In the summer of 2001, an oasis sprang up on the wasteland known as Sprague Avenue. That oasis, which rests at 12722 E. Sprague Ave., has blossomed over the years into a restaurant Spokanites can count on for an exotic retreat from the commotion just 20 feet outside its doors.
A heavy door bejeweled with bells marks the entrance to Thai Bamboo, and you’ll notice when it shuts behind you, a supremely striking silence replaces the disorder of life outside and forces you to stand still with appreciation.
Tom Burgess, owner of all three Thai Bamboo restaurants in Spokane, recently lugged in 7,000 pounds of stone into the new South Hill location to serve as a backdrop for another stunner: LED Las Vegas lights capable of projecting 16.7 million colors onto the stone wall.
Yet somehow, the added twist of innovation takes nothing away from the tranquility of the restaurant. The lights glow discreetly and fluctuate in silence. Burgess has managed to build a luscious sanctuary that boasts big-city flavor without overpowering the serenity that belongs to Thailand.
“The restaurant is old fashioned and high-tech,” he said. “We’ve got the traditional bamboo tables, but also things you’d see in a big city.”
The unusual synthesis of Thai culture and over-the-edge modernism makes sense after hearing he’s from Fremont, Seattle’s hippest corner smitten with the potential of the imagination.
“That town was our inspiration,” he said. “When we came here, we only found a few Thai restaurants, and all they had were metal chairs and a few posters on the wall.” His eyes play across a blindingly vibrant mural. “We wanted something more artsy.”
And artsy is an understatement. Spokane hasn’t seen this much color since the remnants of Mount St. Helens blew away. Burgess treats me to a view of the backside of the restaurant, where sand-blasted windows, bamboo gates, and enormous, lively murals stick out like a cultural punch in the face. “We support local artists,” he said.
As a Thai woman chirps away on the speakers back inside the restaurant, Burgess delves into a rich description of his clientele, whom to him seem to constitute the real substance of his establishment.
“Everyone has a story to tell,” he said with a flicker of a flashback in his tone. “People who got a taste for Asian food while fighting the Vietnam War. People that have been to Thailand. Everyone.”
Aside from the “educated, world-travelers” that come in, ecstatic to see such a place in such a city, Burgess surprises me when he discloses an unbelievable bit of information: Kids eat here too, and not only that — they enjoy it.
“And we don’t even have a kids menu!” he laughs. “They’ll eat the same vegetables here that they refuse to eat at home.”
If that isn’t evidence that the cuisine here is brilliant, the extensive menu featuring exotic ingredients will impress even the most skeptical connoisseur. Thai Bamboo regularly imports Thai basil from Hawaii, among other staple ingredients which refuse to grow locally.
“And we’re always making sure we’ve got the right people working here,” said Burgess. “People who have eaten Thai food and who are well-informed on all the dishes. There’s definitely a medicinal quality to our food. When you eat Thai cuisine, you get a good feeling in your stomach afterwards.”
Burgess concludes by presenting a breath-taking array of made-to-order Thai food, and the familiar, luscious smell of peanut sauce and cilantro quickly fills the nostrils of a frequent visitor, but also a journalism student on the run.
The interview over, I step outside in time to catch the last slivers of sunlight poking through the bamboo growing wild around the restaurant. But with the ugly chaos happening out here, the aura of Thai Bamboo is gone, and it won’t be back until the bells adorning the heavy door rattle behind me again.