Thursday, August 6, 2015

Alaska Eats


After taking our big vacation to the Great Plains (South Dakota, to be precise) last July, we liked the concept of escaping the tropical heat/humidity in Florida so much that we decided to go even further afield this summer; that is, above the 60th parallel to the wilds of Alaska. For those of you who don't know me personally, I spent the summer between my junior and senior years of college interning with the National Weather Service in Anchorage and, while I professed to be miserable and homesick for the majority of my 3 months there, I developed a strong connection to the people and places of the Last Frontier, so much so that I've been back twice before this latest trip. Mrs. Hackknife (who was with me on my last Alaska adventure, right after we got engaged) and I had always wanted our two kids to experience this great state through their eyes and, at ages 9 and 6, we decided now was the right time for a family visit.

One thing we didn't fully appreciate was the extended flight time from our corner of the country way across to the other, a full 8 1/2 hours total (it's funny to think we can actually fly to Europe faster). Jet-lagged and exhausted, we crashed immediately upon our arrival and all woke up around our usual time in Tampa, which unfortunately translated to about 4:30 am in Alaska. Still, propelled onward by near round-the-clock daylight and a hearty hotel breakfast, we got an early start, managing to visit Earthquake Park, Lake Hood, Ship Creek, and the Imaginarium, all before lunchtime. Just a few blocks from the Imaginarium lies the Anchorage Weekend Market, perched on the hillside overlooking the port area and railroad depot. The market (which appears to be held year-round, God bless 'em) has grown considerably since our last visit in 2002 and is a great place to grab a locally-sourced lunch.




With the warm sun beating down (no joke - not wearing a cap earned me a sunburned scalp), the kids settled for a standard hot dog/burger, while I dug into an ideally-crafted halibut taco courtesy of Two Fat Guys Catering. The TFGC conglomerate operates two restaurants in nearby Wasilla, as well as the market stand in Anchorage, churning out in this case a Thai-influenced halibut accented with lemongrass, ginger, and jicama, a spiffy combo of sweet, spice, and crunch.




For her lunch, Mrs. Hackknife managed to locate an Indian taco that was far superior to the variety we'd encountered in South Dakota. Walking around the rest of the market made me wish I'd brought a larger suitcase - reindeer sausages, Russian dumplings, birch syrup from Kahiltna Birchworks (a bottle of which we purchased and are now enjoying), you name it. One sweets booth offered fireweed honey ice cream, (fireweed being a ubiquitous flower that blooms in Alaska like dandelions during the short summer season - you'll see a picture of it later in this posting), a scoop of which tasted suspiciously like regular honey ice cream, but refreshing nonetheless.

We spent a good hour burning off calories while walking through the numerous gift shops in downtown Anchorage, then popped into a random coffee and tea shop for some bottled water. As luck would have it, the Kobuk Coffee Co. (situated in one of the oldest buildings in town, a former general store that survived the 1964 earthquake) has a small bakery in the back, selling a particular glazed old-fashioned donut that Huffington Post just cited as one of the nation's best in June (far be it for us to skip past a food item gaining such notoriety).








Chef/owner Mike Bonito has been churning out donuts at Kobuk for over 35 years, pretty much perfecting the glazed old-fashioned recipe in the process. Slightly crispy, warm, and decadent (and also available with some chocolate ribbons drizzled on), we'd stumbled upon a terrific bridge between lunch and dinner.

Feeling the need for more exercise following our dessert break, we headed up in the mountains to Chugach State Park, climbing up and around the various overlooks with hordes of tour bus riders before making our way back down to the city for dinner. On our last trip to Anchorage 13 years ago, Moose's Tooth Pizza and Brewery was the most popular place in town and, despite expanding into a facility 3 times larger since then, it still, well, appears to be the most popular place in town. We passed it on Seward Highway a number of times during our stay (it was around the corner from our hotel) and always saw people massed outside on the patio waiting for tables. Amazingly though, on this Sunday night, only a 20-minute wait was required before we were seated.




The beermaking operation (which has grown substantially) has been spun off into a separate entity called Broken Tooth Brewing and there was no sign of the fantastic smoked salmon pizza that the missus and I had enjoyed our first time at MT, but otherwise the business has maintained that laid-back, counterculture vibe we experienced before (all while printing money, I'm sure). We opted for the roasted garlic pie, a heady combo of Roma tomato slices, artichoke hearts, feta cheese, basil, mozzarella, provolone, and enough garlic/garlic oil to make us wish we'd slept in separate beds. Our meal was fine, however, the plain cheese pizza we ordered for the kinder was mediocre at best, leading me to wonder if kitchen expansion has diluted product quality a bit.




