Category Archives: Alaska

Lime Index, Alaska/Vancouver Edition

Lime Index

Lime Index: Trending up?

Almost forgot to discuss Alaska’s lime situation.  It was easy to forget, since there is no Alaskan lime situation.  We did not see (or smell or hear or Spidey-sense) a single lime the entire time we were in Alaska.  Juneau organic supermarket with a good (for Alaska) produce section: no limes.  Skagway farmers market: no limes.  Restaurants: no limes.  We ordered no cocktails, so maybe all the limes are squirreled away by bartenders for G&Ts, I don’t know.  But the lack of limes up there would have been depressing if I hadn’t been so distracted by glaciers and whales and IPAs and whatnot.

Canada has limes!: 3/.99 cents at the Langley Farm Market in Lansdown Centre, Richmond.  Good quality, from Mexico.  No scurvy in Richmond.

Wheaton also (still) has limes: Mrs. Me recently hit Korean Korner (Viers Mill at Randolph), where she found six/$1, and good quality — a new local winner?  Korean Korner is just slightly farther for me than H Mart, much less Hung Phat, so it is not in my rotation (or even really my consciousness) but I may have to go more often if this is indicative of KK’s overall produce or broader food selection.

Surely it must be indicative: everything we need to know, we learned from the lime index.

Ketchikan: Salmon For All the Senses

Ketchikan is the self-proclaimed “Salmon Capital of Alaska” and salmon certainly are evident there: in the water, near the water, and (unfortunately) wafting in the air. While Skagway is a charming little burg (if a bit touristy in places) and Juneau is a  solid small city (if a bit touristy in places), Ketchikan is a stinky touristy mess.  I don’t think the stink is due to the tourists — well, maybe in part — but rather it is due to the decaying salmon on the banks of the creek that runs through downtown to the waterfront.   We actually saw more salmon in Skagway’s creek than in Ketchikan’s, but we sure smelled them in Ketchikan.   Which didn’t exactly make us want to eat them in Ketchikan.

Burger Queen Burger and Fries

Burger Queen Burger and Fries

And that’s okay because we were headed for Burger Queen (518 Water Street), a favorite among cruise forum posters, for burgers and fries.  BQ is an unassuming little white shack right across the street from the docks, with four small tables inside and a couple more outside (for use on those rare non-rainy Ketchikan days), and a typically long wait as they cook food to order.  It wasn’t that busy when we were there, but still took 30+ minutes to get our food.Not really worth the wait, either, although it came close to burger excellence: toasted sesame seed bun, tangy 1,000 Island dressing, fresh lettuce/tomato/onion, all good and in the right proportions.  And it looked like it would be juicy and delicious.  Unfortunately, the half-pound ground beef puck was neither charred nor juicy nor particularly anything at all.   If they cut the burger to 1/4 pound and put a good char on it, and maybe have a freer hand with the salt, they’d have a winner.  But you don’t have to have a winner in order to be a winner when you’re a burger shack right across from the cruise ship docks…

Partial redemption came from the big basket of crisp, hot, salty, thin-cut fries, and the halibut sandwich was (reportedly) good too.  Fries and Fish Sandwich Queen doesn’t have quite the same ring, does it?

We weren’t in Ketchikan all that long and didn’t have time to do any additional eating, and that was fine, we didn’t see any place that looked like it might be even as good as Burger Queen.  Even more than other Alaskan towns, Ketchikan consists nearly 100% of gift shops, art boutiques, and jewelry stores — just regular old jewelry stores, not selling special Alaskan artifacts or that kind of thing.  Do cruise ship passengers really spend so much money on the kind of jewelry you can buy literally in any city anywhere in the U.S. that they prop up a booming jeweler industry in every port in Alaska?  Makes no sense to me, but there they all are.  Some of the art boutiques are nice and have genuine local Alaskan art, but even those start to look the same after a while.

