Boise, Idaho: An Air of Optimism

A young Mexican dancer at a festival in Downtown Boise - photos by Paul Shoul
A young Mexican dancer at a festival in Downtown Boise – photos by Paul Shoul

By Paul Shoul, GoNOMAD Photographer

Sitting in the patio of Grape Escape, on the corner of 8th and West Idaho in downtown Boise, the lovely wine goddess Yasmine arrives with a glass of Hell’s Canyon wine and a beautiful micro green salad topped with grilled salmon.

It’s a glorious day. I am tired and hungry from the flight here, and this is the perfect spot to sit and watch the parade of people. Students, young professionals, old professionals, hippies, potato farmers, Mormons, Mexicans, all mingle in the flow.

There are bicycles everywhere. Skateboarders slowly glide by on the pancake-flat streets. I am struck by the overall impression that everyone is having a great time. They all look so healthy. Something in the air feels optimistic.

“This Place Kicks Butt”

My cell phone erupts on vibrate, scaring the hell out of me. It’s my friend Steve calling about a job back home in Northampton, Massachusetts, considered one of the hippest towns in the country.

“I’m in Boise,” I said. “I won’t be back for a week.”

I could visualize the quizzical look that spread on his face as he blurted out on the phone, “Boise? What the hell would you want to go to Boise for?”

There was only one answer, “Steve, trust me, this place kicks our butt.”

Even though I had done my research before coming to Idaho, I still had a picture in my mind of a backwards, dusty, wagon-train kind of place filled with potato farming and carb-crazed Nazi-worshipping militias, that, no doubt, would be displeased by my very existence.

The Hash House Harriers, run the 'Tour de Fat.' 'We are a drinking club with a running problem.'
The Hash House Harriers run the ‘Tour de Fat.’ They describe themselves as ‘a drinking club with a running problem.’

“Not the Idaho I’d Imagined”

Earlier in the day I set out as I always do when I arrive at a new place with a camera, to walk and photograph and get a feel for where I am. Somebody had said to me, “A hello and a good deed are not an unusual thing in Boise.”

Lo and behold nearly everyone I pass smiles and says hello. Past city hall I walk down lovely tree-lined streets and there’s a giant natural foods market, The Boise Coop.

Bumper stickers on the passing cars say things like “Dissent is Patriotic,” “Bring home the troops,” “Stop the War” “ Potato farmers do it underground.”

The local gas station, “Stinkers,” sells bio fuel. Children wave. Old folks smile. this is not the Idaho I had imagined. Back at Grape Escape, Yasmine brings another glass. After asking her how and when the restaurant scene started in Boise, she said. “You have to meet Pug, the owner of this place. He started everything.”

A Busy Guy

By chance, he walks in the door. I give him my rap. I represent a travel website,, and ask if he would sit down and talk. Pug looks at me like I am trying to sell him something that he really doesn’t want to buy. He is busy, and only can give me a minute.

Downtown Boise
Downtown Boise

Four hours, two cheese plates and three bottles of wine later, Pug and I have unraveled the mysteries of the universe. We have traded life stories and he’s given me Boise’s life story and a great recipe for potato pizza. I have only been in town for six hours and already can tell that one week is not going to be enough.

It seems that a friend of mine who said that there’s more to Idaho than potatoes was right. Boise is cool.

A ‘Perfect Storm’ of Development

In 1863 the military began construction of a new “Fort Boise” after the old one was abandoned due to frequent Indian raids. Gold had been discovered in the Boise Basin, also known as Treasure Valley, and the rush was on. Being situated on the Boise River and along the Oregon Trail, Boise grew as an economic center of the region.

Pug rode the crest of the people wave to Boise in the late ’70s that saw the population double in twenty years. Boise, the capital of Idaho was in for a perfect storm of development. It went, as the locals say, “from the potato chip, to the computer chip.”

A fox in Sun Valley
A fox in Sun Valley

The boom is due to a number of factors including growing high-tech job market led by the leading employers Hewlett Packard and Micron, the growing Boise State University, cheap real estate, expanding agriculture, and ski and bike trails to the surrounding mountains that lead right into town.

Idaho is the third fastest growing state in the Nation.

Boise is a very livable city, located on a high desert plain, abutting the mountains that come right down to its edge. The Boise River flows through the middle of town, the natural beauty of the scenery is simply breathtaking. It has parks, wildlife reserves, skiing, biking, hiking, great museums, fantastic food, diverse culture, and a great nightlife. It is easy to see why so many people are moving here.

Cool Things to Do and See

Boise has been rated one of the best places to bike and in the US. There are also many levels of river sports to enjoy. For easy riders there is the Boise River Green Belt a 25-mile bike/walking path that follows the river through parks, wild life preserves, history and art museums and the Ann Frank Memorial. It is a delightful ride, and a great way to see the city.

A red-tailed hawk at the Center for Birds of Prey
A red-tailed hawk at the Center for Birds of Prey

For more extreme riders there are more than 75 miles of butt-breaking trails just outside of town.

