Located in the southwest corner of the Gem State, Boise has seen its population grow by double digits every decade for the past 50 years. In recent years, the City of Trees has seen an influx of Californians, as well as people from other western states. And the local food scene has grown as fast (if not faster) than the population.
Idaho plates may still have potatoes, but the real treasure is in the various African, Asian, European and Latin American dining options throughout the capital. Much of the diversity in Boise’s food scene stems from its willingness to welcome refugees from places like Afghanistan, Bosnia, Iraq, and Somalia. Many of these refugees have brought their business acumen and culinary skills to their adopted hometown and now have their own grocery stores and specialty restaurants.
Here are eight restaurants that prove there’s more to Idaho than potatoes.
Alyonka Russian Cuisine
Alyonka pelmeni (Russian dumplings) — Photo courtesy of Natalie Martin
Boise has a full-service Russian restaurant, but if you prefer quality over quantity, Alyonka is all you need. The idea for this cozy dining spot began when owner and head chef Elena DeYoung was working as an event coordinator for the annual Russian Food Festival. She learned to cook in her native Kazakhstan.
This small, intimate restaurant serves Russian standards like beef stroganoff, blini (Russian pancakes), borscht (beetroot soup), and pelmeni (bite-sized dumplings). For drinks, they have traditional Russian tea options, as well as Baltika, which is the most popular beer in Russia.
Desserts like pavlova, sweet blini, and the decadent royal poppyseed ganache cake are as essential to the Alyonka experience as appetizers and entrees. If you don’t have room for dessert, you can always take it to go. Desserts and drinks are displayed in front of the kitchen entrance. Reservations are recommended.
The counter at Baguette Deli — Photo courtesy of Brian Cicioni
Boise has a handful of sit-down Vietnamese restaurants to choose from. Baguette Deli currently only offers takeout, but still worth a visit. While Boise’s other Vietnamese restaurants focus on noodle and rice dishes, Baguette specializes in foot-long crusty bread sandwiches. Most of the options are Vietnamese, but they also do teriyaki along with several French and Italian-inspired options. There’s always a line, and the experience is more like fast-paced New York than laid-back Boise.
If you’re looking for a full-service sit-down experience, Pho 208 & Vegan has the most diverse Vietnamese menu in Boise. Like Baguette, they have a variety of drink options. But they also have several vegan items, which is not something Vietnamese food is known for. For a more contemporary urban vibe, check out Pho Le.
Das Alpenhaus Delikatessen
Deli counter at Das Alpenhaus — Photo courtesy of Brian Cicioni
Das Alpenhaus brings the flavors of the Alps to southwest Idaho. This German deli, which opened in 2016, is co-owner Jamie’s nod to his time in Thüringen, as well as his experience growing up in a German family. Like most “one of a kind” restaurants in Boise, Alpenhaus is a small imported grocery store with a food counter and small seating area.
You can build your own sandwich from scratch or order from the menu, which is displayed above the counter along with the daily specials. On weekends, you can expect a party atmosphere, especially during the summer when patrons can sit outside and play drinking games to the sounds of volksmusik (German folk music).
The drinks are as much a part of the Alpenhaus experience as the food. They have a wine and beer garden in the back of the store with hundreds of different options. The menu changes every month.
food land market
Arabic-style shawarma at Food Land Market — Photo courtesy of Brian Cicioni
Food Land is one of Boise’s refugee- and women-owned restaurants. The owner, Hana, is a Baghdad native who taught history before fleeing with her family to Jordan and eventually settling in Boise. After six years in the trucking business with two of her brothers, she opened her dream store at the intersection of Emerald and Orchard. Food Land is modeled after the market her parents ran growing up in Iraq.
It is best to experience Food Land in three phases. First, walk through the grocery store section (which takes up most of the space) to the food counter in the back. As soon as you enter you will notice the smell of Turkish coffee. When you get to the food counter, the smell of coffee gives way to the aroma of fresh bread, which Hana’s son bakes on the spot every day.
