Last year, when Pel’Meni — the iconic dumpling shop that has been feeding Juneau’s late-night revelers for almost 25 years — opened a new spot in downtown Anchorage, my admittedly food-obsessed social media lit up. For weeks, my Twitter and Instagram feeds were dominated by photos of plump, buttery dumplings being eaten with plastic spoons. They sprang up, almost out of nowhere, like people’s Wordle results.
Of course, it makes sense. Doughy, creamy, buttery and filling, these Russian dumplings are the perfect winter comfort food from a part of the world that understands winter as well as Alaskans do. And this winter, I think we’ve all been wanting a little extra comfort.
While I always love a new kid on the block, I was reminded of my two other favorite local pelmeni purveyors who may be flying slightly below the radar. So, I decided it was time to pay them each a visit because for some reason, I get to have all the fun. Spoiler alert: They all serve delicious pelmeni and they each have something unique to offer. I suggest you go on your own dumpling safari and try all three.
The new Pel’Meni branch embraces the theory that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The flat row of businesses across the street from the Hotel Captain Cook, with their matching retro-font signs, for which I have a deep fondness, might not evoke the scrappy cheer of the Juneau wharf-side location, but it’s still decidedly old-school.
The antique cash register and the record player with its accompanying library of vintage vinyl that customers are invited to play are nods to the original location. The space is cheerful, eccentric and unpretentious, and feels well established — as if the business has been there much longer than it actually has.
The menu, if you can call it that, is exactly the same as the original and can be summed up with two questions: Meat or potato? With or without? In fact, as far as I could tell, there wasn’t a printed menu or even a chalkboard with items and prices anywhere to be seen. But simple and cheap are two pillars of the Pel’Meni empire. And regardless of how you answer the questions, the price is $8.
On a recent visit, the guy ahead of me grabbed his pelmeni and headed out the door calling, “See you tomorrow!” This might have been a joke, but the spot has clearly cultivated regulars, and with lunch and a drink coming in at under $10, I can understand the appeal. Fast, fun and frugal is the perfect lunch trifecta.
My one complaint about this simple and satisfying meal is the Styrofoam container in which they’re served. The steam condenses inside the box and it becomes unpleasantly soggy. I’d rather scoop them up from a paper box, bowl, or even a nest of foil. But that’s a small nit to pick and I felt like a hero when I delivered these to my hungry colleagues, i.e., my daughter and husband, both working from home.
Lunch was all but inhaled, including the slice of soft marble rye that was used for mopping up the last of the curry-steeped butter.
Of course, one of the things that Pel’Meni is best known for is its commitment to providing late-night eats to hungry revelers. And the new location maintains that tradition with late-night hours during the week and super-late-night hours on the weekend. And while we thoroughly enjoyed our midweek lunch, I suspect that the wee hours of the night, slinging dumplings to a downtown crowd of hungry, record-playing partygoers is when Pel’Meni shines the brightest.
If you go:
434 K St.
Sunday-Thursday: 11:30 a.m.-12 a.m.
Friday & Saturday: 11 a.m.– 2:30 a.m.
Of course, when it comes to late-night reveling, I’m all talk. While I celebrate those energetic Alaskans who are still eating, drinking, and being merry in the wee hours, it has been a long time since I’ve been among their numbers. Forget 3 a.m. By 10 o’clock most nights, I’m in my pajamas and binge-watching “The Great British Bake Off” with my dogs.
But that doesn’t mean I can’t have late-night pelmeni. And you can too. The secret is found in the freezer section of one of my favorite local stores, Eastern European Market & Deli. Bags of locally made pelmeni with a variety of fillings like pork, chicken, beef and mushroom mean that at any time you’re only 15 minutes away from a plate of pelmeni that you can eat while wearing your feetie pajamas.
You can also get creative. Because unlike pajamas, pelmeni go with everything. It’s the white T-shirt of dumplings. I’ve tossed them with pesto, with gravy, with blue cheese. I’ve floated them in chicken stock like tortellini en brodo. I’ve drizzled them with soy sauce, pesto, hot sauce, Frank’s, Worcestershire, garlicky olive oil, vinegar and ketchup. I’ve sprinkled them with paprika, turmeric, Parmesan and lemon pepper. Despite my all best efforts, I have yet to screw them up.
If you go:
Eastern European Store & Deli
601 W. 36th Ave.
Monday-Friday: 11 a.m.-7 p.m.
Saturday: 11 a.m.-6 p.m.
The Writer’s Block, the cozy bookstore, café, and community hub in Spenard recently celebrated five years in business during which time they’ve been dishing up locally made pelmeni, pierogi and other delicious comfort foods.
Their version is stuffed with chicken and beef and topped with curry powder, hot sauce, sour cream and cilantro. And while they don’t serve vodka, of the three, the Writer’s Block definitely has the beverage edge. You can eat your pelmeni with a specialty coffee or hot tea. Or you can pair it with a local beer or cider. Personally, I’d opt for the hot toddy “blocktale” made with muddled citrus, honey, and a wine-based whiskey, which has the double whammy of heat and a kick, offering an extra measure of protection against the winter blues.
A comforting lunch, a tasty drink, a good book, and a cozy nook to enjoy them in? This is my idea of a well-spent winter’s day. I’m thinking, “Anna Karenina.” For as Tolstoy says, in that perfect cold-weather read, “Spring is the time of plans and projects.” But winter, I would argue, is the time for hot drinks, cozy books, and, of course, pelmeni.
If you go:
The Writer’s Block
3956 Spenard Road
Wednesday-Sunday: 11 a.m.-8 p.m.