Plus you can’t eat jewelry.  We did have a beer — more Alaskan IPA/APA — at a little bar/liquor store whose name I didn’t write down and where we finally found wi-fi, albeit slow and limited to a half-hour.  Wi-fi is tough to find throughout Alaska, but Ketchikan was especially problematic.  We can not haz internets.  Apropos of my previous post, I could happily spend some time in Skagway or Juneau, but I don’t need to go back to Ketchikan (although their new public library is quite nice — and a half-mile out of town and just over a hill, so all you can smell there is clean pine forests and pure icy glaciers).

Juneau: Tourist Capital

Also capital capital. Juneau, land of glaciers and whales!  Incredible scenery and wildlife, at least once you get out of downtown.  Many Juneau restaurants are closed Sundays, limiting our options, and restaurants don’t need to be particularly good here.  Is there any other state capital more tourist-driven than Juneau?  It is a city, at least, not a big one, but quite urban compared to the hamlet of Skagway.

Hangar on the Wharf Fish  & Chips

Hangar on the Wharf Fish & Chips

We saw many humpbacks in the surrounding fjords but didn’t eat any, so let’s just move on. We did eat fish.  Had to compare Juneau fish and chips to Skagway’s awesomenitude.  Juneau did not measure up (limited sample size notwithstanding). On the recommendation of a local antique shop proprietor, whose advice matched what I read on the internets pre-trip, we tried the Hangar on the Wharf (2 Marine Way).  Fish and chips were fine but no match for Skagway Brewing; the halibut was fresh enough but the breading (“tempura” style) was underseasoned and underwhelming, with mealy thick-cut steak fries.  Nice metal serving basket though!  So it’s got that going for it.  Salmon chowder was better, thick and chunky and appropriately salted.  Like everywhere else in Alaska (as far as we could tell), the beer list was Alaska-centric; we liked the Alaskan Brewing Company IPA and loved the Freeride APA (American Pale Ale), only slightly less hoppy but better balanced.  Also, Hangar on the Wharf provided wi-fi, which is about as elusive as a moose in Alaska.  So overall it was a good pit stop.

We found lots of great coffee in Alaska (cruise ship aside), and Juneau has several fine independent local options, including (I hear) The Rookery, which was closed when we were there, and also Heritage Coffee (174 S. Franklin among other locations), which was happily open to provide me with a strong iced americano.

Quality coffee, beer, pizza, fried halibut, glaciers, whales…give me wi-fi and I could live here.  Six months a year anyway.

Skagway: Best Food in Alaska?

Skagway Brewing Company Fish & Chips

Skagway Brewing Company Fish & Chips

The Gold Rush town of Skagway has a population around 1,000 most of the year, ballooning to 2,000+ during cruise ship season, so you can imagine the bustling metropolis we encountered.  Despite being kind of touristy, Skagway is also quaint, easy to navigate, and a lot of fun.  Also, they have surprisingly good food.

We lunched at the Skagway Brewing Company (7th and Broadway), where we had spectacularly good fish and chips, maybe the best ever – “best fries ever” said Mrs. Me, but for my money the fish was equally outstanding.  The halibut (not cod) was fresh and perfectly cooked; the batter was thick, crunchy, and rich, but stayed with the fish, not falling apart at all.  Fries were fresh-cut, dark, appropriately salty, similar to Five Guys when you are lucky enough to get them right out of the fryer when they’re still supercrisp.  Even the tartar sauce was above average. SBC also brews its own beer, and the Chilkoot Trail IPA was a fine example of the genre.  Best meal of the entire trip, aside from maybe Sabatini’s.

glacierbrewinggraffThe graffiti in the men’s room was also pretty good. It’s hard to beat the yearning authenticity of “The only thing better than yer beer is if we could have a fat dube to complement it with!!!” — I was most impressed with the correct use of “complement.”  Above that someone had written “Your mom on toast! Spred?” Which, although clearly also quite deep and subject to multiple possible interesting interpretations, did not win the spelling prize.

We struck further liquid gold at Flying Squirrel Espresso (5th and Broadway, not their primary location I think, tucked inside a fudge shop or something), evidently the only place in Skagway serving iced caffeinated non-carbonated beverages.  Lucky for me they know what they’re doing; when I asked for an iced americano the barrista said “my specialty!” and whipped up a very good one, not just compared to the toxic sludge on the Coral Princess but actually good.

