310 N 4th St.,
The sidewalk sign in front of Chinese Gardens announced in colorful chalk “Voted Coeur d’Alene’s Best Chinese Food 2008.” I have no idea where and when this important election was held, and frankly I feel a little emotionally bruised for not being asked to participate. Anyway, if you’d asked me six months ago for my thoughts on this issue, my snarky reply would have been that there really weren’t any “best Chinese food” places in town. Certainly grungy Chinese Gardens wouldn’t have qualified. In fact, I’d quit bothering with it several years ago after a series of meals arrived tortoiselike and at room temperature, flavorless and adrift in a deep sea of grease. One of their only saving graces was that they delivered to my local corner bar, where tipsy hunger pangs occasionally made the food seem almost palatable.
Opened in 1972 by the venerable Chane family, Chinese Gardens was one of the first places in town to serve such then-exotica as Chow Mein and Pork Foo Young. The newly emigrated Chanes lived upstairs in the same building as the restaurant and had nine kids who helped run the family business in various ways. I have distinct memories of dining there as a child, eating a cheeseburger and fries and listening to Mama and Papa Chane carry on vociferously from behind the thin kitchen walls in the harsh tones of their native language. It sounded like ferocious fighting and arguing to my young ears, and mixed with the dull thud of the chop-chop-chopping of the butcher knife, I was sure they were going to kill each other. In later years, I remember dear old Papa Chane always running the cash register, grinning from ear to ear but otherwise seeming slightly bewildered since he knew about as much English as Idahoans know Cantonese. After the elder Chanes had finally fried their final won ton, the family drifted, with son E-chen taking the reigns.
Heading up 4th street several months ago, I was so aghast to see that Chinese Gardens was dark during dinnertime that I had to pop into a nearby bar to see if anyone had the scoop. I suddenly felt guilty and rotten for saying mean things about them over the last few years. Okay, maybe I hadn’t found their food that fabulous lately, but the idea of the place being gone forever was too much to handle, like a part of my heritage ripped away. “Health board shut ‘em down?” blurted some lame drunk but no-one else seemed to have a better answer. Relief permeated the air after a friend of E-Chen’s was finally able to fill us in on the fact that they were simply undergoing a much needed remodeling and facelift. “Cheers!” we roared as our shot glasses clanked together. “Long live Chinese Gardens!” “Great, but are they going to remodel the menu too?” slurred the lame drunk to no-one in particular.
Thankfully, the answer to that question is an enthusiastic “Yes!” Like their elegant new interior look, the Chinese Gardens menu has been reconfigured and brought from the 70’s right into the 21st century. There are plenty of unique specialty dishes on the new menu, including trendy Chicken Lettuce Wraps, Savory Braised Tofu, Hot & Spicy Salmon with ginger and chili sauce, and Ma Ma Chicken, a stir-fry named after Mama Chane herself and served in a sauce nearly as spicy as she was. Creative lunch and dinner combos are available, and I was delighted to see that they now offer the option of Hot & Sour Soup along with the more traditional Egg Flower variety. I tried each on recent visits and both are incredibly tasty; the Egg Flower Soup is packed with fresh mushrooms, greens and a deeply satisfying chicken flavor and the Hot & Sour holds enough power to pleasure the most stubborn sinus passages.
On my first return visit, I found it hard to pay attention to the menu as I was distracted by taking in all the classy cosmetic improvements Chane has made to the place. The old tattered bright red booths and tacky Chinese lanterns have been replaced with sleek black metal chairs, faux-marble tabletops and lively framed prints. The ratty carpeting has been replaced by a subtle gray berber and the walls are a warm butterscotch tan. Gone are all traces of overt kitsch, replaced with antique hutches, low slung glass light fixtures, and a dazzling gold room-divider screen. Even the gigantic light-up mural of the Great Wall seems somehow understated hanging in the lobby above the burbling aquarium. Chinese pop music plays gently in the background, a gesture that I always notice and appreciate so much more than being forced to dine under the caterwauling din of Celine Dion or something.
Both recent visits were impressive enough that I might even agree with whoever voted the place tops in that mysterious poll they advertise out front. The Orange Chicken tasted fantastic but unfortunately, it arrived nearly cold. The Almond Chicken fared better and was among the best I ever had, all fluffy white chicken chunks, a light, not overly greasy batter and a rich gravy topped with powdery ground almonds. The crispy Chow Mein was flavorful and freshly made with dense pork sausage chunks. The hot mustard for my BBQ pork made me cry and I liked it. The fried rice is served plain, which is preferred to the method of adding nightmarish frozen mixed veggies. Best of all, the egg rolls were nice and light, free from the overkill of grease they used to drown them in here. The level of service was equally high on both visits as well, expedient and personable. I smiled when I read at the top of my receipt the name “New Chinese Gardens.” New, indeed, revitalized and ready for another forty years.