Category: Food & Drink

Pat’s Thai Kitchen 

I have been eating at a lot of Thai restaurants in the last few months. I’ve redeveloped a craving, certainly a phase in my culinary pursuits, but a worthy one nonetheless. But I flutter around to different restaurants to satisfy my cravings. I like the curries over at that one. The summer rolls I prefer at the one across town. And don’t forget the pad Thai–only the best noodle dish in the entire universe–which I favor at a particular Thai restaurant in town.

So when the chance to visit a new Thai restaurant came up, I took it. “What were they going to be good at?” I wondered. It would take more than one visit to find out. It usually does.

The first occasion was dinner with the spawn. We all shared fried tofu, squid delight (deep fried), pad Thai with chicken and one “special” dish, the sizzling beef. I also ordered a tom ka gai soup, a coconut broth soup with lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves, galanga, mushrooms and chicken. Judging by the speed in which the tofu and squid disappeared I’d say that the kids liked it. They also finished off the pad Thai, which is something they rarely do. I must admit, the pad Thai didn’t blow me away; neither did the sizzling beef. What did impress me was the soup.

So, knowing that the soup was good, I returned the next day for lunch. I brought a friend who was suffering from the first fall sinus icky. My own allergies were kicking into gear and I thought a nice spicy soup could fix what ailed us. She ordered the spicy noodle soup lunch special, and I went with a tom yum goong, a clear and spicy hot soup with shrimp. At either mild, medium or hot, you can raise the temperature of the spice to your liking. I ordered the medium spice not knowing the chef’s own heat index, always a safe bet in a new Asian restaurant.

Both soups were divine. Mine had the right amount of spice and I finished the bowl by lifting it to my lips to get the last drop. However good mine was, hers was better. The spicy noodle soup was in a large bowl and had bean sprouts, cilantro, garlic oil and noodles in addition to spices which included cinnamon and star anise. The spiciness was subtle but crept up on us after several spoonfuls.

With itchy scalps and runny noses, we left satisfied. My recommendation: go for the soup.

–Bingo Barnes wears a coat of many noodles in the winter.


Thai Kitchen: Get Out of Your Kitchen (And Go to Theirs)

One of the first things I do in any city I spend any time in is seek out my local Thai restaurant, through a process that involves asking a lot of people and eating a lot of Thai food. I will usually start on my own, going by name alone. Then, when I’ve scratched a few names off my list, I ask a few people whose eating habits I respect (not you, fast food junkies). I usually order the same thing when I’m trying out a place, just to compare apples to apples.
First on my list are fresh rolls (or cold rolls). To the uninitiated, these may seem like unfried egg rolls, but they are quite different. A good one (for me anyway) should have a nice balance of rice noodles, green onion, maybe a thin slice of carrot for color, cilantro and some form of protein, whether it be a thin slice of tofu, chicken, pork, or – my favorite – shrimp. They should be wrapped in a fresh rice paper wrapper – not too dry or they get chewy – and a side of sweet chili sauce or its equivalent for dipping.
The second and third items I order are pad thai (shrimp or chicken) and one of their curries, usually panang. If I need to warm myself up I might go for a soup, a Tom Yum or a Tom Kha. Tom Khas are creamy, spicy and have a sweet coconut milk base while Tom Yums are clear broths, usually with a stronger lemongrass flavor.
During my search I usually avoid the places rated first in various local newspaper contests, reader polls and online restaurant ratings sites. Why? Well, it’s not that I don’t trust popular opinion; I just find that popular opinion tends to be sheep-like in nature. Often times, what I value as the best qualities in a store, restaurant or geographic location are not what the mainstream values. So that’s how Thai Kitchen came to be on the bottom of my lists to try: It was on the top of so many others lists.
According to their website, Thai Kitchen was founded by Ben and Somay Kitchpanich in 1986 behind a small grocery store on TudorRoad. It is still on Tudor Road, but now sandwiched between theTudor Bingo hall and a pizza joint, visually blocked from Tudor byan auto lube shop. While the parking lot may be full, the times I have been there I have found a seat inside the restaurant; the cars are mostly there for the Bingo hall next door. In fact, one time when calling in my order and using my name, the restaurant mistook it for an order from next door.
My first visit passed muster with my usual tests. Actually, it passed with flying colors. In my opinion, their fresh rolls are the best in town. I have been back several times and tried many more dishes. Each one is a surprise in the quality and I’ve grown particularly fond of their duck curries.
While I have gotten in the habit of calling in my order for a pick-up, on a recent visit, I decided to eat in. The restaurant has 16 tables and a couple of two-tops. While it isn’t fancy, there are charms: the open view into the kitchen and a windowed food warmer in front for the lunchtime combos (great deals, by the way). Quirky photos and newspaper clippings of former reviews adorn one wall. Kitschy paper lanterns hang from the ceiling. But each table has asmall vase with orchids inside. Nice.
When dining in, you should enjoy the beverages you can usually only get at a Thai restaurant such as Thai Iced Tea or Coffee. I ordered an iced tea with Longan, a sweet, lychee-like fruit, juiced and crushed into the bottom of the glass. It sweetened the tea and was good to eat after I finished. Metal pitchers full of cold water with matching metal cups are brought out. The metal conducts thecold temperature and is stimulating to your fingers as you pick itup. The coldness actually counteracts the heat you may have on yourtongue if you order something spicy. If India is the culinarycrossroads of Asia, then Thailand is its counterpart in SoutheastAsia. Lots of spices and cuisine styles have influenced Thaicooking over the years. Chinese, Indian and Malaysian foods havemerged to create some of the best vegetable dishes, noodle dishesand curries that Southeast Asia has to offer. Actually, there arefour regional cuisines in Thailand, with curries dominating fromthe southern regions and dishes with lime juice to the north.
On this trip, a cold day, I ordered a hot soup, Tom Kha seafood.It was full of shrimp, squid and imitation crab. Chili oil pooledon top of the soup and it was spicy and sweet. The imitation crabhad a tendency to unroll and was awkward to eat if it remainedwhole, but it still was delicious. For an appetizer I ordered thefish cakes, patties of fish with thin strips of kaffir lime leavesand green onions served with a sweet chili sauce. They wereabsolutely delicious when hot but had a tendency to get a littlechewier as they cooled. Of course, when eating with a group, whichI wasn’t, they wouldn’t have lasted long enough to get chewy.

