Spotlight 49: A tour of Alaska's cuisine
Alaskans and visitors spend a lot of time playing in the great outdoors, and that means many hungry bellies to fill and thirsts to quench. This may explain the recent Huffington Post article that ranked Juneau and Anchorage as number one and number seven in a list of the country’s most restaurant-crazy cities. With a population of 31,094 and 112 restaurants, the state’s capital city of Juneau has 36 eateries per 10,000 residents. Anchorage has 1012 restaurants and a population of 428,041; that amounts to 23.6 restaurants for every 10,000 people in the state’s largest city.
While it is common for high-tourism areas to have more dinning establishments, this is still quite an impressive statistic and evidence that Alaskans take their food seriously. It would, however, serve great injustice to speak about Alaska’s food scene and only focus on the restaurants. No “food tour” of the state would be complete without mention of some of the more unique aspects of the food and beverage industry, and trust us when we say that between its rural and urban offerings, Alaska serves up quite the interesting medley. Five-course dinner paired with the perfect glass of vino on top of a scenic mountaintop? We’ve got it. Sipping on fresh locally brewed beers on board a train? We’ve got it. Sink your hook into wild Alaska salmon and have the restaurant kitchen cook it for you on the spot? We’ve got it! Alaska is also a big melting pot, meaning you will find all sorts of ethnic cuisines and the latest in fusion offerings combining the various flavors.
Alaska Grown and Alaska Harvested
Despite its remote nature, Alaska is never far behind on trends, especially when it comes to food. Locally harvested seafood has always been a staple in Alaskans’ diets and the freshest of the ocean’s offerings make for extremely creative and scrumptious dishes in dinning venues throughout the state. Food trucks serving anything from cupcakes and gourmet fusion on a skewer to empanadas and hot dogs are popping up in parking lots and parks across the state. More and more restaurant menus feature gluten-free and vegan options and many chefs are making a real effort to use as many locally produced ingredients as possible.
While shopping for food in Alaska, the Alaska Grown logo is the best indicator of a product made or grown in Alaska. Alaska Grown is a state program, part of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Agriculture, created to promote and encourage the vigorous local agricultural industry. Some of the produce is limited to the summer and fall months, but a surprising number of products can be found at farmers’ markets and stores year-round; fruits, vegetables, cheese, meats, fresh seafood, honey and ice cream are just some of the products produced and sold by local growers and farmers around the state.
There is only one other way to guarantee your fruits and vegetables are Alaska Grown, and that is if you pick them yourself. A visit to one of many you-pick farms and gardens in Fairbanks, the Matanuska Susitna Valley or the Kenai Peninsula is a fun and delicious activity suited perfectly for the younger travelers in your group, or simply as a more “hands on” shopping experience.
The Alaska State Fair, an annual affair that takes place at the end of the summer, is the perfect one-stop shop to sample the best of Alaska’s produce and various cuisines. Rows of food vendors sell anything from fried Alaska fingerling potatoes, to reindeer sausages and baked goods to soups and seafood chowder made with the best seafood Alaska’s waters have to offer. You will also find an Alaska Grown produce stand with deliciously sweet root vegetables, berries, greens and colorful varieties of squash for purchase. In the summer months, visitors to Anchorage can visit as many as six or seven farmers’ markets on any given weekend, or they can check out one of the four markets in Fairbanks and North Pole. There are many more in other communities as close as the Kenai Peninsula or Mat-Su Valley or as remote as Bethel, Juneau or Kodiak Island.
Each fall, the community of Sitka, in Southeast Alaska, hosts the Sitka Seafood Festival where amateur and professional food makers compete for the best Alaska seafood recipe, and shrimp and scallops are sold by the cup. Paired with the beautiful oceanfront scenery of the Inside Passage destination, this festival is one not to be missed if you love seafood. If you can’t make it to Sitka, salmon bakes and seafood cookouts are a popular occurrence throughout the state during the fishing season and take place even in non-waterfront communities like Fairbanks. Also in Southeast, and a new event to Juneau, the annual OysterFest puts visitors face to face with Alaska chefs performing cooking demonstrations and giving out shellfish preparation tips. Farther west, on Kodiak Island, the Kodiak Crab Festival takes place over Memorial Weekend and offers games, contests, rides, a parade and, of course, lots of delightfully fresh crab.
To read more about Alaska Grown products, visit dnr.alaska.gov/ag or to find out more about Alaska’s rich seafood market, visit www.AlaskaSeafood.org
Fine Dining Alaska style
Alaska has its share of fine dining establishments, though you wouldn’t know it at first glance from driving through its cities’ streets. That is because many of the gourmet eateries are nestled quietly in the least expected places: strip malls, mountaintops, and wooded lodges in Alaska’s wilderness, to name a few. Just as you wouldn’t judge a book by its cover, don’t let the seemingly plain facade of strip mall restaurants deter you from trying out the food. Many of Alaska’s most prided chefs serve up exquisite dishes in very elegantly styled venues behind these doors. This understated elegance goes hand in hand with locals’ and visitors’ habit of sitting down for a juicy filet mignon, Alaska king crab or seared salmon steak while still wearing their Extra-Tuffs straight off a backcountry hike.
If a more rural atmosphere is what you’re after, head out to Girdwood and take the Alyeska tram up to the 2,300-foot-level of Mount Alyeska for a fine dinning experience that includes wine pairings from the nation’s best vineyards; take a trip to Fox Island in the Kenai Peninsula; travel 90 miles into Denali National Park and Preserve; or head to the small ghost town of McCarthy in Wrangell St. Elias National Park and Preserve — America’s largest National Park — for a luxurious lodge getaway and gourmet dining experience. These lodges also offer a range of recreation, from kayaking, whale watching and wildlife viewing boat tours and hiking to work up your appetite for the scrumptious meals that await you. You can also get a taste of Alaska’s famously exquisite seafood by learning how to cook it yourself, as there are several lodges that offer cooking lessons as part of their recreational offerings.
When in Rome, do as Romans would do. When in Alaska, quench your thirst with a chilled local brew or spend the evening sipping on wine from one of four Alaska vineyards. Beer and wine are big in Alaska and there always seems to be a good excuse to pop open a cold one, be it the never-ending midnight sun or the long hours beneath the northern lights. There are nearly 20 breweries in Alaska, and probably just as many ideas for microbreweries stirring in some Alaskan heads at this moment. Several of the most successful restaurants in the state started out as brewpubs or as small home-brew projects. Hitting up the breweries is a good way to see the state, as they exist practically everywhere along the road system and in communities in Southeast. Or hop on the Alaska Railroad’s Annual Great Alaska Beer Train in October and take in the stunning views of Turnagain Arm with a cold one in your hand.
Looking for a unique souvenir to share with friends? How about a nice bottle of wine made from Alaska mountain berries, or a bottle of vodka, whiskey or gin made with water from floating icebergs that just broke off a glacier? Alaska’s distilleries boast products such as smoked salmon, blueberry or rhubarb vodka, and Purgatory Hempseed Spirits - all made with ingredients harvested locally, with a guarantee that no glaciers were harmed in the process.
To find out more about dining in Alaska, click here.