by Lauren McAllister & r & Thai food is always an occasion for me. The fresh and exotic combinations of flavors never fail to transport me. If peanuts and cilantro can taste this good together, who's to say what else is possible in life? Maybe the kids can learn to get along ... maybe my car can get 28 mpg ... or better yet, what about converting it to biofuel?

I digress. But really, isn't that what an evening out is all about? A diversion from the often unfortunate attempts at cooking and even more unpleasant tasks of cleaning it all up. A chance to sit all the way through a meal with another person and converse. And if you're looking for an escape, there is hardly a better or more affordable option than a foray to Thai Bamboo.

The latest location for this popular local restaurant chain arose from the uninspiring remnants of a bicycle shop in an aged little strip of shops on 29th Avenue. Owners Tom and Matavee Burgess imported more than three tons of Thai stone carvings, which now adorn the walls. A life-size carved wooden maitre d' adorned with sequins greets you at the door, and the booths are upholstered in bright silk Thai tapestries in a rich rainbow of hues.

Bamboo is everywhere, from the little sticks of lucky bamboo on the tables, to the leafy fronds waving in the breeze outside the restaurant's many windows. Even the tabletops are in trendy bamboo.

The menu is enormous, with some items helpfully labeled "popular Thai dish."

We decided to try the fresh rolls ($7 for two). These are very different from the more familiar, deep-fried egg rolls or their lighter Thai cousins, spring rolls. Here, transparent rice noodle paper bundles a medley of vegetables, fresh Thai basil, tofu and prawns. A dip in a tasty peanut hoisin sauce makes this a satisfying way to start a meal -- not too heavy, but brightly flavored.

I have had takeout from Thai Bamboo on numerous occasions and it has always included the phad thai ($9) -- reliably good, if a bit sweet, with the noodles always retaining a nice elasticity and a generous helping of meat. On this occasion, however, we opted for the Phad Kee Mao, aka Drunken Noodles. Wide, fresh rice noodles from Chinatown in Seattle are stir-fried with vegetables and your choice of meat. This dish, rated at one star, packed decent heat. All the ingredients were flavorful and the vegetables nicely cooked, but the noodles seemed to be lost in this medley.

The delicious Thai Bamboo style fried rice ($10) was more successful. This was easily the best fried rice I've had in Spokane, with big chunks of tender pork, crisp cabbage and other vegetables all fried up with jasmine rice. The slightly aromatic jasmine rice was a nice counterpoint to the more assertive smoky flavor created in the frying process.

The Gai wan ($12) was recommended by our server and was a delightful take on the perhaps not very authentic, but nonetheless tasty, sweet and sour chicken. Here lightly breaded chicken was combined with a thin sweet and sour sauce, and served with fresh pineapple chunks over a bed of steamed mixed vegetables. The crisp vegetables and tart freshness of the pineapple elevated this dish from the mundane to the unique.

Swimming rama ($9) is a mysteriously named dish that is really quite simple and delicious. Sauteed chicken is served on a bed of fresh spinach and topped with a rich peanut sauce. Although the peanut sauce was a bit thick, the flavors mingled nicely and the earthy spinach was a fresh counterpoint to the sweet chicken and sauce.

I appreciated the extra effort by Thai Bamboo to use high-quality fresh ingredients and keep prices reasonable. The relaxing setting, complete with the gentle sounds of the waterfall, make Thai Bamboo a welcome respite from fast-food row. Lunches are $7 and are cooked to order. In the spring and summer, diners who eat in also get a small house salad, while guests in fall and winter get a cup of the soup of the day.

Thai Bamboo, 2926 E. 29th Ave., 232-THAI; 12722 E. Sprague Ave., 444-THAI; 5204 N. Division St. 777-THAI.

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