East Sprague is not known for either its charm or its picturesque qualities. And as we navigated its car lot-, pawn shop-, abandoned mall-infested length in search of the Old European restaurant, we were both ravenous and a little nervous. But suddenly we spied an oasis of hollyhocks, gladiolas, snapdragons and roses. Beyond that, a charming white building with hand-stenciled flowers along its walls and gables. Silently, we thanked the gods of breakfast and pulled into the parking lot.
Once inside, we noticed that the Scandinavian/Dutch theme continued, with such Old World touches as a wooden clog or pieces of blue-and-white crockery. But there was something even more familiar about the place, something we couldn't quite put our finger on, something that seemed specific to the memories of American kids who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s. "Sambo's," we said to each other, almost simultaneously. Sure enough, the panels above the kitchen that had once held lighted tableaux of wily tigers stealing the jacket, hat and pants off one unfortunate little boy had now been covered over in paneling and floral wallpaper.
"It did start out as a Sambo's originally," confirms owner Darin Martin. "Then it was an Apple Barrel and then Klausen's Kitchen before it became an Old European."
Having solved that particular mystery, we were able to focus on the menu, which is like no other breakfast menu in town. (They serve lunch, but this particular day we were hell-bent on breakfast). In addition to including such extraordinary offerings as Hungarian goulash ($8.50), orange raisin nut French toast ($5.50), Swedish crepes ($5.95) and "the Ol' Fried Egg Sandwich" ($4.50), the menu was also interspersed with tidbits of European lore. We learned that "the hearty Scots found a hot bowl of oatmeal served as an excellent warm-me-up, at any time of the day," and that if we were to attend a Finnish tea, we would be "expected to eat servings of at least seven different sweet cakes and rolls."
We were inspired to adopt European nicknames. Ursula, not surprisingly, opted for the German Potato Pancakes ($5.95). She describes them as being "very moist and flavorful, spiked occasionally with a little chunk of sausage." Claudette, spearing a little bite with her fork, also detected the welcome note of dill.
Dietrich was compelled to partake of the stuffed French toast ($5.95), which arrived with three sturdy slices of egg-battered bread and a little chapeau of extra batter on top. He judged his breakfast to be "exquisite: Three tender slices of thick bread, with just the right amount of egg batter on them, interspersed with two layers of scrambled eggs mixed with bits of flavorful sausage." He washed the whole thing down with "startlingly bright" fresh-squeezed orange juice.
There are few things Claudette likes more than the guilty, gooey, savory pleasures of Eggs Benedict. And here, she had four different versions to choose from: traditional ($7.95), vegetable ($7.95), artichoke hearts, tomatoes and sausage ($7.95) and Claudette's choice, smoked salmon ($8.95). The Eggs Benedict were perfect, with nice big chunks of salty salmon, but we weren't crazy about the diced potatoes. We normally love potatoes in any form, but these were, well, hard. Crunchy even. They also didn't have a lot of flavor and seemed to need some onion or garlic.
However, we soon forgot about the potatoes when our Danish aebelskivers ($4.95) arrived. The menu says that "unlike many delicious Danish specialties, aebelskivers have never been adopted in America as the buttermilk pancake has." After tasting these, we think that's a damn tragedy. These fluffy, pancake-y balls can be dipped in applesauce, or better yet, drizzled in syrup. Delish.
Although the menu is already pretty impressive, Martin and the owners of the Old European on North Division and the one in Pullman occasionally get together to tinker with new dishes.
"In mid-August we're going to introduce some new things on the menu that are really going to be a notch above what we already have," he says. "We're going to have blackberry brandy crepes, mango crepes and stuffed aebelskivers with havarti and sausage." Also on the horizon is the opening of a new Old European, this time in Post Falls. For some, it doesn't come a moment too soon.
"We have some customers who come in, literally, seven days a week," says Martin. "And we have one gentleman, who lives in Portland and flies his own plane, who comes into town once a month for the German potato pancakes. We also have a couple from Kelowna who come down once or twice a month for the tomato soup."