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DINER Top Notch Returns

Walk into the newly reopened Top Notch Café and you can expect to be greeted with friendly service, a great cup of coffee, and classic breakfast and lunch options with a few twists. You also get to slip back in time.

The Top Notch first opened in 1931 on the corner of Monroe and Mallon, and original art deco touches remain in the renovated space. “Daily people come in with stories from the past,” new owner Don Torbenson says with a grin, “and I just found out that the grandfather of one of our servers used to wash dishes here.”

Torbenson also discovered that early in its history, a previous owner would leave the door open all night long with a hot pot of coffee on for beat cops when they walked by. They came, warmed up and left money on the counter for the coffee they drank.

The coffee is still hot and several notches above typical diner brew, but the door is no longer open 24 hours. Torbenson and his crew open at 7 am during the week (8 am on weekends) and close at 2 pm after the last stragglers from the courthouse have been in for their Reuben or French Dip ($8.25 each).

Order an early breakfast special and $4.95 gets you two eggs, hash browns, toast, and coffee. We like the fact that the bread comes from just across the street at the Alpine Bistro and Bakery, and the hash browns are sliced thick.

Overall the menu highlights comfort food and traditional fare. “We wanted to bring it back to what it used to be,” Torbenson says. But along the way he and his wife Tama also had a little fun. There is Tama’s Jalapeño Burger ($7.95) at lunch, amped-up enough to make you cry, and an omelet packed with… wait for it… sauerkraut, cheese and German sausage.

Torbenson asked Terry Best from O’Doherty’s in the Valley if he could put a Terry original on the menu, and notes that “the people that try it, fall in love with it.” But he adds with another grin that not everyone is willing to try it. You can decide whether you’ll stick to the standards or try a Top Notch adventure, but either way, swing in soon for some good, unfussy food and a little living history in the shadow of the courthouse.

— KEVIN FINCH

Top Notch Café, 825 North Monroe St., is open 7 am-2 pm weekdays and 8 am-2 pm weekends. Call 315-5567.

Sometimes the good stuff is right under our noses, like the fragrant soup served by Pho Thanh and Café. This humble eatery serving traditional Vietnamese fare actually was opened five years ago by Sau V. Nguyen, when he relocated to Coeur d’Alene from Spokane.

It took us awhile to discover what others already know: the food is delicious and well-priced (nothing over $9), and most dishes are so abundant you’ll need take-home containers. That may be why Pho Thanh has developed a loyal following, like the family who’d traveled up from the Coeur d’Alene reservation for a hearty meal of things like the No. 28 chow mein noodles with lemon grass chili beef, chicken, shrimp and pork ($9).

For us it was a starter of spring rolls (2 for $3): tender chicken, hints of basil, and spicy, peanuty dipping sauce. Other options are fried egg rolls and fried wontons most diners might associate with Chinese cooking ($3).

Of course we had to try the beef soup or pho bo, which arrived in a large bowl with a side of raw bean sprouts, basil leaves, lime and jalapeno slices. A perfect blend of soft noodles, crispy veggies and tender beef, which arrives surprisingly rare since it continues to cook in the steaming broth (our motto has always been: eat first, ask questions and do research later).

Variations on pho include the addition of meatballs, beef tendon, tripe and even chicken ($7 small/$8 large).

Steamed rice (com dia) and vermicelli-like noodles (bun) are menu staples, topped in numerous variations: lemon grass chicken, beef or pork; beef meatball; shrimp skewer; charbroiled chicken, and fried egg roll ($8.45-$9). Two stir-fried special dishes, wonton soup, and Vietnamese chicken salad round out the menu. Beverages include soda, traditional soybean and coconut drinks in a can and a small assortment of bottle beers ($1-3).

All tables are equipped with dipping sauces — hoisin, sriracha chili, soy, lemon grass chili — so you can adjust the spice of your food, as well as extra plates for sharing, which you’ll definitely want to do as you discover your new favorite.

— CARRIE SCOZZARO

Pho Thanh and Cafe, 2108 N. Fourth Street, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, is open Mon-Sat 9:30 am–9 pm, Sun 9:30 am-7 pm. Call (208) 665-9903. Reservations recommended.

Just like the ol’ days at Top Notch. [Tammy Marshall photo]

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