Three years ago, on a drive to Homer with friends, I'd planned to stop at my regular lunch spot just past Cooper Landing, only to find that it had closed. Casting about for an alternative, I remembered passing something about a mile back, so we turned around.
Our substitute lunch place was Sackett's Kenai Grill, then a small box wrapped in Tyvek with an open wooden deck tacked on one side. It looked unprepossessing and we weren't sure what to expect. But once one of my friends bit into her smoked prime rib sandwich and I sampled my pulled pork, we knew we'd found something special.
That's why whenever I drive to Homer now, I stop twice at Sackett's -- once coming, once going.
The current Sackett's is the successor to a Kenai Lake restaurant started by Glenn Sackett, where his son Trevalyan was dishwasher and line cook. Now father and son are co-owners of the Sterling Highway eatery, where Trevalyan runs the show and for which Glenn supplies produce from his greenhouses in Sterling.
The younger Sackett is something you might not expect to find at a roadside barbecue place: a Cordon Bleu-trained chef. It's no surprise that almost everything served at Sackett's is made in-house, from baked goods (including hamburger buns) to soups, sauces and the house mayonnaise. Sackett does the lion's share of the cooking and smokes probably 80 percent of the meats in a smoker right out the back door. He also develops the specials and creates sauces and soups. His fiancée, Ida Bott, does the baking.
The Tyvek is covered now, and where the deck stood is a large dining room. The décor is basic -- checkered tablecloths, rustic wood benches, rolls of paper towels for napkins, photocopied menus. The walls are decked with scenic photos and Alaska-friendly art. You place your order at the cash register up front, then grab a table in the small original dining area or the more expansive newer room.
On a recent trip to Homer, friend Donna and I stopped for lunch at Sackett's. It was a weekday just past lunchtime, and only a few other diners were on hand.
I opted for the $15 open-faced smoked prime rib sandwich. The slab o' meat was about 9 inches long and 1/4 inch thick, medium in places and well done in others. It came with onions, tomato, lettuce, the house mayonnaise, a pickle spear, horseradish sauce and chips. The meat was lovely -- well seasoned, tender -- and the roll was substantial enough to hold up.
The soup special was beef vegetable ($2.50 a cup, $5 a bowl), which was hefty with meat, potato chunks, carrots, onions and corn kernels. It was satisfying, but didn't have quite enough salt for my taste.
Donna liked the pulled pork sandwich ($11) with smoked pork shoulder, homemade barbecue sauce and slaw. The pork was really smoky, she reported, and the sauce ("sweet, but not cloyingly so") was a nice complement.
We ended with treats from the dessert case. Both Donna's coconut almond chocolate chip cookie ($1.50) and my almond turtle bar ($2), a crumbly delight with almonds, white and milk chocolate chips, and a brown-sugary crust, were sinfully memorable. We left full and happy.
The next day, en route home to Anchorage, we stopped again for lunch.
We were intrigued by the idea of a brisket pizza (14 inches, $22), which comes topped with homemade barbecue sauce rather than tomato sauce, plus the brisket, mushrooms and onions. Donna liked the way the dark, smoky taste of the meat combined with the sauce. She and I, however, agreed that we would've liked a bit more brisket.
The taco on a white corn tortilla comes with slaw, grilled onions, red peppers and salsa; you can choose chicken, pork, beef, fish or a vegetarian version. At $4, it's a bargain. Donna said the omission of cheese surprised her, but she liked this version better. The grilled red peppers and onions and slaw gave it a fresh vegetable taste.
I couldn't resist the build-a-burger opportunity ($8 for burger, lettuce, tomato, onion and house mayo; extra toppings are $1). Adding bacon, American cheese, mushrooms and red bell peppers produced a hefty and filling assemblage.
This time, Donna ended with the chocolate chip cookie ($2), which she called thick, rich and cake-like. I indulged in another turtle bar, and got one more to take home.
Beer and wine are available for those who don't need to take the wheel.
All in all, Sackett's is an excellent stopping point about halfway to Homer or home, with tasty, well-prepared and imaginative dishes at reasonable prices and the sensibility of a Cordon Bleu-trained Alaska chef behind the menu.
Oh, and don't forget the turtle bars.
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