Dan Eats Alaska

The nice thing about writing school is that you make friends with lots of talented writers who, in turn, go to far away places, eat far away food and then write it all up for your web site. Our most famous far-flung correspondent is John who ate Peru and Iceland over the past few months. Now comes an e-mail from the very talented Dan of DanTrujillo.com (aka Venal Scene). Dan is a very talented playwright and father and he spent a week in Alaska at a prestigious playwriting workshop which was very highly selective. He asked me for eating advice in Anchorage, I told him to check out Chowhound, and here’s what he reports back. Thanks Dan for the write-up!

Dear Adam,

If I had more time, I would have eaten more, but the theatre conference ate my time. Even though the daylight was near-constant. Well, enough of my excuses, let’s go to the JPGs.

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My new playwright friends Meron Langner and Jonathan Myers hit Snow City Café on our first morning in Anchorage. Meron had the salmon cakes and I had the reindeer sausage. It was part of my campaign to eat Alaskan while I was up there.

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Reindeer Sausage — tastes like a salty kielbasa. So I really only need to go to Greenpoint, Brooklyn for the flavor of reindeer.

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As you can see from the picture, the fried food group is well-represented in Alaska. Salmon cakes are merely a guest star. And that orange slice? Thirty dollars.

From Anchorage, we drove out the Glen Highway, into the wilderness. The thing about the wilderness? Not so many places for fine dining. Our lunch stop was unspectacular, but I did catch a glimpse of the elusive salmon jerky, which evaded me during my last trip to the west coast. I recommend it to all dried flesh fans.

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I spent the bulk of my trip in Valdez, the home of the Last Frontier Theatre Conference, a gathering for playwrights begun by — and subsequently shunned by — Edward Albee and friends. But spirits were up in spite of the founders’ absence.

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We were feted with a traditional fish fry, which included a traditional Alaskan drizzle. Growing up in Portland, OR, we called this picnic weather. The rain makes everything taste better.

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Meat and carbs, carbs and meat. That broccoli? Seven hundred dollars.

Yes, there’s a bit of sticker shock up here. The prices are comparable to NYC, sometimes higher. Almost everything is shipped up. You’d think that at least the salmon and gasoline would be cheap, but they’re not. Produce – as I’ve hinted — was especially expensive. Five bucks for a bag of carrots, but I spent the Lincoln because it was good to have raw vegetables around, as the Alaskan diet relied heavily on the meat group, the frying medium group, and the frozen dinner group. Beef is as cheap here as it is anywhere, so I imagine much of it was getting shipped up from Canada and South America.

But let me get to the question on everyone’s mind: the fish. The salmon is fantastic, of course, very lean unlike the farmed salmon on the east coast, but I think the real star submariner of Alaska is the halibut. It’s almost as full-bodied as a steak. The flavor has more impact than any other fish I’ve had. Also, getting hit with one has greater impact than other fish. Halibut here are the size of a seven year-old child. We went down to the docks and watch the sport fishermen clean them out on stainless steel tables. Guts on the dock, guts on the clothes. Slasher-flick prep for the meals we’d have.

The fishing industry is the biggest business in Valdez, after oil. Many young men from the lower 48 come up for the summer. They make anywhere from $25-30K a year for three months of back-breaking work. It’s hard, dealing with those fish. Especially horrifying is the King Crab — giant prehistoric monsters with thorny shells that slit a man’s throat just to watch him die. They’re vicious bastards, really. But oh-so-good in drawn butter.

(By the way, the ratio is six men/one woman up there. Into men and having tough luck? Don’t mind being plunged into darkness a few months every year? Come to Alaska! Meron said it best, “Alaska: Where the odds are good, but the goods are odd.”)

The Halibut House is the Valdezian equivalent of fast food (no chains up here Thank God — except a Subway, which almost doesn’t count). Halibut House offers fish fried or frrried, and served with a side of corned beef hash or rice. Not cheap, but fast, and if you’re a fried clam fiend like me, a good place to grab a quick lunch.

The Pipeline Restaurant is one of two or three upscale restaurants in Valdez, attached to The Pipeline Club, which is the most popular watering hole. In Valdez, I would stick to places like this, featuring American cuisine. Our forays into Japanese and Thai were…let’s just say unfortunate. Seriously, I could get into libel territory if I was totally frank.

One Thursday I was invited to dinner by Chris and Christine, local homesteaders. They still use the homestead system in Alaska. You can just find a piece of unclaimed land, develop it, and it’s yours. Chris and Christine’s house was a tribute to just how pathetic city-dwellers are. He built it by hand, installed all the plumbing and electricity himself. This is six hours drive from the nearest city, up a mountain. I repeat, city dwellers suck.

They compost everything (I mean EVERYTHING) and grow large broccoli and peas in their garden. On account of the short growing season they’re limited in what they can grow. Everything I saw was grown in pots. Apparently some of the pea seeds they’d used were mixed, and they were growing poison peas along with edible ones. Poison peas have purplish-pink flowers. Important Safety Tip.

Bear stew is apparently not uncommon, though I didn’t find any to taste. When a bear got too familiar with their property, Chris turned Smokey into this winter staple. It’s a real eat-or-be-eaten vibe in Alaska. It makes dinner more satisfying. Today, I am not on the menu.

There are many, many microbrews in Alaska. I only had the chance to sample three: Alaskan, Glacier, and Kodiak. General consensus was that the Alaskan Summer Brew and Amber were the winners, but I liked the Glacier IPA. I think I’m the only one who appreciates a light, bitter beer, as I am both of those things.

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On the way back to Anchorage, we found the Sheep’s Mountain Lodge. This is a good place to stop on the Anchorage-Valdez trip, with a beautiful view and unusually speedy service. They must be Californian: everything was Cali-Mex with Alaskan ingredients. Salmon quesadillas and halibut tacos.

My last meals in Anchorage were nothing worth mentioning. I did try reindeer stew, which was essentially a starchy beef stew with a little more gaminess. The Moose’s Tooth was recommended to me, but I didn’t get out there. Anyone headed up Anchorage way should give it a shot, as none of the other places I ate are worth the trip.

I hope someone finds this useful.

Best,

Dan

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