That’s all the Skagway eating we had time for, which is too bad, because I bet there is more good eating there.  We stumbled across a little not-really-farmers’ market, which included a good-looking taco truck (food trucks even in Skagway!), a bunch of crafts and art, and one woman selling enormous zucchini (like magnum-wine-sized) but no other discernible foodstuffs.  Overall a good food town considering the population.  We would have happily stayed another day, but Princess insisted on whisking us further south, to Juneau.

Leaving Skagway

Leaving Skagway

Alaska Cruise Ship Cuisine

Until last week I was probably the last adult in the U.S. never to have spent time on a cruise ship, so I will keep this part short.*  There are four basic food groups on a cruise: buffet, dining room, fancy dining room, and a category I will cleverly call “other” that consists of pizzas, burgers, soft serve ice cream, that kind of thing. Quality may vary across cruise lines or even ships on the same line, but as I understand it, the categories don’t really change.  I should probably mention we were on the Coral Princess.

* in retrospect, I will not.

On our ship, the buffet was fine, better than the average terrestrial buffet for sure.  Some items are the same every day, and some change.  On this Alaska cruise, they were catering to an Asian clientele (or maybe just to the plurality-Filipino staff); my favorite unusual breakfast item was the “curry egg,” hard boiled eggs in spicy-savory curry sauce that was delicious ladled over each morning’s variation on fried or curried rice.  Otherwise, the expected array of meats, eggs, toasts and pancakes (breakfast), sandwiches and hot entrees (lunch and dinner), always a variety of fruits.  The cantaloupe seemed especially popular, though not with me, I am a no-melon zone.  The buffet staff:passenger ratio was approximately 1:1 and so service was excellent, except on Mongolian Grill night when the line got somewhat backed up.  The buffet also encourages a depressing degree of excess: one breakfast we sat by a guy wearing a shirt that said “Sportsman” and whose plate contained three hash brown patties, four sausages, a big stack of bacon, three buttermilk biscuits, a huge mass of scrambled eggs, and FIVE OUNCES OF BUTTER (five one-ounce patties).  He was perfectly friendly, and only ate about half his food, so he ended up more wasteful than slovenly, but it still left a bad taste in my mouth, if not his.   Cruise ships are not healthy environments.

In the regular dining rooms — one for scheduled seatings, one for “anytime dining” — there is a menu, and it’s all kind of faux-fancy, and the food is higher quality than the buffet.  But despite a similar 1:1 or so ratio, the service is spottier: dishes get mixed up or delayed or delivered to a table 20 feet away and just left there, in front of someone who didn’t order it and who didn’t eat it but also apparently didn’t suggest to the server that it wasn’t his, until we finally asked where our fourth entree was…just for example.  Also you’re supposed to dress up, at least “smart casual” let alone formal nights, and that’s not my thing, on a cruise. So I’m a buffet guy.  I have to admit the shrimp cocktail (available only in the dining rooms) was really good, though.

The fancy dining rooms are better still.  On the Coral Princess, we loved Sabatini’s, an Italian joint, featuring a parade of genuinely gourmet dishes from calamari to cioppino to “lobster three ways” (cheating a bit, with lobster tail, lobster risotto, and lobster reduction sauce, which I guess is technically a “way” but c’mon) to a huge and tasty veal chop to over-the-top desserts (despite odd lack of tiramisu).  Service was phenomenal (thanks Silvio, an honorary-Italian Romanian).  The other upscale option, the Bayou Cafe and Steakhouse, was also good but not great and the service was too intrusive and weird.  And of course in both cases there is a $20-25 upcharge per person, not ridiculous given the quality but just another way the man can stick you.

Finally, you have your “other” pizza/grill/ice cream situation. The Princess pizza is surprisingly good, almost Neapolitan style, crisp blistered yeasty crust and decent enough toppings (though we did not try the peanut butter — apparently popular with the Asians, again).  Didn’t eat at the grill or ice cream stations, but the soft serve was extremely popular despite our icy climate, so they must be doing it well enough.

