Saturday, July 21, 2007
Wah Hing , Kellogg
215 McKinley Ave., Kellogg
I’ve heard it said many times in recent years and sadly, I have to agree: there just aren’t any really great Chinese restaurants in Coeur d’Alene. There is one in town that I consider to be acceptable, but it only creates a mild twitch on the Richter scale of excitement. Chinese is probably my favorite cuisine, and I’ve spent a lot of time and lunch money exploring the literally endless cache of Chinese joints over in Spokane. I’m pretty sure the Lilac City has more Chinese restaurants per capita than almost any other city - just drive north on Division and you’ll find dozens. Most are better than anything Coeur d’Alene has to offer, so whenever I long for the really good stuff, I head over the state line and pick one of my many favorite spots. With no place in Coeur d’Alene really getting those mouth juices flowing, I’ve just resigned myself to making that familiar jaunt westward whenever I need a fix of the perfect Almond Chicken.
Whenever this dilemma comes up in conversation, someone inevitably mentions the Wah Hing Restaurant in Kellogg. “Oh, you’ve GOT to go and check it out, it’s really good, the best Chinese place in the whole area…” So on a recent blazing hot Friday morning, Q. and I recharged our camera batteries and windexed our sunglasses and headed out for a day in the sunny Silver Valley.
When Noah Kellogg’s donkey went wandering astray on that fateful September morn so very long ago, it’s hard to imagine that he ever thought his little galena mine would one day turn into endless rows of shiny new Dodge trucks. The sprawl of the Dave Smith auto dealership has taken over easily half this small town. It’s a little surreal driving through parts of Kellogg where car lots butt up against more car lots, and just when you think there can’t possibly be more car lots, you go round the bend and run into even more car lots. We headed up the hill toward downtown and had no trouble finding a parking spot right in front of the restaurant. It was still a little early for lunch, so we decided to work up an appetite by exploring the area.
It was a little depressing to see that easily seventy-five percent of the storefronts in downtown Kellogg were sitting vacant and quickly deteriorating. On the brighter side, someone has purchased the old YMCA building and is turning it into “lofts” (read: high-priced condos), so maybe the Richy Rich folks that move in there will snap up some of the empty shops and revitalize the area with their Fruit Smoothies and Shabby Chic.
We were definitely hungry by the time we shuffled out of Papa’s Barn and out into the blistering sun. When we walked into the Wah Hing, I was hit by the powerful chemical aroma of some cheap cleaning agent. Granted, there are worse things you could smell when you walk into a restaurant, but it took a little getting used to. More importantly, the place was air-conditioned and cool to the max, and the waitress brought water and hot tea immediately. I wouldn’t have thought to order hot tea on such a sizzling day, but I poured a cup and it was so fresh and sweet tasting, it was actually refreshing.
The restaurant was percolating with lunch goers and our girl Terri seemed to be the only waitress on duty. To her credit, she never once slacked or lost her cool. We got the impression she’d been serving food here for many moons, and she fit into the natural scheme of the place just like one of the paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling. Some string-laden Asian pop music crackled out through dusty speakers, mixing with the dramatically punctuated Chinese-language conversation being held by the kitchen staff, lending the Wah Hing an authenticity that seemed oddly out of place in little old Kellogg. A stern-faced older Chinese woman emerged from the kitchen and sat down to relax a while amidst the chaotic lunch rush, and we assumed her to be an owner, sipping tea and eyeballing the proceedings like a hawk.
The menu itself was quite varied with both the usual suspects like Mongolian Chicken, Szechwan Beef, and Kung Pao Shrimp as well as some enticingly unusual items like Golden Crown Bird Nest (a combo of meats and veggies served in a nest of noodles), Westlake Fried Duck, and Dragon and Phoenix Special (includes lobster and chicken, cleverly). Naturally, a selection of American fare is available as well, although I don’t know anyone over the age of ten who goes to a Chinese joint and orders a grilled cheese sandwich. I almost always go for a combination lunch, since it’s the best way to really get an impression of what a Chinese place is all about. Q. and I usually try to order something different so we can taste a wider variety of items, but this time we both picked Combo Number 2 and neither one of us wanted to budge.
I must have looked totally stunned when Terri asked us if we wanted Egg Drop or Hot and Sour soup with our meals. This is a standard option in many regions I’ve visited, but in these parts it’s always Egg Drop only, even in most of the Spokane places I’ve dined in. Tears of joy welled up in my ever-so-jaded eyes as I ordered the Hot and Sour. I told her to start us off with some Fried Won Tons as well, which she brought out with our soup. Hot and Sour soup, if done well, is a miracle substance known to clear sinuses and cause happy brain tingle. Wah Hing’s version was perfection, crispy bamboo shoots and shitake mushrooms mingling gently with stringy pork pieces and white chunks of tofu. It was so good I pondered if maybe I should have just ordered an extra large bowl of the soup and called it a day. I was impressed that they actually put a garnish of shredded greens under the Fried Won-Tons, and thin carrot strips to jazz up the delicately sweet dipping sauce. So many places just throw them on a white plate and serve them with that toxic red goo, but Wah Hing obviously takes care in the presentation of their food, even with such a simple dish.
People were indeed correct: Wah Hing is a great hidden small-town gem and is well worth the short drive east. We waddled out of there after leaving a twenty dollar bill on the table, astoundingly cheap considering that included both meals, the appetizer, the tea, and a well-deserved fiver for a tip. We decided to vacate Kellogg and spent the rest of the blazing afternoon swimming around in the cool exhilarating waters of the North Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River.