After multiple COVID-19 delays and then a robbery days before sneak previews, chef and restaurateur Chad White opened his relocated Zona Blanca to the public on Tuesday morning downtown in the Holley-Mason Building.
Four days of soft openings last week – two days of sneak previews, then two days of service for friends and family – came on the heels of the restaurant being robbed of about $6,000 in alcohol, a cash register and an employee’s leather bag.
White, in an interview at Zona Blanca on Friday afternoon, said Rick Clark of “Live at 5” and Spokane Quaranteam reached out to him immediately after he posted about the robbery on Facebook and shared a Venmo account. Spokane responded in less than 24 hours, and White was able to replenish the entire inventory.
“It just reminded us to stay humble because this whole process hasn’t been easy,” White said. “We wanted to open in October, and we had setback after setback after setback. But the robbery was another reminder that Spokane cares.”
White opened Zona Blanca in 2016, sharing space with Steel Barrel Taproom downtown on Madison Street, and the “Top Chef” Season 13 cheftestant last year received his first James Beard Award nomination, for the casual, modified counter-service Zona Blanca (order at the counter, and the order is delivered to you).
One of the biggest differences at the relocated Zona Blanca is that it is now family-friendly, as it is no longer in a brewery and restricted to ages 21 and older. And the staff, who helped reimagine the food and beverage menu, includes chef du cuisine Jeana Pecha, who relocated from Los Angeles about six months ago, and bartender and house manager Adam Vizzo.
Pecha, whose mother, uncles and cousins live in North Idaho, was running a catering company, taco truck and café in L.A. before she signed on for Zona Blanca. Her catering company slowed down heavily during the pandemic, she said, while the café is open and run by her sous chef. She describes her cuisine as West Coast Latin, so it aligns with Zona Blanca.
“I’ve been following chef Chad’s work for a few years now, and I have family here,” Pecha said at Zona Blanca on Friday. “It just made sense to relocate, and, if there is ever a time not be in L.A., it’s probably right now. The stars aligned.”
It goes without saying that life, and the restaurant scene, in Spokane and L.A. are vastly different for Pecha.
“The pace of life up here is so different, and the people I’ve met here have been so genuine and nice. The best example is when I go get a cup of coffee, I’m not used to people asking me about my day,” Pecha said. “In L.A., you expect maybe a look. People are really genuine here and ask questions and are more real.”
While this is a relocation Pecha, Zona Blanca and White, he said, “This doesn’t feel like a relocation of a restaurant. This feels like we’re opening a restaurant for the first time.” Six items carried over – four ceviches, the guacamole and the Dorilocos – and the rest of the 21-item menu is new and includes vegetarian and non-seafood items, he said.
Pecha and White worked on Zona Blanca’s menu for about six months, bouncing their ideas back and forth and taking into account flavors, spices and the vibe and atmosphere of Zona Blanca, as well as their different styles of cooking, skills and experiences.
“The fish taco is one of my favorite items because it was an idea that I didn’t really understand when chef Chad presented it to me, and it took me a long time to figure out how it would work,” Pecha said. “But the second his brain and my brain finally synced up on this one taco, I fell in love with it. It’s a great representation of he and I working together.”
Two of White’s favorite menu items are the smoked oyster tostada and the mushroom tostada, which White describes as “phenomenal.” White and Pecha describe their menu as approachable, along with flavorful and spicy, while their menu is sourced from local farms and businesses.
“Jeana has done a really great job of adding her own personality and flair to the menu, and that marriage has been really exciting,” White said. After a lot of hard work and building a foundation, “we’re headed down the right avenue.”
Another new addition at Zona Blanca: “Instead of bringing in grasshoppers from Mexico, we’re bringing in dried crickets from Chomper Cricket Farm (in Spokane) for guacamole and as a snack with a shot of Mezcal,” White said. “It will be a retail item with our seasoning. It’s high in protein and delicious. People should be really eating more insects!”
A sneak peek
I was part of the first group to attend a sneak preview last week, and the fabulous dinner included pulpo con sikil pak (charred Spanish octopus and smoked squash – it was my favorite dish of the meal, as I love octopus and squash); oyster shooters, aka “liquid Viagra,” with a quail egg; mixto ceviche (with tuna, shrimp + octopus); and tuna tuna peanut tostadas.
Also, carnitas tacos (with pork butt from TT’s Old Iron Brewery and BBQ); Dorilocos, “a secret Mexico City street snack like a high-five in your mouth,” and one of the ingredients is Gummy Bears! – and Vizzo’s cocktails Agua Azule Cielo and Zona Blanca Paloma.
“The restaurant has done amazing things, and I’m so proud of it,” Pecha said. “It has been so much fun. The staff has been great. The team has been great. It’s a huge support system. It’s awesome.
“I really hope people think Zona Blanca is different and fun and some of the best food you can get in Spokane. Bring it on, Spokane!”
“We want to wake people’s senses up to experience something that is not Spokane,” White said. “We want to transport people into a different space. We want to people to feel like they’re on vacation when they’re inside this restaurant. It’s high energy and bright.”
“This location is really great. We hope to open for lunch in two weeks. We have alcohol, so we can throw a party,” said White, who hopes to open the outside patio in late June. “Thank you, God. I don’t know if I really deserve this, but thank you, God.”
“I opened Zona Blanca in a difficult time of my life in 2016. I poured my heart and soul into Zona Blanca. When we had to close, it was heartbreaking. This is a part of me. It is the food that I love to eat. It is the food that I love to cook.
“This is my proudest moment, and to be able to share it with Jeana and my team is just phenomenal. I’m so incredibly proud and thankful. This is everything to me.”
Never one to rest on his laurels – or rest, actually – White said he plans to open a poke bar in the Wonder Building near the second location of his High Tide Lobster Bar. He also has set a date for his wedding, Sept. 22, to makeup artist Alexi Sage at Arbor Crest Wine Cellars.
Zona Blanca has injected much-needed energy, flavor and spice into the culinary scene – and life, really – during this pandemic. Restaurants like Zona Blanca are, to borrow White’s quote, the heart and soul of Spokane.