Sometimes, all it takes is a single dish to inspire undying devotion to a restaurant. Sure, we might make a show out of looking at the menu, but deep down, we know we're going to order the same thing every time.
Here's a few must-try dishes in the Treasure Valley. If you haven't had them yet, now's the time.
Ice Cream Potato
Westside Drive In, 1939 W. State St., Boise, 208-342-2957, cheflou.com
When traveling outside the state, Idahoans have to deal with one response whenever they say where they are from: "Potatoes!" It's hard to escape the ubiquitous spud, so why not own it? And when we say own it, we mean make it a ridiculous frozen dessert. Westside Drive In's ice cream potato is the pinnacle of this quest. It starts on a foundation of vanilla bean ice cream formed in the shape of Idaho's favorite tuber. The faux tater is rolled in cocoa powder, split open, given a dose of chocolate sauce and topped with whipped cream. The result is a dessert in disguise.
El Gallo Giro, 482 W. Main St., Kuna, 208-922-5169, elgallogirokuna.com
If a portion of a dish's appeal comes from presentation, then the molcajete at El Gallo Giro in Kuna is the cuisine equivalent of fireworks on the Fourth of July. The molcajete itself is a three-legged bowl made of volcanic stone. But in this little Ada County eatery, it becomes its own genre of dish, one that arrives so hot that its contents are sputtering and spitting. There's no disappointment for diners who delve into the depths of the molcajete, where rich sauces that balance earthy and spicy commingle with tender shrimp, chicken, steak or--for the adventurous, tongue--and thick slices of peppers, onions and mushrooms.
Lindy's Steak House, 12249 W. Chinden Blvd., Boise, 208-375-1310
If you ask for a fingersteak anywhere outside of Idaho, you're probably going to get some funny looks. The Gem State doesn't have many claims to fame as far as food goes, but the fingersteak proudly holds the title of Idaho original. For those uninitiated in the ways of the fingersteak, they are basically a beef version of chicken strips. First-timers should do it right by heading to Lindy's Steak House, which uses prime strips of steak coated in seasoned breading, then fried under pressure using a broaster. In true Idaho fashion, fingersteaks are served with cocktail sauce since the horseradish adds just the right kick. Hold your fingersteaks proudly, Idahoans.
(Spicy) Lamb Grinder
Bar Gernika, 202 S. Capitol Blvd., Boise, 208-344-2175, bargernika.com
Gernika has three versions of a French dip, each busting at the seams with sliced lamb, bell peppers, mushrooms and onions, sided with a lamb au jus. Those who can't take the heat get the lamb grinder topped with Swiss. Those who like a swift kick in the gut order the spicy grinder, which punches it up with the help of Pepper jack cheese and jalapenos. For the few who like it to hurt, there's a "secret" lamb grinder preceded by the words "extra spicy"--the extra comes courtesy of Sambal, crushed red peppers and Sriracha. Better order an extra kalimotxo, too.
Red Feather Lounge, 246 N. Eighth St., Boise, 208-343-3119, justeatlocal.com
Consider yourself officially let in on a serious foodie secret: oatmeal souffle. The pastry chef at Red Feather Lounge keeps these things in high demand by not only making them lip-licking good but by making so few every week that they've become highly sought after. In other words, if you dilly dally getting to breakfast, you might be souffle out of luck.
Focaccia's, 404 E. Parkcenter Blvd., Boise, 208-322-2838, focaccias.com
A drizzle of sour cream sauce. Crispy wonton chips. A few simple ingredients turn a frat boy's hangover helper into gourmet morning repast. Focaccia's breakfast nachos are an ingenious reconstruction of a dish not often--not ever--associated with fine dining. A large, white, square ceramic bowl holds a base of crispy, pale wonton chips, a generous helping of spicy pot beans, a fluffy pile of scrambled eggs and a cool scoop of pico de gallo, finished off with drizzly lines of tangy sour cream sauce like celebratory white streamers. This is a breakfast dish worth celebrating.