Here are some links to learn more about river sports, bike rentals, hiking and biking trails, mountain biking

, and Boise Parks and Recreation.

If you want to get next to nature with out hiking or pedaling check out the Peregrine Fund’s World Center for Birds of Prey just out of town. They are devoted to the preservation of these amazing birds and are involved in research all over the world.

At the Center they have an art gallery, a history of the fund and its efforts, movies, live demonstrations with the birds, and viewing rooms with many different falcons. It was all very educational and a blast.

I also went by the MK Nature Center. It is right on the Greenbelt by the river close to downtown. There is a wildlife museum, a fish viewing window, and a nice series of trails.

The Old Penitentiary

Another cool thing to see within the city limits is the Old Idaho State Penitentiary. This place is spooky. It was built in 1873 and served as Idaho’s prison until 1973. I had the feeling that this was the place were all the crazy evil bad guys from all the westerns I ever saw were locked up.

The Old Idaho State Penitentiary
The Old Idaho State Penitentiary

This must not have been a nice place to be. Just getting into solitary confinement and closing the door for a minute was enough to freak me out.

The haunting photographs of some of the more “notable” men and women prisoners and displays on prison life, tattoos, and homemade weapons were fascinating. The burnt walls of the metal cells that were stacked to the ceiling were the result of many riots against the conditions there.

It makes one pause and think what it would have been like to be trapped in one of them. There is also a transportation museum with really neat pioneer wagons and a weapons collection that rivals any museum.

Eating Idaho

Hanging out in the kitchen with executive chef John Mortimer at his restaurant, as he cooked, I asked him what he liked about living in Boise. (editor’s note: Mortimer’s restaurant Franco Latino, has closed as of October 2008)

Chef John Mortimer

“It’s the best of all worlds,” he said. “The people are cool; I love to mountain bike and when I am not in here, I am on the trails, about 300 miles a week. And as a chef I have the best product in the world. I mean look at this stuff!”

Before us is a tray of 30 cuts of Kobe beef and Kurobuta pork roast locally produced by Snake River Farms for tonight’s dinner. This is some high-end pricey meat we are talking about. In fact my entire dinner there was locally grown. John has a commitment to local ingredients.

The food at Mortimer’s is amazing. “We’ve got plenty of local produce,” he said, “fresh-farmed trout from clear springs, local wines. And oh yea, a lot of potatoes.

Oh Yea, The Potatoes

Idaho produces a third of all the potatoes in the USA and almost as many onions. There is a potato culture with potato people that have potatoes on their minds… all the time. They talk about “solids and water content and starch and fry time.”

They wear potato hats and drink potato vodka. This is big business and these guys are obsessed.

I had the chance to take a tour of potato/onion farms and packaging facilities. The farms are huge. Giant tractors overturn the soil revealing the potatoes; they are sorted by hand on board and funneled into a truck that rides side by side.

Harvesting potatoes
Harvesting potatoes

From the field they are brought to huge warehouses and packaging facilities where they zoom around on conveyor belts to be sorted and bagged. From there, most are brought in bulk to one of many processing plants like “Right Stuff” or “Lamb Weston,” the largest producer of French fries in the world.

I had to sign a nondisclosure statement before touring the plant, but I think it is safe for me to say that the plant has miles and miles of water troughs and conveyor belts that rush the happy little spuds around for miles to be washed and cut and fried and frozen. The plant runs 24 hours a day.

Breakfast Heaven

The best way to experience Idaho potatoes and onions is to eat them. As I expected the best place I found was at a diner. Everyone I asked about where to go for breakfast said that I had to go to Goldy’s Breakfast Bistro (108 South Capital Boulevard, 1-208-345-4100).

I am a breakfast freak, and this place rocks. All of Boise rubs elbows here. They go through 3,000 eggs a week and 60–70 pots of coffee a day according my delightful waitress. The menu ranges from chicken fried steak to Andalusia eggs and they have five different kinds of home fries. This is breakfast heaven.

European Feel

Downtown Boise around 8th street has a very European feel with lots of sidewalk side cafes and restaurants and clubs. On Saturdays there is a farmer’s market and outside music and dance. If you take a look at the club listings in the local paper, The Boise Weekly, you will find more than 14 live music shows on any given weekend night.

The variety of restaurants is impressive. I had a chance to poke my head in to Miathai an upscale restaurant owned by Carlos Tijerina, and eat in his other restaurant Koi, just around the corner on 800 West Idaho Street. Both restaurants are almost dreamlike in their Asian influenced design. Large Buddha statues and deep colors. The sushi roll I had for lunch at Koi was top notch.

The Sushi Roll at Koi
The Sushi Roll at Koi

Not far from down town I stopped in for a pizza at Lucky 13,1602 North 13th Street in Hyde Park. There are many clubs and cool little restaurants in this historic area. It has become mountain bike central for the town and its really happening at the end of the day when everyone congregates after riding the trails.

Saving the Basque for Last

Andoni Artiach sits down with me at the bar of his family’s restaurant, Leku Ona at 117 South 6th Street, and tells me to try the Gernika peppers. The last time I had these was in the famous town of Gernika in the Basque country of Spain last year.

