With the exception of, say, baby panda handler or water slide tester (I swear, it’s a thing, look it up), I have the best job in the world.
Exploring food culture is like falling in love — over and over again. Sometimes I fall in love with something fresh and exciting. Sometimes, it’s with an old friend.
And sometimes, like when a reader shares a hidden gem, it’s like falling in love on a blind date.
I love the end of the year when I take stock on all of my year’s food-related romances. This year, I fell for a sandwich, a burger, a pupusa, some pork belly, some chickpeas and a plate of pasta. Turns out, I’m rather fickle.
Let’s begin with this year’s springtime romance — the Mochileros food truck. It was the debut season for this fusion venture, self-branded as “GuateMerican” cuisine, and it went quickly from being the new kid on the block to being an established culinary brand. It seems there’s an appetite for doblados, tacos, elotes and horchata; the menu changes often but these items are always in the rotation. My special love, however, is for the pupusas. If you don’t know about this delicacy, as I didn’t at the beginning of 2019, a pupusa is a thick, pillowy, cornmeal flatbread that is stuffed with cheese (in this case feta and mozzarella) and meat (I’m partial to chicharrones). These cakes are crisped up on a griddle, and every hot little bite is cheesy, gooey, salty and just a wee bit greasy, in a good way. Adding just the right balance to the plate: a side salad of pickled vegetables that is crisp, zippy with vinegar and fiery with jalapeno. It’s a perfect counterpoint to the cheesy richness of the pupusa but, frankly, I would eat this addictive dish alongside anything. (Follow Mochileros Street Food on Facebook for updates on hours and location; 907-903-8451)
This year I formed a new relationship with an old acquaintance. Jimmy’s Asian Restaurant, a name I associated almost exclusively with sushi, opened in a new location. This prompted some passionate and well-informed readers to let me in on the fact that Jimmy’s is quietly serving top-notch Szechuan cuisine alongside their sushi rolls and udon. I found many highlights on their Chinese menu, but the one that lingers in my mind is their double-cooked pork, a dish that celebrates the buttery, fatty goodness that is pork belly. Named for the cooking technique that requires a slow simmer of the pork followed by slicing and stir-frying in an assertive sauce redolent with chili peppers, soy and fermented black beans, this is a complex dish that I wouldn’t dare try at home. I maintain dishes taste better when they’re labor-intensive and you didn’t do the labor. Who says relationships have to be hard work? (550 W. Tudor Road; anchorageasianfood.com)
Less labor-intensive are the burgers, fries, and onion rings being slung at DD’s Burgers (motto: “We Plead Guilty to Assault with a Delicious Weapon”). But quick food — I won’t call it “fast food” — from an old-school (in spirit, if not in fact) hamburger stand can be as memorable as a feast. My particular favorite is the straightforward Denali Burger which, according to the menu, “makes the Big Mac look like a kid’s burger.” This is not a gourmet construct. This is two beef patties, American cheese, iceberg lettuce and what can only be called “special sauce.” It’s a classic. Exceptionally good onion rings are a second reason to put this unassuming spot on your radar. Set aside the punny menu and the meme-heavy Facebook posts, these guys take their burgers seriously. Almost as seriously as I do.
Just down the block, but seeming like a world away, is Queen of Sheba, an Ethiopian restaurant with a serene dining room, slow-cooked dishes, and an excellent selection of vegan dishes. I had a difficult time choosing my favorite. The spicy red lentil dish called Yemisir Key? The gingery potato dish called Yatakilt Alicha? In the end, I opted for the Shiro, a chickpea spread liberally spiced with berbere. The spices turn the chickpeas into a vibrant, appetizing shade of pumpkin and the dish is comforting and satisfying but light. And if you’re familiar with Ethiopian-style eating, you know that everything tastes better when eaten by hand with tangy, bubbly, pancake-thin injera bread. While you’re there, be sure to order the spiced tea, which is so gently sweet and mysteriously delicious that it’s almost like alchemy. I tried to recreate it at home. I failed.
One of the simplest bites I took this year was also one of my favorites. I think the Big Messy Tomato sandwich from Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop is almost radical in its simplicity. Only occasionally available, its sporadic appearances add to its mystique. The locally sourced tomatoes are a cut above what I can typically buy in the grocery store (even when I splurge). The bread is, well, the best in town. The swipe of mayonnaise is house-made. And that’s it. It’s a sandwich so confident in the perfection of its ingredients that it doesn’t need to show off. The overstuffed baguette is like a slice of summer wrapped up in brown paper.
My final favorite bite is from my favorite new kitchen. Muse, at the Anchorage Museum, is under new leadership and, with Chef Laura Cole at the helm, it’s serving some of the best and most creative food in town. The varying menu which responds to the season, available ingredients, and creative inclination of the chef, is always a delightful and imaginative read. Happily, my favorite dish on the menu has remained, for the most part, a constant. When, in early summer, I reviewed the spot prawn pasta. A hearty dish of house-made, lemon-infused semolina pasta, greens and prosciutto, it came in a lobster broth vodka cream sauce. More recently, it was served in a creamy saffron sauce. Both versions are decadently delicious. The shrimp are plump and sweet inside with a smoky hint of the grill on the surface. The creamy sauce is rich and flavorful but not too heavy. Crisp little shards of prosciutto add salt and texture. It’s a layered but comforting dish and to write about it is to crave it. The pasta just barely eked out a win against two of Chef Cole’s masterful soups — a summer soup of artichoke and microgreens and, this past month, a parsnip soup with hazelnuts. It was a close race and there were no losers, especially not me, the fortunate judge.
There were some worthy runners-up including the clam chowder at Benji’s Bakery, the smoked brisket from Polar Dip and the Alaska Reindeer Philly from Tiki Pete’s. In fact, 2019 was an embarrassment of riches. I have no idea what 2020 will bring but I’m pretty sure I’m going to fall in love. A few times, at least. I’m fickle that way.