Friday, October 28, 2011

Road Trip! Sitka

This summer, after my trip to Haines, I went down to Sitka. Sitka is a great little town on Baranof Island, and used to be called New Archangel when it was the capital of Russian Alaska. It was also the first Territorial capital when Alaska was sold to the United States. Although originally a Tlingit village, Russians had a presence in Sitka since the late 1700s. There were a couple skirmishes between the Tlingit and the Russians (the Russians had it coming, I can assure you!), including one major battle in 1804. Now it is a tourist and fishing town of about 9000 people, and still has a substantial Tlingit population.

Sitka has a substantial cruise ship economy, which is important information to inform your dining habits. Since the ships are such a big part of Sitka’s economy, a lot of places are closed when there isn’t a cruise ship in town. This is more important for shops than for restaurants, but still impacts them. The cruise ships leave at 5:00 pm, so almost all of the stores are closed after 6:00, if not earlier. Very few restaurants are open year round, which I will talk about in more detail later on.

The first place I went in Sitka was one of my two favorites, the Larkspur Café. It’s right on the western edge of town, next to the docks and the bridge that goes over to Japonski Island where the airport and college are. It used to be the US Army cable house for the northern end of the undersea telegraph cable that ran to Seattle, but you need to talk to my husband if you want to learn more about that! Today, there is a little coffee shop and café in the bottom, and it looks like KCAW radio might have been on the second floor- at any rate, the KCAW gift shop was also on the first floor. This restaurant of course features local seafood, and also had lots of organic foods. In the summer they are open for lunch and dinner, brunch only on Sundays, and closed on Mondays; I didn't find out what their winter hours were. I went for lunch, where they have a regular menu; the dinner that night was some kind of curry- the server I asked about it said that dinner is whatever the cook feels like, so you don't always know in advance. They had lots of homemade soups, including Alaskan clam chowder, potato and kale, and Spanish chorizo. All the soups come with homemade focaccia bread and are $6 or $9 for a cup or a bowl. I got the tomato soup with shaved parmesan. Most restaurants serve tomato bisque, but this was a straight-up vegetable soup. They had some delicious looking appetizer boards that I wanted to try but didn't. They had a fruit and cheese board with manchego, brie, grapes, chocolate almonds, spiced nuts, and focaccia for $10, a Mediterranean board with hummus, kalamata olives, feta, nuts, and vegetables with focaccia for $15, and a savory board with meats, brie, nuts, and grapes. They also had salads, pasta, a reuben sandwich, a quesadilla, paninis, and burritos. They have a great selection of drinks, including espresso, natural sodas and juices, Mexican Coke, Mexican hot chocolate, and beer and wine. They also had some desserts for $2-5, including chocolate crinkle cookies, bread pudding, marscapone tart, almond lemon coconut cake, and lavender pound cake. For my main course, I had the fish tacos, which were made with Alaskan ling cod, mozzarella, pico de gallo, cilantro, cabbage, sour cream, and corn tortillas. They were delicious, and were well seasoned and not breaded and fried. I love good fish tacos, and these were great. As you can see from the menu, there were a lot of delicious-sounding foods, and if I had had time, I definitely would have come back here.  

When I needed something sweet in the afternoon, I went to the soda fountain at the Harry Race Pharmacy, on the westernmost block of Lincoln. They have a large selection of shakes, smoothies, malts, and sundaes. You should probably go with someone, because everything they make is large. You should also watch the time of day that you go, because I went by there once and the place was totally packed with high schoolers. I got the Mount Edgecumbe Eruption, which is named after Sitka's beautiful extinct volcano, which was itself named after some politically connected British fellow by Captain James Cook. This was a massive sundae that came with either chocolate or vanilla ice cream, hot fudge, marshmallow cream, coconut, chocolate sprinkles, whipped cream, and nuts. It was great, but like I said, gigantic. An example of one of their other offerings is the Harbor Mountain sundae, which was kind of a sundae/banana split combo, with chocolate or vanilla ice cream, hot fudge, banana, brownie, whipped cream, and nuts.

