Beyond Salmon in Anchorage, Alaska

How Alaska's largest city is brewing a mouth-watering culinary scene
Caffe latte
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Caffe latte

A scoop of mint-green ice cream puddling on the blacktop at the opening day of the Anchorage Market & Festival grabbed the attention of passersby. There were sighs of “oh, look” and “that’s so sad.” Aside from a quick glance down to make sure I stayed clear of the crime scene, I had bigger worries on my mind. I was out of napkins and, with every bite I took of a bulgogi taco, my t-shirt was in danger of turning into a Pollock-esque masterpiece as interpreted in Korean BBQ sauce. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/ACVB PR)

After seven years of near-annual trips to Alaska, the touristy market should have held little interest for me. I do not need more Alaskana tchotchkes and my tolerance for Elvis impersonators — yes, they have at least one up north, too — is low. But, really, can you fault a girl for enjoying an outdoor market that sells fresh birch cream caramels, to-go packs of smoked sockeye salmon, and chainsaw-carved wooden bear lamps alongside traditional market fare including grilled corn and funnel cakes?

Besides, if I’d skipped out on the market that day, I wouldn’t have tasted the bulgogi taco, laced with just enough kimchi to balance the sweet of the BBQ sauce, or had the chance to visit the market’s new Colombian food stand. Both vendors a sign that Anchorage’s food scene continues to expand. 

Though the city hasn’t quite ascended to the level of a must-visit for its restaurants alone, Anchorage has made serious headway since my first visit in 2004. There was, at the time, a smattering of restaurants that stood out for me: Snow City Café, popular for its creative breakfasts; Jens’, where the Danish owner’s outsized personality is as welcoming as his alder plank-roasted salmon with berry butter; and Sacks Café, a warm and cheery downtown spot housed in an otherwise indistinct building (which, by the by, is the rule for most Anchorage restaurants). And, yes, a New Yorker to the core (or so I thought), I had my first meal at what’s become one of my favorite pizza joints in the United States, Moose’s Tooth, which also brews its own beers (one Prince William’s Porter, please). (Photo courtesy of Jenna Schnuer)

But, for the most part, I still thought of Anchorage as an ingredient town, not a restaurant town. Even at some of the city’s more tourist-driven restaurants, the local catch would be fresh, turning what could have been a bland order of halibut and chips or seared salmon into something far more memorable. 

During two visits over the last year, I saw a change in Anchorage. The city has started to morph into a restaurant town. One of downtown’s odder architectural wonders now houses Crush Wine Bistro and Cellar. Crush’s chef, Christopher Vane, received a nod as contender for the 2011 James Beard Award for best chef in the Pacific Northwest. His shrimp and grits would, likely, pass the test of any visitors from the states of the lower lower 48. And Anchorage even has a third-wave coffee bar, SteamDot Coffee and Espresso Lab, that would feel right at home in a hipster neighborhood of Portland or Brooklyn. (Photo courtesy of Flicr/ACVB PR)

Not long ago I went to NYC’s WD-50 for dinner with several people I know from Alaska. It didn’t take long to discover that a number of the restaurant’s staffers hailed from or had, at least, lived in Alaska for a chunk of time. Alaskans tend to quickly unearth connections with others from the state. Years ago it would have surprised me to find so many former Alaska food folks in NYC. Now? It makes complete sense.

Read more of freelance writer Jenna Schnuer’s work here.