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.

 

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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

Biang Biang, the Winning Sounds of Xi’an Noodles


Don’t let the modest place fool you. Xi’an Noodles has some of the best noodles in Seattle. It’s one of the rare restaurants that specialize in one thing and do it extremely well. In this case, the specialty is the kind of noodles made in the Chinese province of Shaanxi (which touches Sichuan at its southwest corner), hand-made and pulled by noodle makers who stretch and slap the dough against the counter that make the sounds biang biang, as the Chinese hear it. Not ever having seen this done, which I might one day if I stick around long enough and peer into the open kitchen, I imagine the sound more like a comic-book whap, but whap whap mian doesn’t have that bouncy ring. Neither does thump.

Lily Wu trained in Xi’an, Shaanxi’s capital, with a teacher on how to make the noodles properly. The process is time-consuming and requires discipline and stamina. It would be much easier if a machine could do the work. But, Wu makes the pasta by hand daily. The noodles are very wide and thin, appropriately called ‘belt noodles’ in China. They’re also hand-torn (called ‘hand-ripped’ on the menu) which give them a slightly ragged edge. With her husband, she puts in long hours to run the restaurant named after the city.

One can have these noodles sauced (dry) or in noodle soups (my daughter feels the former is the tastier way to have them here). The vast majority are spicy, which is indicated on the menu with chile symbols. There is also a rice noodle option for the soups.

Spicy Tingly Beef Noodles (pictured above) were excellent. As I expected from freshly made wheat noodles, they were chewy and springy. Because of their width and sauce-covered slickness, they were tricky to grab hold of, let alone maintain a grip on with chopsticks. Green Sichuan peppercorns give the sauce its numbing quality, chile oil and dried pepper flakes, its heat. Straight from the kitchen, these noodles were not exceedingly spicy nor anesthetizing, better to taste nuances of shredded and chopped braised beef, cabbage and green bell peppers in a very flavorful sauce. If you crave more hotness, you can pile on chile oil from the condiments bar. At the top of the menu is Spicy Cumin Lamb Noodles, the most Shaanxinese way to have them.

For the chile-averse, there aren’t too many choices. Cooked fresh tomatoes in Stir Fried Tomato Egg noodles made the sauce teeter on the edge of being too sweet (or was it added sugar?) but they were tempered by scrambled eggs. Other mild choices are Stewed Pork Noodles and Vegetable Noodles.

Stir fried tomato egg noodles

Stir fried tomato egg noodles

Xi’an Noodles serves other things, such as the hotpot-like malatang, which is not on the formal menu but is advertised by signage and tubs of ingredients in a separate cooler section. Also on the menu are a few popular street food items, like roujiamo (called ‘burgers’ on the menu). The restaurant has been doing business for less than a year (grand opening, May 1, 2016) but the word has already spread, helped by being included in Seattle Met magazine’s list of 100 Best Restaurants. Expect waits at prime dining hours.

Tidbit: For some now-lost historical reason, biang is the most complex Chinese character to write, consisting of 57 strokes, yet doesn’t even appear in a dictionary. One theory is that it was invented by a noodle shop owner. It almost looks like a pot of boiling noodles.

Xi’an Noodles
5259 University Way NE
Seattle, WA 98105
206.522.8888

Seattle’s (go)Poké Future Is Bright


Getting good poké in Seattle was like getting good ramen used to be, a challenge. Now, very good ramenya are popping up with increasing regularity. Anyone who’s had ahi poké in Hawaii might agree with me that in Seattle, it’s been a disappointment. The primary reason is the fish quality. There’s something about tuna freshly caught off Hawaiian shores that makes it almost impossible to make bad poké on the islands. I’ve had great eating experiences at Ono Seafood (Kaimuki), Hawaiian Style Cafe (Hilo), Me Bar-B-Q (Waikiki), Poké Stop (Waipahu). My sister-in-law even swears by poké sold by Foodland, a Hawaiian supermarket chain. And like ramen, it seems poké is experiencing exponential growth in the U.S.

