I like to explore a new place fork first. A destination’s culinary landscape is often as interesting as its topographical one.
And Alaska is no different. If you want to break the ice with a local, ask them about their favorite pizza. Or burger. Or bowl of pho. You’ll definitely hear about Moose’s Tooth Pub & Pizzeria, which might be described as one of the city’s most important social hubs. You’ll hear about the broth-to-noodle soup ratios at old school Vietnamese eatery, Ray’s Place on Spenard Road vs. the trendy Phonatik in South Anchorage. You’ll hear about Tommy’s Burger Stop, Lucky Wishbone, and Arctic Roadrunner, where the loyal locals have gotten their burger-and-fries fixes for decades.
You’ll even hear spirited debates about the city’s best hot dog stands. Seriously: Reindeer sausage is not just for tourists. Alaskans eat it year-round and we take it seriously. Are you loyal to Yeti Dogs, past winner of the Mobile Cuisine Magazine’s Hot Dog Vendor of the Year (yes, that’s a thing)? Or are you a fan of International House of Hot Dogs, where you can order your reindeer sausage topped with ham and pineapple and served with a side of cilantro garlic fries?
Landlubbers, quit reading here.
For most visitors to Alaska, fork-first travel means seafood. Seafood is at the top of our gourmet (and recreational) food chain. Many 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 a wide range of preparations, including the smokiness and heat of an open flame. There are five salmon species found in Alaska but the king variety is, well, king.
If you’re going to tuck into a glistening piece of Alaska king salmon (also known as chinook), you might as well get the royal treatment at The Crow’s Nest, the elegant restaurant at the top of the Hotel Captain Cook in downtown. A recent king salmon preparation is served with a cauliflower emulsion, roasted florets, couscous, and crispy chickpeas with a raisin and sherry jam. Food comes to the table with flair and finesse, and every dish comes with 360 degrees of stunning views.
For similarly beautiful views with a more relaxed vibe, check out the 49th State Brewing Co., downtown on Third Avenue, where you can pair your grilled salmon filet with a lemon cream sauce and a house-brewed IPA. Bonus points for grabbing a spot at the best deck in town.
Or keep your eyes peeled for the Salmon HookUp Truck, which makes appearances at festivals, breweries and food truck fairs around Anchorage throughout the summer. Owned and operated by commercial fishermen, the salmon in their sandwiches, quesadillas, tacos and kebabs is as fresh as it’s possible to get anywhere. It’s like a taste of the ocean on wheels.
For a meal with a little Latin flair, duck into the chic and trendy Tequila 61 downtown on Fourth Avenue for salmon tacos garnished with crispy fried onions, grilled pineapple and chipotle slaw. Make sure to wash them down with one of their top-notch scratch margaritas.
Or get your seafood fix at the most important meal of the day and hit up Snow City Café (1034 W. Fourth Ave.) for a Ship Creek Benedict made with smoked salmon cakes. This local favorite also offers a Kodiak Benedict with Alaska red king crab cakes. Or go all out with the Deadliest Catch Benedict, which is a sampling of each. When it comes to Alaska breakfasts it’s go big or go home.
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 (420 L St.), a downtown Anchorage seafood landmark with a classic culinary sensibility, halibut cheeks are crusted in asiago and served with a velvety beurre blanc. This upscale eatery also boasts a bustling bar with beautiful views of Mount Susitna (known locally as the “Sleeping Lady”). The halibut filet at Glacier Brewhouse (737 W. Fifth Ave.) is coated with basil pesto and spent grain breadcrumbs. And for a playful take on this revered fish, head to Haute Quarter Grill for halibut served with a citrus glaze and strawberry salsa (525 W. Fourth Ave.)
At the new downtown hot spot, Tent City Taphouse, try the Halibut Alaskana served Olympia style with fresh dill, lemon crème fraiche, smoked lemon pan jus, and braised fennel. Just across Sixth Avenue, Pangea serves up a banana cashew crusted halibut with green curry and mango chutney on jasmine rice.
But if you want to eat halibut like a true local, look for the hand-held variety. The White Spot Cafe (109 W. Fourth Ave.), established in 1946, is an old-school lunch counter that serves up a lightly battered halibut sandwich revered by Anchorage residents for decades. At El Green-Go’s food truck, you can customize your fish tacos with either halibut or salmon. At F Street Station (325 F St.), 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 (610 W. Sixth Ave.) serves up ever-popular halibut tacos that most locals 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, Glacier Brewhouse, 49th State Brewing Company, Simon & Seafort’s, and Tent City Taphouse 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 (417 W. Fifth Ave.).
That said, I’m not always crabby about creative crab and I’m charmed by the king crab fritters on the appetizer menu at The Crow’s Nest. I find it hard to resist a fritter of any kind but one that’s served with a pickle juice aioli? Resistance is futile.
Shrimp and scallops
A fine-dining destination with low-key charm is The Marx Brothers Café, located in a diminutive, freestanding, historic 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 pan-seared Kodiak scallops with leeks, tomatoes, tarragon, and saffron served over a house made spinach pasta. 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 scallops.
Other upscale but comforting takes on the sweet and savory scallop can be found at Crow’s Nest, where Kodiak scallops are served with fennel cream, chorizo, and sweet corn succotash made with brown butter and tarragon. Or head over to Ginger Restaurant where seared diver scallops are served atop a basil-pine nut crusted three-cheese pasta, tomato brunoise, and finished with truffle oil and fresh basil (425 W. Fifth Ave.). This is not your grandma’s mac and cheese.
As my family will tell you, I love oysters. Every year, I dutifully bring my family to the Alaska State Fair in Palmer. 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 Prince William Sound’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 local oysters with a traditional mignonette or cocktail sauce, including F Street Station and Sullivan’s Steakhouse (320 W. Fifth Ave.). For something more refined, Haute Quarter Grill offers a cold oyster dish served with a strawberry, cucumber and ginger mignonette. Ginger serves their oysters with a kick, freshly shucked into a shot glass with a spicy sake tomato water.
For more oyster options, throw an exclusive oyster party at The Bubbly Mermaid, a hip and quirky little oyster bar that is, literally, ship-shaped. They’re offering a private, pre-book only chef-to-table experience with over a dozen hot and cold oyster choices. From the traditional mignonette and Rockefeller preparations to funky shooters like kale, sriracha and Pabst Blue Ribbon. Oysters are accompanied by carefully curated champagnes. Booking must be done by noon for same day dining (417 D St.).
That said, the cold salt waters of Alaska’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.
NOTE: Hours, occupancy, COVID-19 mandates, and seasonal specials can change, so be sure to check ahead before checking out Anchorage’s best dining destinations.