For my main course I switched up and tried a different curry,the Shu Shee Kai, chicken sautéed in red curry paste, coconut milkand fresh basil. The taste differed significantly from the Panangcurry, characterized by a somewhat sweeter base. With a few hotpeppers thrown in for spice, the curry was divine. And on a coldnight in Anchorage, was enough to warm you all the way home.
Finally my search for my favorite Thai restaurant has ended, and it also happened to be just about everyone else’s favorite too.

This review originally appeared in Anchorage Press, December 5, 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

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

Bombay Delux: Earth, Wind and Fire

While Western attitudes about ethnic food have evolved over the past few decades, the American philosophy of the melting pot has morphed various cuisines from around the world to suit our own tastes. America is not unique to this cuisine alteration. When youlook at ethnic foods throughout history, all cultures influenceother countries’ food styles.
But when you look across the globe, the cuisine that was perhapsmost influenced by other cultures over time is that from the Indiansubcontinent. What we eat in an Americanized Indian restaurant,however, is dramatically different than what you’d get if youvisited India. The styles there differ greatly from one part ofIndia to the next, much in the way that northern Italian differsfrom southern Italian food.
Throughout the centuries, waves of invaders brought new stylesand ingredients to India. Within the last few hundred years, Indianfood was influenced by British colonialists who changed the natureof curry. They often added much more meat to the dishes and turnedthem to sauces whereas before, curry was used more as a flavoringagent on rice and vegetables. Prior to the British, Muslim invadersbrought a variety of lamb and other meat dishes. Before them,Central Asian, Greek, Persian and Aryan invaders brought their owncuisine, spices and flavorings. Ironically, the spiciness of somemodern Indian cuisine (modern being the last few centuries or so)can be attributed to a reverse migration of the pepper from theAmericas.
In Reay Tannahill’s Food in History, we learn that typically,two thousand years ago, Indians ate about two meals a day. Meals,ideally, consisted of 32 mouthfuls of food. Today, the typicalAmerican would triple or quadruple that number of mouthfuls in atypical meal. Tannahill also tells us that Indians were supposed tovisualize their stomachs in four parts for a meal; two to be filledwith food, one with liquid and a fourth to be left empty “to allowfor the movement of wind.” With lentils and curry common in Indianfood, the wind is not something I want to spend much time thinkingabout.
Bombay Deluxe is located along Northern Lights Boulevard, in atwo-story commercial strip center that looks architecturally likeit was imported from a busy city section of any of the numerouscountries I have visited in Southeast Asia. The ethnic grocerystore on one end of the building and the Korean restaurant on theother add to the ethnic fantasy of being somewhere other thanAnchorage.
Walking in, one sees the kitchen with the traditional Tandoorclay oven through a large window. It’s nice to see into a kitchen,and especially rare to have a view into an ethnic one.
The dining room is rich in red colors, with high-backed boothsand a central server station lined to the ceiling with glassware.The room is comfortable and cozy, with an aroma of rich foodscoming from the kitchen. I peruse the diverse menu, with acollection of dishes representing many different eras and styles offood from across India and surrounding countries. An assortment ofvarious seafood dishes, breads baked in the Tandoor, vegetarianspecialties and desserts round out the menu. For those who can’tdecide, there are combination dinners that have an assortment ofdifferent dishes. That’s what I go for.
