It's been said that the greatest thing about Sun Valley is how close it is to Idaho.
Our state is not often thought of as a gourmet destination, but in the Wood River Valley, home to the historic resort and oozing wealth, we have a glaring exception to the rule. Sophisticates from all over the world have helped make this town a cultural oasis in a sagebrush desert. The result: fare to satisfy even the most discerning gourmands. The downside to all this quality is, naturally, some exorbitant prices. But the Wood River Valley is so much more than just a tourist attraction, and the valley's vibrant community is producing some wonderful and fairly priced dining options.
As the gateway to the Wood River Valley, Bellevue provides a gentle transition into a valley of quirky, casual and affordable places to eat.
Dinner: The BrickHouse Bar and Grill
The latest project by Tom Nickel, the longtime Ketchum restaurateur whose Sawtooth Club and Roosevelt Bar and Grill have been among the most the most popular and enduring establishments in the area. For this south valley venture, Nickel renovated Bellevue's historic, century-old Bank Building and, in the process, raised the bar in Bellevue big time. The ambience is tops in town, but the menu is more downhome than what you'll find in Ketchum. Try comfort-food staples like homestyle fried chicken and "Not Your Grandmother's Meatloaf," along with wines and beers from a lengthy list of reasonably priced options.
202 Main St., Bellevue, 208-788-4999, brickhouse-bar-and-grill.com
Lunch: Oak Street Foods
This place is a real sleeper. Vicki Walker is the proprietor, chief cook, caterer and general "goddess of the kitchen." Before opening her own spot, Walker was the kitchen manager for 12 years at Cristina's in Ketchum, the place where Sun Valley's high society brunches. At her Oak Street endeavor, the food skills Walker gained are on full display with homemade soups and salads, fresh fish tacos or whatever Vicki "feels like playing with" on any given day. Since some of her old customers have followed her south, her cozy luncheonette draws a richly mixed clientele. On a busy day on Oak Street, guys in broken-in Carhartts sit next to a table of Sun Valley ladies lunching. And everyone seems pretty happy about it.
109 Oak St., Bellevue, 208-788-3646
Dinner: Mahoney's Bar and Grill
Home to the famous Juicy Lucy burger, which while delicious, should not be eaten immediately upon arrival, lest you want a molten cheese burn in your mouth. Otherwise, this welcome addition to the south valley food scene is a sure thing for a casual dinner--burgers, sandwiches, chili, salad--with a few cold brews.
104 Main St., Bellevue, 208-788-4449
Lunch: Taqueria El Pastor
Grab a cerveza and a seat on the dog-friendly deck at this colorful blue and yellow taqueria on the east side of Main Street. The prices are taco-truck cheap, but there's a lot more to love here than what you can get on the side of the road. Any meat is tasty and everything is fresh, but if you're a beef fan, the richly flavored cabeza, or beef cheeks, can't be beat.
321 Main St., Bellevue, 208-578-2300
Hailey is the hub of the community. It's where the over-valued real estate to the north and the Idaho to the south meet. When it comes to fine-dining and plentiful options, Hailey is still playing catch-up to the resort towns, but the way things are trending, the future looks mighty bright.
These days, chef Derek Gallegos' little house on Main Street is a gourmet guarantee. Themed Mexican and Asian nights in early summer have had the locals flocking. Summer is Gallegos' time to shine as he goes out of his way to source south Idaho's abundant produce. By late summer, look for sweet corn in every course. From kernels garnishing grilled fresh fish to sweet corn custard, Gallegos isn't afraid to experiment with flavors he knows.
310 N. Main St., Hailey, 208-788-4161, threetenmain.com
Lunch: CK's Real Food
When Chris Kastner, the longtime chef at Ketchum's Evergreen restaurant, opened a fine-dining foodie temple in Hailey, heads turned. "Where is the best place to eat in Sun Valley?" visitors asked. "In Hailey," the locals replied in unison. For more than five years now, Kastner has been turning out masterpieces of conscious cuisine. Plenty of regionally ranched beef, locally grown produce and even smart seafood, all prepared beautifully in the Idaho-French farmhouse the Kastners designed themselves. But prices weren't low, so when CK's opened a hot dog stand on their back porch last summer, heads turned again. There may be no such thing as a free lunch, but cheap and good is a delicious start. Last summer's hot dogs and pitas have grown into Hailey's best new lunch spot for everything from grilled Reuben sandwiches to vegan veggie bowls, with most items going for less than $10. Sit inside or on the deck this summer--look for the squash and creeping berry vines around back. And if a $3 meal is all you need, CK's hasn't ditched the simple idea that originally launched their lunch venture last summer.
320 S. Main St., Hailey, 208-788-1223, cksrealfood.net
Dinner: Lago Azul
Sandra Castillo moved to the Wood River Valley from Nampa in 2000, and she has been making the tastiest, most consistently satisfying El Salvadorian and Mexican food in the area since 2002. Specialties from her native El Salvador include the hangover-curing papusas, which are handmade cornmeal tortillas stuffed with ground pork and cheese and then griddle-fried. Unlike most Mexican places in the area, you can find Central American specialities like fried plantains, yucca and a simple Caldo de Res (beef soup) bursting with veggies and beef on the bone.
The all-family-run Lago Azul serves breakfast all day, and the shredded beef machaca is a perfect example of how Castillo can take a simple combination of foods--eggs, skirt steak, onions and peppers in this case--and turn it into a food experience for less than $10. Other favorites include the Tacos Tinga--shredded chicken cooked with onions and chipotle, stuffed in a taco, flash-deep-fried and smothered in fresh veggies. Due to popular demand, Castillo is introducing Beef Tinga this summer.
