Idaho’s Mojo: The Buzz on Boise

 
written by HEATHER KW BROWN | photography courtesy of VISIT IDAHO; DOWNTOWN BOISE ASSOCIATION; KENDRA CONNALLY/ KENDRA-ELISE.COM; TANA PHOTOGRAPHY; THE CHOCOLAT BAR
Pinpointing my exact whereabouts almost 20 years ago as I drove through Idaho’s scenic panhandle is suspect. What I can confirm is that en route from Washington’s Olympic National Park to Montana’s Glacier National Park, the temptation to stay inside state lines was as unrelenting as the scenery.
 
Idaho has always been a distraction for anyone who loves the outdoors, compliments of its rugged landscape and amazing wilderness like Hell’s Canyon, which at 7,900 feet is deeper than the Grand Canyon, and Shoshone Falls, which is higher than Niagara Falls. Such majestic milieu might start as an innocent detour, but easily makes a case for relocation.
 
Boise, I discovered, has the same effect. Walkable, hip, progressive and downright delicious, this capital city is now a hub for foodies, outdoor enthusiasts and anyone else in search of a stomping ground on the rise.   
 

CITY OF THE TREES

Truth be told, it isn’t much of a secret anymore. U.S. News and World Report ranked Boise as one of their top under-the-radar destinations in 2016 and Vogue just recently dubbed it one of their top places to visit this year. Yet, while this quiet locale in the southwest qua­drant of Idaho evolves into a family-friendly community full of craft coffee shops, a happening food scene and creative entrepreneurs, mainstream travelers still book flights elsewhere.
 
From the get-go, know that the city is pronounced “Boy-see” rather than “Boy-zee,” and locals will politely enlighten you for no other reason than sheer pride in their hometown. This willingness to share where to go, what to do and how to get around is so common, it’s hard to imagine they’re strangers and not longtime friends. 
Boise means “wooded” in French, and when French-Canadian fur-trappers emerged from the dry, high desert to see a thin line of trees along a river, they exclaimed, “Les Bois! Les Bois!” Though it made sense for exhausted explorers, “The City of Trees” was an odd nickname for a town platted on a sagebrush plain where the nearest trees were cottonwoods and willows miles away. 
Like everything else in Boise, that was then and this is now. The city continues the ongoing effort of early pioneers to plant more trees. The result is an Urban Forestry Unit and programs like NeighborWoods, which provides free trees to be planted on private land within 10 feet of the street or sidewalk. Indeed, trees are very much tied to the city’s personality and, like many of its transplanted residents, embracing them as an integral part of the culture has been essential to Boise’s boom. 
 

CONFLUENCE OF CULTURE

Outside of Spain’s Basque Country, Boise boasts an impressive concentration of immigrants, 95 percent of whom have come specifically from their homeland’s Bizkaia region. In Idaho, Basque immigrants became sheepherders due to their hardworking nature and it minimized the language barrier as an issue. Their success led to requests for more family members and to accommodate the growing population, locals opened boarding houses. The Basque Block, as it is now designated, is located in the heart of Boise, where locals and visitors alike can shop, eat and learn the culture to their hearts’ content. 
 
Start at The Basque Museum and Cultural Center for education via exhibits, then head over for lunch at Bar Gernika for authentic tapas. Hidden inside the boarding house next door is a Basque ball court called a “fronton” where leagues still play games of pala with a pilota (a wooden racket) and a hard rubber ball. It’s an exciting place to sit back and watch the action. 
The same can be said of The Modern Hotel & Bar. Formerly a Travelodge, The Modern Hotel is as teeming and trendy as it is retro and rooted, with plenty of its own Basque influence. Elizabeth Tullis, the current owner of The Modern Hotel & Bar, is the granddaughter of two Basque sheepherders, Regina Echevarria and her husband. After losing their flock, they opened a boarding house and 60 years later, Tullis bought a run-down lodge that she revived in honor of the original Modern. 
 
As if the hotel’s craft cocktails and fun vibe aren’t enough of a draw, painted on the back wall is a mural by Judas Arrieta, a Basque artist. His current work, titled “Wonder Stories” has been described as integrating elements of The City of Trees, the history of The Modern Hotel & Bar and relayed childhood stories of Basque sheepherders. 
The Modern Hotel & Bar remains the epitome of Boise:  what was once con­sidered an improbable stay by the sophisticated is now one of the best. Current crowds might seem unassuming, but the state’s most populous city plays host to savvy students, wealthy connoisseurs, an urban center called JUMP! (Jack’s Urban Meeting Place) — a gift to the city by the potato magnate Simplot family — and recreational go-getters galore. With diversion capabilities of the Boise River, water sports can even accommodate surfing, in addition to the usual kayaking and paddleboarding.  
 
Sure, Boise is an outdoor haven for more than snow skiers headed to Bogus Basin, but it’s also making waves as a year-round city of culinary outposts.
 

CULINARY BOISE 

When it comes to food, separating Idaho from potatoes might seem challenging. Yes, two-thirds of the potatoes produced in the country are grown in the state and the successful local scene absolutely grows from the ground up, but Boise is home to talented chefs boasting culinary prowess well beyond a particular root vegetable. 
Recognizing a burgeoning business and her own skill sets, Angela Taylor created Indulge Boise Food Tours. Originally born in a nearby small town, Taylor spent more than 20 years as an executive in the sports and entertainment industry — and close to two years in Atlanta — before heading back home. Showcasing some of the city’s best menus to locals and visitors alike, Indulge Boise offers the opportunity to sample and learn simultaneously on its Historic Downtown Boise Food Tour. 
 
