Month: November 2007

Snow City Café

Tourists come and go, but ask any restaurateur and you’ll find that the thing that keeps them going are their regular customers.And, as I witnessed recently one dark morning, Snow City Café has a solid crew of regulars. How could I tell? A non-regular? A waitress being so familiar with a customer that she recognizes when he shaves off his facial hair is one way. When servers, as they walkthrough the restaurant, address customers by name, is another. Yep,this place has a local following.

I’ve been to Snow City a half dozen times since moving toAnchorage. It is one of the “must do’s” for any newbie. And while it is a haunt for regulars, it is also the kind of place that those same regulars bring their out-of-town tourist guests. It has definitely got a certain mojo happenin’.

It always seems like there’s a wait at Snow City. That’s one of the considerations people have when thinking about going there.During summer it’s especially true. But this time of year, expect to wait only on the weekends. Now I don’t want to discourage anyone; the wait is worth it. The comfortable front area has everything a local community café should have: a bulletin board, as tack of used daily papers, a fresh rack of, ahem, the AnchoragePress and other publications. If those things don’t keep you occupied, you can let your mouth start to water looking at the baked goods in the counter display, order up a coffee at the to go counter or just people watch.

Before I get into discussing the food, I want to get my one gripe about the place out of the way. On more than one occasion,there seems to have been a disconnect between being sat by the host or hostess and getting first contact with my server. Something is lost in that transition. While mostly it is quick, that first hello from the waitress, I have sometimes felt awkward sitting there with a menu, having chosen my desires, and still waiting a few more minutes before someone comes over. I don’t know if anyone else has this problem or if I look like Mr. Hyde and they’re purposely avoiding me. But it doesn’t happen other places so I presume it might be within their communication system between hostess and servers. I must say that I have never had bad service there. Once I have been adopted by a waitress as one of her hungry foster children, I am loved and cared for. The check might come a little slow, but it makes me feel like they don’t want me to go. I get all warm and fuzzy inside knowing I am loved.

I didn’t have a host-waitress transition problem one recent morning. “Hello, darling,” my waitress said, cheering me up faster than a four-shot latte. Being a southern boy, I am used to being called “honey” by waitresses, but “darling” was a close enough approximation to break down that wall between two strangers. I expected to look up and see a sultry dame in a velvet dress with a filtered cigarette and elbow length gloves. She wasn’t quite that,but I wasn’t disappointed. I order up coffee, OJ and a plate of theSnow City Scramble, scrambled eggs with Black Forest ham, cheddar cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms and red onions. I’ve already tried almost all of the variations of eggs Benedict on the menu on previous occasions. Snow City is famous for them and you can’t go wrong. Try the traditional, the Eggs Florentine, the B.o.b (best of both) or, my favorite, the Ship Creek Benedict, using salmon cakes in place of ham. You can’t go wrong because, as an old friend and chef once told me, putting Hollandaise sauce on anything makes it taste better. I poured a little Hollandaise on his grave when he died of congestive heart failure, but I think he was speaking the truth.

While breakfast is king at Snow City Café, lunch (after 11 a.m.)is no slouch. Can we say “comfort food”? Sandwiches, salads and two daily soups give plenty of options for a hungry lunchtime customer.While my lunch partner opted for the Crabby Omelet (with real Snow crab), I went for the Grilled Meatloaf with Mac and Cheese. A cup of the daily soup (creamy tomato) accompanied my lunch. The mac and cheese was baked in a small dish, elbow macaroni in a bath of cheese sauce with a hardening layer of crusty cheese on top sat next to a mini meatloaf with ketchup drizzled on top. I began eating them separately, but then opted to crumble up the meatloaf and mix it all together.

While many of the comfort foods on the menu will quicken your way to a quadruple bypass, there are numerous healthy options as well. For breakfast, they have oatmeal (one variation named for a regular), fruit plates, yogurt and granola. At lunch, an assortment of salads (half portions available) and vegetarian sandwiches are also a good choice. Of course, if you want a big plate of French toast at noon, go for it. You won’t be disappointed.

