113 N 4th St, Coeur d’Alene
Living in Seattle, my friend Brian is totally spoiled when it comes to Asian food. The Emerald City offers some of the most fantastic Cantonese, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese and Thai cuisine on the planet, and he’s had the pleasure of enjoying it on a regular basis since relocating from here three years ago. So when Brian was back in town a few weeks ago, I decided to have him meet me at Canton Restaurant on 4th St in downtown Coeur d’Alene, not for the impressive quality of the dining experience, but just for old time’s sake. Back in the good ol’ days, we put in many hours there, making sure our tummies were filled to the limit with greasy food before hitting the town for Martinis and debauchery.
It's been there as long as I can possibly remember, surviving lean times under various ownerships, some good, some bad, and some ugly. My favorite Canton story goes like this: It was the next to most recent ownership five or so years ago and the usual waitress was named Kim. She was endearingly eccentric and extremely chatty, but her grasp of the English language was still in its infancy stage, to say the least. Brian and I were sat in a sunny booth by the window, our usual spot. I recall it was an unmercifully hot day and we were both nursing ungodly hangovers. When Kim returned with our water, we all gasped as we spotted an earwig writhing about on the table. "The beeeez, the beeeeeeez!" shrieked Kim wildly as she wrestled the poor critter to death with a paper napkin, smearing its guts keenly across our table. We immediately turned green as Kim, unfazed, pulled out her order pad: “OK, what you like?”
I knew that the days of Kim and Co. were numbered when I wandered in one afternoon to order take out and was told they were out of chicken. Out of chicken? "Never Mind", I said as I reluctantly headed up the way to another Chinese restaurant. Days later, the place was vacant and plastered with "For Rent" signs amid rumors of serving customers the types of animals that don't appear on any menu. I don't actually believe that, the food wasn't that bad, but it still made for a heavy, dark cloud over the place that would seemingly make for a real challenge to potential new owners.
Since taking over in 2005, the ever-smiling Alex Kim and his family have risen to that challenge and have generally succeeded. I’ve said there aren’t any truly great Chinese places in town, but Canton probably comes the closest. When the food is great, it’s really great: fresh and light, tasty, good sized portions. The problem lies in the unfortunate fact that they just aren’t very consistent. I’ve never been served anything truly horrid here, but sometimes it’s just bland, or slightly off-tasting, or maybe it’s been simmering in the pot too long. You never what you’ll get from day to day and this can make the place seem a little iffy.
Humorously, the one thing that has been consistent each time I’ve visited Canton over the last few years is the music. It seems they own exactly one CD of AsianPop and it plays daily on repeat, as if the darned CD was somehow stuck in the player for eternity. The music is pleasant enough – a female vocalist sings plaintively atop mellow synth-pop tunes, including a Chinese language cover of an old Cranberries hit. But why does Canton always play this album over and over? Don’t they get sick of it? In this magic internet age it couldn’t be that hard to find some more Asian Pop CD’s.
I was pondering this odd music crisis as I sat listening and waiting for Brian and his cousin to meet me. My cell phone rang. It was Brian letting me know his cousin was running behind schedule and they’d be about forty minutes late. Meanwhile, I poured cup after cup of sweet, delicious tea and calmed my resultant jitters by paging through a giant Korean language fashion magazine they had sitting out. Just in case you were wondering, the “business punk” look is hot in Korea at the moment, and Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie, Lindsay Lohan, and Gwen Stefani receive just as much ink over there as they do here.
As the clock continued to tick and still no Brian and cousin, I turned my attention to the Canton Menu. I’d never really given it a close examination, since I usually just quickly order one of the numbered combo dinners. Trying to kill time, I combed through the menu line by line. There were a few amusing typos (“Hot Spicy Topu”, “Cram Chop Suey”, “Gried Egg Sandwich”) and a couple of culinary mysteries (“Mushroom Delight”, “Yang Chow Wor Mein”, “Beef Under Snow”).
Brian and his lovely cousin Hosanna finally arrived just as my tummy began to roar. Brian ordered the ambiguously named Hot & Spicy Chicken and Hosanna announced she was going to play it safe and get the Almond Chicken. I decided to live on the egde and try something I'd never tasted before, so I ordered the Korean Bul Go Gi. The waitress had described it as “um…some, like, chicken…and some…uh, y’know…vegetables and stuff”. “Why not?” I thought. After she left, Brian told me that in the seedier parts of Korea the dish was infamously made with dog. However, here in the United States the dish was served with beef. I got the distinct impression that the young waitress had no clue what it actually was, she just hoped I wouldn’t care or notice the difference.
When it arrived in front of me, sure enough it was beef. No worries, I was famished and it looked quite wonderful to my hungry eyes, thin slices of meat, onions, and garlic cloves all steamy and doused in a thin red sauce. On the menu, there was a little star next to the words “Bul Go Gi” indicating that it was meant to be spicy. Disappointingly, mine really wasn’t. It was quite tasty in its own way, but I’d really only classify it as “tangy” instead of the promised “spicy”. Brian had similar feelings about his “Hot & Spicy” chicken, which was neither. I understand that many folks don’t dig sinus burnout perhaps as much as we do, but I’d recommend offering customers different levels of spicy hotness so that everyone’s happy. I have a hunch Brian was also correct when he called out the side of white rice as being “Uncle Ben’s instant or something tragic like that.” Normally the rice here is just fine, which again proves my point about Canton’s inconsistency issue.
Hosanna agreed, the food was fine and adequate, but nothing to return to Seattle and rave about. It’s frustrating because I have had some really great meals here. One night last winter stands out in my memory, when I had a nasty cold and came in for a big bowl of Won Ton Soup and it was so fresh, delicious and nourishing that I swear I walked out of there totally cured. Other visits have been less-than memorable, even disappointing. To their credit, I’m always pleased with the warm, friendly and fast service the waitresses offer. If Canton could step up their game a few notches and strive for consistent excellence in both food and service, they could very well be the ones to fill the Chinese food gap in this town and come out the champion. If they do it, I’ll buy them a new Asian Pop CD to listen to.