Merritt's Country Cafe, 6630 W. State St., Boise, 208-853-9982, merrittscafe.com
Sometimes, you need to push away the scrawny, low-fat, no-carb voice in your head and cock your ear toward the greasy, fried, slathered-in-butter belching and bellowing that you've been ignoring. At Merritt's, "Home of the Famous Scone," the trembly, eat-your-vegetables orders coming from your conscience will be squelched when your eyes land on the air-mattress of fried dough set before you. Your gray matter may try to issue a weak protest in support of your well being, but once you spread the butter and powdered sugar around and add a big glob of honey to your scone, your tastebuds will suddenly be in charge. Don't fight it.
Boise Fry Company, 111 Broadway Ave., Boise, 208-495-3858, boisefrycompany.com
There is something equally decadent and also down-to-earth about a brown paper bag filled with piping hot Yukon gold french fries, cooked in duck fat and liberally sprinkled with black truffle salt. Dip those bad boys in chipotle aioli or blueberry ketchup and you'll discover how glamorous a simple spud can be.
Highlands Hollow Brewhouse, 2455 Harrison Hollow Lane, Boise, 208-343-6820, highlandshollow.com
OK, nachos are rad, that's a given. Now imagine a plate of nachos--black beans, diced red onion, sour cream, guacamole, pepper jack cheese--and replace the tortilla chips with thick, smoky, cheesy wedges of cornmeal polenta and a drizzle of ancho chili sauce. Whoa.
This calorie-laden creation is the grilled polenta at Highlands Hollow Brewhouse. Take one gooey bite, wash it back with a glug of house-brewed Hippie Shake and you'll toss out your gym membership and invest in a pair of elastic sweat pants. Gluttony never felt so righteous.
Bucket of Clams
Ben's Crow Inn, 6781 Warm Springs Ave., Boise, 208-342-9669
Whether you're a Greenbelt biker looking to rest your sweaty legs or a sunburned river rafter fresh out of cold ones, Ben's Crow Inn is a welcoming respite in the middle of BFE. And, in addition to being known for the patio, classic rock jukebox and horseshoe pits, Ben's Crow Inn is also renowned for its fresh clams.
For those who wince at the thought of consuming shellfish from a biker shack off dusty Warm Springs Road near Boise city limits, regulars have three words: more for us. Ordered in either 1-and-one-fourth pound or the 3-and-a-half pound size, the Bucket of Clams at Ben's Crow Inn frequently sells out on the weekends. Served up simple--a spray of lemon, a dunk of butter--the BOC also comes with a side of crisp, ruler-sized potato wedges. If oysters are more your style, be sure to throw back a fresh oyster shooter--if you can fit the massive little monster in your mouth, that is.
Tower of Tuna
Chandlers Steakhouse, 981 W. Grove St., Boise, 208-383-4300, chandlersboise.com
If Rapunzel were trapped in a Tower of Tuna, the long-locked lass wouldn't want a prince charming to rescue her. A cylindrical mound of fresh ahi and hamachi tuna, avocado, red onion and diced tomato garnished with red and green sauce dollops and topped with two brittle sesame crisps, the Tower of Tuna at Chandlers Steakhouse is what foodie fairy tales are made of. Add in the swanky, blue-lit ambience of Chandlers--and a perfectly balanced 10-minute martini from mixologist Pat Carden--and it's enough for any princess to let down her hair.
Gino's Italian Ristorante, 3015 W. McMillan Road, Meridian, 208-887-7710
Though "the shank" implies some singular superiority, Gino's actually offers not one but three varieties of shank, each of which rightly lays claim to the title of "the shank" as if it were the one, the only. Go traditional Italian with the osso buco shank. The lamb choice is familiar territory, but smoked boar is a walk on the wild side. An hours-long slow cook renders the lean shank meat soft like butta'.