by Susan Hamilton

At its best, dining is an experience that involves all of your senses. A second location of a popular Valley restaurant, Thai Bamboo, affords just that -- a tranquil respite from the hustle and bustle.

The exterior of the recently opened restaurant (a block north of NorthTown Mall) sports live and dried bamboo, giving a hint that you're about to enter another world. Once inside, the bamboo theme continues, accented with Thai woodcarvings, huge jars and native artwork. The soothing sound of water fountains, tinkling wind chimes and soft Thai music runs through the comfortably large dining room. Booth seats glimmer in bright rainbow colors of Thai silk. Large murals at each end of the room are bright with the faces and facets of Thai life. An eating bar along a side wall is embedded with Thai coins and paper money in its bamboo surface.

The exotic, spicy-sweet aromas coming from the kitchen, where chef Matavee Burgess works her culinary magic, are tantalizing. Burgess specializes in southern Thai cuisine -- sweet, spicy and aromatic. The expanded menu has no less than 67 items, not including beverages. If the sheer size of the menu is daunting, the Thai wait staff is familiar with the dishes. Popular items include satay, Peking duck wrap, seafood salad, red curry rice bowl, Saba fish with ginger sauce and cashew tofu with chili sauce.

At Matavee's urging, I sampled Nuea Tod, a Thai beef jerky appetizer. This is not brittle, home-on-the-range dried beef, but meat that is tender and flavorful, with a teriyaki taste. I couldn't pass up the chicken cashew nut, a popular Thai specialty. This main dish features saut & eacute;ed chicken, bell peppers, onions, green beans, carrots and cashews. The vegetables are crunchy fresh and sliced in interesting shapes, with carrots like miniature suns. The tangy sauce had just enough kick and sweet undertones.

The measure of a good Thai restaurant is usually its Phad Thai, a well-known Thai noodle dish. Thai Bamboo's version was excellent. The stir-fried rice noodles, tofu, egg, ground peanuts, green onion and chicken were mixed with a spicy, flavorful sauce. Matavee surprised me with dessert -- small slices of fresh banana covered in a spring roll wrapper and deep fried. The sweet, soft banana contrasts well with the crunchy wrap. This yummy dessert can also be topped with a scoop of coconut or banana ice cream from Mary Lou's.

Thai Bamboo, at 5204 N. Division and 12722 E. Sprague, is open Monday-Thursday 11 am-9 pm, Friday 11 am-9:30 pm, Saturday noon-9:30 pm and Sunday noon to 9 pm. Call 777-8424 or 444-8424.

Cal-Mex Transplant -- If you hadn't noticed, there's a southern California eatery that's recently moved into town. Del Taco is the first of its kind in the state and the Northwest. The latest in more than 400 such franchises has taken up residence in a cantaloupe-colored building highlighted with bright tiles at the corner of Division and Hastings Road.

You may think this is just another Taco Bell wannabe -- the interior of the restaurant appears so -- but they've one-upped the No. 1 U.S. taco seller by offering American fare as well, such as burgers and fries.

"We offer food that's the same price as Taco Bell, but it's higher quality," says manager Jerry Mecum. "All our food is prepared here by hand except for the burgers."

The chain that began in 1964 in Barstow, Calif., offers freshly prepared, made-to-order Mexican-American food at reasonable prices. The menu includes tacos, burritos, quesadillas, nachos, crinkle-cut fries with chili and cheese, cheeseburgers, salad, shakes and breakfast burritos. All menu items are made to order with fresh produce and meats. The beans are even lard-free.

Del Taco, at 12226 N. Division, is open daily from 7 am-10 pm. Call 466-2654.

Ringin' in the New Year -- "We decided to start things off with a bang by offering a reservations-only dinner on New Year's Eve," says chef and owner William Webster about the kick off to his restaurant, Herbal Essence, being open for dinner since Jan. 1.

Customers at the downtown lunch spot requested dinner-hour service, and Webster complied. His continental cuisine that emphasizes fresh Northwest ingredients and herbs has been very popular. It's no wonder, though. Webster has gained accolades at Epicurean Delight, Sacred Heart's "Heart Act to Follow" and the Ridpath's Ankeny's.

Herbal Essence's dinner menu includes baked whole Dungeness crab stuffed with seafood mix, alder-plank roasted prime rib and Tanzanian-crusted quail with a dried cranberry stuffing and topped with a vanilla bean sauce. Unlike some tony restaurants, entrees at Herbal Essence are served with house or Caesar salad. Vegetarian entrees are also available as well as nightly specials and a daily fresh sheet.

Herbal Essence, at 115 N. Washington, is open for dinner Wednesday-Saturday from 5:30-10:30 pm. Lunch is served Monday-Saturday from 10 am-3:30 pm. Call 838-4600.

Birthday Bash -- Spokane's beloved public radio station, KPBX, is celebrating its 23rd birthday next Friday. The Jan. 17 party at the Spokane Club features hors d'oeuvres and birthday cake. Wines courtesy of Caterina Winery will be poured as well as Mountain Dome Winery's champagne.

Partygoers can dance to the Latin-style jazz of the Richard Luna Quartet in the Georgian Room ballroom. Proceeds from a silent auction, featuring gift baskets, certificates and unique items, will benefit KPBX.

Tickets are $30 for Spokane Public Radio members and $35 for general admission. Call 328-5729.

Wining and Dining -- Eses Bistro, that chic, upbeat restaurant in Post Falls, is teaming up with Vino's John Allen for a five-course wine dinner on Jan. 19. The special menu offers a selection of the fine international cuisine that Eses is known for. An appetizer of smoked salmon on endive is paired with Taltarni Brut Tache. A third-course four-cheese ravioli with mushroom sauce is complemented by a Santa Anastasia Rosso Nero d'Avola. Charles Krug Cabernet Sauvignon will be served with the entr & eacute;e of stuffed beef tenderloin with blue cheese and mushrooms.

The wine dinner begins at 5 pm on Sunday, Jan. 19th, and costs $60 per person. Call 838-1229 or (208)773-4688 for reservations.

Colville Corn Maze & Pumpkin Patch @ Colville Corn Maze & Pumpkin Patch

Through Oct. 31, 11 a.m.-7 p.m.
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