The only place I went that I wouldn’t recommend is Kenny’s Chinese and Japanese, across from Totem Square. This is a local hangout, and I was definitely the only non-local in there. I went there at lunchtime, and it was total chaos. It was really busy, there are only about 8 tables in the place, and all the employees (mainly members of a long-time Sitka family) are so busy that no one is really paying attention to the customers. Apparently if you are local you know how to get service, because I sure didn't. They have some $6.95-$9.95 lunch specials, plus a lot of teriyaki, sushi, fried rice, etc. I waited about 45 minutes for my lunch, and I was about to either go on a rampage or just faint, I was so hungry by the end. I went and ate it in the park since there still weren't any tables and it was so close and hot in there anyway. The other thing that was sad was that most of their business is take-out, so there was a huge amount of plastic and styrofoam going out that door. But whatever. The food was good in terms of basic Chinese food, but nothing amazing. It seems like the locals love it, but I probably won't go back.

If you need a quick pick-me-up you should go to the Highliner Coffee Company. It’s a little hard to find in Sitka terms – meaning it’s not on Lincoln Street – but it’s well worth it. Even though they are a coffee shop they are totally obsessed with wild salmon, and well they should be. To that end, they sell bumper stickers that say “Friends don’t let friends eat farmed fish – support Alaska’s wild fisheries” (you can also buy one online here) and notecards with Ray Troll’s great artwork for “Fish Are Not For Farming! Eat Wild Salmon.” Click on the link to see the Ray Troll art, but I didn’t want to put it here without permission. And of course, they have the usual Alaskan coffee shop fare- lots of tasty espresso drinks, smoothies, and pastries.

Backdoor Coffee behind the bookstore was also good- they make great cookies and have a great hippie-coffee-shop atmosphere, but like many Sitka establishments they keep odd hours when the cruise ships aren’t around. I was there pretty close to an hour before their posted closing, but there was no ship that day, so they apparently decided to close up early. Anyway, it’s not their fault – I’d stop working early, too, if I could – but it’s something to be aware of if you’re in Sitka.

Since I love chocolate, I figured I had better go into the Chocolate Moose. They have flowers and touristy gift shop things, and of course they have a chocolate counter. They had several chocolate bars that are made locally, including ones from the Chocolate Moose brand bars and from Theobroma bars. They also had a counter with a ton of truffles and other candies. The truffles were pretty big but expensive, $3 each, or a little cheaper if you get a box. The thing that was disappointing was that I noticed on the box after I took some truffles home that they aren’t made in Alaska! So if you stop by, get the chocolate bars that are locally made, not the truffles or candies in the display cases that are made Outside and shipped up. I got a dark chocolate with hazelnut bar from Chocolate Moose, and a Midnight Espresso Bar from Theobroma. I like them both but I liked the Theobroma more, which is convenient because you can occasionally find them in Anchorage.

One night for dinner I went to the Dock Shack. It was good, but didn’t blow my mind or anything. I still recommend it for two reasons. One, they just opened it, and they’re trying to keep it open year-round, which we should always try to support, and two, the restaurant is located in the Shee Atika Totem Square Inn, which is owned by the Sitka Tlingit Tribe, and I am for supporting businesses owned by Native Alaskan tribes. They are open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The breakfast was a typical menu, but really I want to talk about when I went there for dinner. They had several Alaskan beers on tap; I got the Alaskan Summer Ale, which is a nice light beer for summertime. They had lots of seafood appetizers you would expect in any Alaskan resturant, like coconut shrimp, calamari, smoked salmon spread, cheddar baked scallops, and halibut bites. They also had several soups and salads, many featuring seafood, including a smoked salmon salad, a blackened shrimp Caesar salad, a Wild Alaskan Fisherman's Salad, which had shrimp, scallops, halibut, and crab and sounded really good, seafood chowder, and clam chowder. I got a "chop salad" with Stilton bleu cheese dressing which was totally not a chopped salad. It was a perfectly fine little romaine side salad, but I was expecting an actual chopped salad, which it was not even close to being. They had lots of typical sandwiches and other things, like a halibut sandwich, burgers, paninis (including a crab one), halibut tacos, and a roast beef sandwich. Entrees were also typical semi-fancy restaurant fare: they have a ribeye, a filet mignon, and cashew chicken. I got the shoestring-potato-crusted halibut with dill and champagne cream sauce. You could also get it with rice or fries, but I got it with the "cream cheese parsley mashers," which were basically really creamy herbed mashed potatoes. They were delicious, and actually way more interesting and original than the halibut. The fish was fine, it wasn't overcooked, and it wasn't drowning in sauce, but it wasn't as good as it sounded on the menu. I would give this restaurant another try for lunch or dinner, especially because it just opened recently, but my  first impression was that it didn't quite deliver - nothing was as good as I expected from the menu.