New this year, Indulge Boise Tours are available on a year-round basis and starting this month, the Boise Booze + Bites Happy Hour Tour kicks off with more guided neighborhood treks launching in the spring. Basically, the food here is simply too good to be ignored — the locals know it and the rest of us are slowly, but surely, catching on. 
In 1995, Chef John Berryhill cooked his first strip of chile-sugar Berryhill Bacon, which was so well received that he now sells more than 8 tons (that’s not a typo!) of uncooked bacon annually. BACON and Berryhill are two separate entities under one roof with BACON open daily from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Berryhill open on Tuesdays through Saturdays from 3 p.m. to close. 
 
I first visited BACON on the food tour but went back a different evening to watch how the restaurant staff, the menu and the outside signage literally flip from one concept to the other while Gloria Gaynor’s 1978 hit “I Will Survive” blared over the speakers.
 
“It was my favorite song as a high school junior … I’d play it over and over on the jukebox at Pizza Inn, where I flipped pizza dough in Little Rock, Ark. When I developed the flip concept for BACON and Berryhill, I had my chance to bring it back!” Berryhill said.
 
Order The MAC made with bacon, mushroom, tomato and cheese, which was labeled “Best in the U.S.” by Food & Wine. Better yet, try the Bacon Styx for a taste of all five flavors — Berryhill bacon, spicy hot bacon, maple rosemary bacon, candied bacon and kurobuta bacon made with black Berkshire pig, thyme, sage, rosemary and lavender.
 
 Creatively claiming to “make donuts holey,” Guru Donuts tempts the sweeter side with eclectic and seasonal doughnuts made by husband-and-wife team Kevin and Angel Moran. I recommend the Boston Cream, a made-from-scratch, four-hour raised doughnut inspired by a 1940’s traditional recipe or the Wildberry Lavender, made with their signature wildberry lavender glaze, Oregon blueberries, marionberries and culinary lavender on a vegan raised ring doughnut.
 
The Indulge tour continued with a housemade sandwich and soda at Bleubird followed by chocolate bars and truffles at The Chocolat Bar, both of which are also owned by local couples.
 
More gastronomic gems like Juniper, Fork and Wild Roots are located on Eighth Street, a closed thoroughfare best for bouncing in and out of shops, bars and restaurants. The inclination is to stay, but trust me, Boise is too beautiful not to stray further afield. 
 

A FINE FINISH

By stray, I mean leave the downtown district and head for the hills. Run from ridge to river starting at Camel Back Park in the foothills of Boise National Forest and  and then reward yourself down the street with a legit latte at Hyde Perk Coffee House.
 
On second thought, choose to run through Boise’s neighborhoods, along its gorgeous Boise River Greenbelt, over and under bridges through manicured parks back to the start/finish line at Payette Brewing in the Onward Shay! full or half-marathon. My husband and I opted for all of the above.
 
The race was held in honor of Shay Hirsch, a Boise native who lost an 11-year battle with myeloma, an incurable blood cancer. Co-race directors Jan Bastian and Betsy Luce, both running friends with Hirsch, also knew her in high school. 
 
“Shay loved this town and she always gave back to the community,” Luce said. 
 
“Yes, kids were really important to Shay, especially underprivileged kids,” Bastian added. “We involved all of the kids [in the kids race] that don’t normally get included like foster children, refugees, children with Down’s Syndrome … we had about 100 kids and they all ran for free.”
 
It was exactly as someone who loved children and running would have wanted. Running in the New York Marathon is how Shay met her husband, George Hirsch, the worldwide publisher of Runner’s World. 
Even though I heard Tom Hanks was running in the crowd, I was perfectly content to have met running legends like Mr. Hirsch and Joan Benoit Samuelson, who were on hand, among others, to participate in the inaugural ­festivities. 
 
What the race directors really wanted was to bring a world-class race to Boise and continue Shay’s theme of courage. Despite her struggles, she signed her emails with “Onward, Shay,” leaving a lasting impression of impossible endurance, bravery and strength. Themes Shay already loved in “The Wizard of Oz” and needed as a marathon runner seemed appropriate when Luce and Bastian decided to launch the Onward Shay! Boise Marathon. 
 
Held on Sunday, October 29 this year, the race is recruiting 26 inspiring stories to feature at each mile marker of the marathon and the stories they’ve accumulated thus far certainly hit home. Speaking of which, I wouldn’t want to be in Dorothy’s shoes, literally or figuratively, but running shoes have taken me to unexpectedly cool places and have always helped me find my way back.
 
If the mural on the wall of Fifth Street’s Bandanna shoe shop, where running-shoe clad T-Rexes claim “A run a day keeps extinction away” is any indication, Boise has remained true to its own sense of place and that, more than anything, is what endears the city to the lucky ones that can account for its coolness.  I’ll be racing back soon. 
 
FOR MORE INFORMATION 
 
SPREAD YOUR WINGS and soar over to The World Center for Birds of Prey, headquarters for The Peregrine Fund, an international nonprofit organization founded in 1970 that conserves endangered raptors around the world. This one-of-a-kind indoor/outdoor education center touts a world-renown falconry museum and is home to many amazing birds, facts and history that we found fascinating. Here is where I met Murphy, a Peregrin falcon, and Wally, a Eurasian eagle owl. It’s hard not to be impressed with the significant conservation efforts flying out of this center. peregrinefund.org/world-center