This review originally appeared in Anchorage Press, November 29, 2007

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La Mex

The first newcomers to visit the Americas found a new world of edible plants and animals. One of those new world foods was turkey.Turkeys back then weren’t the plump monsters that we roast forThanksgiving these days. No, turkeys back then were much more like supermodels of today’s world – leggy, lean and semi-wild.
When I refer to the newcomers trying turkey in the New World I’m not talking Protestants here, pilgrim. I refer to Hernando Cortez and his motley band of conquistadors a century earlier. As they visited, then later conquered, the Aztecs in Mexico, the conquistadors were introduced to a host of new edible animals and vegetables that were part of the native culture. Some of these you still recognize today as part of Mexican and Latin American cuisines including tortillas, tomatoes, peppers and tamales. Others you might not recognize. Or you might find them more appropriate for Fear Factor: tadpoles, iguanas, worms, slugs, a cheese-like substance made from the froth that forms on the surface of lakes,and dog. Man’s best friend, or in this case, best meal. Actually,according to Reay Tannahill’s Food in History, the Aztecs did prefer turkey to dog. All of this turkey talk has me thinking about Mexican food.
So as I drive over to La Mex, I imagine myself a conquistador visiting a strange land for the first time. I’m excited to try many new dishes but have no plans to conquer anything other than my hunger. After figuring out the limited parking (in back) at the Spenard location, I saunter in, past a host station and into the bar area. It is cozy and the distinctly dated décor takes me back to an earlier time. The lack of windows makes time stand still.
I sit in one of the booths in the bar area and begin to look at the menu. While I can’t see any turkey items on the menu as far asI can tell, I figure I can always settle for something similar:chicken. At first glance, the menu seems like any generic Mexican restaurant but then I notice some differences. I’m amused by the trademarked menu items: Munchitos TM, Fajita-DillaTM (a hybrid between a quesadilla and fajitas) and the Tostaditos TM, a fresh,salad-like hybrid version of nachos and a tostada piled high with lettuce and pickled jalapeños. I’m discovering the unique influence of Cajun cuisine in Anchorage and La Mex is no exception with theirCajun-style fajitas. In season, they have a spicy halibut specialty.
I’m intrigued by the La Mexicana Steak TM but my waiter, Dave,recommends the Tacos Al Carbon with a side of fresh guacamole. I also order a margarita on the rocks, a necessity when eatingMexican food. When drinking a margarita it is very important to have salt on the rim. As you drink the concoction, you lick the rim. The trick is to time your licks with the drink so that as you take the last sip of the green-gold beverage, you get the last crystals of salt on the tongue.

There’s long been philosophical debate about the reason for having salt with Tequila. Some people believe that in tropical climates the salt helps replace minerals lost through perspiration.Over time, having salt with Tequila became a tradition. I’m in the other camp, which believes that the salt is there to kill the bitterness of Tequila. Americans typically don’t like bitter flavors and that salt helps take bitterness away. While Americans’ appreciation of Tequila has improved over the years – and as it has, higher quality (less bitter) Tequila has become more available- the tradition of salt with Tequila has remained. My theory is supported by the fact that in non-touristy areas of Mexico, you don’t find locals drinking their Tequila with a lick and a bite.
But I digress. This is a food review. I ask Dave for a sample of the mole sauce which he obligingly brings me from the kitchen. It is rich, dark and tastes of chocolate – the secret ingredient along with molasses. I make a mental note to return to try it on another occasion. The Tacos Al Carbon arrives hot and is flavorful and good, especially when eaten with the hot flour tortillas. The guacamole is fresh and tasty and the two salsas (hot and mild) help spice it up a bit.
On a visit to the other La Mex location in South Anchorage, I enjoy a large bowl of tortilla soup. Large chunks of chicken and cheese in a broth made thick with crumpled tortilla chips was perfect for a cold day. A lunch special with a chili relleno complimented the soup, the cheese-stuffed pepper savory and tasty as opposed to hot and spicy.
After visiting both La Mex locations I have to say I like the south location on King Street (just off Dimond) the best. The decor is livelier and windows allow natural light to filter in to the premises. La Mex satisfies and conquers any hunger you might have.A variety of dishes, some unique to the restaurants, are worth a try. But I’m still hungry for turkey.