The food menu is displayed above the counter, and their Arabic-style shawarma is the most popular item. Thin bread from their clay oven is stuffed with gherkins, onions, French fries and a gyro-style mix of lamb and beef. It is then cut into seven pieces and covered with sumac and chopped parsley. It is best eaten with its garlic sauce, which comes on the side.
Take your shawarma to the front seating area and order coffee or tea from Hana, who makes all the drinks. After your meal from hers, be sure to spend some time exploring the five aisles for imported Middle Eastern groceries. They are open every day from 9 am to 8 pm All meat is halal.
Lamb stew and croquettes from Bar Gernika in Boise’s Basque Block — Photo courtesy of Brian Cicioni
Boise has the highest concentration of Basques in North America. In the center, there is even a Basque Block, with a museum, a small grocery store and some dining options. Bar Gernika serves Basque tapas, sandwiches and stews in a small corner pub. They also have a wide selection of beers. In the summer, Gernika has outdoor dining, where you can enjoy people-watching in one of Boise’s busiest pedestrian areas.
To cap off your Boise Basque dining experience, head across the street to The Basque Market. They sell chorizos, cheeses, Iberian hams, and hundreds of wines, as well as more quirky items like French fries with foie gras. You can have lunch here five days a week. The Mercado Vasco has tapas/pintxos three for $5, as well as a small food and wine menu.
Kibrom Ethiopian and Eritrean Food
Kibrom’s Meat and Vegetable Mesob Gebeta — Photo courtesy of Brian Cicioni
This casual restaurant has its roots in the Shimelba refugee camp in Ethiopia. Like many of Boise’s refugee-owned restaurants, Kibrom’s got its start in the now-defunct International Market. The atmosphere is super casual, and everything from the East African music videos on the TV screen to the artwork lining the walls lets you know exactly what kind of cuisine is there to enjoy. While the beyaynetu combo platters on injera bread are the stars of the menu, you should also save room for the samosas and their take on East African spaghetti. A good part of the menu is vegan and vegetarian.
Even if you’ve never eaten Ethiopian food, you shouldn’t feel intimidated here. There is a glossary at the bottom of the menu, which explains everything. The spiciest dishes are clearly marked and gluten-free injera is available on request. Although they provide cutlery, Ethiopian food is eaten with your hands.
Enjoy Korean BBQ in a mug at Cupbop — Photo courtesy of Brian Cicioni
Of the handful of Korean options in Boise, Cupbop is the most unique. Their concept of “Korean BBQ in a Cup” (also known as “bops”) offers a fun and affordable way to enjoy fried chicken, BBQ beef, or dumplings. The bops are under $12 and have a combination of rice, noodles, cabbage mix, and your choice of protein. There are also a couple of vegetarian options. You can set the spice level from 1 to 10.
For a traditional Korean meal, try Gangnam or Magnificent Garden. Han’s is another fast food option.
Sunshine Spice Bakery and Cafe
The sisters opened and run Sunshine Spice Bakery & Cafe — Photo courtesy of Brian Cicioni
This popular breakfast and lunch spot is Boise’s first Afghan bakery. It was started in December 2019 by four sisters who moved to the United States to get the education the Taliban denied them. They combined their love of baking, food photography, jewelry design, and visual arts to provide customers with a delicious and aesthetically pleasing experience. You can see each sister’s talents on full display at Sunshine Spice.
The name “spice of the sun” is a nod to the Afghan saffron, ubiquitous in most foods and drinks served at the cafeteria. The four Shams sisters insist that Afghanistan produces the best saffron in the world. Try the saffron pudding if you need convincing.
Sunshine also has Afghan dumplings, which are different from neighboring Uzbekistan. Their version is only slightly larger than bite size, and they are stuffed with minced meat and onion. Since presentation is a key part of the Sunshine Spice experience, they are topped with chopped cilantro over layers of orange tomato sauce and their white sauce, which is a mixture of sour cream and garlic.