You guys. I have eaten a lot of lunch lately. From tandoori chicken and fancy burgers to humble soups and honest-to-goodness scrapple, it's been a self-indulgent departure from my usual midday yogurt cup or hard-boiled egg.
Here's what I've learned: A limited budget and limited time are no obstacle to a terrific dining experience in Anchorage. In fact, your lunch-hour might be the best time to indulge in a little hometown culinary tourism.
Last week ADN published part one of this two-part best-lunch-specials roundup. Here's part two.
Things that I love: hollandaise sauce. Hash browns. Pancakes. Things that I hate: waking up early on a weekend. Waiting in line on a weekend. Wearing pants on a weekend. Solution: Weekday brunch. Treat yourself.
All of the crispy, hammy, syrupy, eggy goodness of South Restaurant's brunch menu is available on weekdays, without the pressure and without the wait. I commandeered a spot at the bar in this sunny eatery on a recent Tuesday and ordered my particular favorite: the French country Benedict ($15). A housemade baguette is the perfect crispy nest for a heap of black forest ham, two perfectly poached eggs and a beautifully balanced hollandaise. A layer of peppery arugula enlivens the sandwich and adds a freshness that cuts through its creamy richness. The roasted potatoes on the side are perfect — tender on the inside and nicely browned on the outside. I completed my meal with a spicy Virgin Mary and for a brief hour was able to have a taste of the weekend when I needed it most. To be clear, South does require pants.
Red Chair Cafe
The Red Chair Cafe, at the edge of the downtown shopping district, has a funky, urban air about it. The decor is sleek, industrial chic with poured concrete floors, exposed pipework and graffiti wall art. But the menu is all about comfort. And its the only place I know of that serves the ultimate comfort food — scrapple ($16).
For the uninitiated, scrapple is a Pennsylvania Dutch specialty that is made from pork trimmings (Red Chair uses pork shoulder), cornmeal, buckwheat flour and spices. The ingredients are formed into a loaf, which is then sliced and fried. Scrapple is the rustic lovechild of meatloaf and breakfast sausage and the version served here is amazing. Perfectly seasoned, with earthy pork flavor, it is served crispy on the outside and tender, almost creamy within. Lightly grilled tomatoes and two buttery slices of rye bread rounded out my meal. Scrapple: It's a breakfast food whose time has come.
My friend Sue, who has some dietary restrictions, ordered the kale bake skillet ($13.75, gluten free), which was probably just a wee bit healthier than my meal. Kale, zucchini, tomatoes, asparagus and mushrooms were cooked together and — impressively — all cooked to just the right doneness. I was worried that the flavors would be muddy but I was dead wrong. A tangy, mustardy vinaigrette added brightness and punch, sliced almonds added texture and two eggs (cooked any style) added a rich, creamy element. She was impressed and satisfied (but unable to refrain from stealing just a little taste of the scrapple).
Peter's Sushi Spot
Peter's Sushi Spot has a dark, sophisticated and rather soothing ambiance that I have always enjoyed. But the menu here (like in many Japanese restaurants) can be intimidating for the indecisive. Soups, noodles, rice bowls, tempura, sushi and sashimi all compete for space, and if you're anything like me, you resent having to decide on only one type of dish.
Happily, the bento box lunch special ($15) is the perfect choice for those who have trouble with choices. Miso soup, salad, fried gyoza, shrimp and vegetable tempura, rice and your choice of a California or crunch roll are all included with your entree. I opted for the salmon sashimi but other offerings include a variety of teriyaki, Mongolian beef, sesame chicken, Kalbi and pan-fried black cod. A sip here, a bite there, a crunch here and a dip there is a lovely way to spend a lunch hour.
My friend Alison opted for a lunch-sized unagi don (eel bowl, $16.95) and was impressed: ample slices of rich, flavorful, fatty eel were served on a generous portion of rice. She had arrived thinking she wanted sushi but it was a blustery day and so changed her mind. She's decisive like that. I'll stick with the bento box.
At the risk of being tarred and feathered, I can't help mentioning Olive Garden when it comes to a great lunch special. I generally prefer to champion smaller, locally owned restaurants but the Italian chain's all-you-can-eat soup, salad and breadsticks combo is an undeniable bargain ($8.99).
The breadsticks, while probably not at all like Nonna used to make, are hot, fluffy and starchily comforting. The green salad, dressed with the restaurant's signature creamy vinaigrette, is pleasantly tangy and topped with a fairly lively combination of tomatoes, black olives, pepperoncini and thick slices of red onion. Your server will patiently top it with as much freshly shredded cheese as you desire. In my case, that required a lot of patience. And while I find much of the restaurant's menu to be rather pedestrian, I am a big fan of their soups. Of the four on offer (including creamy chicken and gnocchi, pasta e fagioli and minestrone), my absolute favorite is the Zuppa Toscano, which boasts a creamy but light broth teeming with kale, thin slices of tender potato and crumbled Italian sausage. Judging by the number of copycat recipes that turn up routinely on Pinterest, I'm not alone in my partiality.
On the day of my visit, I was seated in the synthetically charming cafe/bar side of the restaurant and estimate that 80 percent of my fellow diners were tucking into the soup-and-salad combo. My server was friendly and attentive and checked in repeatedly to see if I needed refills. I didn't, but still felt that I got my money's worth. (Food for thought: A server friend told me that this kind of menu item leads to more work and smaller tickets for the wait staff. So I tipped accordingly.) Added bonus: checking out the clearance racks at The Gap on my way back to my car.
F Street Station
The weekend starts early at F Street Station. Friday at lunch time, to be exact. I met my husband there for lunch and was sorely tempted to join the 11:30 a.m. cocktail sippers until I remembered that my afternoon schedule would not accommodate a nap. Besides, I wasn't there to drink. I was on a mission. Mission: French dip ($13). It's available on Fridays and Fridays only. And it sells out. Quickly.
We arrived just as the last of the tables filled, leaving us in table-less purgatory. Plate after plate of perfect beef sandwiches were whisked past me and I began to panic. But F Street had my back. Despite the fast pace of the room, the front-of-house staff maintain a cheery composure and the chaos is clearly of the controlled variety. One server scored us a couple of bar stools while we waited, which allowed us to order our lunch before we had a place to eat it. We had our eye on the prize.
Eventually, the same server found us seats at a six top with four other diners who had similarly bad timing. We were strangers when we sat down but, bound by the love of a good lunch, and friends when we left. Six diners. Six orders of French dip sandwiches. They're that good. Thin slices of house-roasted beef were piled inside a perfectly crisped French roll along with a melty layer of assertively smoky Gouda. The jus (not usually my favorite sandwich component) was beefy and rich and tasted like more than the usual bowl of bouillon. It's simple really: You dip. You eat. You vow to arrive earlier next week.
Do you know of lunch deal that's truly excellent? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will try to check it out!
Brunch hours: 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-3 p.m. weekends
11124 Old Seward Highway
southak.com and 907-770-9200
Peter's Sushi Spot
Lunch menu: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday
3020 Minnesota Drive
peterssushispot.com and 907-562-5187
Red Chair Cafe
Lunch hours: 7 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday
337 E. Fourth Ave.
theredchaircafe.com and 907-270-7780
Lunch: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday
1186 N. Muldoon Road
800 E. Dimond Blvd.
F Street Station
Bar opens at 10 a.m., food service begins at 11
325 F St.