A gathering place

Riza Parsons
Fresh Kodiak halibut cheek tacos are served with organic romaine, goat cheese, tomato, side of lime and a mango chutney or chipotle salsa.
BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News
Wings at the Tap Root are served with blue cheese dressing, celery and jicama sticks.
BILL ROTH / Anchorage Daily News

Tap Root was born on the south side in 2006, a fledgling little cafe that reflected the natural and organic inclinations of its owner, Rebecca Mohlman. She wanted a space where friends and family could form a community. Tap Root began to grow, first offering juices, then beer and wine, wholesome breakfasts and savory sandwiches. Along with meals, a slew of talented performers were a constant at the restaurant.

This June the Tap Root graduated to a bigger, better space in Spenard, the former Fly By Night Club and Player's House of Rock. The Friday night I went in, Big Fat Buddha was playing and it was standing room only. Some friends who showed up early enough to snag a table graciously let my husband and me squeeze onto the communal benches.

The place was almost chaotic, but we were able to get menus and drinks fairly quickly, considering the server had to maneuver through a tightly packed crowd.

Mohlman built community right into the menu; one sandwich is named after Girdwood ($11), a vegetarian offering of hummus, Swiss, avocado, tomato, onion, cucumbers and sprouts. The salmon is always Alaskan and the halibut is from Kodiak. All the sandwiches are served on neighboring French Oven Bakery bread.

An eclectic mix of appetizers rounds out the menu. The onion block ($8.50), a mess of deep-fried onions served with dipping sauces, and the beer-spinach dip ($10) sounded like the perfect fare for barflies.

We chose the hot wings ($9) and the halibut tacos ($15), along with a Moose's Tooth Hard Apple Cider ($5). The wings were super-saucy, messy in the satisfying way only wings can be. They definitely carried some heat, but for those who don't mind their taste buds being seared off, there is also the even spicier, diablo option. I loved the addition of jicama sticks to the usual blue cheese and celery sides. They were fresh and bright against the heat of the chilies.

Our three halibut-filled tacos on corn tortillas were dressed up with mango and lime chutney, shredded romaine and goat cheese. Next to the wings, the battered halibut was a little lackluster. The tropical chutney did improve the flavor, but the tacos themselves could have benefited from more liberal seasoning.

Having learned our lesson from the night before, my husband and I went in for an early dinner at 5:30 the next day. We had our pick of tables, but I missed the energy of the spirited crowd. Still if we waited around long enough, the crowd would come. Tap Root has live entertainment every day, a mixed roster of local and national bands.

We ordered the calamari ($11), a half-portion of the strawberry-avocado salad ($6.50) and the Tap Root burger ($12).

The calamari was great; chewy but crisp, rich but punctuated with lively slices of briny pepperoncinis.

The server recommended the salad, and I was glad she did. Slices of luscious avocado were fanned out over a mound of organic greens, sweet-tart craisins and crunchy walnuts. A jewel-toned strawberry vinaigrette was used judiciously, allowing the ingredients to shine on their own.

My husband's burger came with a mixture of French fries and yam fries. I'm a huge fan of the earthy, rich taste of deep-fried yams and the Tap Root's aioli is a perfect accompaniment. All of the burgers are made with organic beef and this one was topped with bacon, crispy onion straws and barbecue sauce. It was a well-crafted burger, juicy and alluring on the palate.

Tap Root brings people together, for food, drink, music, art and a sense of solidarity. "I just wanted to create a place where I would want to eat at," Mohlman said. Turns out a lot of other people share her taste in venues.'

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Tap Root Cafe

**** $$

Location: 3300 Spenard Road

Hours: 4 p.m.-2 a.m. daily.

Phone: 345-0282

Options: Dine in and takeout

By Riza Parsons
Daily News correspondent