Our next day of touring found us traveling through Turnagain Arm and south on the Kenai Peninsula, where we enjoyed both great Mexican food (shrimp and crab enchiladas at Acapulco Mexican in Soldotna) and tasty caribou and elk burgers (Chair 5 in Girdwood). I was eager to have dinner at Jack Sprat in Girdwood, whose head chef has recently earned some James Beard recognition; sadly, the restaurant was booked up full (on a Monday night, no less) when we tried, a development that would have been unthinkable in 2002 (evidently, even Alaska has its share of foodies now). The next morning found us at the other most-popular eatery in Anchorage (we are nothing if not gluttons for punishment), skipping the hotel breakfast and waiting nearly an hour for a table at Snow City Cafe.






Having escaped my notice on two prior trips (they've been open at the corner of 4th and L Streets since 1998), SCC is not flying under anyone's radar now, packing in both locals and tourists alike for celebrated brunch fare. I can personally tell you that it's worth the wait - Mrs. H professed that her stuffed French toast (baguette slices, mandarin orange cream cheese, toasted walnuts, raspberry butter, and syrup) was about the best she's ever had, while I happily dug into my smoked salmon cakes and scrambled eggs, hash browns, and sourdough toast with a side of reindeer sausage from Indian Valley Meats, a local meat purveyor whose name I saw again and again on our travels (they must be doing something right). I also enjoyed the jar of jam on the table to slather on my toast - when I inquired about it, our server told me it was something called "marionberry" jam, and I instantly believed I was being punked (remembering the infamous mayor of Washington, D.C.) until I saw this article in Serious Eats on lesser-known berries just the other day (apparently, marionberries are found in the Pacific Northwest and are similar to blackberries).




From this point onward, our vacation swung away from the southern coast and towards the interior of the state. The initial stop on our way to Denali National Park was the town of Talkeetna, formerly a scruffy hamlet hosting mountain climbers and backpackers, now grown to also accommodate cruise line tourists taking the train up from Anchorage. The number of shops and restaurants in the 3 or 4-block main business district has significantly increased since I first set foot here in 1992, including another zen-heavy pizzeria joint named Mountain High Pizza Pie. MHPP's lot is a riot of colors, from various wildflowers to Buddhist prayer flags on the patio to the cabin's purple hue (or is that navy?).




Behind the hippie exterior resides some serious pizza-making skills. Mrs. Hackknife and I split one of the house specialty pies, the "Game On" with reindeer meat prepped two ways (gyro and Italian sausage) on-site, basil, and onion. Even the kid cheese pizza rocked the town, much better than Moose's Tooth, I might add. Although my sample size is small, MHTT receives my vote for best pizza in the 49th State thus far (I hope to conduct further research on this topic).




After lunch, the clan climbed onto a DeHavilland Otter and took a flightseeing tour into the Alaska Range, eventually landing on a glacier flanking Mount McKinley at an altitude of about 7,200 feet above sea level. There were no food trucks here, only hungry mountain climbers anxious awaiting a return flight to civilization.




To celebrate our triumphant survival from 30-odd minutes in backcountry oblivion, it seemed appropriate to indulge in some blueberry-rhubarb crisp. A shiny Airstream trailer (called Talkeetna Spinach Bread) back in town proudly advertised this dish and I was happy to try some, finding it significantly better than the rhubarb crisp I threw together many years ago.






Our host resort for the 3 days we spent in and around Denali was Tonglen Lake Lodge, a quirky combination of luxury bed and breakfast, arts commune, and Berkeley coffee house. Conceived and constructed out of virgin woods by founder Donna Gates (who's a Jill-of-all-trades: dog trainer, artist, cook, event planner, entrepreneur, and mother, among many others, the type of multi-hat personality that seems to be a prerequisite for successful living in the Alaskan Interior), Tonglen's small, but energetic, cafe staff churned out an impressive array of dishes given the remote setting and limited kitchen facilities. Each morning, we enjoyed homemade scones (including one variety chock full of bacon - yum), muffins, granola, fruit, and hot cereal, followed in the evenings by cheese plates, salads, quiches, and delicacies like salmon mac and cheese.




The cafe at Tonglen Lake also offers terrific box lunches (mine had an amply-sized veggie sandwich with hummus spread, chips, apple, water, and a giant chocolate chip cookie), which came in handy for us when we decided to venture down the unpaved Denali Highway (shhh....don't tell Hertz) and have a picnic in view of lesser-seen peaks of the Alaska Range like Mount Hess and Mount Hayes (see below).




If you're willing to tempt fate and drive a full 50 miles along this dusty road, you'll eventually reach Gracious House Lodge, the only settlement of any size in this part of the state and home to the Sluice Box Bar, a very unique venue (a trailer, actually) to grab a cold beer and some homemade pie. With all of the rusting vehicles, battered outbuildings, and random maintenance equipment scattered around the property, you might think you've stumbled across a junkyard at first until you realize that this arrangement is fairly typical here for a backcountry homestead.