The fridge is always stocked with fresh horchata and a solid selection of Mexican beers. It's not on the menu, but if you ask for a michelada, Chris Castillo will bring you the refreshing tomato juice, beer, hot sauce and Clamato creation you crave.
14 W. Croy St., Hailey, 208-578-1700
Lunch: Big Belly Deli
In the Main Street strip of casual lunch competition, you really can't go wrong. Wize Guy Pizza was recently joined by McLeans Pizzeria, officially making this a two-pizza town. And for quick and sort of healthy-ish Mexican fare, try KB's, which despite its name (Ketchum Burritos), now calls Hailey home.
But on the north end of the strip, Big Belly Deli is the little sandwich shop that could. This place has really grown into its own during the past few years and has been offering more and more homemade deliciousness both on your sandwich (the white-bean spread is an ingenious complement to the all-veggie garden sandwich) and off (homemade yogurt, for real).
171 N. Main St., Hailey, 208-788-2411
The jewel in the Wood River Valley's crown, Ketchum is a classic ski town with a bit of an identity crisis. Real estate developers wonder if the town should be more like Aspen or Park City. Still others hope for an altogether unique destination. The good news is that all this hand-wringing is producing a wave of new eateries. Some will succeed, and some won't, but for now, there are more new places to eat in Ketchum than at any time in the past few years.
Dinner: Sego Restaurant and Bar
This is the place that everyone who cares about food in Ketchum was talking about all winter and spring. The gourmet tavern was boldly opened by Las Vegas food veterans Kevin Stuessi and Taite Pearson in December, at the height of the Christmas crush. During high snow season, the place was crawling with celebrities, but they waited for tables just like everyone else. Chef Pearson built a Vegas-quality kitchen and has been turning out stunning food for almost six months now.
The big secret about Sego is that, even though the decor is West Coast luxe, even though the chef is a strict locavore (by mid-July, it should be serving 90 percent Idaho-sourced food), and even though the menu's creative gourmet options are on par with the hottest food trends in Brooklyn, Portland, Ore., or San Francisco, Sego is the best deal in Sun Valley. Take the burger--9 ounces of house-ground, grass-fed, top sirloin raised in Middleton, served on a pretzel bun with piles of zesty house-made tomato jam, balsamic-caramelized onions and heaps of hand-cut Idaho fries, all for $12. That is a deep, smoky, screaming bargain. And nothing on this always-changing, always-interesting menu tops $20, which, for this town, is news alone.
This summer, Sego will blossom as it doubles its seating with al fresco dining on a street-level patio and a rooftop deck. Across the street from the main dining room, a community garden will be as much an educational area for local kids as a source of hyper-local ingredients.
131 Washington Ave., Ketchum, 208-928-7878, segorestaurant.com
You could be forgiven for never noticing Rasberrys. Located in the basement of the Tribes interior design store, this caterers/gourmet luncheonette is a hidden treasure. Callie and Maeme Rasberry are the identical twins who run the show and attracted a cult following to their underground dining room that feels a lot like a secret French salon. The Rasberry twins have come a long way since their first jobs with food--"Welcome to Chik-fil-A. May I take your order?"--and their bistro is the not-so-secret best place in town for a long lazy lunch with wine. Having grown up in El Paso, Texas, the twins cook with strong Mexican influences, and their homemade tacos and enchiladas are always popping with flavors. The menu changes daily, so it's best to ask their mom (who helps out waiting tables) what's best on any given day. Perennially, though, their line-up of chilled soups is always a sure thing for anyone who loves a light, crisp summertime lunch.
411 Fifth St. E., Ketchum, 208-726-0606, rasberrysonline.com
In Ketchum and Sun Valley, young people are an endangered species. But if you want to find a lot of them in one spot, Rickshaw is a good place to start. Owned by Ketchum native and newly elected city councilwoman Nina Jonas and her husband Andreas Heaphy, Rickshaw is where to go for bowls of Vietnamese pho, sesame noodle bowls, addictive dumplings, crunchy calamari, Balinese cucumbers and whatever else this creative young couple sources on their most recent trip to Southeast Asia. If there's a line, which there often is, a fire pit and an outdoor ping-pong table make for more-than-decent distractions. Also, beer and sake mojitos are welcome outside, so while you salivate over whatever Asian delicacies Andreas is cooking up in his open kitchen, have a drink, make like a backpacker in a beach-side Thai hostel, and relax.
460 Washington Ave., Ketchum, 208-726-8481, eat-at-rickshaw.com
Lunch: Johnny G's Subshack
In a town that has seen casual lunch options diminish over the years, Johnny G just keeps holding on. It's probably because he keeps coming up with more delicious sub creations every year. For starters, every sandwich comes toasted, which ups the deliciousness rating from the start. Add toppings like roasted cherry tomatoes, Sun Valley mustard and plentiful fresh veggies, and you've got the perfect reward for your gut-busting hike, bike or run. There's a reason the place is always crawling with locals: The Subshack is a reliably tasty spot. Grab a park bench out front, a handful of peanuts in their shells and a sub with names like "Middle School Madness" (turkey, bacon, cheddar, mayo and lettuce) or the "Meatless Masterpiece" (cream cheese, avocado, sprouts, sunflower seeds, olives, lettuce, tomato, cucumber, picante sauce). You won't be disappointed.
371 Washington Ave., Ketchum, 208-725-7827, johnnygsubshack.com