

It wasn’t advertised as a clay hot pot dish, but Stewed Pork with Rice Noodles and Napa was served in such a vessel, the meat a combination of pork belly and a less fatty cut. The whole wonderful thing was glistening with sauce and fat, the bottom layered with glass noodles (not rice noodles) that soaked up flavors of oyster sauce, soy sauce, ginger and star anise, that are next to impossible to serve with just the accompanying spoon without slithering back into the casserole. The sauce begged to be lapped over rice.

Stewed Pork with Rice Noodle and Napa

Stewed Pork with Rice Noodles and Napa

The best preparation, a remarkable creation simply ‘translated’ as Eggplant Cakes in Garlic Sauce (pictured at the top), is a layered surprise of Chinese eggplant, shrimp and minced meat or sausage, bound together in the lightest batter and bathed in a most subtle sweet-and-sour sauce.

On getting seated, I walked by other diners who were having eye-popping things I’d never seen before, making me regret not knowing what they are on the menu. The service tends to be pokey. This time, I’ll burn into my memory where the restaurant is located for I definitely plan to be back.

Beijing Restaurant
250 W. Valley Boulevard
San Gabriel, CA 91776
206.570.8598

Needle in a Haystack


Monday was a fine sunny day to visit Seattle Center. The Space Needle is so tall (605ft/184m) that it can be seen from anywhere on the 40-acre campus, even through leafy trees.

Matt’s Chips and Dip Just Might Be the Best in Seattle


Potato chips aren’t typically the subject of food posts. French fries maybe, but potato chips?

What I thought would be a fun snack to munch on at Matt’s in the Market is deserving of a cult following. I noticed afterward that other diners were ordering it too, so they were either as curious as me or were indulging again on a repeat visit. I have the feeling it was mostly the latter. Our waiter warned that it would take a while since every one is made to order, but the wait would be worth it. What eventually arrived was an enormous pile of chips, clearly more than an ‘appetizer,’ looking like they were over-fried, a dark brown rather than a golden color I would’ve preferred. Luckily they didn’t taste burnt, but had an intense potato flavor, very crispy and amply salted like potato chips should be. Their uniform thickness—or I should say thinness—was the work of a mandoline. The chips were delicious on their own, but they come with a hot dip flavored with bacon and caramelized onions, a tasty and rich accompaniment that explains why the menu item is listed as both chips and dip. They were the star of a very good lunch.

Matt’s is hard to find, located on the second floor of the Corner Market. There isn’t even a prominent sign outside. But, plenty of people know about it. By noon, even on a Monday, the restaurant was full with a crowd of people waiting for an open table.

Matt’s in the Market
94 Pike St. Suite 32
Seattle WA 98101
206.467.7909

It’s Spring Time Again at the Bellevue Botanical Garden


Despite the wettest weather we’ve had on record, signs of spring are everywhere in the Pacific Northwest. I visit the Bellevue Botanical Garden at this time of year to admire the plants, flowers and trees that remind me that this is the season of rejuvenation. The garden is undergoing extensive renovation to improve the visitor’s experience. Remarkably, admission is free of charge. Located just off the urban core where Bellevue’s downtown area is experiencing explosive growth—too much steel, concrete and highrise for my taste—the garden is a sanctuary of quiet, serenity and beauty.

Bellevue Botanical Garden
12001 Main Street
Bellevue, WA 98005
425.452.2750

Serenity by the Sea


It amazes me that seabirds can find comfort in daunting places. Below an overlook somewhere south of Cape Perpetua on the Oregon coast, I saw this gull resting on a rocky ledge high above crashing waves, not bothered by a stiff wind ruffling its feathers nor a loud colony of sea lions barking from the beach below.

Sea lions

A Blooming Spectacle at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park


I kept my eyes open throughout Death Valley for signs of wildflowers. It was one reason why we wanted to visit. Last year, the national park experienced a superbloom that happens once in a blue moon because of specific environmental conditions. It’s not enough that California got literally drenched this January and February, a record downpour that broke a years-long drought, certainly grounds for optimism. A park ranger told me that a good rain in October is a prerequisite for a great flower display. One that happened in October 2015 led to the superbloom of 2016, only rivaled before then in 2005. It didn’t happen this year. Flowers were barely to be seen anywhere. Big disappointment, to say the least, but of course Death Valley has much more to offer than flowers.

Meanwhile, the internet was abuzz with reports that Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, located northeast of San Diego near the Mexican border, was in fact experiencing a superbloom unrivalled in years. DesertUSA, which reports on Southwest wildflower displays, gave Anza-Borrego an almost perfect ’10’ rating, while Death Valley managed only a ‘4’ during the same time. That pretty much settled it. I saw this as an opportunity not to be passed up. My wife and I decided to make an unplanned visit, with an overnight stay in Borrego Springs (which I was very lucky to get as there were no other vacancies anywhere).

We weren’t let down this time. The timing couldn’t have been better; the flowers were barely beginning to fade.

We entered the park through Montezuma Valley Road (S22) on the west side. Intending to go to the visitor center, I made a wrong turn onto Hwy 78 toward Tamarisk Grove Campground when we came across hillsides covered in brilliant yellow brittlebush, hummingbird bushocotillo and a few less conspicuous. The moment was breathtaking, as it was for other passersby who likewise gawked.

A fellow visitor informed us that a herd of bighorn sheep was seen at the ranger station down the road. It was pointless to jump in the car; the animals would have long been gone by the time we got there.

We continued on Hwy 78. Across from the campground, we spotted some flowering cacti, parked the car and hiked the mile-long cactus loop trail. While the peak flowering month for the spiny plants is April, there was already plenty to see then (March 23).

A crowd was already overwhelming the visitor center, even on a weekday. I read that the past weekend was much worse with bumper-to-bumper traffic. Word got out that Anza-Borrego was exploding with flowers. A volunteer was handing out a map that identified the best spots for wildflower-viewing. At the rear of the building, a garden with walking paths had many specimens. I wish I’d spent more time there.

In the valley surrounding Borrego Springs, different flowers were popping up along the roadsides. In normal years, these would be easy to overlook but this year their abundance was hard to ignore: evening primroses, sand verbenas, lupines and desert sunflowers.

The field of desert sunflowers along Henderson Canyon Road, in particular, was unusual in another respect: they were crawling with sphinx moth caterpillars in such numbers that I had to be careful where I stepped. These weren’t little critters either, but big, fat ones, easily 3-4″ long.

Sphinx moth caterpillars

Our final outing was a hike up into the hills of Palm Canyon where the concentration of brittlebush was as plentiful as the first encounter along Hwy 78. The hills were awash in yellow, with excellent specimens of ocotillo, agave and cacti for variety. The ocotillo here were more richly tipped with their red flowers than elsewhere in the park.

Brittlebush

As harsh as the Mojave Desert can be, there is a rich life of plants and animals. It takes the right conditions to see them. Once in a long while, I get lucky and catch a rare glimpse of something special like a wildflower superbloom that I may never experience again.

Desert iguana

Desert iguana