The clientele mingling around the narrow saloon that day included an adventurous solo motorcycle rider, a few hardy-looking woodsmen that I'd guess might work in the heavy trucking and/or lumber industry (and I suspect could snap me in half just as soon as suffer my city-slicker presence), and a handful of intrepid tourists like us. The slice of blackberry pie (crowned with whipped cream) that the missus and I split wasn't cheap ($5), but it was mighty tasty.




With our rental vehicle having returned unscathed from the journey, our reward for yet again braving the Alaska wilds for a few hours was dinner at quite possibly the best restaurant between here and Seattle, 229 Parks Restaurant and Tavern, a stone's throw from Tonglen Lake. Chef/owner Laura Cole honed her cooking skills at the New England Culinary Institute and the Ritz Escoffier L'Ecole de Gastronome in Paris (where she earned a master pastry certificate) before coming to the Denali area to open her dream project, a place for her to incorporate Alaska's bounty of ingredients into various cuisines from around the world.






With the mountains and forest (there's that fireweed I was talking about) providing a humbling backdrop, we dug into our appetizers of parsnip chips with chive creme fraiche and a refreshing half-dozen oysters from Karheen Passage in Southeast Alaska. The kids were happy to eat warm bowls of buttered homemade lemon semolina pasta (a flavor I was worried might turn them off, but ended up being fine).






My entree of miso black cod (perfectly roasted and charred on one side, something that would not look out of place in a Japanese izakaya) served on a bed of roasted beets and greens with more creme fraiche was spectacular (and a bargain at $20 to boot).




The desserts on offer were all pretty standard (I passed on the Key lime pie for obvious reasons) except for one that I had to try, an inventive carrot ice cream sandwich (carrot ice cream between carrot/almond flour macarons) garnished with crunchy preserved carrot shavings (from last fall, our server confirmed), chocolate sauce, and a dark chocolate strip laid across the top. This was a baller dish that would hold up against anything the top-tier kitchens in New York or LA could create (it made me wistful for some of the savory desserts we had at Charlie Trotter's, except this was an order of magnitude larger on the plate). Chef Cole and her team should be very proud of what they're doing at 229 Parks and I sure hope there's some national attention coming their way.




By this time, we were nearing the endpoint of our trip. A few hours' drive further north (made longer by the frequent road construction delays) past Fairbanks brought us to the small town of North Pole, famous for its post office (which receives letters to St. Nick from all over the world) and a Santa's Village complex of stores, RV campground, and reindeer farm. There's also a McDonald's with its sign mounted on a candy-striped pole (the kids pestered us to have lunch here), a rarely-seen anymore Blockbuster Video next door, and a curious drive-up kiosk advertising tamales in the same parking lot.




As it turns out, this is the home of Outlaw Tamales and the Tamale Lady, which sounded like a much better dining option to me than a Big Mac. I walked up to the stand and had a nice conversation with said Tamale Lady, who's originally from Texas, but relocated up north to be with her soldier son stationed at nearby Ft. Wainwright. She managed to parlay her family tamale recipe into a nice business, cooking up pork, beef, chicken, and black bean tamales for hungry Latino expats (and gringos like myself), along with occasional batches of menudo, frijoles borrachos, and other Mexican goodies.




I picked up a mixed batch of 6 tamales for me and the missus to share while the progeny had their Happy Meals and this was immediately the best meal I've ever eaten inside a McDonald's. The masa inside the corn husks was a little lighter than I recall experiencing before (she told me she omits the lard in favor of just the meat drippings) and the meats used were all nicely seasoned (don't miss out on the homemade salsas, either).

After that great meal, we came to discover over then next 36 hours that Fairbanks doesn't exactly offer much in the way of distinguished eats; sure, we had decent seafood, crepes, and sushi, but as a whole, the area hasn't progressed much since I first had dinner here in '92 (we went to Sizzler then). Still, one notable place to visit for an afternoon treat if you're ever in town is Hot Licks Ice Cream, a local institution since 1986 and a very popular place when the mercury surpasses 80 degrees F as it did the day we were there.




Along with some tempting-sounding flavors that you're not likely to find outside the state (such as Alaska blueberry, Alaska Cranberry, and Arctic Refuge Wildberry Snap), they happened to be featuring that day an ice cream made with Silver Gulch 40 Below Stout (Silver Gulch being America's most northern brewery, in nearby Fox), a choice that I couldn't pass up. It was, in fact, quite robust and stouty, making me envision what a bottle of Guinness might taste like after being left outside during a clear Fairbanks January night.




All told, I like what the past decade has brought to the formerly-sparse Alaskan culinary scene. The better news is that I didn't exhaust my hit list of restaurants to visit there (and even added a few more), giving us more than enough reason for a return trip in the coming years...

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