My favorite way to explore a new place is with my fork. A destination's culinary landscape is often as interesting as its topographical one. Trying new flavors, ingredients and preparations is a powerful — and literal — way to consume a new culture.
For visitors to Alaska, that means seafood. Fish is at the top of our gourmet (and recreational) food chain. Most residents love to fish and those who don't make sure to befriend someone who does. How else will you keep your second freezer packed tight with salmon and halibut? However, if during your Alaska vacation, you're not lucky enough to finagle a dinner invitation from a well-stocked local, never fear. The seafood-savvy chefs at Anchorage's best restaurants have got you covered. From sweet king crab legs to humble halibut tacos, dining out in Anchorage means eating the way many Alaskans dine in. Which is to say, beautifully.
Salmon, in Alaska, is both a luxury and a staple. Flaky, fatty (the good kind of fat) and full-flavored, salmon stands up to big flavors and a wide range of preparations, including the smokiness and heat of an open flame. There are a five salmon species found in Alaska but the king (also known as Chinook) variety is, well, king.
If you're going to tuck into a glistening piece of Alaska king salmon, you might as well get the royal treatment. At The Crow's Nest, the elegant restaurant at the top of the Hotel Captain Cook, try the pan-seared filet served with Jerusalem artichokes, oyster mushrooms and a watercress coulis. Food comes to the table with flair and finesse, and every dish comes with 360-degrees worth of stunning views.
Another fine-dining destination, but with lower-key charm, is The Marx Brothers Café located in a diminutive, freestanding house on Third Avenue in downtown. A bit of planning is called for to snag one of the 14 tables at this cozy culinary gem. Once there, try the cedar-planked king salmon served with a butternut squash sauce and fried risotto cake. Marx Brothers also boasts one of the best wine cellars in the state and will be happy to help you find the perfect sip for your salmon.
If you prefer a craft beer to a cabernet, check out the 49th State Brewing Co., where you can pair your grilled king salmon filet with a lemon cream sauce and a house-brewed IPA. Bonus points for grabbing a spot at the best outdoor patio in town.
For a meal with a little Latin flair, duck into the chic and trendy Tequila 61 for king salmon tacos garnished with crispy fried onions, pineapple and chipotle tamarind sauce. Make sure to wash them down with one of their top-notch scratch margaritas.
Considering the size of this behemoth catch (some exceed 400 pounds), Alaska halibut is prized for its delicate, buttery flavor. Its name derivation comes from half (holy) and butte (flat fish) and a beautifully prepared filet can indeed be a spiritual experience. Its immaculate white flesh, firm textured and clean tasting, lends itself to a wide variety of flavor profiles.
At Simon & Seafort's Saloon & Grill, an Anchorage seafood landmark with a classic culinary sensibility, the halibut is stuffed with crab and macadamia nuts. This upscale eatery also boasts a bustling bar with beautiful views of Sleeping Lady (also known as Mount Susitna). The halibut filet at Glacier Brewhouse is coated with basil pesto and spent grain breadcrumbs. And over at Crush Wine Bistro and Cellar, you can order a halibut dish prepared sous-vide, garnished with bacon, red pepper and a corn veloute.
But if you really want to eat halibut like a local, look for the hand-held variety. The White Spot Cafe, established in 1946, is an old-school lunch counter that serves up a lightly battered halibut sandwich revered by Anchorage locals for decades. At F Street Station, a thick slab of perfectly grilled halibut is served as a classic sandwich with lettuce tomato and tartar sauce. (Also, make sure to check out the bar's famous block of cheese.) And Humpy's Great Alaskan Alehouse serves up ever-popular halibut tacos that most Anchorage residents could describe from memory.
The king of crab
Alaska king crab legs have such a subtle and unique flavor that I'm resistant to experimental recipes. Drawn butter and perhaps a few lemon wedges are, for me, the ideal accompaniment to this peculiarly sweet delicacy. Happily, many of Anchorage's best restaurants share my view. Haute Quarter Grill, Sullivan's Steakhouse, Glacier Brewhouse and Simon & Seafort's Saloon & Grill all offer this decadent treat, by the pound, in its simplest form. And if you want your old-school dish served in an old-school dining room, head to Club Paris, which has been serving seafood and steak since the 1950s, and where you can eat your crab with a side of nostalgia and a dash of Mad Men flair.
That said, I'm not always crabby about creative crab and I'm charmed by the king crab and scallop corn dog with mustard crème fraiche on offer at Orso. Truth is, most things taste better on a stick. Even king crab.
As my family will tell you, I love oysters. Every year, I dutifully bring my family to the Alaska State Fair. I like giant pumpkins and baby piglets as much as the next person, but secretly, I go for the oysters. When I arrive, I saddle up to the Pristine Products oyster booth and down a quick dozen of Kachemak Bay's finest while watching the pros shuck the next plateful. At the end of the day, after my family has stuffed themselves full of funnel cake and onion blossoms, I've been biding my time. My farewell gesture to the fair is to slurp back another dozen oysters. They're that good.
If you aren't lucky enough to be in town during the Alaska State Fair, you'll just have to suck it up (so to speak) and get your fix in a more civilized manner.
Many restaurants serve fresh-shucked Alaskan oysters with a traditional mignonette or cocktail sauce, including F Street Station and Sullivan's Steakhouse. Or if you're looking for a two-birds, one-stone kind of dish, you can head over to Humpy's Alehouse for a vodka-laced oyster shooter. For something more refined, Haute Quarter Grill offers a cold oyster dish served with a strawberry, cucumber and ginger mignonette.
However, if you want more oyster options, head over to The Bubbly Mermaid, a hip and quirky little oyster bar that is, literally, ship-shaped. Over a dozen open bottles of Champagne pour up the perfect accompaniment for their eclectic menu of cold and hot oyster dishes. Feeling trendy? Opt for the hipster shooter with kale, Sriracha and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, or, if you're more of a traditionalist, you can order oysters Rockefeller.
That said, the cold salt waters of Alaskan's coast produce the most delicious oysters in the world — plump, sweet and briny — so after dabbling with dips, toppings and sauces, do yourself a flavor and end your meal with at least one oyster eaten au naturel. A little taste of the sea is the perfect dessert.