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New Airway Heights restaurant brings Asian fusion to West Plains

D’bali Asian Bistro becomes early neighborhood favorite thanks to distinctive signature flavors

 

January 31, 2019

By SHANNEN TALBOT

Staff Reporter

Mama Jeannie doesn’t quite know what to do with compliments.

Jeannie Choi, called “Mama Jeannie” by employees and customers alike, is the owner and chef at D’bali Asian Bistro, the Airway Heights restaurant gaining a cult following for its signature Asian fusion dishes and distinctive seasonings.

And when complimented on the delicious food coming out of her kitchen, she just smiles, waves a hand and says, “It’s not bad, huh?”

Not bad is an understatement, with the small location already setting the local culinary scene on fire despite opening at the end of 2018. D’bali serves up exotic dishes inspired by Choi’s days in the corporate hotel industry, when she travelled all over Southeast Asia and fell in love with the flavors.

Her menu shows off those flavors with a deft hand, spotlighting traditional meals with a modern twist. Though the restaurant has a variety of offerings with Balinese, Malaysian, Thai and Indian influences, each meal begins with the Korean tradition of banchan, complimentary side dishes served with rice for tasting. The side dishes rotate, and earlier this week included pickled radish, jalapeno onions and kimchi.

Choi’s friend Kelly Bishop is D’bali’s director of business development and handles most of the marketing due to Choi’s slight language barrier. Bishop has been with Choi every step of the way for several years and calls the new business ¬“a labor of love.”

“When we were looking for places we just kept coming back to Airway Heights,” Bishop said. “Airway Heights is kind of a cool little hub of ethnic food and there’s lots of culinary diversity, so it felt comfortable.”

Mama Jeannie and her husband Tony have dreamed of owning a restaurant since they came to the United States from South Korea more than a decade ago, Bishop said. That dream was more than two years in the making with the restaurant’s current building requiring an extensive remodel, but it’s been well-worth it in an extremely short time.

In fact, D’Bali Asian Bistro was recognized as the region’s best ethnic dining spot at the Spokane Culinary Arts Guild’s 2018 awards gala in early January.

“She was not expecting it, but I was. Her food is fantastic, but even more than that is the warmth she treats people with,” Bishop said. “How she treats her family and friends is how she treats her customers. It’s that sense of connection and community that keeps people coming back.”

Choi’s South Korean family can be seen in the black and white photos adorning the walls of the restaurant — cousins, siblings, parents. Choi said she sees her family about every two years and admits she misses watching her nieces and nephews grow.

But Mama Jeannie has made her own family with her restaurant, remembering past customers’ first names and welcoming them like old friends.

On Monday, Jan. 28, the dining room filled with the lunch rush as the place has quickly become a favorite of local airmen. Military members and Alaska/Horizon Air employees get a 10 percent discount, while 10 percent of all dessert sales are donated to local animal charities, primarily the Spokane Humane Society.

Mama Jeannie still makes everything traditionally in small batches by hand, Bishop said. Many of her dishes are ones she’s been making at home for decades.

“Her signature D’bali wings she’s made for friends and family, for parties and potlucks for years, and everyone has been going crazy for these addictive wings,” Bishop said.

Those signature chicken wings live up to the hype, served resting on a bed of sweet and savory sauce worth scraping up with a spoon for one last taste.

The fresh Malaysian curry is a particular gem, offering a bevy of mouth-watering flavors with just a touch of heat and served in a bowl big enough to share — or at least provide leftovers. In it, you’ll find eggplant, peppers and a blend of spices curry fans across cultures can agree on.

Mama Jeannie’s own favorite dish on the menu is her bone broth “To-die-for boat noodle soup” inspired by the floating markets and cities she visited in Thailand.

“People have been seriously loving the Nasi Goreng Indonesian fried rice,” Bishop said. “I think it’s something that Spokane people have not often had a chance to try and has unique flavor profile that’s still familiar and comforting.”

The recipes at D’bali’s are all Choi’s own, developed over years and coupled with cooking skills honed to an edge as sharp as the one on her cooking knives.

That authenticity shines through in each dish and has made die-hard fans of neighboring residents already.

“In our culture, when you’re far away from family, you create your own, and that’s what she’s done here,” Bishop said. “And with her food she pays tribute and honor to those delicious flavors she fondly remembers.”

For menu information and operating hours visit http://www.dbaliasianbistro.com.

Shannen Talbot can be reached at shannen@cheneyfreepress.com.

 

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