So it was all fine, really, except for one area of abject deficiency: the coffee stunk. Our party included two serious-but-not-snooty coffee drinkers, and they were both appalled at the poor quality of the coffee.  Lattes were better, but those are really just milk with some coffee in it.  And Princess’ idea of iced coffee is to take some (bad) hot-brewed coffee and pour it over a cup of ice, and charge you an additional $1.44 for it, even though once you figure out what they’re up to, you can go to the buffet and get your own cup of ice and fill it with (bad) hot-brewed coffee and make your own (bad) iced coffee at no additional charge.  Princess needs to find a way to partner with Starbucks, or some other coffee beverage professionals.

One might also complain about the seafood, or lack thereof.  I mentioned the standard overcooked salmon in a previous post, but at least they served salmon regularly; despite floating through Alaskan crab-rich waters, we were offered crab only once that I can recall, crab legs at dinner one night; overbready, flavorless crab cakes showed up at the buffet a couple of times but that hardly counts.  I can understand not putting (expensive) crab legs out at the buffet, but I would expect crab to show up more regularly in the nicer ship restaurants on an Alaskan cruise.  But if they would just fix the coffee situation, we would all be better emotionally equipped (less crabby, haha) to deal with the crab situation.  First things first.

That wasn’t short, was it. Next: surprisingly good eatin’ in Skagway.

Princess Lodges and Surrounding “Towns”

After a night in Anchorage, we travelled by increasingly annoying combinations of luxury motorcoach bus and train to, first, the Mt. McKinley Princess Lodge, and second, the Denali Princess Lodge, each of which had several restaurants on the property that were all pretty much the same.  The lodge restaurant food was generally fine but unexciting, most notable for the prevalence of salmon that was invariably dry from overcooking.  My original notion to eat fresh Alaskan salmon every day of the trip was quickly disabused.

Salmon chowder -- pretty, and pretty great

Salmon chowder — pretty, and pretty great

Salmon chowder, on the other hand, was rich, savory, and delicious, deeply paprika-colored, rife with smoked salmon chunks and veggies and a slight spicy kick.  Great value (relative to other options at least) at $5.50 for a big bowl.  The (Coho) salmon salad was also pretty good, despite the overdone salmon, and the fish and chips weren’t bad either.  Even the Princess lodges were in on the Alaska microbrew game; the Twister Creek IPA was fresh and pine-y but unexciting.  Yes, Mrs. Me and I pretty much stick to an IPA-only beer regimen these days.  We may be hopeless, but never hop-less, haha…sorry.

The McKinley Princess is about 45 minutes away from the bustling town of Talkeetna, which consists of about 2.5 linear blocks, with one brewpub and three coffee houses per block, I think.  But we were there only in the morning, too early for brewpubs; Mrs. Me did acquire a high-quality coffee from a source whose name I neglected to record.

The Denali Princess is near the bustling non-town of I don’t know what: right across the street is essentially a strip mall, an uneven boardwalk fronting a six-block stretch mix of souvenir stores and cafes (plus, incongruously, a Subway).  We hit Prospector’s Pizzeria and Alehouse for dinner one night and it was superb, with great service in both the bar and the restaurant, huge beer selection, and excellent food.   Their address is Milepost 238.9 in Denali, which correctly suggests that this location is the opposite of feral urbanism.  Well, not exactly opposite, since it certainly is feral.  Feral bucolity?  Will have to think about that.

Prospector’s all-draught beer list runs to around fifty options, mostly Alaskan or Belgian; we had more IPAs but I forgot again to write down which ones.  The pizza was what you might call “regular” crust, neither thin nor pan or deep-dish; it was crisp and not at all soggy in the middle, but also appropriately chewy and flavorful.  Fresh toppings and plenty of them, with a good sauce-cheese-topping ratio.  Mrs. Me also loved the spinach salad, with its unusual strawberry dressing.  I am too unhealthy to bother with spinach salad. Overall, huge winner, highly recommend.  Who knew pizza would outshine salmon in Alaska?

