As a food writer, I'm asked by more people about where to eat Chinese food than any other kind of cuisine combined. And I get it. I really do. It was one of the first things I looked for when I moved to Anchorage almost 20 years ago. I grew up occasionally eating Peking duck at elegant restaurants, occasionally standing at Chinatown food carts eating dumplings in a messy, delighted frenzy, and most often eating pork lo mein with splintery chopsticks out of white, waxed take-out boxes in college dorms and too-small apartments. Whatever your history, access to good Chinese cooking creates a specific and lasting craving that demands at least occasional satisfaction.
The quest was, at first, dispiriting. For the most part, Chinese food in Anchorage ranges from just OK to, frankly, terrible. Too sweet, too greasy, too breaded, too saucy, or too much time spent in a steam tray — there's a lot of Chinese food out there that is … uninspiring. So when, years ago, I discovered that the bakery I'd been driving by for months was more than just a place for cupcakes, I was overjoyed. Turns out, the best Chinese food in town was at the incompletely named Charlie's Bakery.
I recently wrote up a short-list of my "evergreen" favorite local eateries and considered including Charlie's Bakery. But it occurred to me that I hadn't actually eaten there in over two years. So I set about correcting that egregious oversight. I decided to get the jump on the Chinese New Year and check in with my longtime favorite.
Charlie's menu is nicely balanced between homier, harder-to-find, authentic dishes and some standard, craveable Americanized Chinese favorites. You can get your lo-mein, your Mongolian beef and your fried rice, but you can also get taro root dumplings, pork with pickled noodles soup, or even, as a special, chicken feet. The dining room is casual, but comfortable and clean. You order at the counter with the help of some oversized food photographs with assigned numbers. Food is cooked to order, but the wait is usually minimal. From anywhere in the dining room you can see four or more chefs busily working woks and steamers. It's the best kind of dinner theater.
On our first visit, we started with a shared order of pot stickers ($4.50). Not exactly a groundbreaking choice but these are, for me, the gold standard of the classic. These are perfect dumplings, neither too delicate nor too doughy, with a generous pocket of savory, porky filling. The dumplings were soft and pliant on one side and perfectly browned and crisp on the other.
My husband's entree was sheet rice noodles with beef ($11.95), which was a hearty, homey, satisfying affair. Wide, flat, glistening rice noodles were studded with generous bites of beef and just-cooked, bright green heads of baby bok choy. The portion was generous enough that he shared it without rancor.
I was less generous with one of my favorite dishes at Charlie's, the beef noodle soup (ordered spicy, $11.95). I almost always spot orders of this dreamy winter dish at other tables when I come, so I know I'm not alone in my fandom. The broth is rich, warming and chock-full of tender, pleasantly fatty pieces of beef. Vegetables, still with their texture and crunch, were plentiful. And the noodles were beautifully thick and cooked to al dente perfection.
I returned the following week with my daughter and we ordered two entrees to share. The first, Red Hot Pepper Chicken ($11.95), boasted a heap of moist and flavorful dark-meat chicken with peppers, onions, scallions and lots of ginger. The sauce was silky and tangy, but didn't quite deliver on the heat I was looking for based on its audacious name. It was, however, very tasty.
The shrimp kung bao ($12.95), however, delivered the heat in spades. In fact, it was delivered by express mail, since my very first bite included a whole red chili that literally took my breath away. I drained my iced tea and wiped away tears while my daughter tried valiantly not to look amused (she failed). Approach this dish with caution. Once the smoke cleared, however, I recovered quickly and absolutely loved the assertive dish. A bed of mild mushrooms and cool zucchini balanced the plump, spicy shrimp nicely.
We also ordered … more dumplings. But you guys, these were totally DIFFERENT dumplings. And besides. Dumplings. This time we opted for the Szechuan-style spicy wonton soup ($6.50, only available on Saturdays), and the Crystal Dumplings ($4.25). The wontons are served in an intense — and intensely beautiful — sauce made bright red with chili oil cut with (I think?) a hint of soy, sesame and vinegar. It's served like a soup but eats more like a dressing. Don't let the fire-engine-red glaze of the oil put you off. It's an assertive dish, but not too spicy for most palates.
The Crystal Dumplings are a more subtle appetizer. Gently steamed, their translucent skin was chewy and pleasingly elastic, with a juicy and savory filling. We loved these and would happily have eaten more, if a line hadn't been steadily forming at the counter. Please don't judge us for our weakness for dumplings. It's genetic and there is no cure.
Three different dumplings. Three different cooking techniques. Three different types of dough. Conclusion: Charlie's dumpling game is on lock. They say that eating dumplings during the Chinese New Year will correspond to future wealth. Finally, a financial investment strategy that I can get behind.
Charlie's Bakery also offers something that even my favorite East Coast Chinese restaurants don't — real dessert. Not a scoop of freezer-burned green tea ice cream or cellophane-wrapped fortune cookies, but real dessert. I don't have a tremendous sweet tooth, but even I recognize the buttery lusciousness of a chocolate éclair or slice of Boston cream pie.
And if you're not a dessert fan, you can still grab a loaf of bread or stock up on the stuffed baked buns (from ham and cheese to chicken curry to my favorite, barbecue pork). These take just seconds to warm up in the microwave and you'll be a hero in the break room or the lunch box if you can be convinced to share.
The menu has changed a bit from my last visit and I'll be honest: I regret not trying the chicken feet. Also, I spotted bowls full of sweet sesame balls that were so beautiful they looked like you could buy them from Pier 1 to keep in decorative bowls around the house. Taro root dumplings and roast duck (both available only on the Saturday menu) are also calling out to me. In other words, among other resolutions this year, I'll be working my way across this interesting menu.
Charlie's Bakery is serving up surprising and beautifully prepared Chinese dishes alongside craveable Chinese American standards. As for the selection of classic French pastries? Well, that's just the icing on the cake.
Hours: 11 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Mon.-Sat.
Location: 2729 C Street