With the NFL season now under way and the NBA tipping off soon after, it won't be long before fans are huddled up in restaurants where televisions tile the walls, the burgers are big and the beers are cold. In Eagle River, one of the prospects looking to make it big is the year-old Eagle River Alehouse.
Waylaid by a day full of surprises, I made a trip to the Alehouse for an extra-late dinner, 9 p.m. on a Monday. The 60-plus beers on tap and flat-screen TVs make it a natural for a late night bite and brew. There were still several diners inside, and the staff didn't make us feel like we were keeping them from getting home in time for "Conan."
The menu is built on sports bar standards, with nachos and cheese fries ($13.50), burgers and sandwiches ($9-$13), tacos and burritos ($9-$13.50) and salads ($10-$13.50). There are also calzones ($15-$23), pizzas ($13-$25) and pastas ($18-$19). It has a drive-through espresso window and serves breakfast every day (but not all day), offering up dishes such as egg Benedict ($12.50 - $13.50), skillets ($11-$13.50) and a breakfast pizza ($18-$23).
Owners Matt and Jeri Ann Tomter previously owned Airport Pizza in Nome. The pizzeria earned notoriety for delivering its pies around rural Alaska via airplane.
I had to try the Buffalo wings (also available in barbecue, both $13.50) and ordered an E.R. Special pizza ($18 for a 14-inch, $24 for a 18-inch). My wife opted for a bacon white cheddar burger ($12.50).
The wings came out first, eight orange, meaty drumettes topped with crumbles of blue cheese and accompanied by a side of blue cheese dressing and celery. With crispy skin and a house-made Buffalo sauce packing plenty of heat and a vinegary bite, they were awesome.
The burger was built with a half-pound, hand-pressed patty, topped with white cheddar and bacon. Lettuce, tomato, onion and pickles came on the side along with a pile of fries. My wife cut it in half and revealed a hue of pink inside the patty that had me flagging down our server. He seemed as surprised as I was and quickly offered to return it to the kitchen. He later explained that it was a mix-up with an order for a rare burger by another guest. When a new burger appeared, it was cooked properly and tasted well seasoned, with the white cheddar lending it a nice sharpness. The fries were also great.
When I talked to Matt Tomter on the phone, he said that the restaurant uses fresh, never-frozen meat from a local distributor, locally made buns and hand cuts its fries and cooks them to order. Those are the kinds of things that help make a burger stand out, and this one did.
The pizza was made with a combo-style topping of pepperoni, sausage, olives, mushrooms, onion, red and green peppers and mozzarella cheese. There were plenty of toppings and the veggies were crunchy. It was good, but unremarkable, especially when compared to the stellar Pizza Man down the street. A little more punch in the sauce might have helped it sing.
Matt Tomter said the restaurant has plans to remodel its kitchen to accommodate a new fire-deck pizza oven that will cook pies at 900 degrees, finishing them in 90 seconds within view of the dining room.
My second trip was for lunch with a buddy on a Wednesday. The Alehouse has several lunch specials, knocking a couple bucks off some dishes from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. My friend opted for the chicken tacos (always $9) and I ordered the chicken bacon ranch sub ($10).
The sub is only available at lunch and came on a hoagie roll packed with diced chunks of chicken, bacon and tomatoes, shredded lettuce, ranch dressing and melted cheddar cheese. The whole sandwich was nice and warm, like it'd just come out of the oven. It was big, but well constructed, and tasted great. I was worried about too much ranch dressing, but it was just right. It also came with a side of the tasty Alehouse fries.
The tacos also had diced chicken along with shredded lettuce, tomato, black beans cheddar cheese and a chipotle cream sauce. They were soft tacos with tortillas heated on the stove top and a light drizzling of cream sauce that added just the right amount of complementing flavor.
For a rookie, the ER Alehouse shows lots of promise, but I'm not ready to hand it the title just yet. The wings and burgers are ready for prime time and the more than 60 taps promise something for nearly every fan. A new pizza oven could be the kind of roster addition that turns it into a perennial contender.
By Spencer Shroyer
Daily News correspondent