Culinary Corridor

Don’t look now, but Division is getting (food) culture

Division Street-bashing — it’s not even difficult. Spokane’s straight-shot autobahn of franchise fantasia, with chain stores nestled shoulder-to-shoulder like row houses in San Francisco, has a deserved reputation for campy first impressions.  

No offense to Oriental Health Spa, Ace’s Casino, Arby’s, Taco Bell, Hollywood Erotic Boutique, the blanket stand by NorthTown Mall, or Golden Corral. 

Tucked away in random corners of Spokane, we have pockets of culture and community; niches, nooks and neighborhoods lovingly developed, cared for and characterized by the businesses and people who support them — like the SoDo District, Garland and South Perry. Even Sprague Avenue has transformed itself into an International District.

If these out-of-the-way places can evolve, why can’t Spokane’s biggest north-south arterial?
Now look a little closer.

Like Gerber daisies sprouting in a thistly bed of Tex-Mex and faux-Asian, three businesses — two relatively new, one surprisingly entrenched — have sprung up, compelling us to change the way we think about Division Street.

Asian World is at 3314 N. Division, but you’ll probably see the massive sunflower-yellow awning before you spot the address.

With a concentrated smorgasbord of authentic chow from the globe’s largest continent, Asian World specializes in everything the “ethnic” section at Rosauers and Safeway lacks.

Owner Joy Kang, who hails from Korea, opened Asian World in early February with the intention of bolstering community and catering to the tastes of the area’s Asian population. However, she’s received a pleasant reception from mixed clientele.

“I had no idea so many local Americans like Asian groceries,” she says.

Perusing the colorfully stocked shelves and ogling foreign food staples is entertainment in itself. Honey jujube tea, canned quail eggs, mochiko rice flour, sour bamboo shoot tips, mochi ice cream, green tea pumpkin seeds, something that looks like sticky dread locks in a bag, fish cakes (on a stick!) and red bean pumpkin cakes all beckon: Try me!

Stir-fry gurus would also enjoy the selection of tofu, fresh vegetables, frozen meats and seafood, along with a trove of flours, oils and sauces to flavor.

“So many Americans are coming in to shop,” says Kang, who plans on opening an in-store deli. “They like the Japanese and Chinese groceries we sell — they’re glad we are here.”

A stone’s throw down the road, Fresh Abundance sits at 2015 N. Division. Since opening in July 2008, it has become an answered prayer for middle-dwelling Spokane vegans, health fanatics, morally conscious shoppers and gluten-loathers wanting some midtown option between trips to the north side or to the South Hill Huckleberry’s.

Painted in fantastic grasshopper green, the store has an open, airy feel with a studio-like vibe. Retro-style tables line the floor-to-ceiling storefront windows. A kids’ play area has also been thoughtfully put together.

The store specializes in locally produced, organic and whole foods, and is membership-based (though membership is optional), with dues and proceeds supporting P.E.A.C.H (People for Environmental Action and Community Health).

“It’s about the community,” says employee Mandy Beatty. “We want to see everybody in Spokane thrive.”

Unique to Fresh Abundance are its weekly, pre-assembled Produce Variety Boxes, along with free grocery delivery. Store owner and president BrightSpirit personally inspects the living conditions of farms providing Fresh Abundance’s meat inventory and communicates directly with local farmers on a weekly basis to see what top-notch produce is available in bulk.

“The goal is to just make local, organic food available to people in different formats, whether it’s through P.E.A.C.H, the grocery boxes or the store,” says Beatty.

If organic is less your primary concern than finding a bomb burrito is, head South to El Mercado del Pueblo at 1814 N. Division.

“A lot of people have come in just to say, ‘Welcome to the neighborhood,’” says store cashier Chris Meyer about of the gracious reception afforded to El Mercado since it opened in January. El Mercado aims to become a hub for lower Division residents and the Gonzaga community — an achievable goal, considering the goods beaming from the bakery case.

We’re talking caracoles (crème-filled spirals that resemble unicorn horns and taste just as magical), fruit-filled empanadas, churros, nino envueltos (jelly-filled cake logs, cut into slices) and a dozen more mouth-watering morsels to satiate your south-of-the-border sweet tooth. You can also pick up Columbian, Mexican, Guatemalan or Honduran fair-trade coffee.

The deli offers fresh, homemade salsas in bulk — try the pico de gallo — along with tamales, burritos and rajas. You can find everything you need to make authentic flan, carne asada and paella. There’s also a fiesta of spices, herbs and dried fruit by the pound, like ancho, dried chili-powdered mangos, fresh cilantro, oregano molido and paprika.

The owners plan on hosting chili and corn roasting in the parking lot during the summer, so swing by and say hi. If the salsa doesn’t impress you, the giant Winnie the Pooh piñata will.

It’s hardly a critical mass, but things are changing in that long middle stretch of Division between downtown and the ‘burbs. Some evening when you’re zooming down our north-south autobahn, consider slowing down and enjoying the Asian-organic-Hispanic diversity that Division food establishments now have to offer.