This review originally appeared in Anchorage Press, November 21, 2007

Kincaid Grill: Dichotomies in Harmony

I’m surprised by the elegance this far from downtown, midtownand the stretch of Anchorage that runs south between Old SewardHighway and Minnesota. High-stemmed water glasses, multipleutensils and cloth napkins, all carefully arranged on everytable-clothed table? Who’d a thunk? Although the restaurant isrelatively empty, I am early, and in a place like this, it surelymust be reservation central. I inquire about a table and they sitme at one of the tall two-tops. I settle in with my book and beginto peruse the menu.

Although Chef Al Levinsohn is the creative mind behind therestaurant I see on the menu that the chef de cuisine for thisevening is Nate Green. There are other chef’s names on the menu aswell. It’s nice to know that Levinsohn doesn’t mind sharing thespotlight in his restaurant. I pick out my choices and then reviewthe beer and wine menu. It would be nice if they had cocktails, butthe wine list is deep and diverse enough to satisfy.

I order, and read my book for only a short while before my firstcourse, lettuce wraps, arrives. You’d be more likely to findlettuce wraps at an Asian restaurant, so finding them here, well, Ijust had to give them a go. Five lettuce leaf cups arrive arrangedin a star pattern, each filled with Thai style shrimp salad. Icrunch into the first one. Citrus, salt and spice compete in mymouth. The texture of the soft flesh from the shrimp and cucumberscompetes with the crunchiness from the lettuce and onion. A battleensues. It’s a balanced affair, each side competing on an equalbasis, fighting for dominance yet never establishing a beachhead onmy tongue. I am intrigued when I discover small roasted tomatoes inthe mix. I only wish there were more wraps once I’m done. I wish toprolong the battle.

My fall beet salad arrives, a melody of fresh greens on oneside, a small collection of diced beets on the other. I amsurprised by the small piece of toasted bread layered with a pieceof warmed brie or similar soft cheese. Again, the chef has createda dish that competes. The sweet beets balance the bitterness ofsome of the exotic greens. The creamy, savory softness of thecheese fights with the crunchiness of the toasted bread it restson. It seems that the chefs here know the yin and yang of food.

I’m not too surprised. According to Kincaid Grill’s website,Levinsohn opened the Alyeska Prince Hotel and Resort in 1994 astheir executive sous chef. He then went on to be instrumental indeveloping the menu and kitchen for Glacier Brewhouse beforereturning to Alyeska as the executive chef. He opened Kincaid Grillin 2003 with his wife Raine, and has since also opened up CityDiner on Minnesota. He’s won numerous awards and he’s also a localcelebrity chef, hosting What’s Cookin’? Wednesdays on Channel Two’sMorning Edition.

I see the chef – I’m pretty sure it’s him from the picture onKincaid Grill’s website – come out from the kitchen dressed in hiswhites to speak to what seem like regular customers from thecasualness of their body language. A large party slowly filtersinto the back room. While the restaurant begins to fill, it neverreaches full capacity on this Saturday night. The weather outsideisn’t the greatest; a storm has put a little snow on the ground.But a place like this should be busier. I get the impression thatthere are just a couple more staff than needed for the crowd heretonight. I don’t mind. My water glass stays full and my every needis taken care of.

My entree arrives, a roasted rack of lamb. The lamb is cooked tothe right temperature and crusted with fennel. The three cutsections rest upon a small mountain of butternut squash puree witha half dozen asparagus spears. A medallion of pancetta decoratesthe plate along with a drizzling of raisin demi. The aroma fills mynostrils. My mouth begins to water.

Again, the balance of texture and tastes are present: the crisp,crunchy, crusted fennel seeds versus the velvet flesh of the lamb.The crunchy asparagus balances the creamy butternut squash. My lambis delicious, one of the best I’ve had in recent years. Its tastesstill linger as I order apple crisp for dessert and prepare myCappuccino.

The apple crisp arrives and right away I can tell it isn’t yourstandard dessert. It’s decorated with a piece of candy andsprinkled with butter toffee and a dollop of ice cream. I am soeager to take a bite that I almost burn my mouth. Soft, bakedapples and a crisp, crunchy topping; cool velvet ice cream and hardcandy toffee. Chef Al has put together a menu full of surprises. Ithink about these surprises as I wrap up my meal: that a restaurantthis good should be so far from busy downtown and midtown. And,that a restaurant of this caliber isn’t busier on a Saturdaynight.

