Saving your money to buy a house, car or Xbox? Don't want to miss out on watching the game at a bar with your friends? Six-foot-four and sick of spending all your dough on... dough? Look no further -- there are Anchorage bars and pubs that can help.
When my editor asked me to write an article about the best free bar food in Anchorage, she ended with the following admonition: "only do this if you have a strong stomach." I really wanted the assignment, so I lied: "iron intestines." My belly is more sensitive than a hormonal teenager. But, onwards and upwards.
1402 Gambell St.
Crossroads is the quintessential Anchorage sports bar: 10 TV screens, pool table, darts, lots of Scotty Gomez jerseys, copious neon, and a good variety of beer options. When you walk into Crossroads, there are three guarantees: sports, strangers, and free food. Even if you don't like sports or strangers, the free food is reason enough to visit.
The menu changes every day, but always consists of some sort of crockpot-soup-like dish, available from 10 a.m. until closing time, or until it runs out: chicken noodle soup, split pea and ham soup, chili, stew, chowder, baked beans. Sometimes Crossroads also prepares free bratwurst sausages for its customers.
We visited on a Wednesday and were treated to two bowls of chili ($0), consisting, I think, of green chilis, onions, ground beef, kidney beans, pinto beans, and red pepper flakes. It is a rather spicy dish, and should not be consumed without the assistance of a beer or Diet Coke.
Chef and co-owner Tami Feagler did not divulge the recipe because she promised former owner Don Skewiss that she would keep it a secret. But she did answer a few other questions:
Play: Why do you prepare free food for your customers?
Tami Feagler: The previous owner used to do it. He wanted something available for the people who are drinking, from a public health perspective.
Play: Are there any rules about the free food?
TF: You have to buy something else if you want the free food. And you can't take it with you.
Play: What makes your chili so spicy?
TF: It's all about the love.
Play: Do you have a sense of pride about the fact that Crossroads recently became a woman-owned bar?
TF (laughing): Hell no.
Reilly's Irish Pub
Chicken Noodle Soup
317 W. Fireweed Lane
The free food at Reilly's consists of a rotating cast of soups -- chili, chicken gumbo, Yankee pot roast and navy bean soup -- from a general provider. They also have some tasty, inexpensive food available, including a $5 Monday Night Football taco plate. But today, we are not concerned with not-free food.
We visited this popular sports bar on a Monday and were treated to chicken gumbo soup ($0), made with the obligatory chicken, noodles and carrots, plus other salty mystery ingredients. The soup was fine -- standard, highly seasoned -- and did not taste especially homemade. But Play's brief interview with owner Jeanne Reilly, daughter of the original owners, more than made up the difference.
Play: How long have you been at Reilly's?
Jeanne Reilly: I've owned it for nine years -- been working here since 1975.
Play: Why do you serve free food?
JR: To give something back to the people who keep me in business.
Play: It's not to get people in the door, or keep folks from getting too drunk?
JR: No. Really, sometimes it's just so cold out, and people are drinking cold beers, they just want something to warm them up.
Play: Are there any rules regarding the free food? Does each customer have to at least buy a drink?
JR: No, no rules. We don't monitor who is buying what. You definitely don't have to buy alcohol. Some of our older customers, they just come in to get coffee, and that's okay, too.
Play: Do you take any pride in the fact that Reilly's is a woman-owned bar?
JR: I never thought of it that way, now that you mention it.
During the few minutes that Play spent with Reilly, she was hugged, kissed and greeted at least once a minute. Reilly's: where everybody loves Jeanne.
Ham and Beans
2811 Spenard Rd.
Bartender Linda made ham and beans ($0) for her customers on the day we visited the Buckaroo Club. It was a little thin, but very tasty for free food. The ham was particularly succulent, if low on quantity. Linda says she makes food any day she works because "we've always had food here." The food, typically a soup, is housed in a crockpot in the back of the bar.
426 G St.
Darwin's Theory offers free food on Sundays during football games, and also on other scattered occasions. This food, brought in by a bartender on duty, can be anything, though favorites include burritos ($0) and meatloaf ($0). But the free food comes with a potential liability: the person who eats the food item in which a plastic spider has been hidden must do all the bar's dishes later that evening.
There were no chefs at Darwin's during our visit, but Play was able to pose a few questions to an expert on free food at Darwin's:
Play: Do you like the burritos?
Darwin's regular customer Steve: The burritos are awesome. The thing is that it has a catch. If you have the spider, you do the dishes, but even with the threat of the spider hanging over you, you still eat it.
Play: How many burritos have you eaten in one sitting here?
Steve: Once I ate five.
Play: And how many times have you had to do the dishes?
Unfortunately, I visited on a weeknight and did not get to risk the spider. Still, Darwin's has popcorn ($0) available all the time, and it's pretty good.
739 W 4th Ave.
Much like the other bars, the Pio offers a variety of free food depending on the evening. We happened to visit on Queso Night and ate tortilla chips covered in a mystery spicy cheese mix ($0).
When we inquired with bartender Heather about the Pio's free food philosophy, she declined to give a quote, but did eventually say "we like to provide a home-cooked meal." I smiled, my mouth full of home-cooked queso. For what it's worth, it was really tasty queso.
F Street Station
Sharp Cheddar Cheese
325 F St.
Some consider F Street's large block of cheese ($0), located under a sign that reads "For Display Only - Do Not Eat," to be an Anchorage cultural landmark. But it wasn't always so accepted. Many years ago, health inspectors required F Street to stop serving the exposed cheese on the bar because it violated a health code. So the owners built a special nook for a refrigerator.
But the Tillamook Corporation caught wind of Cheesegate and sent lawyers up to Anchorage to plead F Street Station's case by arguing that cheese remains safe at room temperature. The result: F Street won, and is allowed to leave the cheese on the counter. Why the sign? "Just to cover our asses," said a bartender who has been working at F Street Station for 13 years. "And nobody has gotten sick the whole time."
A fresh block was brought out during our visit. Customers get to cut their own cheese at F Street, and it tastes great.
Picking the best among free food options is a little like looking a free gift horse in its free mouth: you might come off as ungrateful. But Play is going to take that chance. After careful consideration based only on the free dishes sampled, Play would choose to eat the following: a bowl of Crossroads’ chili with a piece of F Street’s cheese while sitting at a table at the Pio with Jeanne Reilly and that guy Steve from Darwin's.
By Vikram Patel
Daily News correspondent