By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 1998 Gourmet Magazine
Sandwiched between Montana and Washington, northern Idaho’s panhandle stretches from the wheat-gold hills of a fertile table called the Palouse to the green timbered mountains of British Columbia. Ancestral home of the Nez Perce tribe, it is pure paradise for souls who long to get away from everything but nature.
Game and trout abound in the wilderness of ponderosa pine, bright lakes, and rushing rivers; but for those of us who choose not to kill our own supper or cook morning eggs on a camp stove, the place to eat is Coeur d’Alene, the panhandle’s hub and home to a panoply of satisfying restaurants.
The state’s license plate slogan is FAMOUS POTATOES, and in most restaurants good spuds are a given. Idaho is a proud potato land for sure, especially in the southeast farming regions where, in the town of Blackfoot, a museum displays the world’s largest potato chip as well as a potato autographed by former vice-president Dan Quayle. But around Coeur d’Alene we couldn’t find a chef who made a big deal out of Idaho potatoes. In fact, at one point during our visit, potato craving drove us into a supermarket where we bought a few bags of Tim’s Cascade Style potato chips. These local faves (made in neighboring Washington) are some magnificent potatoes! Thick, brittle, mottled gold, and redolent of vegetable savor, they make us think of what the original potato chip must have been like: simply a slice of potato fried to a perfect crisp and well salted. But we digress. Let us tell you about a place that is pure Idaho …but serves no potatoes.
“Pickle and onion?” the counterman will ask when you order a single or double hamburger or cheeseburger at HUDSON’S, a counter-only diner that has been a Coeur d’Alene institution since 1907, when Harley Hudson opened a quick eats lunch tent on the town’s main drag.
Your garnish selection is called out to grill man Todd Hudson, Harley’s great-grandson, who slices the raw onion to order and uses his knife blade to hoist the thin, crisp disk from the cutting board to the bun bottom; then, deft as a Benihana chef, he cuts eight small circles from a pickle and arrays them in two neat rows atop the onion. When not wielding his knife, Todd swiftly hand-forms each burger, as it is ordered, from a heap of lean ground beef piled in a gleaming silver pan adjacent to his griddle. Customers enjoy the mesmerizing show from the seventeen seats at Hudson’s long counter, as well as from the small standing area at the front of the restaurant where new arrivals await stool vacancies from mid-morning through the afternoon.
There are no side dishes at all: no french fries, no chips, no slaw, not a leaf of lettuce in the house. This is not to say that the staff isn’t attuned to the fine points of hamburgerology. When a man sits next to us and orders a glass of buttermilk to accompany his double cheeseburger, the counterman asks if he wants the beverage now or three minutes from now once his sandwich is assembled, so that the buttermilk will be served properly, ice cold.
Each patty is cooked until it develops a light crust from the griddle but retains a high amount of juiciness inside. One in a bun makes a balanced sandwich. Two verge on overwhelming beefiness. Chef Hudson sprinkles on a dash of salt, and when the hamburger is presented you have one more choice to make: which condiment? Three squeeze bottles are deployed adjacent to each napkin dispenser along the counter. One is hot mustard, another is normal ketchup, the third is Hudson’s very spicy ketchup—a thin orange potion for which the recipe is a guarded secret. “All I can tell you is that there is no horseradish in it,” the counterman reveals to an inquisitive customer.
Other than the fact that a glass case holds slices of pie for dessert, there is little more to say about Hudson’s. In nine decades, it has honed a simple perfection with a formula that brooks no revision whatsoever.
One day at high noon when an out-of-towner calls out above the lunchtime din to blithely ask, “Can you grill that onion for me?” all dialogue at the counter screeches to a halt. The question is so shocking that people actually stop chewing their food.
In the silence, Todd Hudson, his back to the counter, doesn’t even bother to turn his attention from the patties sizzling before him. “No!” he calls out. And with tradition reaffirmed, Huddy Burger devotees resume their lunch and conversation.
Naturalists know the Wolf Lodge District, just east of Coeur d’Alene, for a population of bald eagles that congregate at the Mineral Ridge trail and near Beauty Bay in the late autumn to feast on the spawning kokanee salmon. Year round, human carnivores are drawn to the WOLF LODGE INN for meat and potatoes of legendary scale. A vast, red barn-board roadhouse just yards from the highway, Tom Engle’s exuberant Wild West domain features oil-cloth-clad tables and walls festooned with trophy animal heads, bleached bovine skulls, antique tools, old beer posters, vintage snowshoes, silly backwoods homilies, and yellowing newspaper clippings of local-interest stories. It is a sprawling place with miscellaneous booths and dining nooks in several rooms; at the back of the rearmost dining area is a stone barbecue pit where tamarack and cherry burn a few feet below the grate. On this grate sizzle slabs of beef ranging from sixteen ounce sirloins and filets mignons to porterhouses well over two pounds.
Cowboy-cuisine aficionados like to start supper with a plate of “swinging steak”—sliced and crisp-fried bull testicles served with cocktail sauce and lemon wedges. We relished a bowl of truly homey vegetable-beef soup that was thick as stew, with hunks of carrot, potato, beef, green bell pepper, and onion. All dinners come with saucy “buckaroo” beans, a twist of Krebbel (fried bread), and baked or fried potatoes—the latter excellent steak fries, each of which is one eighth of an Idaho baker that has been sliced end to end and fried so that it develops a light, crisp skin and creamy insides. We split the forty-two ounce “Rancher,” which turned out to be a hefty porterhouse supplemented by an average-sized sirloin (“to make up weight,” the waitress explained). It was exquisite beef, not too crusty and loaded with juice, well-seasoned with salt and pepper, fragrant from the burning wood over which it was cooked.
