As I rearranged my load of road trip essentials near the train station in Cantwell on a recent drive to Fairbanks, a gentleman with a worried expression pulled up and said, with a European accent, "We are looking for a restaurant."
I pointed to the Longhorn Saloon right behind him and he shuddered as if he thought the sommelier might look like Hoss Cartwright. I sent him on to Denali Park, 28 miles up the road.
I could understand his tone of desperation. He was coming from Anchorage and had just passed through what I call the "High Lonesome" part of the Parks Highway, a nearly 100-mile stretch from Trapper Creek to Cantwell, where services are nigh nonexistent. Assuming he kept at the speed limit, he had driven for more than an hour without seeing a single cafe, gas station or any other building open for business.
A lot of Alaskans get knots in their stomachs when they travel across the High Lonesome, especially in the winter. They make sure they've topped off the gas tank at Trapper Creek, and when they pull into the USA Gasoline station at the Denali Highway intersection it's with a sigh of relief.
I usually make the run to Fairbanks with a cooler full of sandwiches and snacks. I'd never been to the Longhorn, so I couldn't really tell the gentleman about the wine list. But now that I looked at it, I grew curious and decided that on my return trip I would try some of the places I've passed a hundred times but never eaten at.
The Parks Highway terminates on the east edge of Fairbanks, at the junction with the Richardson and Steese highways. The Red Lantern in the Westmark Hotel, 362 miles from Anchorage, is among the closest eateries to the junction. It's the kind of place my European friend was probably hoping for, with everything served elegantly and priced to match. The menu has a distinctly epicurean feel -- shrimp cocktails, halibut Olympia, a hummus plate and king crab if you're ready to spend $60 out of season.
But peak season at the Westmark does not coincide with king crab openings. Most patrons were from out of state, many on package tours. I think I could have picked up three new languages if I sat in the lobby long enough. The hotel has been recently remodeled and is quite nice, good-looking enough to show visitors. I recognized only one for-sure Alaskan guest besides me: Sen. Mark Begich.
But back to the food. It was Friday, prime rib night, and I went for the smallest cut. The horseradish and au jus were commonplace, but the meat was lovely, rare, tender and succulent. I also ordered the calamari, which was superb. The squid steak itself was thick and tender, served with a hearty slaw of jicama and a singed fresh lemon. The aioli was OK, but like the horseradish, not remarkable.
The dessert menu includes goodies like Triple Berry Crumble and peanut butter pie. I chose a dessert I could drink, the strawberry rhubarb spritzer made with wine from Bear Creek Winery in Kodiak. They also have rhubarb lemonade.
Of course, there's no shortage of restaurants decent and otherwise in Fairbanks or on some parts of the drive back to Anchorage. Most Parks Highway gourmets are familiar with Skinny Dick's Halfway Inn (Mile 328), famous for souvenirs, and the Monderosa Bar and Grill (Mile 309), famous for hamburgers.
Between Nenana and Healy, however, are 60 virtually unpopulated miles. I call this the "Low Lonesome." There are two establishments near the road to Anderson, 283 miles north of Anchorage and 79 miles from Fairbanks. One, the Fireweed Roadhouse, has a poster by the door showing a machine gun with the message, "This property is protected three days a week. You guess which three."
Although it was during business hours, the door was locked. This may have had something to do with my stop coinciding with the Fourth of July weekend, when a lot of folks were out recreating. Or maybe I just guessed the wrong day.
I had better luck at the Clear Sky Lodge and Just One More Drink -- I Swear Saloon. The sign here boasts "the best steaks in Alaska." More than a bit skeptical, I got out of the car and immediately smelled a delicious grilled meat aroma.
The interior of the log-and-plywood building is classic Alaska. A sled, an old rifle and several sets of antlers decorate the walls and ceiling. There's a guitar and an old piano, mostly in tune, a wood stove and a terrarium with a foot-long Chinese water dragon lizard named Puff. A large bell hangs over the bar for those ready to buy drinks for the house. There's a cigarette machine within arm's reach of the pool table. Carved into the center ceiling beam are the initials of patrons, dating back 50 years or so. The seating is on folding chairs at folding tables.
"Best steak in Alaska, eh?" I said, wishing I had my Hoss Cartwright hat with me.
"That's right," said the staff -- there was only one of her -- with total confidence.
It being before noon, I ordered the New York steak sandwich, with onion rings, a cup of coffee and a shot of whiskey. The staff brought my beverages; the coffee was roadhouse rough but better than what I used to get on the halibut scow. Then she pivoted and started the steak. The grill -- in fact, most of the kitchen -- is right there in the dining area, which made it easy for me to get my own refill of roadhouse coffee.
The 8-ounce steak cost $12.99, was served on a nicely grilled hoagie roll and came with a pile of fresh lettuce, onion and tomato that I turned into a salad rather than crowd the meat with it. It was a remarkably good steak: tender, somewhat lean, a perfect rare inside with just a smack of crisp on the edges. The marinade was mouthwatering. The staff told me it was a simple soy and lemon pepper dressing.