The Chef’s special has a choice between Tandoori Chicken (withthe signature redness) or lamb Korma with Mattar Paneer (cheese,peas and tomato) or Palak Paneer (the creamed, spicy spinach withhomemade Indian cheese). Dal Makhni (lentels), Rice Pilau (longgrained basmati rice colored yellow from seasonings includingturmeric), Naan (traditional Indian flatbread) and Kheer Badaam,for dessert, are also included in the meal.
When the stainless steel platter with conveniently shapedsections for the different dishes came to the table, I knew that Iwouldn’t be able to finish in 32 bites. I chose the lamb Korma -juicy lamb in a cream sauce with fruit and nuts. This dish,according to Tannahill, was brought into northern India by theMughals, a Muslim empire that brought the concept of mixing fruitwith meat – typically a no-no in western cuisine, because, as mygrandmother put it, it “generates the vapors.” Could this be thewind referred to in the Indian rules for eating? These thoughtsevaporated as I directed my attention to the warm Naan bread. Ifound it divine. (The divine wind? No, that’s Japanese.) And when the Naan is used to sop up the sauce, it is even better.
The Palak Paneer was just the right amount of spice and the meal wrapped up with a wonderful rice pudding “flavored with cardamom and garnished with almonds and raisins,” according the menu. Ididn’t see any raisins, but the crunchy almonds and the sweetnessof the dessert cooled any lingering spice blowing around mymouth.
The menu says “serving the finest and authentic Asian IndianCuisine in Alaska,” which is an obvious statement as Bombay Deluxe(and their sister restaurant in Eagle River) are the only game intown when it comes to Indian food. Regardless of its monopoly, therestaurant gets my stamp of approval. It is worth the trip to thisfar away land. I think they do a great job of bringing a bit of the subcontinent to the far north.

This review originally appeared in Anchorage Press, October 31, 2007

Simon & Seafort’s

As a relative newcomer to Anchorage I often ask folks about thebest places to eat in town. It seems that Simon & Seafort’s isalways on the list. “On the far west end of downtown,” they tellme. “And the view is great.”

So, one day at lunch I meander to the far west of downtown alongFifth Avenue and enter a non-descript office building. Through thefoyer, past an art gallery, a large caribou head greets me througha doublewide entrance. I see the open kitchen off to my left withchefs in their whites. To my right is the entrance to the saloonarea. I arrive during the lunch hour but wait only a short whilefor my table. I’m seated on the second tier. It’s a clear day and Ican see across Cook Inlet to the mountains on the other side. Atugboat pulls a barge down the inlet and I strain my eyes to searchfor a pod of belugas. It surely is a grand view.

The waitstaff are all smartly dressed in black pants, whiteshirts and serving aprons. A side of fresh sourdough bread arriveshot as I continue to peruse the menu. I order a cup of the clamchowder off the regular menu and the butternut squash raviolis fromthe daily special list. My iced tea is refilled frequently and Ifind myself pleasantly experiencing a relatively uncrowded lunchhour.

The chowder arrives. It looks to be a nice consistency with lotsof potatoes and clams. My mouth, however, is somewhat overpoweredby a strong vegetable taste, which competes with and beats out theclam flavor. It’s also a bit on the salty side. Nevertheless, withthe sourdough bread, I manage to finish it, as the faults do notoutweigh the hunger I’m experiencing.

