Weaving my way through the 100-plus stalls of this farmers’ market, I spy everything from wild-salmon quesadillas to lynx fur hats, multicoloured carrots to Eskimo art. Over at the Babbling Brook Farm stand, gigantic heads of organic cauliflower sit alongside Smart car-size pumpkins. Then there’s my favourite find: birch syrup – a rare taste of the boreal forest that pours like light molasses and gives a hit of orange and bitter cherry.
The fact that I’m in Anchorage, Alaska, and visiting just one of the city’s seven farmers’ markets is almost as surprising as the enormity of fresh local produce on display here (I’m told it’s owing to the strong Alaskan summer sun) – or the fact that there even is local produce. As one farmer tells me, “We don’t have bug trouble, but we have weather trouble and moose trouble.”
I came expecting to eat more salmon than a Brooklyn Jew, but Anchorage is shaping up to be a culinary revelation. Just take the street food, concentrated on the sidewalks outside the Superior Court on West Fourth Avenue, offering up quintessentially regional specialties like the reindeer franks at M.A.’s Gourmet Dogs and the elky goodness of Tia’s Alaskan gyros.
The recipe for Anchorage becoming America’s greatest secret food town has been brewing for decades. Though aboriginal peoples and explorers had passed this way before, the city wasn’t born until 1915, when a tent town was established by the port to house workers building the Alaska Railroad. Then came the oil and the pipeline and the Cold War’s military buildup, all combining to make Anchorage a 1970s boom town like no other. Today, 87 different languages are spoken in the Anchorage School District. This youthful mix of eclectic cultures influences everything from the public art to my breakfast of nuevo huevos over at the buzzing Snow City Cafe. (I swear you can taste those 87 languages in just about everything you eat.)
"We blow away the lower 48,” confirms Van Hale, partner and general manager at Marx Bros. Cafe. Overlooking a large herb garden, the ocean and the mountains beyond, the restaurant launched in 1979 as one of the city’s first fine-dining establishments. Hale joins me at the linen-swathed table after tossing one of his signature Caesar salads (so famous for its garlic-licked dressing – emulsified with a gently coddled egg – that he gives how-to classes on the subject). Though the dish is classically delish, Hale assures me that seafood is the city’s true calling card. As a part-time commercial fisherman, he should know.
Case in point: my plump Alaskan oysters that come garnished with a vodka-pickled-ginger sorbet, rendering the beauties all cold and creamy – like an oceanic sundae going down. And though it might sound like a 1980s creation, my just-caught macadamia-nut-crusted halibut, sitting on a coconut curry and topped with mango chutney, instantly rockets its way into my Top 10 Dishes of All Time. It’s the fish itself, so fresh it’s almost exotic, that makes me think Anchorage’s mountains, inlets and crisp air just might be its secret seasonings.
Driving south to Alyeska Resort for a hike along Winner Creek Trail, which cuts through a mature forest in a glacier valley, I watch the mist tumble off the Chugach Mountains and across the winding Seward Highway. Hundreds of mountain bikers out on a charity ride hug the road like a herd of Gore-Tex-clad Alaskan wildlife, adding a dollop of surrealism to the scenery.
It seems like a lot to take in – until I ride the gondola up to the mountaintop Seven Glaciers restaurant, with views so breathtaking it’s almost impossible not to snap a new screensaver. Patrons drink alfresco pints at the pub and hang-gliders jump off mere metres from the AAA Four Diamond establishment, where executive chef Jason Porter whips up regionally influenced American cuisine. “As Alaskan chefs, we travel during the off-season and look for inspiration all around,” he explains, while I devour the sweet meat from two pounds of local king crab legs.
Wanting to stay on my culinary high, I head to Crush, a smart little wine bar helmed by 2011 James Beard Foundation Awards semifinalist Christopher Vane. The international wine list here (which boasts everything from destination bottles like Il Sodaccio di Montevertine 1990 Brunello di Montalcino to workaday German rieslings) pairs nicely with the small plates of feta-stuffed Medjool dates and beefy hominy empanadas.
Continuing on to Ginger restaurant, I’m momentarily transported back to Toronto thanks to the slick design and smart cocktails – except chef Guy Conley’s Asian-fusion menu (think Kalua pork sliders and moo shu tacos) is pure Anchorage in its global grab bag of playful flavours and presentations. At the nearby Modern Dwellers Chocolate Lounge, I have to smile when my deeply delicious truffle with honey-and-black-pepper ganache comes topped with – surprise! – smoked wild Alaskan king salmon.
By the time I push open the double doors of Glacier BrewHouse, I feel like everyone in Anchorage is joining me for dinner. Somewhere along the way I entered a portal to fun town. There are 300 people crammed around the bar and tables, with 50 more patiently waiting for seats. I even think I see Todd Palin from my bar stool.
While pouring my pint, head brewer Kevin Burton tells me the spent grain from the beer produced here is sent to nearby reindeer farms for feed. “That’s what makes them fly,” he deadpans, adding that Glacier is one of at least 10 microbreweries in the city and in the top 10 brew pubs in the U.S. for its beer production and consumption. Though I’m surprised by the statistic, Burton says – with a wink – that it makes perfect sense: “After all, there are only two things to do in Anchorage when winter comes.”
During this trip, I’ve found plenty more.
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Photo: Rick Webb (the Hotel Captain Cook)
The Hotel Captain Cook boasts the 20th-floor Crow’s Nest Restaurant, with its ship’s-hull vibe and panoramic views. To sail off to sleep, book the Captain’s Deck suite with private lookout – er, lounge – to bring out your inner explorer.
Between May 13 and September 19, Air Canada offers non-stop daily service from Vancouver to Anchorage.