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 vs. the trendy Phonatik in South Anchorage. You’ll hear about Tommy’s Burger Stop, Lucky Wishbone and Arctic Roadrunner, where loyal locals have gotten their burger-and-fries fix for decades.
Landlubbers, quit reading here.
For most visitors to Alaska, fork-first travel means seafood. Fish 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 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 treat yourself to a glistening piece of Alaska king salmon (also known as chinook), you should also treat yourself to a view of Cook Inlet and Mount Susitna (known locally as the Sleeping Lady). Simon and Seafort’s offers sweeping views of the mountains of the Alaska Range as well as a full range of Alaska’s finest seafood — black cod, halibut, and both sockeye and king varieties of salmon — prepared your way: grilled, baked, pan seared or blackened.
For similarly beautiful views with a more relaxed vibe, check out the 49th State Brewing Co., where grilled king salmon is served on a bed of brown and red rice, kale, red quinoa with a lemon cream sauce and can be paired with a house-brewed IPA. Bonus points for grabbing a spot at the best deck in town.
Or keep your eyes peeled for the “Big Blue " — 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 Cook Inlet 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 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.
For a bit of Asian flair with your fish, head to local favorite Kincaid Grill, which serves a troll-caught salmon crusted in togarashi roasted peanuts, served with broccolini and vermicelli rice noodles in a coconut red curry.
Or you can get your seafood fix at the most important meal of the day by hitting up Snow City Cafe for a Ship Creek Benedict made with smoked salmon cakes. This laid-back local favorite also offers fantastic salmon BLT and a snow crab Benedict (Oscar style). When it comes to breakfast in Alaska, 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 is derived from half (holy) and butte (flat fish), and a beautifully prepared fillet 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 Orso, downtown Anchorage’s buzzy Italian eatery, you can order it served simply in a thin wrapper of salty prosciutto with a Marsala garlic butter sauce. Next door, the halibut fillet at Glacier Brewhouse is coated with basil pesto and spent grain breadcrumbs and will pair nicely with one of their house-made beers.
One of Anchorage’s newer downtown hot spots, Tent City Taphouse, also has fish and chips-style halibut, with traditional mushy peas and a less traditional gluten-free batter and their own raspberry and blackberry tartar sauce.
The always-inventive Crush Bistro serves halibut cheeks and glass noodles with a kaffir lime beurre blanc, basil, blood orange and pistachio butter, if you’re looking for a bit of citrusy zing with your fish. In Midtown, the refined but relaxed Kinley’s Restaurant also offers halibut cheeks served with pancetta and pea risotto, lemon brown butter, basil oil and a balsamic reduction.
But if you want to eat halibut like a true local, look for the hand-held variety. Humpy’s Great Alaskan Alehouse serves up ever-popular halibut tacos that most locals could describe from memory. You can also enjoy your seafood al fresco at El Green-Go’s, a popular downtown food truck where you can customize your fish tacos with either halibut or salmon. The White Spot Cafe, established in 1946, is an old-school lunch counter that serves up a lightly battered halibut sandwich revered by Anchorage residents for decades. Similarly old-school and just as beloved is Arctic Roadrunner, which serves salmon and halibut burgers topped with traditional fixings and some of the best onion rings in town. Their dining room is a treasure trove of nostalgic Alaskana, and on nice days you can eat your lunch outdoors along Campbell Creek.
The king of crab
Alaska king crab legs have such a sweetly subtle flavor that I’m resistant to experimental recipes. Drawn butter and perhaps a few lemon wedges are, for me, the ideal accompaniment to this particular delicacy. Happily, many of Anchorage’s best restaurants share my view. Crow’s Nest, 49th State Brewing Co., 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” atmosphere.
For a spicier take on king crab, check out downtown’s new Cajun Corner, where your king crab legs are served “bucket style” and can share space on your plate with tiger shrimp, crawfish, andouille sausage, corn and potatoes. Or in South Anchorage, order a feast at Inferno Seafood Boil, where the sign encourages you to “get kraken.” You can order king crab and live varieties of blue crab, Dungeness and snow crab (among other crustacean varieties). You can’t get much fresher than that.
A cheeky king crab offering can be found at Altura Bistro in a deeply decadent red king crab macaroni and cheese featuring fresh gemelli, hatch chilies, aged white cheddar, fontina, grana and gremolata. And while there, do not — I repeat, do not — pass up a bowl of their sweet prawn bisque.
Of course, if you’re going to eat the king of crabs, you might as well be treated like royalty. The elegant and upscale Crow’s Nest restaurant at the top of the Hotel Captain Cook will fit the bill with impeccable service and 360-degree views.
A fine-dining destination with low-key charm is The Marx Bros. Cafe, located in a diminutive, freestanding historic house on Third Avenue in downtown. A bit of planning is called for in order to snag one of the 14 tables at this cozy culinary gem. Once there, try their Kodiak scallops served with a piquillo pepper-truffle velouté, with cauliflower and house-made 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.
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. This is not your grandma’s mac and cheese.
In Midtown, there’s Jens’ Restaurant, a long-standing white-tablecloth favorite. At Jens’, you’ll find sophisticated versions of Alaska’s finest, including a mushroom-chestnut bisque with pink peppercorn grilled Kodiak scallops, topped with Alaskan rye berries, fennel, mushrooms and crispy shallots.
As my family will tell you, I love oysters. Every year, I dutifully bring my family to the Alaska State Fair. And while I like giant pumpkins and baby piglets as much as the next person, 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 and saving my appetite. My farewell gesture to the fair is to slurp back another dozen oysters on my way out. They’re that good.
If you aren’t lucky enough to be visiting during the Alaska State Fair, you’ll just have to suck it up (so to speak) and get your fix without the funnel-cake palate cleanser.
Many restaurants serve fresh-shucked local oysters with a traditional mignonette or cocktail sauce, including Fletcher’s (the more casual dining option in the Hotel Captain Cook) and Sullivan’s Steakhouse (which also serves them charbroiled and Rockefeller-style). At the Crow’s Nest, raw oysters are served with a rotating and always creative “mignonette of the day.”
In Midtown, Altura Bistro serves fresh oysters with cucumber caviar, yuzu mignonette and ruby grapefruit while nearby, Kinley’s serves them cold in a Riesling mignonette or au gratin in roasted shallot cream sauce topped with basil and sauteed spinach.
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 favor and end your meal with at least one oyster eaten au naturel. A little taste of the sea is the perfect dessert.
Mara Severin is a food writer and restaurant reviewer who writes about restaurants in Southcentral Alaska.