The next morning we retrieved coffee (latte and iced americano, both unobjectionable) and a large oat-and-raspberry square (surprisingly good and unsurprisingly filling, although it caused me for the next few hours to want to roll in patchouli and listen to Phish) from the Black Bear Coffee House (milepost 238.5!!).  And then it was back on the bus that would whisk us to Whittier to board the boat ship (less alliterative but more correct, oh well).

Anchorage: Pizza and Breakfast (Not Together)

Nearly two full weeks in Alaska, including a cruise ship and followed by one day in culinary paradise Vancouver, provided a big mixed bag of food to review, which will happen over the next few days. First though I want to welcome Another Day in Wheaton to the local blogosphere; ADiW popped up at the beginning of 2013, amidst my hiatus.  Another Day blogs about all kinds of Wheatony things — gardens, traffic, development, other stuff I don’t blog about.  Check it out.  Any other new-ish Wheaton blogs I should know about?

Okay, North to Alaska.  Land of the Rising Midnight Sun (hi Japan!  You cannot see Japan from Alaska; I thought I caught a glimpse of Russia as we drove through Wasilla but then it hid behind a glacier — might have just been a moose). We flew all day to get there, routed inconveniently through Dallas (American hub) and only minimally fortified with anything edible upon arrival in Anchorage.

Tired and hungry, we stumbled down the street a few blocks from the Captain Cook Hotel to try the pizza at Uncle Joe’s (428 G Street), a local joint on a side street where most tourists don’t bother to walk.  Uncle Joe’s* is kind of a dive (just the way we like it), with a handful of formica tables, a mostly exposed kitchen, and a staff of teenagers/twentysomethings who seemed to be having a lot of fun.  I think they do a lot of takeout/delivery but most of the tables were occupied; we snagged the last one and ordered a slice of pepperoni, which was huge, enough for two, and excellent, teeming with meat, crisp crust, and a fine, inoffensive cheese-sauce balance.

* Joseph Stalin was known by Russians as Uncle Joe, back in the day.  Despite Alaska’s history of Russian influence, there is no connection between Uncle Joe the Despot and Uncle Joe the Pizzaiolo.  Just to be clear.

They also had a small but good selection of local microbrews — nearly every restaurant in Alaska seems to have a sometimes-small, always-good selection of local microbrews — and we especially liked the Glacier Brewhouse IPA, hoppy and citrusy and strong but balanced.  The King Street IPA was unbalanced, the hops overwhelming all else.  Two pints and a good, big slice for $15 (food in Alaska can be a bit more expensive than in the lower 48, but not as much more as we had imagined, and in some cases not any more at all) made a fine end to the day and a fine start to the trip.

Snow City Cafe's beguiling entrance

Snow City Cafe’s beguiling entrance

The next morning we walked a block in the opposite direction to the Snow City Cafe (1034 W. 4th), which unlike Joe’s is one of the best-known tourist destinations and is packed every morning for breakfast, so we arrived 10 minutes before opening, and were not the first ones there.  Snow City provides benches indoors to sit in, available even before they are official open, a nice welcoming touch given Alaska’s often inclement weather (it was indeed raining the morning we were there).

Touristy restaurants are a dicey proposition, since many of them coast on reputation as they decline in quality, but Snow City is pretty good, even if not quite as fabulous as some reviews might suggest.  I don’t have much to compare it to, but I suspect it is genuinely one of the better restaurants in Anchorage.  The Kodiak Benedict was worthwhile, with perfectly runny eggs, decent crab cakes, and huge crispy hash browns on the side.  Salmon cakes proved less of a hit with our party, but everyone enjoyed the bread assortment, especially the delicious sticky buns and biscuits.  We also liked the ambience, with high ceilings and bright natural light through one wall comprised entirely of windows. Large portions, reasonable prices, good way to fuel up for a four hour bus ride (urk) to near the southwest corner of Denali National Park.

Next: the food scene at Princess Lodge(s) around Denali.