"The real secret is our grill," she said. "We've been using it for 50 years. When it goes, there'll go our steaks."
Clear Sky may not have the best steak in Alaska, but I'd call it the best place to eat a steak in the state. And the onion rings, with a light breading similar to tempura, may actually be the best. I didn't have a hamburger, but saw several on the grill -- half-pound patties that looked as big as a bear's footprint. The price, $7.25, may be the most frugal bargain on the highway. Add $1.50 for fries or onion rings.
There aren't many people living around Anderson, but a lot were stopping by on a Sunday morning and the staff seemed to know them by their first names. The establishment is also the cold beer store for the vicinity. A couple with a toddler arrived and availed themselves of the high chair. Another traveler stuck his head in and asked to use the bathroom. He was directed down the hall with a cheerful "Sure!" None of that "customers only" crap you hear in Chicago or California.
I was already in love with the Clear Sky when a staff member noticed my camera and said, "If you want an interesting picture, out back we have the grave of Bill the janitor."
Bill Lee, 1937-2010, must have been a well-loved man. There's a diamond willow cross with his photo, a fire pit and a seating area at his shrine, which is slowly growing over with wild roses. He did the maintenance work at the lodge for decades. Any place that honors the dignity of janitorial work is tops in my book.
It's another 30 miles to the Stampede Road, where you'll find Henry's Coffee House. The first on-the-highway diner, however, is Rose's Cafe, a one-story shop so humble it makes Clear Sky look like a palace. The place was packed with locals, many ordering handmade milkshakes, $4.95 and worth every penny; the thermometer on the outdoor deck read 95 degrees. The sink in the kitchen was full of dirty dishes as Rose, Dave and (I think) one helper struggled to keep up with the orders.
The "from the heart" menu is pretty predictable: fried chicken, chicken-fried steak, grilled pork, liver and onions. Sandwiches include something called a Grizzly Burger, with an egg, ham and two kinds of cheese ($15.95). But Rose's is most famous, at least in Healy, for a dish you won't find at Denny's -- sauerkraut cream pie.
The kraut is drained and rinsed. The texture is not unlike a coconut cream pie -- just as sweet but without the coconut taste. Nor does it taste anything like sauerkraut. It seems to be a best-seller. I tend to prefer sauerkraut to cream pie, but had to admit it was tasty.
From Rose's through Healy, Denali Park and on to Cantwell you'll find dozens of places to eat: high-end restaurants, Subway and the intriguingly named Denali Dog House. I blew through; a survey of the eateries in Glitter Gulch would take a month or more and frankly I have not stopped in the tourist mecca since a salmon bake experience there 30 years ago that still leaves my teeth on edge.
Back in Cantwell, I headed down the road to the train station and the Longhorn. It was locked. An outdoor stage was set up for an upcoming bluegrass festival, but there was no one in sight. Maybe it was that Fourth of July thing again. A sign directed me back to the junction of the Denali and Parks highways to the Denali Parks Cafe.
I found no such sign on the building, which may be why the European guy had motored by without realizing it was a restaurant. This is the longtime diner attached to the former Tsesyu Service Station, now USA Gasoline (Mile 210). It was recently acquired by the folks who own the Longhorn. The importance of this place is that it's where the Denali megalopolis ends and the High Lonesome begins. As a result, it can be busy -- less so in the winter, when they stay open while almost every other Denali business shuts down. Their hamburger goes for $10. The pretty darned good chili is $6 a bowl and on Friday and Saturday nights they have prime rib dinners for $28.
From here on, there's nothing but campgrounds and great views of Mount McKinley. About 30 miles from Cantwell you'll pass by the Igloo, an architectural curiosity that's been closed for most of the past decade. There's an itinerant gift cart at the Alaska Veterans Memorial/POW–MIA rest area/Byers Lake Campground (Mile 147) and, finally, Mary's McKinley View Lodge (Mile 134.5).
Homesteader Mary Carey picked the spot because of the view, long before the highway came through. There's a deck and gift shop with books by Carey and her daughter, Jean Richardson. There's beer on tap and wine. The menu consists mostly of sandwiches, mostly average. A French dip is $11, a plain burger is $9.50. Also plain was the bland chicken rice soup. The staff seemed occupied with something other than waiting on customers.
A little over a mile down the road -- that is, a mile closer to Anchorage -- is the fabulous Mount McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge, open only during tourist season, with resort gourmet cooking and even more terrific views of The Mountain. You're still 20 miles from the first gas station in Trapper Creek (Mile 114) and nearly 40 from the Talkeetna Cutoff (Mile 98.7) and abundant restaurants and other services in that area. But really, the High Lonesome ends -- or starts -- at Mary Carey's.