#0 Eating Alaska

some Alaskans make amazing Italian food; others are heavily armed and like to shoot things

I really didn’t think that it would be worth mentioning my trip to Alaska on a New York food blog.  Alaska isn’t particularly known for its international culinary wonders, unless you’re really into mooseburgers, reindeer sausage, or bear steaks.

We were in Alaska for three weeks, thinking that we would get away from the mayhem of NYC, stare lazily at mountains and glaciers and herds of caribou, do plenty of mellow day hikes, and maybe get eaten by a bear.  If we had to subsist on a diet of trail mix and energy bars and convenience-store sandwiches for three weeks, we were fine with that.

The weird part?  We had amazing food in Alaska, over and over again:

  • Day 1, Anchorage:  fantastic dolsot (hot stone pot) bibimbap at Korean VIP Restaurant… they even served my favorite thing ever, gelatinous Korean fish skins!
  • best bagel sandwich ever... in Fairbanks?!?

    Day 2, Talkeetna (population 772):  went to a random bar behind the general store, got a shockingly good BBQ pork sandwich, served with a delicious, not-too-creamy, orange walnut cole slaw.  Didn’t see that coming at all.

  • Day 3, Talkeetna (population 773… I ate enough BBQ pork to count as an extra person): Mountain High Pizza Pie served us the best Italian breakfast I’ve ever eaten, anywhere.  We loved the food so much that we stayed at the same table for both breakfast and lunch.  (See below.)
  • Day 6, Fairbanks (population 35,252):  Randomly stumbled into LuLu’s Bread and Bagels, fell madly in love with the rosemary bagels, the gumball machine that dispenses chocolate-covered espresso beans, and the tidy breakfast sandwiches that include diced bacon or vegetables inside the egg patty.  The best bagels I’ve eaten anywhere in the world, including New York City.  Didn’t see that coming at all, either.
  • bearburgers that have never touched bear fur are apparently delicious, but we stuck with beef, ham and egg anyway

    Day 7, Paxson (population 43, not including Aurora the talking Malamute):  After spending four hours hiking through the tundra in a failed attempt to visit an obscure glacier, we had no choice but to eat at Paxson Lodge, the only restaurant within 100 miles of the (rumored) glacier.  Had a phenomenal (beef, I think) burger topped with ham, cheese, and fried eggs, served with the best batter-dipped fries I’ve had in years.  While we ate, the lodge owner explained that bear meat is instantly ruined if the bear’s fur touches the flesh during the skinning process.  Fascinating.  Who knew that bear fur could ruin the taste of bear meat?

  • Day 9, Homer (population 5400, including Tom Bodette and sometimes Jewel):   fresh chocolate bread at Two Sisters Bakery, followed by an amazing wood-fired pizza at Finn’s Pizza.  The owners at Finn’s—one of whom spent nearly a decade making pizzas in Italy—hauled the oven 5000 miles from a defunct restaurant in New York to Alaska on a flatbed truck.  Unbelievably good pizza and polenta, better than anything I’ve eaten in NYC.
  • Day 13, Kodiak (population 6228, including several of the nicest people on the planet).  OK, get this:  Kodiak has a winery, and it’s actually really good.  Chilly Kodiak Island isn’t exactly a legendary grape-growing region, so the winery makes salmonberry, blueberry, and raspberry wines, along with wildflower-scented honeymead.  The shocking part:  their award-winning wines aren’t overly sweet, and we absolutely loved them.  The owners of Alaska Wilderness Wines are lovable, non-pretentious people who have an informal tasting room in their basement; an evening with them was an unexpected highlight of our trip.
  • best borscht ever

    Day 14, Kodiak:  wandered into Monk’s Rock Coffeehouse, ordered a bowl of the best borscht I’ve ever eaten in my life, jammed with craploads of dill—just like grandma used to make.  (Or maybe better.  Shhhh, she’ll haunt me forever if you tell her I said that.)  Monk’s Rock also serves the best calzones I’ve ever eaten, and that’s saying a lot.  Turns out that the coffeehouse is run by an Italian dude who became a Russian Orthodox priest, which explains the amazing Russian and Italian food; all coffeehouse proceeds support the priest’s work with orphaned and troubled teens.

breakfast pizza with sourdough crust

Of all the amazing food (and wine) surprises on our trip, Mountain High Pizza Pie in Talkeetna (population 772; town motto:  “a quant little drinking village with a climbing problem”) deserves a special mention.  We dropped in for breakfast on Mother’s Day and ordered the breakfast pizza (with a sourdough crust, arguably the best pizza crust we’d ever eaten) along with the day’s breakfast special, an obscure Italian classic called pastio.  I’d never heard of the stuff before, and I found exactly zero mention of it on Chowhound or Google… but I fell madly in love:  Italian sausage, pasta, eggs, and cheese, artfully baked into a pie tastier than the best lasagna, quiche, or Spanish breakfast tortilla I’ve ever eaten.

We loved the pastio and pizza so much that we stayed in the restaurant for several hours after our meal, reading, dozing, and using the wifi until we got hungry

sat at the same table for five hours, just so we could eat this twice before leaving town

enough to eat another pair of entrees:  more pastio, and a equally wonderful breakfast stromboli.  Yes, we ate breakfast twice in four hours, without leaving the restaurant—it was that good.  In case you’re wondering, chef/owner Todd Basilone is a recovered New Yorker who comes from a long line of Italian chefs.  I think he said that the pastio recipe came from his grandmother, and that the recipe for the sourdough pizza crust has been in his family for five generations.  Genuine, old-world Italian awesomeness in little Talkeetna, Alaska?  Surprise!

I could ramble forever about the other details of our trip:  we took nearly 1500 photos of turquoise lakes, calving blue glaciers, herds of caribou, and a bear that was close enough to taste us.  We figured that Alaska would be gorgeous… but tasty?  Never saw that coming at all.

I think he sees a tasty salmon coming... or a tasty hiker



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3 Responses to “#0 Eating Alaska”

  1. Susan Sommer says:

    Surprise! Glad you had an excellent culinary adventure in AK. We do have some amazingly good restaurants. Pass it along!


  2. Charles,

    I’m so glad you had awesome food in Alaska. My parents have a place on Kodiak, so we’ve been all over the state and definitely had great food in some hole-in-the-wall places. I think the piece de resistance in Alaska has to be the sourdough pancakes, though. They’re basically the Alaska National Food. Did you get a chance to try them? A bunch of people have really old starters. I got mine from a friend who claims his is from 1912, from the gold rush days when miners would carry sourdough starter to mix with flour and always have an easy food item on hand. Apparently they would put them at the bottom of their sleeping bags so the cultures would keep warm.

  3. Thank you for the message, Andrea! Nope, I didn’t ever try sourdough pancakes when I was there! Darn, now I guess I have to go back… 🙂

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