by Ann M. Colford and Susan Hamilton & r & & r & Simple, Yet Elegant BISTRO & r & The trick with the new Hay J's Bistro -- after finding it -- is to get past the parking lot. This elegantly modern dining establishment sits incongruously within the blocky white mini-mart building at the Shell station on the corner of Mission Avenue and Harvard Road in Liberty Lake, north of I-90. But don't let the setting deter you. Once inside, the place is airy with clean, modern lines and nary a gas pump in sight, thanks to the frosted front windows that let in the light while shielding the view.

Hay J's, which has been open just about a month now, is owned by the mother-son team of Rhonda Entner and Patrick Fechser. Both come to the enterprise with plenty of restaurant experience behind them: Entner spent a decade in management with Applebee's, and Fechser was previously a chef at Percy's Caf & eacute; Americana. Entner says they're both excited to branch out into the more creative offerings of their contemporary American menu.

"I've always wanted to open my own place," says Entner. "Every day now, the news [about the restaurant] seems to be spreading."

On a recent gloomy weekday, well past the peak of lunch hour, the place was still close to half full. Several salads topped the menu, but the cool damp weather led me to the grilled vegetable sandwich with a side of vegetable beef soup. (Sandwiches, wraps and burgers come with fries, soup or salad; prices average about $8.) The rich beef stock came packed with plenty of savory veggies and chunks of meat; it was a satisfying starter. The sandwich was a handful, literally, with grilled zucchini, summer squash, crimini mushrooms, red onion and tomato layered with melted provolone, spring greens and pesto mayo on thick-cut whole wheat bread. A sturdier bread might have held up better, but the result was a gloriously messy m & eacute;lange of flavors.

Delivery and take-out is available, Entner says, and diners may phone ahead with a lunch order if time is at a premium. Happy hour, with wines and draft beers, runs weekdays from 2-5 pm. For dinner, entrees ($13-$22) feature mainly grilled meats, fish or vegetables; starters and salads round out the choices. -- Ann M. Colford

Hay J's Bistro, at 12706 E. Mission Ave., Liberty Lake, Wash., is open Mon-Fri 11 am-9 pm, Sat 4:30 pm-10 pm. Call 926-2310.

Comfort With a Kick DINING & r & Southwest food is appealing because it marries comforting foods -- like chili, cornbread and burritos -- with unexpected tastes: spicy chiles, zingy cilantro and fresh lime. A new north-side eatery, Big Weck's, features the flavors of the Southwest.

Owner Doug Weckerly is familiar with the restaurant business, having owned four eateries in Albuquerque. "I like the Spokane area, and I wanted to try my concept here of simple food with a twist," Weckerly says. "We try to be as much of a scratch house as possible, with about 85 percent of our food made from scratch on the premises. Of course, we use chilies in our food, since the Southwest is the chile capital of the world."

Breakfast at Big Weck's offers substantial eats. Huevos rancheros (two eggs any style atop corn tortillas, with cheddar and jack cheeses, chiles, fresh hashbrowns and refried beans) and Papas (a mountain of fresh hashbrowns, with chiles or country gravy, cheese, eggs, tortilla and choice of ham, bacon, sausage, marinated pork or steak, chicken or veggies) are some popular New Mexican menu items. Roaders are another Southwest-style dish -- a two-handed breakfast burrito for the road, Weckerly says. Omelets (like the Snappy Bird with slow-cooked chicken, diced bacon, crisp tortilla strips, cheeses and sour cream), scramblers (like the Salmon Bennie with three whipped eggs, flaked salmon and diced ham with fresh hollandaise sauce), homemade buttermilk pancakes and sweet mountain (aka French) toast are but a few of Big Weck's other breakfast items.

"I added the word big to our name because all our menu items are large," Weckerly says. "And I came up with all the corny menu item names."

Like the Sloppy Hog sandwich with bacon, shaved ham, sweet barbecue sauce, Swiss cheese, lettuce and tomato on grilled rye bread. Or the Funky Bird sandwich with char-broiled chicken breast, saut & eacute;ed mushrooms, onions, fresh chile, bacon and Swiss cheese. How 'bout some Hillbilly cheese fries with your sandwich? Weckerly says the fries covered with cheese and country gravy are "messy but darned good."

Homemade soups (like the signature cheesy green chile chicken stew), salads, burgers, dinner platters and Southwestern burritos, enchiladas and quesadillas round out Big Weck's menu. -- Susan Hamilton

Big Weck's, 12628 N. Division, is open Sun-Mon 6:30 am-2 pm, Tues-Sat 6:30 am-9 pm. Call 464-2851.

Golden Harvest: Flour Sacks from the Permanent Collection @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays. Continues through May 15
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