The Red Chair Cafe is vibrant with graffiti and industrially inspired decor; scribbly trees and flying birds made from baling wire hang over rough-hewn wood-plank tables. An iPod hooked up to a mixing station plays indie music. The scent of freshly ground beans wafts over from the espresso machine. This was not what I expected to find in a building that was once a derelict pink eyesore.
On its website, general manager David Seube documents Red Chair's transformation and talks about "community through artistry, a celebration of creativity." From what I gather, the one red chair represents the cafe's desire to stand out from the rest. Music, art and local culture are integral to the concept. But I am here for the food. In keeping with the theme, the menu is seriously whimsical and whimsically serious.
For lunch, sandwiches, pita wraps and salads reign supreme. The Trailer Trendy (pan-fried, thick-sliced bologna sandwich, $9.75) and the tropical tuna sandwich (mango chutney, sprouts, sweet peppers, pepperoncinis, $11.50) encourage a new perspective on classics. The same inspired force is at work in the simplest dishes. Salads are re-imagined and improved; the Navajo Taco salad is an alluring combination of steak, black beans, verde sauce, cilantro and pepitas over fry bread ($11.25).
My girlfriend ordered the Fanciful BLT ($10.50) and I opted for the ham and cheese melt (half, $6) and the sausage and kale pasta bake ($13). For those with dietary restrictions or diners who are just trying to be more conscious, the menu clearly marks vegetarian and gluten-free options. Our server was also more than happy to answer our questions and still appeared cheerful even after a busy afternoon of customers clutching Groupons.
The ham and cheese melt, while appearing to be nothing more than a simple sandwich, revealed itself to be a higher form. Provolone, cranberry reduction and a sprinkling of onion embellished an old standby, while the quinoa salad turned out to be another sleeper hit. This humble-looking pile of seeds was bright with herbs, crunchy sprouts and a jewel-like gelee that literally crowned it with flavor. It was the best iteration of whole grains I've had in Anchorage, a result of what executive chef Shana Whitlock later told me is a "vicious cycle of over-thinking the flavor profiles pertaining to each dish."
The BLT also shook things up by adding prosciutto (twice the porky goodness!), avocado and a creamy basil aioli. The server assured us that all the sauces and dressings were made in-house and their freshness underscored every bite. For those looking to eat more kale, look no further than the pasta bake. Sure, the Italian sausage may cancel out the nutritional benefits, but the sensory experience is worth it.
I was excited to come back for breakfast with my husband and it was then I realized that the cafe is surrounded by free parking. On Fourth Avenue! It makes the prospect of lingering over a latte that much more enticing. We ordered the "Machine" breakfast slider ($9.75), lemon poppy seed pancakes ($10) and the "Tesla" burger ($14). That's the nice thing about being an adult; you can have a burger for breakfast.
My slider tasted yummy, but unlike the sandwiches I'd previously tried, the proportions were a little off. The cremini mushrooms, arugula and aged white cheddar were a nice touch, but that's all they were: a touch. In contrast, Jeff's burger was piled high with bacon and cheese and the patty was generously sized. The pancakes won overall in originality and taste, with whole-grain nuttiness and a caramel sweetness from the honey-butter syrup.
As I sipped my coffee and admired the artwork, I was suffused with a sense of well-being. I knew this was a place that I would come back to time and again.
By Riza Brown
Daily News correspondent