Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Sunshine Trader

The Sunshine Trader
1116 W. Ironwood Dr.
Coeur d'Alene

What is the one thing that so many long time, locally owned eateries have in common? I pondered this question as I sat down recently at the lunch counter at the Sunshine Trader on Ironwood Drive. Sure, there are obvious similarities between old-school Coeur d’Alene joints like the Trader, Hudson’s Hamburgers, Rogers Ice Cream, Zips, Paul Bunyan, and Down the Street just to name a few. There’s the classic comfort foods served fresh and with a homemade flair unattainable at big-budget chain restaurants. There’s the down-to-earth quality of the service, the staff that treats you like an old friend, even if you haven’t visited in years. There’s the lack of modern décor, the feeling that the profit goes back into keeping the food and service at a quality level rather than flashy remodeling jobs. There is all that, but there was something else I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

I’d been there for ten minutes, had ordered my lunch and was daydreaming, staring off into the middle space, when suddenly it came into sharp focus: a square blue and white plastic clock with that familiar Pepsi logo. Yes! For some reason all the great local places have these prominently displayed on the wall. It’s not a particularly fabulous objet d’art, but it is one thing that seems to only be found at locally owned diners. That austere cola-riffic timepiece, boldly sporting only the numbers 12, 3, 6, and 9 hangs like an unofficial badge of local pride and independence that you’ll never see at places like Applebee’s or Red Lobster.

From its roots as a little “hippie joint” which opened in 1981 in the tiny building that now houses the Parkside Bistro, to its current digs near the mad rush of the Hospital District, the Sunshine Trader has changed relatively little. When they first opened so many years ago in that City Park hut, the concept of serving healthy, organic food was quite foreign to many local people. Whole grain bread, alfalfa sprouts and avocados were frequently viewed as the territory of vegetarian, dope-smoking, yoga-practicing longhairs who worshipped crystals and smelled like patchouli oil. Real folks ate previously frozen Salisbury steak with instant mashed potatoes and brown gravy down at the Iron Horse. In fact, I think they’re still there eating the same thing. Anyway, the Trader was one of the first places around to specialize in fresh veggie sandwiches and soups from scratch, and their status as a local favorite lunch spot was quickly established.

It must have been at some point in the late 80’s that they outgrew their original spot and moved in to their current place amidst of the hustle and bustle of the Ironwood zone. This was a smart move – the neighborhood’s thousands of medical and business workers guaranteed them a daily lunch rush. It’s literally the only lunch option in the whole district (other than the wonderful hospital cafeteria), and it’s been known to get mighty hectic around noontime. Arrive during the busy hour, and you’re guaranteed a brief wait, although the summertime addition of an expansive outdoor patio has helped a bit to alleviate the overcrowding.

I slipped in a little bit after the main rush, at about 1:15. At that point, the restaurant was only about half-full of diners, but a palpable sense of mad activity still hung anxiously in the air as young waitresses in blue t-shirts ran around clearing tables. No wait for me as I sidled up to the front counter and ordered an Iced Pike Street tea. Confused, my waitress turned to her co-worker, “Um…” Before she could speak, the other girl jumped in to clarify “Oh, he wants an Iced Spiced tea, it’s the same thing.” Regardless of what they call it, it’s one of the more rare and delicious summertime beverages, so refreshing and so VERY full of natural caffeine. I finished four tall glasses of the stuff and my brain was buzzing like an old TV. I ran into a couple of old friends I hadn’t seen in years, and I was so wired, they probably thought I had taken up a mild crack habit.

I hadn’t visited the Trader in quite a while and looking around, I realized that visually, nothing had changed. The building has an odd, polygonal shape, making for an unusually large number of walls, each completely white and bereft of décor under harsh fluorescent overhead lights. Except for that obligatory Pepsi clock and a few token vaguely nautical knick-knacks, visual stimulus is kept to a minimum. The front wall behind the counter has some seriously disturbing baby pink and blue striped wallpaper and the entryway and hall are covered with a ropy brown treatment I can only describe as a tragedy in lacy burlap. The fixtures and appliances behind the counter are seriously lo-tech and approaching antique status. However, we don’t really come here to admire the modern ambience, and the presence of dozens of lush, overgrown potted plants injects a much needed organic quality. It’s a no-frills, homey atmosphere.

According to their website, the Sunshine Trader came under new management in the recent past, and the only perceptible changes are on the menu. Over the years, they seem to have expanded away from only offering the basics of healthful soup and sandwiches. There are three kinds of Panini on focaccia bread: ham, turkey and Rueben. There’s the selection of large salads, from the traditional (Caesar and Chef) to the offbeat (Cranberry Feta, and the classic Oriental salad with mandarin oranges and chow mein noodles.) Most interestingly, there are the crepes, including the tempting Sherried Chicken Crepe and the cleverly named “Mexican in a French Jacket Crepe”, which is basically a burrito with a crepe instead of a tortilla.

Of course, the classic sandwiches are still here, their names alternating between the themes of “The Old Man and the Sea” and “The Lord of the Rings.” The “First Mate’s Choice” is stuffed with cashew chicken salad, and the “Captain Crab” is just that, along with avocado and swiss cheese. The “Bilbo” is a vegetarians delight, with avocado spread, marinated mushrooms, sprouts and tomato. I actually knew what I wanted to order before I walked in, even before I parked the car. It’s something I sometimes get a mad craving for, something I’ve tried at other places but they just don’t do it right. “The Hobbit” is a warm sandwich with the delightful marriage of turkey, lettuce, cream cheese, and chunky cranberry sauce. Served on French bread, it’s messy and delicious, the tang of the cream cheese mingling perfectly with the tart sweetness of the cranberries. It’s like having your own personal mini-thanksgiving, and I think it’s one of the best sandwiches in the great Northwest.

In addition, I had to try one of the soups of the day, another thing the Sunshine Trader is famous for. Their website claims that they serve more that 120 types of soups, and that they have a customer who has been returning for 15 years and has never had the same soup twice. When I visited, it was either Vegetable Medley or Cheddar Chowder. I love cheese soup, so I added the Cheddar Chowder (only a dollar more with a sandwich order), which was as scrumptious as the sandwich, thick and creamy and swimming with veggies. Along with distinctive refreshments like Spiced Iced Tea and Fresh Huckleberry Lemonade, they recently added a small selection of beer and wine. Also on offer is soft serve ice cream, as well as homemade temptations like Godiva Chocolate and White Chocolate Raspberry Cheesecakes.

I glanced up at that omniscient blue Pepsi clock and noticed that it was nearly closing time for the lunch-only restaurant. When I stood up, I realized the place had completely cleared out and I was the last man standing. It was a bit surreal that the place had gone from hectic to vacated in such a relatively short period of time, but the Trader really knows how to get ‘em in and out. Their menu even has a guarantee that if you aren’t in and out in 40 minutes or less, they’ll buy your lunch. I’d imagine that happens very rarely, as their staff is extremely fast and as comfortingly homey as the food itself. With a bill totaling under ten bucks, I was a very full and extremely pleased customer. The Sunshine Trader is open year-round Monday through Friday from 10:00AM to 2:30PM.

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