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‘Umiak,’ ‘quesa-deer-a’ and fresh oysters: How Alaskans put their own spin on state fair food

State fairs are typically known for the powder-sugared, fried classics like elephant ears, corn dogs and cheese curds. The Alaska State Fair has all those too, but there are also more than a handful of vendors selling items with an Alaska twist. Here’s what a few of them had to say during the first weekend of the fair in Palmer.

Grilled halibut on rice at Fish On! Camp Grill at the Alaska State Fair, Aug. 25, 2019 (Photo by Samantha Davenport)

Fish On! Camp Grill

It’s the sixth year Buffy Meyer has been operating the Fish On! Camp Grill at The Gathering Place.

Meyer, who is half Inupiaq, heard about the fair’s interest in opening a salmon bake booth at The Gathering Space several years back.

“I’m a fur designer (and) a sewer — so I was part of The Gathering Place before it was created here; (its previous location) was over by the Red Gate out of tents,” said Meyer.

Meyer and her sister, Esther Hershman, submitted a proposal. To their surprise, it was accepted. Meyer’s husband designed and built the current space, just off the Yellow Trail.

“We love cooking — we do all of the salmon, halibut, king crab — we do that all for ourselves subsistence-wise, so we knew how to cook it,” Meyer said.

Fish On!’s menu items include Alaska Native-inspired dishes like grilled halibut, salmon sliders, fry bread and reindeer stew. One dish called “umiak” (an Inupiaq boat) consists of jalapenos stuffed with a three-cheese blend, wrapped in a salmon fillet and wrapped with bacon. Meyer says the seafood comes from Norton Sound Seafood Products and Kwik’Pak Fisheries.

When they started out at the salmon bake, Meyer says, service was a bit slower but customers didn’t seem to mind.

“They had this cultural-rich area to watch, this stage, the performances, so it’s almost like they are able to sit here, be entertained and wait for their number to be called,” said Meyer.

Crab bisque and fries are are served from the Crab Shack at the Alaska State Fair on August 28, 2018. (Marc Lester / ADN)

The Crab Shack

It all started when Katy Smith’s husband, Cade, had an idea to sell crab cakes at the Alaska State Fair. They made 500 crab cakes that year, which they thought was more than enough.

“They sold them out in the first three hours of the beginning day of the fair, and it’s just grown ever since,” Katy Smith said.

Over the last 20 years, The Crab Shack has turned into a staple of Alaska fair cuisine — from bacon-wrapped scallops to king crab bisque and their coconut crab cakes.

Smith said it’s important that their menu is filled with food sourced from within the state. Last year, the Smiths added french fries made from Vanderweele Farms’ Yukon Gold potatoes.

Cade is the owner of FishEx, a Alaska seafood company. “All of (my husband’s) seafood products, we try to bring out of Alaskan waters because this is us, this is Alaska,” said Katy.

“Nobody wants to eat seafood from somewhere else at the state fair.”

You can find The Crab Shack on the Purple Trail next to Hula Hoop Cookies.

Bushes Bunches

For over 30 years, Bushes Bunches has made its presence at the state fair known with brightly colored beets, an abundance of squash and crunchy carrots from the Palmer farm.

Kristi Short of Bushes Bunches says this is her third year helping out at the state fair. She and her boyfriend, Christopher Young, began helping Bruce Bush a few years ago.

Bushes Bunches was founded in 1956. In a state where the majority of food is shipped in, Short says she believes it’s important to support food supplies that are produced locally.

“It’s very important for the livelihood — not just for the farm itself but our community,” said Short.

Bushes Bunches Produce Booth is outside the Craig Taylor Equipment Farm Exhibits. In addition to fresh produce, they sell Alaska Grown beef stew and Bushes peanut potato — a cross between a Yukon Gold and fingerling potato, served with a smoky bacon dip.

Salmon quesadillas on the grill at Salmon Express at the Alaska State Fair in Palmer, Aug. 25, 2019 (Photo by Samantha Davenport)

Salmon Express

Garrett Burtner, a retired commercial fisherman from Bristol Bay, says he and his wife, Judy, and their four sons have grown Salmon Express together since its debut at the fair 21 years ago.

“You get hooked on this — being a carny,” said Burtner. “It’s a family operation. I have my youngest son and his wife who are moving into the business and we’re moving out as we age.”

Burtner serves quesadillas filled with fresh grilled Alaska salmon, salsa, mozzarella cheese and guacamole. If seafood isn’t your style, try the “quesa-deer-a,” a reindeer sausage quesadilla with the fixings. Salmon Express is on the Red Trail.

Prince William Sound oysters from the Pristine Products oyster stand at the Alaska State Fair in Palmer, August 2018. (Photo by Mara Severin)

More Alaska-style fair foods:

There are plenty more Alaska-centric delicacies to put on your fair food wish list.

The Red Beet features an assortment of sandwiches and sides with local meats and organic vegetables — sausage, pork, onion, tomatoes, potatoes, red cabbage, kale and more. They are just off the “beeten” path on the Red Trail. Farther along, Mr. Gyro serves their Alaska-grown potato wedges, and Pristine Products sells oysters fresh from Prince William Sound because it wouldn’t be a trip to the fair without a stop for shucking — would it?

Indian Valley Meats has a stand with spicy reindeer Polish dogs, buffalo bratwurst and caribou steak sandwiches. If you’ve got a hankering for halibut, delicious seafood pitas and deep-fried fish await at Seafood Alaska in log cabin No. 3, adjacent to the carnival rides. Yukon Concessions is also a good stop to get your fried halibut fix.

Just down the way at log cabin No. 5 is Lionel’s Seafood, where fairgoers can dig into seafood gumbo, chowder, clams and shrimp. At log cabin No. 6, the Patty Wagon serves Alaska-grown garden fries.

At the iconic Talkeetna Spinach Bread Airstream food truck on the Purple Trail, attendees can enjoy a blueberry-rhubarb crisp made from local fruits and veggies. Russian Eats, a new vendor this year, speaks to Alaska’s unique connection to Russian culture and cuisine with homemade piroshki and borscht.

Other vendors with Alaska-grown products, according to the Alaska State Fair website, are Friar Tucks, Red Bird Kitchen, Reuben Haus and Vagabond Blues.

Got a hot tip for an Alaska-style fair dish that we missed? Email dining@adn.com. The Alaska State Fair continues through Sept. 2 in Palmer. You can find a complete food guide at alaskastatefair.org.

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