There's no denying that the cool kids hang out in Spenard and the coolest kids are at Tap Root. Rollicking shows featuring the likes of Super Saturated Sugar Strings, Woodrow and I Like Robots are interspersed with pub trivia, blues Sunday and theme nights. I once dressed in a rainbow tutu for Spenard Prom at Tap Root and danced all night to DJ Alex the Lion.
Alas, while the atmosphere and clientele are incredibly fun, the food has always been a bit lacking. This may have been because Tap Root Public House was trying to be many things to many people, but this year has seen significant changes. New ownership, a kitchen remodel, a forthcoming bar remodel and, most importantly, the arrival of chef Rob Kinneen and Delicious Dave Thorne have combined to create a culinary kick in Tap Root's pants.
Their resumes are too long to list here but combined they're a doozy: Between the two of them, they have cooked for Jack Johnson, Neil Young, Justin Timberlake, the "Today" show and, most recently, POTUS himself. With such a star-studded clientele, one would think that Tap Root's new menu would onsist of uni pasta and caviar foam, but that is not the case. Knowing your audience is half the battle in running a successful restaurant. At Tap Root, Thorne and Kinneen stick to a small but solid menu.
I went for lunch on a Monday with a friend, and there were only two other tables seated in the usually packed, standing-room-only space. Lunch hour is still fairly new and waiting to take off. The server was engaged and helpful, steering us toward the salmon tacos with avocado ($18), the Tuscan Caesar salad ($8 for a side) and, in lieu of soup, red beans and rice with Alaskan reindeer sausage ($6 for a cup).
First off, the portioning is generous. Even though we only had one entree between the two of us, there was plenty of food, and it was hearty. The red beans and rice was swathed in reindeer sausage chili, almost mole-like in flavor and consistency, with a deep, satisfying heat. The salmon tacos got a mixed review. All of the elements were there -- thinly sliced radish, cabbage julienne, cotija cheese, velvety avocado slices, savory grilled salmon and citrusy salsa -- but the Parmesan-crusted tortillas were cold and distracting.
Happily, the salad was an unequivocal hit. When I ordered the kale Caesar, my friend (a merciless critic) immediately declared, "That's not going to be made right. People don't know how to serve kale in this town." She had to eat her words when the salad turned out to be spectacular; bright and crisp, the sweet grapes and tangy red onion adding an unexpected counterpoint to the tender kale and dead-on dressing. She conceded that this was the best kale salad she's ever had in Anchorage.
I ordered lunch to go a couple of days later and spread the bounty out on my friend's table. His turkey BLT ($12) was heavy on the B, as it should be. The creamy scallion dressing -- Tap Root's sauce game is strong -- was the perfect foil to the melange of romaine, turkey and tomato, but the bread was a bit bulky. The housemade fries (usually a soggy non-starter) were surprisingly good.
My burger ($13) was adequate but it needed some pizzazz. This is where some of that awesome sauce would elevate a bar staple. Once again, the dark horse was the seemingly unsexy; last time it was the kale salad, this time it was the hummus platter ($13). Rich and herb-flecked, this hummus had definitely been remixed into a No. 1 hit. Like all good stars, it made its humble entourage shine. Slices of tomato, cucumber and pita for dipping were accompanied by briny, garlicky olives and toasted almonds. It's a nearly perfect, shareable bar snack.
Tap Root is experiencing a transformation, keeping all of the good elements and adding even more. It was never known for its food, but with Thorne and Kinneen at the helm, I'm certain that is going to change. Put on your tutu and let's eat kale in Spenard.
Tap Root Public House
Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. daily, 4 p.m.-2 a.m. Tuesday-Sunday
Options: Dine-in, takeout and catering
Location: 3300 Spenard Road
Contact: 907-345-0282, taprootalaska.com
Alaska Dispatch Publishing