It seems like there's a 12-day stretch every year when we go from dusty snowbanks to budding trees. We've passed it, and with bare pavement and a glorious stretch of warm weather last week, I was itching to take a road trip. On the recommendation of a friend who lives in the Valley, I packed my sunglasses and grabbed my preferred road-tip companion -- my mother -- and headed to Palmer's Turkey Red Bistro.
We cruised up the Glenn Highway under perfectly blue skies, and it seemed that the further we got from Anchorage, the bigger and greener the leaves became, the brighter the sunshine glancing off the new grass.
After about 45 minutes, we arrived at Turkey Red, located in an unassuming mall in the middle of town. Turkey Red has an open dining room, painted in sunny shades of orange and yellow with black-and-white photographs hung on the walls. The restaurant is also a bakery, and there were loaves and treats stacked by the cash register.
We took a seat by a window looking out on the iconic Palmer water tower and surveyed the menu, which emphasizes salads and sandwiches with some Greek or Greek-inspired dishes thrown into the mix (the dinner menu includes many of the same, but with additional pastas and pizza).
Turkey Red is the only restaurant I've visited that offers a "beef stew of the day" ($7 for a cup, $12 for a bowl), so of course we had to sample it. Our waitress said Turkey Red rotates among about a dozen variations, and that day's version was made with Skilak Scottish Ale, from Kenai Brewing Co. I don't normally order stew in restaurants because I always feel like my mother makes it better, but we agreed that Turkey Red's was exceptional. The meat was so tender it seemed to melt into the rich broth that was studded with carrots, yellow potatoes and onion.
"Maybe my mom made it like that," my mother said, gazing into the middle distance. It was served with two slices of house-made bread (walnut and rye), making even just a cup a substantial meal.
I'm the kind of person who chooses salad as an act of discipline, not enthusiasm. But even I could tell Turkey Red has a rare mastery of the form. The Summer Salad ($7 for half, $12 for a whole) was, first of all, perfectly dressed -- as though Turkey Red had hit on some kind of mystical algorithm to determine the exact volume of balsamic vinaigrette required to bring out the flavor of the vegetables without overpowering them. The salad balanced the earthy flavor of grilled portobello mushroom and caramelized onion with feta cheese, roasted butternut squash and walnuts that were subtly warm and sweetened. I ordered half, but it was a generous enough portion to have passed for a whole salad.
I've always associated orange sesame chicken salad with slimy, canned mandarin orange slices, sad bits of dry chicken and candy-sweet dressing. This was an altogether different dish ($12 for a whole). First, it was beautiful to look at, with threads of julienned carrot and roasted red onion, speckled throughout with black sesame seeds. The orange sesame dressing was citrusy and only slightly sweet, and the onions were cooked just enough that they were roasted but still retained a slight, pungent bite.
Many of Turkey Red's entrees are available in scaled-down form as appetizers, which made it even easier to sample across their menu. We ordered their grilled polenta ($7) and spinach crespelle ($8), throwing in the "gyrokopita" ($7) for good measure because it sounded interesting. The crespelle was a fluffy crepe filled with ricotta and spinach, topped with a bright-tasting tomato marinara. The gyrokopita was like a Greek egg roll, filled with ground beef that had been seasoned with cinnamon and nutmeg. It was encased in phyllo, which shattered into a satisfying mess when bitten into. The roll had an occasional, pleasant sweetness, which on investigation turned out to be golden raisins. The polenta was a little disappointing; the creamy taste of polenta was masked by the marinara, which formed a watery pool on the plate. A thick layer of mozzarella formed a rubbery seal atop the polenta slice but didn't do much else.
Perhaps as part of their Greek leanings, a couple of the desserts were yogurt-based. We ordered the yogurt cheesecake ($7), which was topped with a thick raspberry sauce and fresh mint and served on a hand-thrown ceramic dish. It tasted tangier than a conventional cheesecake, with a fluffier texture. Like just about everything at Turkey Red, it was a simply and beautifully executed dish. After polishing it off, we were rather astonished to find that the check came out to just under $70 for the seven dishes plus tea and coffee.
We left Turkey Red with a bag of cookies and a loaf of whole wheat walnut bread. The cookies had disappeared by evening, and I toasted the last slice of the bread in the morning. It was chewy, nutty and a little sweet, and went perfectly with my morning tea. The loaf alone was worth the drive, I thought, and I'd have gone twice the distance with half the scenery for a slice of it with Turkey Red's beef stew. I really need to get out to Palmer more.
• Reach Victoria Barber at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4556.
Location: 550 S. Alaska St., Palmer
Hours: 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday-Saturday
Contact: 746-5544, turkeyredak.com
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By Victoria Barber