I love wintertime in downtown Anchorage. Summer has its obvious delights, with the profusion of colorful floral baskets, the inviting outdoor decks and the long hours of sunlight. But in summer, we have to share our favorite places with tourists and visitors. In winter, it only belongs to us. And with downtown events like Fur Rondy (Feb. 28-March 8) and the Iditarod ceremonial start (10 a.m. Saturday, March 7), we Alaskans get a chance to be tourists in our very own city.
Of course, if you’re a good planner, you’ve probably already figured out how to stake your claim to the prime views of Fourth, Fifth and Sixth avenues. Last year, one clever friend of mine managed to swing booth seats at Pangea (508 W. Sixth Ave.) for the ultimate Rondy parade perch. Add a nice mojito and oxtail bao (my all-time favorite Pangea app), and who even needs a parade? Now you’re just being greedy.
But if you’re like me, and not my clever, organized friend, you’re more likely to be winging it as you Rondy. And for me, that means catching up with a few tried and true favorites while staying flexible and laid-back, like a true Alaskan.
Of course, the most laid-back festival food is what I considered to be Anchorage’s official street food: the reindeer dog (or brat, or Polish, or hot link). When it comes to vendors of high-quality hot dogs, Anchorage boasts an embarrassment of riches. But I always look for my favorite, Yeti Dogs, holder of the coveted 2018 Hot Dog Vendor of the Year award and all-around local gem. Hit them up at their shiny Yeti Mobile for gourmet dogs with whatever creative toppings they may have dreamed up that week: think creamy blue cheese with mushrooms and onions, spicy chipotle pineapple aioli, or Kenai jalapeno cheese dip (aka “burning love”). (See Facebook for information on locations).
If you’d rather eat your hot dog without the hindrance of mittens, head on over to Moose A la Mode (360 K St.). The new owners of this cozy downtown stalwart are serving up classic cafe fare as well as a full menu of Tiki Pete’s award-winning hot dogs (I love Tiki Pete’s, but who knew there were so many hot dog awards?). This list includes, of course, the over-the-top Alaska mac-and-cheese dog served with grilled onions and bacon bits. Added bonus: the café’s buzz-building cupcakes in flavors like Minty Moose, Raspberry, Lemonade and Strawberry Colada.
And for those who consider hot-dog eating to be a spectator sport, there are two events over the course of Rondy. At 1 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 29, the gastronomically sturdy among us will compete to eat Tiki Pete’s spiciest hot dog in the shortest amount of time for the Pete Challenge finals. The following week, participants will have 10 minutes to devour as much reindeer sausage as physically possible in the Reindeer Sausage Eating Contest at Humpy’s (9 p.m. Thursday, March 5). Heroes walk among us.
For all-day breakfast, great coffee and, delightfully, an impressive hot sauce bar, Snow City Cafe (1034 W. Fourth Ave.) is a fun family-friendly spot that is generous with the whipped cream on your kids’ hot chocolate and with the Champagne in your mimosa. I’m partial to the BOB Benedict (best of both Benedicts: with Canadian bacon, fresh spinach, Roma tomato and hollandaise). There’s almost always a bustling crowd in there, but turnover is quick and while you wait, you can sip a coffee made with their own signature Kaladi Brothers espresso.
Around the corner at K Street Convenience (434 K St.), the tiny kitchen is serving up big flavor and some of the heftiest burritos in town. If an army marches on its stomach, this delicious, customizable wrap will keep the troops on their feet all day. And on your feet you’ll have to be, burrito in hand, because K Street is takeout only. Service is quick but lovingly assembled. The wait is just long enough for you to browse the store for odd tourist necessities — lip balm, souvenir baseball cap, fishing flies — and to get the feeling back in your toes.
To me, a trip downtown feels incomplete without a visit to Side Street Espresso (412 G St.). Part coffee house, part gallery and part clubhouse, there is something deeply comforting about this snug little spot, with its papered-over community bulletin board, lending library and brilliantly topical whiteboard artwork created daily by George, a cafe owner. Add hearty soups, quiche and excellent biscuits (and occasional doughnuts) and you have a hearty, heady mix of Alaskana and comfort food. This cafe is a local treasure and a good reminder of what I love most about our city.
Want some retail therapy with your warmup? Stop for coffee and doughnuts at that historical little charmer, The Kobuk (504 W. Fifth Ave.). If you can leave without a paper sack full of old-school penny candy, a scented candle and a whimsical potholder from the eclectic gift shop, then you’re a stronger person than I. Especially the penny candy. I’m partial to the black licorice wheels.
If your tastes are a little more adult than, say, a sack full of candy buttons, and you don’t mind the potentially full-contact sport of jockeying for position at one of our better watering holes, there are myriad choices.
Stop in for an excellent bloody mary at F Street Station (325 F St.) and snack surreptitiously at their “display” cheese. Or you might be lucky enough to find a seat at the bar at The Bubbly Mermaid (417 D St.) where you can throw back a few oysters and a glass of bubbly. If Champagne is a little too highbrow for your tastes or wallet, hit up the bar at Orso (737 W. Fifth Ave.) during their generous happy hours (3-6 p.m. and 9 p.m. to close) and score a discount cocktail and decadent-tasting but frugally priced appetizer. I’m partial to the polenta ragu with fresh mozzarella, sausage ragu and a fried egg on top.
Or drop into one of my favorites, Muse (625 C St., at the Anchorage Museum), for a glass of wine and a small plate or two. Even at its busiest, Muse always feels like it’s far from the madding crowd.
One of my favorite downtown spots is also one of the most strategically located for Rondy activities. Originale Caffe and Deli (400 D St.) is serving up a wide range of soulful and authentic Italian specialties. It offers a rotating roster of wholesome, hearty soups like black bean with Italian chicken sausage or organic green pea with pancetta, as well as exceptional sandwiches featuring authentic and hard-to-find Italian salumi-like prosciutto crudo and mortadella. Recently Originale began opening its doors for weekend dinners featuring pinsa-style pizzas (a rustic pizza with a lighter, airier crust than traditional pies). Added bonus: Originale recently secured its beer/wine license so you can enjoy a nice Chianti with your meal.
It takes a lot of fuel to get through an Alaska winter, so sip some soup with your snow sculptures, enjoy a hot dog with your sled dogs and toss back a couple of oysters after the blanket toss. And remember, crowds are part of the fun, so be patient with your fellow Rondy revelers and be kind to the hard-working people who are busy feeding them. Let’s celebrate our city while we have it. Pretty soon, we’ll have to share.