You know what they say. Location is everything. And if that were true, strip mall eateries would be the Jan Brady of restaurants — stuck in the middle and underappreciated. But the Anchorage culinary scene seems to disregard this common wisdom. Because it is a truth, locally acknowledged, that some of our town's best meals are being served up in our least-promising locations: the strip mall.
Unceremoniously wedged between tanning salons and pawn shops are little bastions of culinary delight with charming dining rooms, ambitious chefs, authentic global cuisine and down-home cooking. And while I'm always excited for the opening of a splashy new Anchorage hot spot, my true dining joy is to find a gem glistening on a gravel path.
Recently, at an Alaska Dispatch News sports writer's suggestion, I reviewed MVP Sports Deli on Tudor Road. As a sandwich enthusiast (some might say, obsessive), I was shocked to realize that I had driven by the best Italian deli in town without even knowing it (it received my first five-star review). So I've decided to round-up some of my favorite strip-mall dining spots, from fine dining date-night spots to takeout wing joints — in case you, like me, are too busy cursing at stoplights to notice them.
Villa Nova (5121 Arctic Blvd., #I) is an old-school restaurant with vintage charm, live classical guitar nightly, and a kitchen that, while a bit dated, serves reliable and decadent Mediterranean dishes. I particularly like their warm, lemony dolmades and their scampi with brandy sauce. It's a bit pricey, but a good choice if you're looking for affordable time travel.
Similarly, Campobello Bistro (601 W. 36th Ave., #10) has a quietly romantic ambiance, well-executed European standards and once served me one of the best steaks I've eaten in Alaska. Don't miss the house-made lemon zest ice cream. It, alone, is worth the trip.
Terra Bella (601 E. Dimond Blvd., #6), recently transitioned from a lunch/brunch cafe to a full-service dinner restaurant. Inventive, seasonal cuisine is served in a cozy, fireplace-lit room with a bohemian feel. Don't miss out on the charred pita appetizer with parsnip butter and sardines or on the beautiful duck breast with brown butter blueberry compote.
Jens' (701 W. 36th Ave.), a high-end Anchorage stalwart with Scandinavian flair, has as a sophisticated menu, service with gravitas and a way with local seafood. However, my particular favorite menu perennial is the Filet a la Wellington topped with a truffle demi glace, puff pastry and a slice of foie gras that literally melts into the meat.
Southside Bistro (1320 Huffman Park Drive, Ste. 130) has a serious kitchen and a decidedly cheerful dining room. I particularly enjoy their appetizers and will happily put away plates of their truffle fries, Penn Cove mussels and beautifully decadent blue cheese custard in a port wine reduction.
Corea Blue (6311 DeBarr Road, Ste. F) serves up authentic Korean cuisine in a rather bare-bones atmosphere. Here, all of the bells and whistles are on the plate or in the bowl — particularly the bright and fiery kimchi stew and their smoky, sweet and tender bulgogi. Creative and ample banchan are another plus.
Lahn Pad Thai (2101 Abbott Road, #7) serves a spicy, soul-warming beef noodle bowl that calls to me on cold winter days, while Thai Delight (3609 Arctic Blvd.) is my go-to spot for tangy, acidic, savory larb and their outrageously addictive taro cakes. Namaste Shangri-La (2446 E. Tudor Road) has curries with plenty of heat, excellent tandoori dishes, and chicken pakoras that I could eat by the dozen.
Pho Vietnam 4 (809 E. Loop Road; there are several locations) dishes up steaming bowls of wholesome pho goodness at the top of Government Hill. And for Japanese cuisine, I find Sushi & Sushi (3337 Fairbanks St.) to be one of the most reliable spots in town with fresh, fresh, fish and creative rolls.
Kriner's Burgers & Pies (3074 Mountain View Drive, #151) serves massive, customizable burgers with creative toppings like candied jalapenos, bread and butter pickles, and crispy fried onions. Added points for delicious milkshakes and a Tabasco bar. A Pie Stop (3020 Minnesota Drive, #1a) offers fruit, cream and meat pies for all of your pie needs. My particular favorites are the triple berry, chocolate cream and the Mexican pot pie. I will eat anything in the form of a pie.
Doriola's (510 W. Tudor Road, #7), a breakfast-and-lunch spot that serves up the best soups in town (I am particularly partial to the cream of wild rice) and a perfectly custard-y quiche that has ruined me for all other quiches (including my own). Southside Grill (12870 Old Seward Highway, #101) is a classic, predictable and satisfying diner curing dozens of hangovers each and every weekend. And speaking of hangovers, Table 6 (3210 Denali St., #8) has, in my mind, this town's best bloody mary — spicy, peppery and acidic, it's the perfect accompaniment to the restaurant's house-made chicharrones.
This and that:
Taco King (1330 Huffman Road, as well as other locations) is not exactly a well-kept secret but I couldn't resist a mention of their smoky, savory, perfectly charred carne asada tacos and behemoth burritos that make their way into our family's dinner rotation at least once a month. Aloha Stop & Shop (3333 Fairbanks St.) is a mostly retail shop specializing in Hawaiian goods but with a lock on the best poke and poke bowls in town.
Winky's Wings, (9191 Old Seward Highway, #4) a takeout-only spot in South Anchorage, it won the ADN's blind wing-tasting two years ago and is my go-to purveyor of crispy, spicy, meaty wings served in a variety of flavors and styles. Winky's strip mall neighbor Gumbo House (9191 Old Seward Highway) serves rich, meaty gumbo with the unmistakable flavor of a carefully darkened roux as well as a shrimp po'boy that's hard to forget about once you've tried it.
And lastly, Turkish Delight (2210 E. Northern Lights Blvd., Ste. 110) presents beautiful Middle Eastern cuisine in a low-key but lovely space with an emphasis on vegetarian appetizers and perfectly grilled meats. Don't miss the beautiful and spicy kebabas and the tangy, buttery spanakopita.
So whether you're looking for a quiet date-night spot, a quick and hearty lunch, or a place to grab a few dozen wings to chow down during the game, don't overlook your local, humble strip mall. And if you still have time after dessert, you can always pop next door for a spray tan, a box of ammo or a tattoo. I call that dinner-and-a-movie, Alaska-style.
Mara Severin is a food writer who reviews Anchorage restaurants. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Is your favorite strip mall restaurant missing from the list? Let us know in the comments below, and we may try to go check it out.