Alaskans are winter warriors. We combat cold temperatures with a combination of gear, attitude and the time-honored technique of huddling together for warmth. Winter is no match for a trifecta of bunny boots, bonfires and bonhomie — bourbon is optional. But this winter has been marked by a conspicuous absence of huddling. So, we’ve all had to find other ways to bring the heat.
No one will be surprised to learn that I found spicy solace from a few favorite Anchorage restaurants. This year, I did my huddling over bowls of rich broths, savory dumplings, silky noodles, fiery curry and spice. Lots and lots of spice. Here are five fiery favorites that helped me get through the longest part of the season. Because, if you ask me, the best way to get warm is from the inside out.
My love for Gia Dinh Pho and Vietnamese cuisine is well documented. This homey Vietnamese restaurant makes you feel like part of the family and you can taste the love in every dish. I’m especially partial to their soups, like the Hu tieu mi nuoc which is a dish full of, well, everything. Pork, shrimp, noodles, crispy wontons, and fragrant herbs all swim together in a clean, light, sinus-clearing broth. Truly a dish that has something for everyone. But their latest addition to the soup menu has my loyalties shifting ever so slightly. The spicy wonton soup is a new entry into the Anchorage soup hall of fame. Gently seasoned ground pork gets wrapped in a silky noodle and simmered in a rich beef broth that is rich, redolent with aromatic herbs and fragrant basil leaves, and indeed spicy, with an indefinable sweet finish. It’s a perfectly executed balancing act. Pro tip: Ask for a side of their house-made chili paste. A tiny bit brings a world of heat. Then, be a miser, and hoard the rest.
If you’re looking for another take on a spicy dumpling, the Szechuan spicy wontons at Charlie’s Bakery are a must. In case you’re still unfamiliar with Charlie’s unique combination of offerings, it can be summed up in four magical words. Chinese food and cake. Are you craving moo shu pork and a Napoleon? Kung pao shrimp and tiramisu? Pot stickers and a chocolate eclair? Charlie’s Bakery has your back. There are a lot of winning, winter-defying dishes on the Charlie’s menu, including the hugely popular Szechuan-style braised beef noodle soup, with fat chunks of tender brisket and heady notes of star anise. But the dish that has my chilly little heart are the Szechuan style spicy wontons. Steeped in chili oil and blazing red, these pork-filled pillows look fiery and devilish in the bowl. But while they pack a bit of heat, they’re not as a dangerous as they look. The heat in the dish is slow, and subtle, gently taking the nip out of the air.
A long-time family favorite, Lahn Pad Thai serves up Thai dishes that don’t shy away from heat. Their curry noodles dish, however, is my favorite. This lush and creamy not-quite-soup brings a gentle sweetness from the coconut milk and a powerful punch from the red curry. A tangle of delicately thin rice noodles, chunks of tender chicken, hard-cooked eggs, and crushed peanuts add texture, interest, and heartiness to this bowlful of goodness. For the record, the curry just barely eked out the win over the restaurant’s beef noodle bowl, with its thick, starchy noodles swimming in a spicy broth that is bright with grassy aromatic cilantro. So, I say, flip a coin. You can’t lose. Pro tip: if you’re really not afraid of spice, ask for it “Thai spicy.”
When it comes to Mexican food, Alaskans are spoiled for choice but I’m loyal to the old-school vibe of Taco King. It’s in my family’s regular take-out rotation for tacos, enchiladas and burritos. But when the cold really hits, I crave their menudo. For the uninitiated, this peppery soup is made with a red chili pepper base and teems with tripe and hominy and garnished with diced onions, fresh herbs — watch for oregano stems! — and tortillas. It’s rich, earthy, smoky and soul-satisfying. It’s also purported to be an excellent hangover cure for anyone out there who might be drinking their feelings at this particular moment in time. Pro tip: This tip is stolen from the pro who was ahead of my husband in line. He ordered his menudo with extra tripe. That’s a next-level move.
Taste of India, which opened recently in midtown, got early and enthusiastic buzz. I love both Indian food and the breathtaking confidence that must have been involved with opening a new restaurant in the middle of a pandemic. In other words, my family are early adopters. There are a lot of spicy, warming highlights on the menu but we fell hardest for the butter chicken. Butter chicken, let’s face it, is the electric blanket of Indian food. Creamy, rich and comforting with just that right degree of slow burn that draws your spoon back into the bowl. My daughter, who is generally skeptical of spicy food, soon joined us in dunking shreds of hot, puffy naan bread into this dreamy concoction. One order, it turns out, is not enough for three enthusiasts.
If you found this winter to be a bit longer and colder than most, you’re not alone. But the days are getting longer and it’s starting to become possible to picture our glorious Alaskan summer, or as I call it, Food Truck season. Meanwhile, I’m counting on Anchorage’s spiciest kitchens to get me through the final mile. Until you can get your heat from the sun, look for it in your bowl.
If you go:
Gia Dinh Pho and Vietnamese Cuisine
11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday
549 West International Airport Road, Suite #1A
Charlie’s Bakery & Chinese Cuisine
11 a.m.-8:30 p.m., Monday-Saturday
2729 C Street
Lahn Pad Thai
11 a.m.-8 p.m., Monday-Friday
Noon-8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday
2101 Abbot Road
8 locations around Anchorage
Hours vary by location.
Taste of India
11 a.m.-9:30 p.m., Monday-Friday
12:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m., Saturday & Sunday
5011 Arctic Boulevard, Suite I