The question has been bouncing back and forth in my head lately like a Swedish meatball: Should I or should I not spread the Get Out tentacles across the state line into Spokane? I mean, the idea was always to keep my coverage pretty much confined exclusively to North Idaho. But there’s no denying the pull of our big ugly sister to the west. Like death, we all have to go sometimes. Okay, there are a few things about the Lilac City that aren’t totally depressing, like the historic beauty of Manito Park, the Museum of Arts and Culture, or the newly reopened Magic Lantern Theater. Most importantly, there are certain types of cuisine you simply can’t find here in the Panhandle. Where can you go over here if you’re having a wild craving for Schnitzel and Spatzle? Chicken Tikka Masala and Naan? An all-you-can-eat Slavic Buffet? Nowhere, and that’s why I’ve decided it’s okay to occasionally write up some of the more unusual dining experiences Spokane has to offer.
It really wasn't the best circumstance that happened to lead me into Spokane to try nouveau Korean cuisine for the first time. My mother was out of town for a couple of weeks and I was cruising around in her jazzy little Honda Civic while she was gone. One sleepy grey Sunday, my pal Roo and I decided we were going to bop over to Pasco, Washington just for something to do. Cruising through the Spokane Valley on I-90, the oil warning light went on suddenly so we pulled off the freeway, poured some oil in the engine, and went on our merry way. We were just discussing how it was a tad bit odd that the blinking oil light still hadn't gone away as suddenly all the dash warning lights went off like a cheap discotechque and the engine made a sound like a lawn mower with a nasty smoker’s hack. Realizing that we were in trouble, we pulled off at the next exit and glided into an abandoned used car lot on the corner of Sprague and Fancher. Several failed and miserable attempts to start restart the car made me get really, really quiet, something that unintentionally drives Roo insane: "Just say something!" I continued to sit in silence as one thought played in a loop through my brain: "My mother…is going…to kill me..."
Then, through the teardrops that were welling up my eyes, I saw the building across the street. I realized that this was not just any old building, but a building where I used to while away the wee hours during my late adolescence, drinking coffee with the freaks and weirdoes after dancing the night away at Club Mario’s, then located just a hat toss down Sprague Avenue. Indeed, it was the old Denny's building, the current home of Fusion Teriyaki. Overcome suddenly with hunger and curiosity, I wiped the away tears and decided that Fusion would be as good a place as any to sit and sort out our next move.
Wandering inside, it was a bit of a flashback as I noticed that the decor had barely changed since those dark Denny's days- the same 1970's faux-bamboo shades covered the windows, the same tragic yellowed light fixtures hovered above the tables. A splash of fresh white paint had been kind enough to grace the walls in lieu of wood paneling, but it was left boringly sparse with very little Korean embellishment or frou-frou. A couple of booths in the back corner had been yanked out of commission and replaced with a small stage upon which sat a karaoke system so elaborate it looked like it might suddenly lift off. Also on stage was an enormous flat-screen TV showing some kind of bizarre Korean game show in which, apparently, the boys sing bits and pieces of Western pop hits in an attempt to win a date with one of the girls, who then act terribly embarrassed about the whole thing. There's a lot of jumping about and flashing multicolored words in Korean script and all the boys have long shaggy hairdos like Ashton Kutcher on “That 70’s Show.”
Upon entrance our smiling waiter had visually sized up the two of us and sat us in the hugest, roomiest booth ever, which luckily was located directly next to the enormous TV. Not being in the most patient of moods, I scanned quickly through the list of items with multisyllabic unpronounceable names. I randomly picked out some kind of beef rice bowl and a Pepsi, since unfortunately the place sold as much booze as the waiter spoke English: none. Roo ordered something with chicken that looked a little on the scary-spicy side. I sipped my Pepsi and spaced out on a Korean TV commercial as I considered what to do about my mother's poor dead car.
It suddenly occurred to me that a few days before, when I was finalizing the details of my new cell phone purchase, Mimi the AT&T saleslady had told me that with my plan, I would receive two complimentary months of roadside assistance. I immediately called her up and she connected me to the help hotline. I found myself chatting with one of the friendliest and most helpful customer service ladies I have ever had the pleasure of having a mild crisis with. She gathered some info, and told me that a tow truck would be coming around in half an hour to tow the beast all the way to Post Falls for only $5.37. I told her I wanted to kiss her, and considered asking for her address so I could add her to my Christmas card list. I was so thankful and relieved.
A smattering of unexpected side dishes began arriving on our table. There were at least a dozen small but visually exciting little treats to be tried. I doubt I could recall all of it, and I'm certainly not sure what everything was named, but a few highlights remain stuck in my head. There were some nicely undercooked black beans in a sweet plum sauce; cold shredded potatoes and carrots in a zesty vinegar dressing; some tart and well-seasoned kimchi; some sprouts doused in a yogurty white dressing; cold fried egg whites with spinach and soy sauce; cubes of surprisingly flavorsome pickled tofu.
I hadn't even had a chance to try everything by the time the main dish arrived with a friendly warning from the waiter: “Hot! Hot!” He placed before me a giant heated bowl made of thick stone and filled with sizzling rice, shreds of tender, fiery beef, various oddball vegetables, and an egg dramatically cracked over the whole thing. I was mildly alarmed to realize that the egg was still raw, but was amazed as it cooked and solidified in moments before my very eyes. A variety of chili oils and hot sauces were supplied to really perk things up.
Roo reacted very enthusiastically to his huge dish of rice and bright orange peppery chicken and vegetables by making it disappear in a little over two minutes. My meal (a Google search later revealed the dish to be called “Bibim Bap”) was absolutely fantastic. My only complaint was that the bowl was so hot that it continued to fast cook the rice stuck around the sides, thus making it brown and unpleasantly crunchy. Being new to Korean cuisine, this was probably my fault - I might have stirred everything in the bowl together and maybe added some chili sauce to avoid this dilemma. Next time (and there WILL be one) I will try that trick.
We left feeling satisfied and renewed. The earlier stress of the car breaking down drifted away, as we sat in a food coma waiting for the tow-truck driver to come and scoop us up. Fusion was a fair-priced, memorable and totally unique dining experience, unlike anything else in the Spokane area or North Idaho and I highly recommend having your car break down across the street from it.