As we exited into the brisk autumn air, we noticed that whenever the restaurant’s front door swings open a cowbell clangs.
When Steve and Marilyn Nergord opened CAPERS in a small, white frame house off Fourth Street last year, they anticipated it would be mostly a market, with a handful of tables for people to eat their Mediterranean-accented composed salads on the premises. “We planned on having about twenty seats, but while we were remodeling we screened over a hundred calls for reservations,” Steve recalls. “So we went out and bought more chairs and tables.” Capers is still a market where you can buy such delicacies as Moroccan preserved lemons, Turkish kisir (bulgur wheat, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and pomegranate molasses), Tunisian mechouia salad of peppers and tomatoes, as well as crusty fresh-baked baguettes and loaves of rosemary-perfumed beer bread. But seats at the Nergords’ white-clothed tables have quickly become a prime dining attraction for Coeur d’Alene cognoscenti.
The one meat-and-potatoes meal we had from Marilyn Nergord’s crackerjack kitchen was hardly your typical steak-house supper: a deliriously succulent braised lamb shank served on a bed of rugged-whipped Yukon Golds seasoned with garlic and decorated with tiny, sweet figs. That same night, Marilyn made Dungeness crab cakes with red pepper aioli accompanied by a leek pancake made from an ancient Roman recipe. The autumn menu also listed chicken couscous with harissa, radiatore pasta tossed with roasted garlic, and fettuccine with mushrooms and baby clams. There are always at least a dozen exotic salads and cool vegetable mixtures such as garbanzos and fennel, seasoned Tunisian barley, and a fiery Moroccan carrot-cumin mélange. For dessert, fresh peach tart with ginger crust and poached pear with caramel sauce are both decorated with edible flowers from the Nergords’ garden.
One day, while we merrily plow through a six-salad lunch with hunks of seeded fresh baguette still warm from the oven, a local lady sits herself down at an adjacent table and demands to know,
“What has mint in it?”
Steve suggests the tabbouleh salad and Turkish kisir, or possibly a dessert.
“My grandson is the one who sells you your mint!” she boasts to explain her herbaceous mania. “He told me to eat here and try it. And he sells you basil, too. What do you make that has basil in it?”
For a week in Coeur d’Alene, we started every day at JAVA ON SHERMAN and fell in love with the place. We sampled breakfast at other cafés and diners around town, but none were as compelling as this stylish storefront coffee-house (one of Idaho’s four Javas) where Seattle-level caffeine connoisseurship combines with muffin mastery. All the usual drip-brewed and espresso-based beverages are expertly made, supplemented by house specialties that range from the devastating “Keith Richards,” made from four shots of espresso and Mexican chocolate, to the sublime “bowl of soul,” which is a balance of coffee, espresso, and Mexican chocolate with whipped cream and a sprinkle of cinnamon served in a big ceramic bowl.
Java offers a repertoire of hot breakfasts, including non-instant oatmeal and eggs steamed at the nozzle of the cappuccino machine, but it’s the baked goods that have won Idahoans’ hearts: handsome scones, sweet breads, and sour cream muffins, plus the trademark “lumpy muffin”—big chunks of tart apple with walnuts and raisins, all suspended in sweet cinnamon cake. Considerably more top than base, this muffin breaks easily into sections that are not quite dunkable (they’d fall apart) but are still coffee’s consummate companion.
Rugged as it is, the landscape of northern Idaho can be irresistibly romantic—especially when appreciated at dinner hour from a table in CEDARS FLOATING RESTAURANT, which is one of the few eateries that take full advantage of the city’s auspicious setting at the north end of Coeur d’Alene Lake. In fact, Cedars is located in the lake, moored about a hundred feet out at the head of the Spokane River and reachable by a walk down a long, narrow gang-plank from the parking lot. Permanently berthed on three hundred tons of concrete, the dining room does not bob with the waves (as the original structure did in the 1960s); but the window tables are virtually on the waterline. We happened to visit one drizzly early-autumn evening when the lake was steel gray, reflecting stormy skies and low clouds creeping down over a forested horizon.
A crackling fire and the lively sounds of an open kitchen provide cozy ambiance to the spacious circular dining room, where every seat affords a view of waterfowl skimming over waves and the distant rocky shoreline. The multi page menu has something for everyone, including beautiful steaks and prime rib, but the blackboard in the entryway tells what’s special: fresh fish from Pacific waters. Salmon, ‘ahi, sea bass, halibut, shark, and mahimahi are some of the frequently available choices; they are cut into thick fillets and charcoal-broiled, served with a choice of clear lemon-butter–caper sauce, tropical-fruit salsa, or cucumber-dill sauce. Our Hawaiian wahoo was a handsome piece of meat, well over an inch thick. Firm and sweet-fleshed with a savory crust from the grill, it was accompanied by a baked potato with tawny skin and flavorful insides. “An Idaho potato?” we asked the waitress. Blushing, she confessed the spud was grown in Washington.
Preceded by a pair of creamy crab cakes dotted with red and yellow pepper bits and followed by raspberry creme bridge for dessert, the wahoo and potato were an exemplary western meal. But if we don’t dwell too much on Cedars’s fine food, please understand that we were overcome by the setting and the view. Rolling waves slapping in from the lake, a brewing tempest in the sky, and the heavy mist settling down over the far mountains at dusk were a vision of primal beauty that made us linger in this magical place long after coffee was poured and plates were cleared away.
Cedars (permanently closed)
Coeur d’Alene, ID
Cedars Floating Restaurant
Java on Shermans (permanently closed)
324 Sherman Avenue
Coeur d’Alene, ID