This review originally was published in Anchorage Press, November 14, 2007

Vallarta’s: Make a Run For the Border

Being a southern boy, let me just state for the record that Ilove Mexican food.
I adore everything about it. I love Tex Mex, New Mex, Cal Mexand the numerous cuisines that have immigrated north from otherLatin American countries. When you look around Anchorage there isno shortage of restaurants touting dishes from South of the border…the Lower 48’s border. In addition, modern Mex-chains are poppingup all over the city. Fresh-Mex is the new buzzword and theantithesis of the largest Mexican food chain, which servesprepackaged, preprocessed, factory-finished food that I only eatwhen I have lost all mental faculties.
I typically seek out a little hole-in-the-wall Mexicanrestaurant where the menu is mostly in Spanish – continuing myquest for the best. It seems that the farther north I go, however,the less authentic, less spicy, less Mexican-ish food I find. Andwhile my visit to Vallarta’s was not bad, it didn’t surprise mewith something new or different.
After some folks who understand my quest for spicy recommendedVallarta’s to me, I drove on over to the east side. Located on theinside corner of a strip mall on the northwest corner of Bonifaceand Northern Lights Boulevard, Vallarta’s fits the hole-in-the-walldescription. It isn’t fancy, but in my experience fancy doesn’tnecessarily mean good. I’ve had some of my best meals at placeswhere you wouldn’t consider sitting on the chairs.
I sat in a booth under a black sombrero and ordered severalitems off the menu: Camarones el Diablo, a spicy shrimp entree, aside of guacamole, an a la carte chicken enchilada and a large icedtea. A family came and sat in the booth behind me. I bounced up anddown as they did the butt-cheek crawl across the vinyl. The effectwas like sitting cross-legged on one of those tiny exercisetrampolines where the springs had been stretched out. I vowed tosit as still as I could to not return the favor.
The chips and salsa were sitting in front of me, tempting me togorge upon before the main meal arrived. It is a siren that oftenlures diners upon the tortilla rocks and ruins a meal, but I had tonibble on a few. Hot and mild salsa cups accompanied the basket,although with my spice-loving palette I decided to name them senormild and senorita mild-est. They tasted fresh, however, and I couldfind no fault in them other than the lack of heat.
The shrimp dish wasn’t spicy either, despite what the menu said.But was it tasty? Why yes. The shrimp were butterfly style andsplit, curling them in all kinds of funky directions, resting in asavory sauce. They were juicy and not overcooked. I’d eat themagain, but would ask for more flour tortillas to sop up the sauce.Rice and beans finished out the dish. The Spanish (or Mexican) ricehad vegetables in it, like a good one should, but I found dicedcarrots, peas and a lima bean in mine, as if the chef dropped a bagof frozen mixed vegetables in with the rice. I must admit, I’venever had a lima bean in my Spanish rice before. It wasn’t bad, andactually didn’t take away from the enjoyment. You could say I wasamused.
The chicken enchilada smothered in the traditional brown gravywas also good. The chicken was juicy and tasted marinated. And,there was lots of it inside the corn tortilla. The guacamole wasalso quite fresh but a little creamy for my taste. I can say Ienjoyed it. But the family behind me told the waiter they should begetting stock by now because they always eat there and that “It wasthe best in town.” When I left, I couldn’t help but bounce everyonearound a little. Sorry about that.
On another day I went for lunch. The all-you-can-eat lunchbuffet is a serious afternoon nap waiting to happen. Mini burritos,tacos, pork carnitas, cheese enchiladas, lettuce, cheese, beans,rice and a couple other fajita-like dishes made for a selectionjust big enough to try one of everything.
My lunch companions were neither over- nor under-impressed. “Itis what it is,” they said. “But the iced tea glasses are big.”
It was a buffet, after all, and nothing in the buffet turned youoff enough to avoid seconds. The flan and vanilla pudding fordessert was surprisingly decent. Would I go for the buffet again?Probably not, but I usually try to avoid preplanning to overeat bygoing to a buffet. I overeat enough as it is.

This review originally was published in Anchorage Press, November 7, 2007