Last December, brothers Bayley, Michael and Trinh Le opened goPoké in Seattle’s International District. They have island cred because they grew up in Hawaii, the father was a tuna fisherman and the mother responsible for selling the catch and who developed her own version of poké to sell. Even the children got involved in door-to-door sales. This is the time when other vendors are establishing their own ventures in Seattle, including Hawaiian celebrity chef Sam Choy with Poké to the Max (3 food trucks, 2 brick-and-mortars), his only restaurant in the U.S. outside of Hawaii.

The three brothers wound up in Seattle and decided after a time to start goPoké across the street from Hing Hay Park. They would draw on decades of collective experience. Automatic success was not assured, though opening day last December saw a line form around the block. But after Bayley Le’s KING 5 appearance in February on the New Day show, there was valuable media exposure. Did it make a difference? Maybe so, with help from word-of-mouth and social media, because goPoké is going gangbusters. The name itself seems intentionally or not a play on Pokémon Go.

Theirs is a great ahi poké, cut (cubed) in uniform bite-sized pieces, firm and smooth, dressed with the right balance of Hawaiian sea salt, limu, white onion, scallions, toasted sesame seeds and sesame oil and, above all, fresh. There is also a spicy aioli version, as well as an extra-spicy one, the latter of which would seem to mask (disrupt) straight poké’s delicate and natural flavors. In a gesture to Northwesterners, there are also three styles of salmon poké. An invention of goPoké’s own is the Combo Bowl in which three kinds of poké are combined with rice, edamame, krab (faux crab made from pollock) salad, seaweed salad, pickled ginger (gari, sushi ginger), cucumber sunomono, and two toppings (from among fried shallots, fried garlic, furikake, chopped macadamia nuts). Friend KirkJ (and his wife), who was with us, ordered one and enthused over the tako and salmon poké.

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Aloha Combo Bowl (image posted on Yelp by Michelle C.)

The fun doesn’t stop with poké. I was personally excited about five—yes, five—menu items that I happen to love from Hawaii: Bubbies mochi ice creams, SPAM musubi, Kona Brewing Company beers, Hawaiian shave ice (with snow cap!) and Dole pineapple whip (which many of you know is a Disneyland staple). With enticements like these, do I need excuses to visit the International District more?

Passionfruit/mango shave ice

Passionfruit/mango shave ice (partially eaten)

Bubbies passionfruit, lychee and guava mochi ice creams

Bubbies passionfruit, lychee and guava mochi ice creams

Dole pineapple whip

Dole pineapple whip

goPoké
625 S King St.
Seattle WA 98104
206.799.9560

Winter on Orcas Island


Orcas Island has been one of our favorite local spots to vacation. Our family used to camp regularly in the summers at Moran State Park, memories that our daughters still hold today. Lately, with the kids now grown and having their own families, my wife and I have been going to Orcas during off-seasons to avoid crowds. In the summer months, taking the ferry can be an exercise in frustration. Still, I’ll never tire of ferrying through the San Juan Islands.

ferry-to-orcas

We had never gone there in February and are not apt to again. It isn’t that we won’t appreciate the slower pace or minimal number of tourists but that many recreational activities and attractions are not available or open for the year. When we arrived on Sunday, the weather was still frosty outside. The higher elevations, like Turtleback Mountain, were covered in snow. I thought it would be spectacular to get a 360-degree view of the San Juans all covered in white from atop Mount Constitution, but as I suspected, the entrance was closed. And, when Monday rolled around, it snowed—quite a lot. In the town of Eastsound, Orcas’ hub and commercial center, which is a little above sea level, 8″ or so of fluff accumulated, more higher up. And the nights dipped below freezing. Lucky for us, one of our favorite bookstores, Darvill’s, was open for business.

Restaurants, we discovered, are spottily open, at this time of year typically closed for two days of the week. We did appreciate that they must’ve arranged among themselves to stagger the closures on different days to always have a restaurant or two for tourists’ sake.

For a small town, Eastsound has a number of very good restaurants and cafés. With not much else to do, we still did manage to eat quite well. Continue reading