Surprise over fries

It was a chilly fall day at the Valdez harbor in 2013 when Rebecca Bard paused to study the empty shuttered café that had just been put up for lease. The café, a slide-window operation with a covered seating area out front, lay in a high traffic area, just across North Harbor Drive from the public docks. Bard happened to be in the food truck business over the mountains in McCarthy and she knew a prime location for slinging hamburgers when she saw one. On a lark, she pulled out her cell phone and called the owners to see how much they wanted.

The following April, she'd forgotten all about it when they called her back to ask if she was still interested. Bard hemmed and hawed. Her initial interest had been more on the level of idle curiosity, and she had her own eatery to get ready for the upcoming summer season. But when they gave her a mere week to decide, she thought, sure, what the hell. "I'm always up for a good challenge. Let's see if we can open a whole new business in a month and a half."

One might imagine a frozen smile and a hint of panic creeping into the eyes there, but Bard knew what she was doing. She and her business partner Ian Gyori have been running the Roadside Potatohead, or "The Potato" as it's known among McCarthy folk, since 2008. They're the third team of owners to run what has become a legacy of great food in the tiny town near the foot of the Kennicott Glacier. They're also among the more creative and innovative food truck teams you're likely to find.

Bard and Gyori are committed to sourcing as much of their food locally as they can, or at least getting it from within Alaska. Their beachhead in Valdez has allowed them to buy seafood right off the boats, and Bard's been looking at sourcing their meat from farmers in Palmer. They also get as much of their lettuce and greens as possible from market gardeners within a few miles of McCarthy.

Gyori, a professionally trained chef, makes his own pastrami, sausage and bacon, all part of a menu that ranges from the basic burger and curly fries combo to Vietnamese banh-mi sandwiches to vegetarian wraps and my personal favorite, the rosemary garlic fries. Lately they've also started doing what they call "surprise over fries," house-made pickled vegetables and sauce over a pile of their signature hand-cut French fries. There's a different surprise every day...something that's also true of running a small town Alaska restaurant.

"Operating a business in general in McCarthy is difficult," Bard said, "because you are responsible for your own power, and you are responsible for your own water." The Potato, like all businesses in McCarthy, has to produce its own electricity with a generator. Trash disposal is always a headache in a place noted for its rather healthy bear population. Inevitably, things break down, and repair professionals are far away. Gyori once had to take apart their espresso machine while on the phone long distance to Kaladi Brothers in Anchorage so they could walk him through it step by step. "You gotta be part chef and part mechanic," said Bard.

Then there's the food expediting. Things like ketchup and hamburger buns have an irritating tendency to not arrive when scheduled. Bard reckons she lost 20 flats of eggs last summer to the bumps and washboards of the McCarthy Road. This can bring on a minor existential crisis when you're hungover on a Sunday and all you want from life is one of their egg, ham and English muffin sandwiches. This particular Potato delicacy is to the wretched Egg McMuffin what the poems of Pablo Neruda are to the lyrics of a Ted Nugent song. But there's always something else good on the menu to soothe your jagged edges.

Bard is a very capable cook herself, but she gives most of the credit to Gyori for the Potato's diversified offerings. "Ian's worked at a lot of restaurants in San Francisco," she says. "Almost every winter he goes and stages at these really awesome restaurants." Staging is a sort of brief, unpaid internship at a restaurant, but they don't take just anybody off the street—you have to be a pro with an impressive resume to get in the door. Gyori brings back everything he learns to McCarthy and pours it into their tiny food truck.

During the years I lived in McCarthy, I ate regularly at the Potato, both for the excellent food and for the breezy screen-porch atmosphere. It's a refreshing change to step out of the dark wood and brass of the town's only bar, blinking against the glare of the sun, perhaps pushing a hand toward the sky to shield your face from the glare. You walk around the block on a dirt street, then enter through the porch's spring-hinge door at one end. You order off the hand-chalked menu nailed to the wall, then sit and visit with whoever else is waiting while delicious sizzling smells waft from the kitchen. There are a couple stacks of magazines, a soda fridge, a trash can, some cottonwood fuzz caught in the screen. All around you the life of McCarthy carries on at its usual languid pace, with the noise of the nearby creek, the rustling of the leaves and the buzz of four wheelers forming the pleasant background hum.

After their first year of operation in Valdez, the seaside community has embraced the new Potato and their crew is heading back for another season. Business, in fact, has been so good at both locations that they've recently turned a major corner—they're going to be leaving the food truck business. But fear not, the Roadside Potatohead is not disappearing. Rather, they're getting ready to start construction this summer on an honest-to-goodness sit-down restaurant in downtown McCarthy. That's about as major as commitments come.

There will still be days when the hamburger buns and tomatoes don't make it in to town, but improvisation is what makes their business (and their menu) such a wild success. Customers sometimes hear, "I'm sorry, we don't have tomatoes. We're at the end of the road and they didn't come in this week," said Bard. "But the fact that we have food like this is already pretty awesome."

This story appeared in the May 2015 issue of 61º North Magazine. Contact 61º editor Jamie Gonzales at jgonzales@alaskadispatch.com.

Kris Farmen

Kris Farmen is a novelist, award-winning freelance journalist, and former resident of McCarthy.  His books include The Devil’s Share, Turn Again, and Weathered Edge.  He divides his time between Homer, Anchorage, and Fairbanks.