by Marty Demarest

Several months ago in this paper, my colleague Mike Corrigan summed up buffets as giant feeding pens where patrons can make their way to the troughs as often as they like. Based on past experiences, I had to agree with his assessment. So setting off one Wednesday night to review the buffet at the Coeur d'Alene Casino, Sheri Boggs and I braced ourselves for the worst.

We couldn't have been more wrong. Cresting a slight rise in the foggy Palouse landscape, we were presented with a sight that undeniably said "casino." In fact, the words "bingo" and "jackpot" have so rarely had such a literal meaning in my life. There, like an alien starship dropped onto the prairie, was a gambling mecca.

We entered the hotel to find smiling employees greeting us and expanses of sofas and carpeting welcoming us. It was Bugsy meets Twin Peaks.

Winding down a long corridor with regular alcoves of video slot machines, we eventually found the main gambling room, stadium-sized, with luminous gaming machines and mirrors everywhere. It took us a few minutes of wandering to find our way to the buffet.

I'll admit it: I was taken aback. This looked like actual fun, and it was only a short drive from home. But more surprises were in store. The hostess at the restaurant didn't make us pay in advance; rather, she joked with us as she accommodated our request to be seated next to a giant waterfall falling among fake rocks along one wall. My companion pointed out that with the painted regional landscape and teepee-strewn diorama, it was like visiting the People of the Rivers exhibit at the Museum of Arts and Culture. But because the casino offers visitors drinking, dining and the honest chance to win thousands of dollars, I have to give it the edge.

We scanned the menus quickly looking for the buffet option -- a sign as we entered had proclaimed it to be "Mexican Night" -- and we were told that it was also a full-service restaurant. Skipping the conventional fare, however, we headed straight to the buffet line ($9.99), helping ourselves to mini-burritos, taquitos, rice, chicken and even cod. A taco bar wrapped things up, and a chef stood nearby cooking both beef and chicken fajitas. Other than a salad bar, that was it -- no slowly petrifying mac 'n' cheese or dripping steamed vegetables in sight.

Our server had offered lemon to go with our water (something that pricier restaurants rarely do), and we returned to our table to find an entire sectioned lemon waiting. It was a good start to an excellent meal. There were a few misses -- the "bandito wings" lacked oomph and the taco shells were a little stale -- but almost everything was fresh-tasting and well-prepared. The cod was moist and flaky in a sour-cream sauce, and the taquitos walked the fine line between crisp and oily with perfection. The fajitas tasted more like teriyaki than Mexican food, but the fresh strips of multicolored peppers and the warm flour tortillas made them delicious in any case.

The salad bar was smaller than the word "buffet" might suggest, but we were impressed by the options available at every turn for special dieters. No need for vegetarians to confine themselves to the salad bar, with rice, cheese, or bean versions of most entrees available. And at the dessert table, among the eight or nine different options that included warm cobbler and bread pudding made with -- God bless the chef -- cinnamon rolls, was a home-made sugar-free pie.

Eventually, the lure of the casino beckoned. Risking a few dollars here and there, we quickly made back our initial investment and kept going. Eventually we wondered how well we had to do in order to be considered high rollers and given a complimentary room. If breakfast was as enjoyable as dinner, I wanted to stick around.

A few nights later, the buffet at the Northern Quest Casino was the agenda. But where the Coeur d'Alene Casino was a full-service destination, Northern Quest was all about gambling. Not that it wasn't exciting -- the blackjack tables and video slots arrayed beneath the hanging riverbed art were impressive -- but the emphasis was less on hospitality and more on gaming.

In traditional buffet style, we paid upon entering ($10.95 for dinner; breakfast is $5.95 and lunch is $7.95), and found our own table in the clean, bustling dining room. Our server was with us instantly, offering us a choice of beverages and taking last-minute changes in stride. No menus here, but with the food laid out in the buffet area, that didn't seem necessary.

One gentleman ahead of me in line for the meat requested, and received without hesitation, a slice of ham substantial enough to require a separate plate. Likewise, I was accommodated with a thick, rare slice of prime rib, while Sheri had no trouble acquiring a well-done piece.

Even though "shoestring potatoes" was another way of saying "skinny French fries," the accompanying succulent pork tenderloin and rich gravy won me over. The only thing distinguishing this dish from something that I'd pay $10 for at another restaurant was the fact that I put it on a plate myself. The eggplant Parmesan and roasted squash satisfied our resident vegetarian. The salmon cakes were enormous, albeit a little on the dry side, but an elegant scattering of peaches across the top fixed that. Between these and the hand-carved roasts, I don't think there is better food available for the price anywhere else in Spokane.

Unfortunately, some of the side dishes weren't as successful, leaving you with average steamed corn and baby carrots if you didn't want rice pilaf or steamed potatoes. I found myself with a few other visitors turning around in the buffet area looking for more, while other diners queued up awaiting the arrival of more salmon and pork. At the Coeur d'Alene Casino, each trip through the buffet line had yielded a new experience. But that might have been due to the fact that when you have more than a dozen ingredients laid out, repeated visits can do little to stale the taco's infinite variety.

Yes, we gambled again -- less successfully. I just considered it my way of taking a tribute from the Coeur d'Alene tribe to the Kalispell tribe, and I fully intend to reverse the favor in the future. And as we headed back downtown, past the billboards offering to help control debt and acquire easy loans, I couldn't help wondering if, like Bugsy Siegel when he founded Las Vegas, we were witnessing the beginnings of a major new economic force in the region. If the food stays this good, I don't mind.

It Happened Here: Expo '74 Fifty Years Later @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Jan. 26
  • or