Swimming upstream -- it's an apt description for opening a restaurant in the competitive downtown Anchorage dining scene. Sure, you'll get your fair share of seasonal diners in the summer, but locals are more discerning when they head into the heart of the city. You've got to have a hook.
Upon first glance, Slippery Salmon Bar and Grill, which opened last summer, wouldn't have lured me in. It's a bit off the beaten path on Third Avenue, and it's in a hotel, which doesn't always bode well (read: captive audience).
General manager Susan Kare said the Slippery Salmon lacks a commercial kitchen, so its menu features simpler fare to pair with the bar's eclectic beer selection, affordable top-shelf cocktails, Buzztime trivia and flatscreen TVs.
"We're definitely more of a pub," said Kare. "We want to focus on giving our customers good food and service at an affordable price."
When I rolled in with three friends on a Tuesday evening, the dimly lit bar, with six TVs positioned around the room, had only a few other diners. The faux log cabin decor includes split-log table tops, a nice touch of rustic-yet-clean Alaskana.
We were greeted quickly by Charlotte, acting as both bartender and server. Pleased by the beer selection, we ordered a few to give us some time to peruse the menu, which offers 12 appetizers along with salads, soups, sandwiches, wraps and a burger.
Our order hit the table quickly except for the meatballs, which, Charlotte noted, were lagging behind in the kitchen. We appreciated her honesty and dug in.
The TBLT wrap ($9.25), which features peppermill turkey, bacon, lettuce, tomato and ranch dressing in a large spinach tortilla, was a decent choice. It was about 60 percent turkey, but the potential kick of the "peppermill" crust was hardly noticeable, which, combined with the bacon and ranch, made for a bit of a salty experience. Hit a few bites with the pepper shaker and you'll be headed in a better direction.
Red's Perfect Pepperoni pizza ($9.50) was touted as a "must-have classic for a King!" A bit of menu hyperbole is excusable, but management may want to tone down expectations for this nine-inch pie. It's generously topped with pepperoni and mozzarella, but you're not exactly living a pauper's life. The crust was a bit of a puzzler: Crispy on the bottom, slightly doughy on top, it resembled Pilot bread.
The coconut shrimp ($10) was a mixed bag. The five "jumbo prawns" were more medium in size, but the crispy coconut-panko crust, tender shrimp and the tangy mango chutney more than made up for the shrimp's, well, shrimpiness. A recommendation to the kitchen: Add a shrimp or two or use a smaller plate, so it doesn't look as meager.
I didn't realize I brought a chili aficionado with me, but one of my friends has a knowledgeable palate when it comes to the stewy concoctions. He immediately identified the chili (cup $4.50/bowl $5.75), as either Stagg-like or from a can of the grocery-store staple. He said that was intended as a compliment either way. The rest of us agreed.
We finished the four dishes and had a few beers, but the St. Louis-style meatballs ($8.95) were still absent. Charlotte checked back often, but our patience was starting to wear thin after nearly 40 minutes passed. We told her we'd take our check, but a bowl emerged within a minute.
The eight pork-and-beef meatballs, slathered in a tangy St. Louis-barbecue sauce with shaved mozzarella on top, were only warm but appeared cooked through. We ate them all but were underwhelmed, in part due to the long wait. Thankfully when the check was dropped, Charlotte had graciously removed them.
I came back on a Friday to find the bar much busier. Looking for a quick bite before meeting up with friends for First Friday, I settled on a $2 Miller Lite draft and the French Dip Netter ($10.25) with Kettle chips and coleslaw. The roast beef and melted Swiss cheese are a favored pairing of mine and the chewy hoagie roll was helped by the warm au jus. The crunch of the potato chips and the tang of the slaw were a welcome addition to my sandwich.
Kare said the restaurant will roll out longer hours in May when it opens the north-facing deck, which seats up to 64 people and features views of the port and Mount Susitna.
Plans also include an outdoor grill that will expand the kitchen's abilities to offer different dishes and add to the ambiance of the deck.
The restaurant is still feeling out its menu, Kare said, so changes can and should be expected. In particular, summer will allow for opportunities to feature more seasonal fare including fresh Alaska seafood.
"We got a late start last summer," Kare said of the Salmon's late-July opening. "I think a lot of locals will really enjoy the deck this summer. It makes for an amazing experience."
A good deck is the perfect hook to draw in locals and visitors alike. Free parking helps. And a willingness to work out the menu's kinks along the way won't go unnoticed.
In the meantime, I'll likely be back before the deck days of summer, thanks to the friendly service and reasonable prices.
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By Barry Piser
Anchorage Daily News