Homer: Yeah, ya like shirt?
It’s a birthday memory I’m sure to look back on with fondness and joy: my mother’s fingernails, long and coral orange like those of a picky Thai princess, plucking translucent onions from deep inside her steaming bowl of Prawn Tom Kha. As is her usual style, she’d managed to “order the wrong thing”, despite the clear-as-a-gong descriptions on the menu. “I swear”, she sighed, flicking another thin white slice onto the pile, “I always get this at that Thai place in Wyoming and it’s totally different than this. I know it wasn’t all soupy-like and I sure don’t remember any slimy cooked onions!” We suggested she just give it up and have the waitress take it back for something else, but that would have been admitting defeat. “Oh no, It’s just fine…” she sighed, still forgoing the concept of silverware as she dove in again, this time pulling out a plump pink prawn between her fingers and chomping it down.
I had chosen the new Thai Bamboo on 4th Street in Coeur d’Alene for my birthday dinner this year partly to get in on the big opening buzz before it died down, and also because I knew from visits to their Spokane locations that it would be an awesome and impressive dining experience for my family. Both my Male Parental Unit and my Female Parental Unit were present for the occasion, which happens once in a great blue moon, along with dear Auntie B. It’s nice to think that they gathered together just to celebrate my arrival on the planet, but I wonder if it was all just a ruse to get in on the opportunity to enjoy some of the most top notch Thai cuisine the Inland Northwest has to offer.
If you’ve had the pleasure of visiting one of the three Spokane locations, you’ll know that owners Matavee and Tom Burgess are not exactly subtle when it comes to décor, and the new place is no exception. Even the exterior is over-the-top, its stylized giant red swooping eaves make for an instant local landmark. The lobby is lush and kitschy enough to trick your mind into thinking you’ve just fallen out of the sky and landed right in the middle of the Bangkok Holiday Inn. Digital photo frames display beautiful images of old Thailand, intricately bedazzled elephant tapestries shimmer in gold and burgundy velvet against raffia and bamboo walls, and tall plants shoot out from behind plush dark oak furnishings. Huge, monolithic stone carvings and gold statuettes hover around like South Asian castle props from a lost episode of “Scooby Doo” guest starring Indiana Jones.
The Burgesses have spared no expense toward impressing guests, and nowhere is this more evident that in the cavernous main dining room with its amazing psychedelic trip of a ceiling. Thousands of LED stars twinkle across a breathtaking sky of puffy clouds that change from pink to white against a sky that subtly changes between deep shades of blue. Auntie B. and I probably looked like we were suffering acid flashbacks as we stared trance-like up into the artificial expanse, agog.
I’d actually snuck into the new Cd’A Thai Bamboo during their opening week for some takeout Swimming Rama, but the lobby was too crowded at the time with hungry looky-loos to get much of a feel for the vibe of the place. When I ordered, the counter girl had given me the spiciness option of one to five stars, with five the hottest. I usually like lots of hot curry spice, so I chose four stars. Half-hour later, I was on my couch eating and watching the hilarious comedy “Superbad” while sobbing, tears pouring uncontrollably from my eyes. Not tears of sadness or tears of joy, but tears of pure spice. Swimming Rama is a favorite of mine, with tender white chicken pieces sautéed in a thick and spicy peanut sauce and poured over fresh spinach leaves and rice, but I’d never experienced the dish so spicy before. It was really good but a bit much even for me, and for the next few days, the leftovers came in very handy as a nasal decongestant.
For my birthday visit, I was careful to specify only 2 ½ stars for my order of a #44, which I ordered as “number forty-four” rather than attempting and regrettably mangling its proper name “Gai Phad Phong Ka Ree”. Was it normal to order between stars? I don’t know, but the waitress didn’t flinch and when my meal arrived, I could actually perceive the dish’s hotness on the star scale to be exactly where it belonged. 3 stars, too much! 2 stars, not enough! Pineapples and thin strips of carrot, onion, zucchini, and bell pepper are stir fried in Indian curry powder with some tender chicken and an egg. The subtle flavors unfolded and revealed themselves in different ways with each bite. Amazing.
“That’s Chinese, silly” laughed my mother when Auntie B. asked about Almond Chicken, so she went for the similarly nutty Cashew Chicken. Normally she picks at her food bird-like, but she actually made a visible dent in her meal before it hit the to-go box, a sign she really enjoyed it. My dad attacked his Thai Pepper Steak with a savage fervor, finishing it off before my evil roving fork could even validate it. We all decided to chase our chow down with bottles of skunky Singha Thai Beer and lightweight Auntie B. got tipsy enough after one bottle to inexplicably scoop dry hot chili flakes into her mouth then dramatically feign horror before spitting them out.
Everyone seemed full and content by the time our waitress brought over a plate of Fried Bananas topped with coconut ice cream “for the birthday boy.” No one in our party had set this up, so we were suitably charmed by the gesture. Overall, despite an abnormally long initial wait to order, we were generally impressed with the level of service. Also troublesome was how the noise level in the dining room grew and grew in intensity as the dinner rush grew larger and the wide open echoey atmosphere caused folks to talk louder and louder over each other until the din was like that of a train station. There must be some kind of acoustic cure to this minor ambience issue.
Here’s another rub: at dinnertime dishes aren’t automatically served with jasmine rice, which is definitely a required thing to have. It’s a dollar extra, which isn’t going to break anyone’s wallet, but it seems like something they really ought to throw in. No big deal, the rice is so perfect we’ll pay. Anyway, if you are on a budget you’ll want to visit during noontime and choose one of the very reasonable lunch combos, which do include rice along with a serving of Phad Thai and a chance to dabble in dishes like Red Curry Tofu, Phad Pahk with Chicken, and the famous Thai Super Bowl. The Thai Bamboo menu is expansive and exotic, the food possibilities enticing and endless. It’s going to take a lot of birthdays and even more un-birthdays to sample every dish on the menu, but so far I’m off to a good start.