In the Pacific Northwest, most food awards and media coverage go to restaurants in the big cities of Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver. But traveling gourmands shouldn’t overlook the burgeoning food scene in Boise, Idaho, where transplanted talent melds with homegrown voices to create an increasingly exciting culinary destination.
A combination of factors is putting Boise’s restaurants on the national stage. For starters, there’s the city’s rapid growth; from 2010 to 2018, the metro area population increased nearly 18.5 percent, making Boise one of the fastest-growing cities in the country. That’s brought an influx of creativity, not to mention an eager audience.
Secondly, Boise’s low cost of living translates to minimal overhead for perpetually cash-strapped enterprises like restaurants, meaning that new chefs have more latitude for experimentation. Still, Boise’s dining scene feels noticeably free of pretension—the city remains the sort of place where you can indulge in an elaborate, multi-course meal while still wearing your hiking clothes.
The poster child for the Boise restaurant boom is Kris Komori, a two-time James Beard Award nominee for “Best Chef: Northwest.” Raised outside Vancouver, he studied at the College of Idaho, where he met his now-wife, Allyson, a native Idahoan. Komori later earned his cooking chops in restaurants in Seattle and Portland, Oregon, before Allyson’s career moved them back to Idaho six years ago. That’s when Komori landed a job at Boise’s fine-dining darling State & Lemp, which closed in the spring of 2019 after changing ownership.
Now, he and a business partner are bringing back the vast majority of the former State & Lemp staff—a sort of extended family of employees—in a new venture called Kin. When it opens in early 2020, the restaurant will serve tasting-menu dinners highlighting seasonal ingredients from local farms and producers.
“Boise’s restaurant scene isn’t fully established yet,” Komori says. “We’re still sort of trying to find an identity as a city, but it’s definitely up-and-coming. There’s a lot of excitement within the industry and within the community that dines out, because there’s a lot of room for opportunity for restaurateurs, for chefs, for bartenders.”
Komori credits that undefined nature as the reason chefs are drawn to Boise—there’s a greater chance here to find a voice, get established, and make a splash. “There are a lot of headlines and articles about the livability of the city and how quickly it’s growing. And because of that, there’s just opportunity,” he says. “The market for any little niche restaurant is far from being saturated. There are a lot of restaurants in the downtown area but there’s still room for a lot more.”
Here, he shares his favorite places to eat and drink in Boise—that is, until Kin opens and changes everything.
The Modern Bar and Restaurant
Once a Travelodge, the Modern is now a hip hotel, complete with a wildly popular restaurant and cocktail bar. James Beard Award semifinalist Nate Whitley helms the kitchen at the Modern Bar and Restaurant, which draws heavily on local produce, meat, and dairy—try specials like bacon-wrapped rabbit saddle with roasted carrots and delicata squash. “They’ve been an icon of consistency for a long time,” Komori says. “Their bar program is great, and their food matches it. They do it right; it’s a small place but they really integrate with the farms.”
The Wylder and Certified
Comfort food reigns supreme at The Wylder, which specializes in baked goods, lasagna based on an old family recipe, and pizza made from a 52-year-old sourdough starter. “There are a couple places that bring really good business models, and are examples of how to treat employees,” Komori says. “The Wylder is one, and they’ve opened a new bakery called Certified.” Certified’s breakfast and lunch counter uses that same sourdough starter for items like English muffin breakfast sandwiches.
“The more ethnic foods, they’re starting to happen, and that’s something I’m really excited about, that they’re getting a voice. Pho Le is really good,” says Komori. The low-key restaurant, located in a strip mall in Southeast Boise, serves a staple beef pho, plus a vegetarian version, banh mi sandwiches, and vegetable vermicelli. The menu even offers pronunciation and pho garnishing tips for newbies.
“Mr. Wok is a Korean fried chicken place. When you go in there, it’s all college students and it’s a great vibe,” Komori says. Under Boise State University ephemera, diners tuck into bowls of spicy pork bulgogi, hot stone bowl bibimbap, fried rice, and teriyaki.
Many of the breweries in Boise’s thriving craft scene rely on local ingredients, including Idaho-grown hops and wheat. The one that does it best, says Komori, is Woodland Empire. “They do a lot of interesting things,” he says. “They collaborate a lot with farms, as well as actually source foraged items in the foothills here. So it’s really unique and location-specific.” The brewery’s devotion to all things local shows in offerings like barrel-aged sours, tangy IPAs, and quirky twists on classics, like a Mexican mocha lager.
Water Bear Bar & Lounge
“There are cocktail bars starting to pop up all over the place,” Komori says. “There’s a new one called Water Bear, which is kind of the hot new place. They call it ‘mountain tiki,’ which is like a blend of being up in the higher elevations but bringing the tiki vibe.” The menu combines classic cocktails like the Vieux Carré, with original creations like the Lioness, with bourbon, coffee, whiskey barrel bitters, and flamed orange. There are also shareable, large-format punch bowls and a menu of oyster shooters, charcuterie, steak tartare, and buffalo-style cauliflower “wings.”
>>Next: Plan your trip with AFAR’s Travel Guide to Idaho