My friend James recently returned from a trip to Hawaii with memories of sun and sand and also a taste for poke. So he was excited to tell me about the poke at Aloha Stop & Shop, suggesting that I might want to give it a review. I was intrigued but decided that even I, who can admittedly spend hours talking about a BLT, couldn't come up with 700 words about one container of fish salad.
But it got me thinking: What other businesses around town fill a specific culinary niche? I decided to check out some dining destinations that specialize, either serving only one thing; serving a dish that no one else has; or serving a dish so delicious that I never get around to ordering anything else. Some of these treasures are old favorites but in the course of my, ahem, research, I've developed a few new obsessions.
Poke from Aloha Stop & Shop
Like James, the flavor that dominated my most recent trip to Hawaii was poke. It was a family vacation and my brother-in-law and I were its only fans. We'd sit by the water with one container and two plastic forks between us. It's a favorite memory. At Aloha Stop & Shop (3333 Fairbanks St.), nostalgia-inducing poke can be purchased ($13 per pound or $10 for a poke bowl that includes rice and a sample of soybean poke).
I opted for a pound of "da Hawaiian" with limu (a type of algae used as a seasoning) and a pound of the sweet and spicy (their most popular variety), and they were both transporting. The tender, mild, jewel-like cubes of tuna were lightly tossed in a dressing rich with sesame. Big chunks of onion enlivened the dish. Sweet and spicy were perfectly balanced, and I loved the subtle, ocean-y flavor of the limu in the Hawaiian version. It's a taste of Hawaii in Midtown.
Gas station Spam musubi
Gas station cuisine may sound like an oxymoron, but homesick Hawaiians and vacation-sick Alaskans can get a taste of the islands at a number of gas stations around town. Spam musubi is the love child of Japanese cuisine and canned luncheon meat. It's a comfort-food staple and my hat is off to the enterprising musubi-maker who decided to make this easy-to-grab reminder of home available around town. It's a quirky presence next to the sad sandwiches, tired hot dogs and bags of Funyuns that are the usual gas station fare. I purchased mine from the Chevron on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Ingra Street. Available with or without egg ($2.89 and $2.79 respectively, though I was only charged an even $5 when I brought one of each up to the register), this is a fun, portable and inexpensive snack for the Spam aficionado.
A crowdsourcing effort on Facebook led me to Zorba's Gyros (2700 Blueberry Drive). This adorably tricked-out, drive-up blue food stand (Greek-flag blue with hand-painted columns) inexplicably remained under my radar. In addition to gyros, Zorba's also serves Philly cheesesteak sandwiches, but I'll never know if they're any good because I can't imagine ordering anything but these perfect little wraps. The thinly sliced, highly seasoned lamb spends a minute or two on the griddle, creating curly, crispy edges. The meat is lovingly folded into a pita with tomatoes, onions and some of the best tzatziki I've ever had -- creamy, tangy and garlicky -- and it all makes for a satisfying, quick and inexpensive ($6) lunch. My daughter enjoyed the buffalo chicken version of this dish -- with its hit of hot sauce and gyro-style chicken, but I'm a purist and will stick to the lamb. Added points for the excellent construction of these sandwiches: They're easily eaten with one hand and make a great in-car dining choice.
Fried chicken at Lucky Wishbone
I know people who love the cheeseburgers at Lucky Wishbone and I'll take their word for it. But one whiff of the fried chicken at this iconic Anchorage eatery, and I'm physically incapable of ordering anything else. Well-seasoned, moist and tender, the chicken here is, to me, unrivaled in Anchorage. Eaten cold or hot, at the restaurant or from a takeout box, this dish gets bonus points for tasting better the next day. Taken on the road, it's one of the few reasons our children agree to go camping with us.
Lefse at Rush Espresso
For a mere $4, a barista at Rush Espresso (709 W. Northern Lights Blvd.) will hand you a hot latte and a 6-inch lefse, and it's one of the most comforting pick-me-ups around. For the uninitiated, lefse are a traditional Norwegian treat made from potatoes, cream and flour. The basic lefse is served rolled around a filling of butter, cinnamon and sugar. It's a perfect marriage of a pancake and cinnamon toast. The coffee stand also offers other fillings (some of them savory), but I prefer sweet simplicity when it comes to this little treat. I wish everything in life were this satisfying and uncomplicated.
Beef jerky from Pho Vietnam 4
I've been thinking about the house-made beef jerky at Pho Vietnam 4 on Government Hill ever since my last visit, when the cashier gave me a sample as I paid my bill. I popped it in my mouth as I drove away and was halfway across the bridge when I began regretting that I hadn't sprung for a bag ($5). The jerky, sold in little zip-close bags by the cash register, is worth the trek (and so is their delicious pho). Sold spicy and non-spicy, this chewy treat is flavorful, savory and addictive. Marinated, dried and then fried (if I understood the server correctly), this is a giant step up from the salty, leathery stuff sold at grocery stores.
International House of Hot Dogs
The guys at the International House of Hot Dogs (on Northern Lights Boulevard across from The Mall at Sears) serve up fun and inventive five-star dogs. Try the Monte Cristo ($7), which, improbably, comes with Swiss cheese, strawberry jam and grilled onions (it sounds weird, but trust me). We also love the Texas dog ($7), with its generous topping of beef and bean chili (I know, I know, authentic Texas chili doesn't have beans, please don't write). And the service here is so charming, it makes my children blush. Every hot dog comes with a dazzling smile and car-side delivery. "It feels like a special occasion," noted my 10-year old. Added bonus: delicious fries (best eaten quickly) available in plain, cilantro or garlic.
When it comes to dining specialties around Anchorage, I have not yet begun to eat. So I'm sure I'll be revisiting this topic in the months to come. Meanwhile, I'll mention a few other favorites: The Quickie Burger truck in Spenard re-opens for summer on March 19 -- offering free hamburgers (and, according to advertising, an appearance by Ron Jeremy, so do with that what you will). The sweet, crispy fried taro at Thai Delight is a must-try (my family calls them appetizer donuts). And while Tater Tots are popping up on menus all around town, I have to tip my hat to Spenard Roadhouse for being the first to make them de rigueur (served with a paprika aioli, no less). And, of course, I would never forgive myself if I omitted Falafel King. The fat balls of crispy chickpeas, the bright zip of pickles and the creamy, nutty tahini make a sandwich to dream about.