My other favorite place that I went was the Bayview Restaurant and Pub on Lincoln Street. I went there once for lunch and once for dinner. This place is pretty new- there used to be a fancy restaurant there, but new owners bought it, changed the menu and atmosphere, and are trying to keep it open year round. They have a serious pub/bar atmosphere, including TVs on the wall with sports on, but that’s okay because they’re a great restaurant. Since I went for dinner, after the cruise ships had left, it seemed to be mostly locals. Even moreso that most southeast Alaskan establishments, they are very militant about their seafood and beer. There are what are best called manifestos on their menus and on their tables about their support of fresh, local seafood and fishermen, and about local and independently brewed beer. They explain that the seafood menu changes seasonally, and that everything they serve is fresh and from some guy down on the docks, not frozen and from a giant distributor. All their beer is from “American, 100% independently owned operations,” so that we can “take a drink to an Anheuser, Miller, and Coors-free environment.” My kind of people! There is also a manifesto on the ketchup bottles about how it ruins the taste of the food they have so carefully prepared for their customers, which according to my waitress appeared after the owner saw a customer drowning his fresh Alaskan Dungeness crab in ketchup. And they have a couple disparaging remarks about Pepsi, but I didn’t find out an explanation for that. Still, the owners clearly sound like awesome people that we should support by going to their fine restaurant.

Like most places in southeast Alaska, the primary beer is from the Alaskan Brewing Company in Juneau. I had an Amber Alt Style Ale from there while I was at the Bayview, although it was in a bottle and I meant to get one of the ones on tap. It was still good, as all their beers are. They also have beer from the Baranof Island Brewing Company, which is a very small Sitka brewery and sells only growlers to the public and kegs to restaurants. I had a Baranof Brown the second time I went, which was their one draft from there. It was a lot darker than I usually like, but it was good and I’d really like to try some other beers from them sometime.

For food at the Bayview, they have a lot of seafood, burgers, sandwiches, and barbeque. I got the fish and chips, made with fresh Alaskan rockfish. The fish was great, it came with three giant pieces of fish that were cooked perfectly and were totally falling apart between the delicate cooked fish and the thin, crispy (not greasy) beer batter. The fries were also fresh and house made, and were really good. I also got a side salad, which was a good salad but it was pretty darn big for a"side salad." I can't imagine what the entree salads are like. When I went back a second time for lunch with some colleagues, I got the build-your-own mac and cheese. You get a basic mac and cheese and then you get to pick the things they add, like peas, onions, broccolli, mushrooms, sausage, and bacon. I got it with onions, mushrooms, and peas. It was good, with a good cheesy base, and room to add the flavors you like. I would like to point out that it is not baked, for those of you like my husband, who like their mac and cheese with a browned, crusty top.

Now, I have to discuss one of the specials, which I did not get but was so crazy it needs to be mentioned. They had a Freedom Burger special one day, which the waitress explained was a burger topped with deep-fried pickles, and instead of a bun, it’s served between two grilled cheese sandwiches. I’m trying to figure out the “freedom” part- is it freedom to have a heart attack? Freedom to go on cholesterol medication? I guess a lot of people split it. Honestly, I’m sure it’s fantastic for, like, two bites. After that you're just crazy.

So clearly you have a lot of delicious options when you come to Sitka. There were several places I didn't go, including the restaurant at the Westmark Hotel, which was supposed to be decent, the Reindeer Redhots hot dog cart, the Mexican restaurant, the other Asian restaurant, and Victoria's, which just looked like a generic tourist place. But I think I got a good representation of the food on offer, and I really think I got to the best places. I hope you're hungry!