Lightly fried and topped only with olive oil and sea salt, they are my favorite tapa. Over a glass of Rioja wine and a bowl of savory pea soup, Andoni and I talk about the Basques in Boise.

I find the whole scene a little confusing. I know that I am in Idaho, but in here, it sure feels like Spain. As if Boise did not have enough to offer, it also boasts one of the largest Basque populations outside of Spain. The mayor has Basque heritage and every one I talked with in Boise seems to be proud of them. They originally came to area as miners and shepherds in the late 1800s and during another surge of immigration in the mid 1900s.

The Basque community in Boise is tightly knit, but as is their nature, they are very hospitable and good food and wines are the truest expression of their culture. They really know how to eat, and love company doing it.

Leku Ona
Leku Ona features Basque cuisine.

The area known as the Basque Block is located on Grove Street on the corner with South Capital, just down the street from the Grove Hotel where I stayed.

There is a fabulous museum and the Basque Cultural Center, as well as many restaurants and bars featuring Basque food. I had a quick bite at the Bar Gernika — a solomo sandwich with roasted red peppers that was as good as any I had in Spain — and stopped by the Basque Market that has delicacies from Spain and serves a mean red bean soup.

The Leku Ona has also opened a small five-room hotel/boarding house that has nice clean rooms for a bargain price of $65 to $85 considering how centrally located it is.

Transforming Lives

That evening I dined at the beautiful Ste. Chapelle Winery and had a fantastic dinner catered by Life’s Kitchen, a group that helps to transform young peoples’ lives through training in the food service industry. They put on a wonderful meal that lived up to the high standard set by Ste. Chapelle’s glorious wines.

The Snake River Canyon
The Snake River Canyon

The Potato Bridge

My final day in Idaho was spent in a mad dash drive to Sun Valley just about two hours’ drive from Boise. Traveling through Twin Falls we stopped briefly at the Perrine Bridge that spans the Snake River Canyon.

Also known as the Potato Bridge, it is the only manmade structure in the US where parachute jumping is allowed year-round without a permit, and the site where Evil Knievel unsuccessfully tried to jump the canyon in 1974. The canyon is spectacular and definitely worth a stop.

Sun Valley is an upscale ski resort known worldwide. Movie stars walk the streets, there are Arnold sightings, Bruce Willis and Demi more own a piece of the town, and Ernest Hemingway is buried here. It is definitely one of the world’s “sweet spots.”

I only spent a total of ten hours in town. Three hours went to having a dinner catered by the Snake River Grill and Chef Kirt Martin.

Chef Kirt Martin
Chef Kirt Martin

Steaks grilled on a hardwood fire, the mountains rising in the background, and a fox that showed up hoping for a handout — the food and the scenery were jaw dropping.

The next seven hours are a little blurry. I know I slept in the Sun Valley Lodge. The room was beautiful, and the dining room bar and other main buildings set the standard for what a ski lodge should be, but to be honest, I was only in my room for two hours.

The rest of my time was spent whooping it up at a local club called Whiskey Jacques, dancing to sounds of the Jude Bowerman Band. Apparently people in Idaho love to dance, buy each other lots of drinks and express their enthusiasm for life with the kissing of strangers.

All I can say is that Idaho left a lasting impression on me. You ought to try it sometime.

Amy Johnson and Brandon Follett sent the following comment:

We’re writing to say how much we liked your “Boise, Idaho: An Air of Optimism” article at We’ve been traveling in SE Asia for the past few months, and after reading your article, we’re especially looking forward to returning to our hometown of Boise in a few weeks.

You mentioned all of the things that we love about Boise! We especially love the Green Belt and how it facilitates bicycle transportation.

It’s funny that you remark on how healthy the people look. In Boise, we have observed that the shoppers at Albertson’s on the West side of town don’t look as healthy as the shoppers at the Co-op downtown. We might develop that idea further when we return to Boise. If you really want to see some healthy people with a wonderful sense of community, check out Moscow in northern Idaho. Moscow is full of wheat farmers and college students.

If you ever return to Boise, we’d love to show you some of our favorite hot springs in the Boise area and introduce you to our favorite urban organic farmers, Marty Camberlango and Casey O’Leary of Local Grub. Since you’ve already been to Goldy’s, the number one breakfast spot in town, then you could have breakfast at Donnie Mac’s Trailer Park Cuisine in the new Linen District close to downtown.

Just wanted to let you know that we loved your article!
Amy Johnson and Brandon Follett

Read Amy and Brandon’s article about Motorcycling in Cambodia.


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Paul Shoul
Paul Shoul is a Northampton, MA-based photographer who doubles as a staff writer for GoNOMAD. For thirty years he's lived in the Pioneer Valley and chronicled life there though his work in the Valley Advocate and Preview magazines. He's also been seen in the Boston Globe, New York Times, BBC, the Chronicle of Higher Education and many other publications. Today as well as shooting around the world for GoNOMAD he works for local nonprofits, banks and advertising agencies.