Two sure signs of summer are the arrival of geese migrating north to their favorite breeding grounds and the departure of Anchorage-ites, migrating south to their favorite campgrounds. Suddenly, the Seward Highway is flooded with cars topped with bicycles and canoes, packed with fishing rods and coolers, and dragging boats and four-wheelers. And while I love a road trip as much as the next Alaskan, let’s be honest, what I really love is road trip food. To me, the great outdoors is only as great as the picnic basket you pack to enjoy in it.
While the rest of my family is in charge of bear spray, sunscreen and tire pressure, I’m in charge of lunch. Which, from now on, means Birch & Alder is in charge of lunch. I was among the mourners when Froth & Forage, the ambitious little roadhouse tucked off the highway in Indian, closed its doors. So, I was delighted when the sign for Birch & Alder popped up on that unique piece of restaurant real estate. I was even more delighted when I got wind of their menu featuring rustic breakfasts, refined sandwiches, baked goods and — wait for it — bagels. House-made bagels.
My family headed out to Indian on a recent Friday for a purely culinary adventure. We pulled into the line of cars waiting to order, scanned the menu QR code, and planned our meal. We opted for the Bagel Experience, the sandwich special, a breakfast focaccia and two scones — one blueberry and one lemon — the seasonal choice of the day. We were on the wrong side of lunchtime and so were sadly unable to score any rugelach or one of their savory scones — Irish cheddar, leek and prosciutto. But everything is made to order daily, so take note that the early bird gets the scone.
Our brunch was composed of simple, intelligently made dishes that both satisfied and surprised. I was absolutely besotted with the sandwich special ($13), a rustically elegant construction of burrata, crispy prosciutto, arugula, marinated heirloom tomatoes, preserved lemon and zhoug, a spicy cilantro sauce — new to me. The focaccia bread, crusty and pleasantly fragrant with olive oil, has a perfect crackle on the exterior and a perfect chew within. The burrata is creamy and luxurious while the sprouts and preserved lemon cut its richness with herbal brightness and acidity. Salty and creamy, herbaceous and acidic, it’s a sophisticated yet playful pastiche of flavors. One bite and this sandwich went straight to my list of Anchorage sandwich MVPs. For those keeping score: The Big Messy Tomato from Fire Island, the Italian at Fromaggio’s, Midnight Sun’s Hot Mess breakfast sandwich, and literally anything from Originale are all on the short list.
The Bagel Experience ($13) is an everything, sea salt or plain bagel layered with cream cheese, Alaska cold-smoked lox, crisped tomato chips, Alaska sprouts and preserved lemon. This is an impeccably balanced sandwich. The salty smoke of the buttery salmon, the citrusy acid of the lemon and tomato, and the fresh grassiness of the sprouts make for a perfect bite. But it’s the bagel holding it together that elevates this sandwich to an “experience.” “Where can I get a good bagel?” is the question I’m most often asked as an Anchorage food writer, second only to the evergreen “Where can I get good Chinese food?” question. And now, I finally have an answer. These are a little different from the pillowy, shiny, classic New York bagels. But they are hearty and flavorful with a crispy exterior and dense, chewy interior. Whatever your bagel itch, these will scratch it.
My daughter ordered the breakfast focaccia ($13), a beautiful thick slab — truly a slab — of tender focaccia generously topped with roasted peppers, sweet slow-cooked shreds of onion, earthy herbs, and with a soft egg cooked into the center. This is a hearty plateful — a complete meal in one. It’s messy car food, to be sure, and you’ll need a handful of napkins to manage it.
We all nibbled on and quibbled over the scones ($4.50 each) with their crumbly, crunchy, almost caramelized exterior. Scones can so often be disappointing. There are so many scone-like imposters languishing in pastry cases in coffee houses around town — dense in the wrong way, too soft in the center, and too sweet by half. This blueberry-studded scone restored my faith in scones and made me aware that I’ve been looking for scones in all the wrong places. Full disclosure: I did not get to try the seasonal lemon scone. My daughter beat me to it.
Which brings me to say a few words about sharing. My original idea was to order one of everything (ish) then share each dish with my husband. In the end, I had regrets. I wanted my own. I wanted my own bagel. I wanted my own sandwich. And I wanted my own blueberry scone. Portions are perfect if you want to fuel up for an active day — and bear in mind that everything is a la carte. But if I’m honest, I’d rather have two sandwiches and a nap.
One planning note: These dishes aren’t packed for travel, though I didn’t ask. Either plan to park and eat while enjoying the view, or bring your own foil, or assign a designated in-car food wrangler if you want your treats to stay in one piece for later enjoyment.
At present, Birch & Alder is operating strictly as a drive-thru, keeping morning to afternoon long-weekend hours, though I’ve heard rumors that their space and hours might expand. Prepare for a little bit of a wait on the more popular “let’s-head-out-of-town” weekends, but in our experience, the line moves pretty quickly. And of course, the “waiting area” with its unobstructed views of Turnagain Arm isn’t too shabby. So, plan to sit back for a moment and enjoy the scenery while you try to decide which scone to order. (Pro-tip: both.)
One last confession. We were not fueling up for a day of hiking, camping or fishing. It turns out, a quick round-trip hop to Indian is pretty easy. So, bellies full, we returned home and took that aforementioned nap. You can dream about adventures. I’m going to dream about that sandwich.
If you go:
Birch & Alder
27635 Seward Highway in Indian
7 a.m.-3 p.m. Thursday-Sunday