A great many words are spilled each year about restaurants too few of us can frequent: The white-tableclothed, reservation-bound establishments with amuse-bouches, multi-page wine lists and sophisticated diners who ask for something called the "chef's whim."
But far too little focus is leveled at the places where we do spend time. Those once-a-week lunch spots, the check-in-with-your buddies burger joints, the mom-and-pop ethnic eateries with that one crave-worthy dish that makes your mouth start watering at your desk at around 10:45 a.m.
These are the holes in the wall, and they are every eater's best-kept secrets, and you find them tucked into strip malls, in converted houses on side streets, despite their occasionally ancient, often faded, frequently hand-made signs. If you spend more than $10 on lunch at most of these places, you're just showing off.
Take the Chef's Hut Café (164 S. Cole Road), a 35-year-old Boise mainstay that only very recently upgraded its hardware-store lettered sandwich boards to something that looks like they intend to stick around a while. Smack in the middle of the Franklin Business Park, you can barely see the front of the Chef's Hut from the closest parking lot, let alone any nearby road - it could be the annual winner of the Treasure Valley's Best Worst Location.
Just finding this place in the first place puts you in a certain category of intrepid eater, but when you get here, you'll feel right at home. The breakfasts are basic but wholesome, with the Hollandaise sauce of a much tonier establishment. Lunch is all comfort food: Reubens, patty melts, Phillies and BLTs. If the chef at chef's hut has a whim, he darn well doesn't want you asking about it.
But you'll go back, and for more than just to prove to yourself you didn't imagine the whole thing in the first place.
I've been privileged to work near Orchard Street for years, and if you've never explored the food in this neck of the woods, you're missing out. I would send you out immediately for the Argentine empanadas at Tangos, the excellent tacos, burritos and whole grilled tilapia at Campos Market and the giant Gyros sandwich platter at the Bo Ex (short for Bosnian Exchange, and also a good place for some hard-to-find eastern European groceries).
One of my first favorite holes in the wall in Boise was an Asian dive called Chef Express. It was, let's say, rough around the edges in there, and though it's appearance ruled out the weak at heart, I'd crave the wor wanton soup when I worked editing shifts at the Statesman. Today, a Vietnamese place called Pho Tam (1098 N. Orchard Street) has drastically cleaned the space up, and while their pho, a Vietnamese noodle soup, will warm you up on a cold day, my favorite dish here is the sizzling Saigon crepes (Banh xeo) - a traditional street food of pork, fish sauce, herbs and spices, wrapped in lettuce and dipped in a pungent sweet and spicy sauce.
So holes in the wall don't have to be old to qualify.
Down the hill, Garden City is itself kind of a hole-in-the-wall town, socked in as it is by its bully big brother, Boise. I once ate Texas barbecue here just down an open hallway from a tattoo shop. Lately, a few new breweries are popping up in unexpected places. Payette Brewing Company (111 W. 33rd Street) is down such an unassuming side road off Chinden Boulevard that folks there have been known to park their delivery truck at the corner as a signal. They don't have food of their own but regularly host local food trucks for evening noshing and occasional multi-course meals paired with Payette brews. Crooked Fence Brewing (5242 Chinden) screams hole-in-the-wall, with its tiny tasting room, industrial strip-mall facade and hot-dog rotisserie. They've been known to host food trucks as well.
But in my book, this category is dominated by two Boise icons, and if you haven't been to either in a while, one has moved and drastically upgraded and the other has undergone an extensive deep clean and retrofit - both signs, I hope, that they will be around for a long time to come.
I never met Tom Sweeney, and I regret that. From what I hear, he ran the Dutch Oven like a benign dictator. Friendly to a point, but with little interest in negotiating. I'd heard about the giant home-made hamburgers (served with a side of cottage cheese) and the no-fuss atmosphere for years before I finally made it in. The old location was tucked in the back of a parking lot on Orchard, and I guarantee most of you drove past it hundreds of times without noticing. Today, Tom Sweeney's Dutch Oven (1621 N. Orchard) is in a renovated home just north of Fairview Avenue, with much more seating and many fewer reasons to keep the fire marshal up at night. A longtime patron named Bill Carter bought the joint, renamed it after its founder, and told the new chef to run it like Tom would - with a sort of sociable grumpiness. You get a choice of drink and some input on how long your burger is cooked. At breakfast, you get "breakfast." If you finish your plate, you get a cookie.
Prices: $9 lunch, $7-9 breakfast (extra is if you want meat).
Up the street, Chan Chun-Chung has built a Sweeney-esque reputation for his homemade noodles, made-to-order Szechuan-style dishes and elaborate array of exotic plants that make the Wok Inn Noodle (4912 W. Emerald St.) look like the kind of place where you may accidentally buy a remote-control that can magically control your life or an adorable cooing pet you don't want to get wet or feed after midnight.
Unlike the Dutch Oven, you have a few choices here, but I'll be honest: For years I've ordered the exact same thing: house noodles, extra spicy. The plate comes brimming with vegetables, chicken, beef and shrimp. The sauce has power, but doesn't overpower the ingredients. It is one of my favorite meals in town. I've since ventured into the Thai curry, over noodles of course, which is a little sweeter and has a few more vegetables. I've been here with vegetarian friends, and know the deep-fried tofu is tasty and Chan is capable of and willing to throw together a surprising and delicious seaweed soup if you don't want chicken broth.
This is simple and fresh fare, with crisp veggies and always tender and perfectly cooked meat. I honestly don't know how authentic it is to Szechuan cooking in China, or if it hearkens back to an Americanized version, but it is bold and pungent and as spicy as you dare him to make it.
I'll address this for folks who have been here, and treat it gently for folks who haven't - for a while, the Wok Inn had a certain, well, smell. It took two recent short-term closures and some extra work, but that is gone, and without any residual effects to the feel or flavor of the place.
The whole thing never really bothered me - the food was just too good.
But you can't have the perfect hole in the wall forever. Sometimes everybody else figures out how great you've got it, and the secret is out.
Email Gregory Hahn: firstname.lastname@example.org. This is Greg Hahn's final restaurant review for Scene.