Two large, handmade raviolis arrive, looking grand as they siton the plate, dressed with walnuts, garlic and olive oil. I cutinto them with my knife and bite into the sweetness of the squash.This is good. The caramelized onions and sautéed kale make eachbite a cornucopia of flavor in my mouth. I vow to come back fordinner.

As I have not yet made very many dining companions, I findmyself eating alone on a Saturday night. I have always believedthat the proper place for a single man dining alone in a nicerestaurant is the bar, so I find an empty seat in the saloon. Theplace is humming. Almost every table has patrons either eatingdinner or enjoying cocktails while waiting for a table in thedining room. I had been told that the bar at Simon & Seafort’swas the kind of place where people gathered for the beginning oftheir night out. There are a few suspect tables that fit thatprofile, but I also witness families toting baby carriers and agroup of smartly dressed women celebrating a birthday, a secondbridal shower or a divorce party. It is hard to tell what they arecelebrating, but fun to guess at.

The décor is elegant, but I am reminded of what elegant décorfrom the 1970s may have looked like. It seems on the cusp of beingeither outdated or funky retro. I go with funky retro to complementmy mood. The bar is a long one, stretching the length of the northwall. On either side are bartenders frantically making drinks forwaitstaff serving both the bar and the restaurant. At times theyseem overwhelmed, but dressed in matching vests, they areprofessionals and create a rhythm suitable for dancing with theircocktail shakers. I order up a classic sidecar, even though,according to their cocktail menu, they specialize in making aKentucky Sidecar (with bourbon replacing the brandy). I am onlyslightly disappointed in the lime garnish (classically, it shouldbe a lemon) but the cocktail is made correctly with the sugar rim.I look up and see a large sculpture of an eagle with enormoustalons. Underneath is a brass plaque with what I later find out tobe a memorial to two former waitstaff, apparently a bartender and awaitress, I am told, who died tragically in a plane crash manyyears before.

I order the Maytag Blue Cheese Salad, a recommendation by one ofthe bartenders. Again I am served hot sourdough bread wrapped in awhite cloths resting in a wrought iron stand. The romaine lettucewith chopped egg, slivered almonds and blue cheese doesn’t havemuch pizzazz in the way of color or taste. It seems uninspired, andI’m surprised it’s being recommended to me as one of the favoritesalads. The other bartender recommended the Asiago-Almond CrustedSea Scallops. I hope that his recommendation fares better.

A long rectangular plate arrives and sits awkwardly on the barin front of me. Bars aren’t really designed for dining, so I makedo with arranging it in front of me. The scallops look good withcaramelized onions, roasted peppers resting on a bed of rice pilafand a Champagne beurre blanc sauce. The scallops are cooked to myliking, soft and tender with lots of give in the flesh. I followthat divine bite with a forkful of rice and sauce and am shocked atthe temperature difference. I try the onions and peppers on top:cold as well. While the scallops were great, the disappointmentwith the rest of the dish ruined what could have been a nicemeal.

Being a favorite among locals – a favorite to takeout-of-towners to, a favorite view – I can’t help but think therestaurant may be resting on its laurels just a wee bit. It’s anice enough place. I feel I need to check out the happy hour withhalf price appetizers on some future evening. Their various mojitoson the cocktail menu look enticing. But as the days get shorter,I’d have to recommend lunch with a less crowded atmosphere and the sun exposing one of the best views in town.

This review originally appeared in Anchorage Press, October 24, 2007

The Famous Westside Drive-In 

A meal from a drive-through usually consists of burgers and fries, though sometimes a shake or onion rings might factor into the dining. Diners make their choices off a large board, ordering into a speaker that more often than not crackles and fizzes, making it difficult for parties on either side to hear very well. Food is handed through a window, and the transaction is complete. Most of us have participated in this exact process, whether at places that serve billions of burgers or at a local “mom-and-pop” joint.

It is a testament to our car culture that we order our food and eat it inches away from a steering wheel. Time is speeding up. We just don’t seem to have enough time to sit down for our meals. But just because you’re going to eat behind the wheel doesn’t mean you have to succumb to a diet of burgers and fries.

I’ve seen the sign on State Street many times, advertising prime rib at the Famous Westside Drive-In. Chef Lou, proud owner of Westside, is kind of an anomaly in Boise. Drive-ins don’t normally have someone with the title of chef at the grill flipping burgers. But for as long as I’ve lived in Boise, Chef Lou has been trying to change the stereotype of car-culture dining. While I’ve picked up one of their many varieties of burgers, a cornucopia of shakes, even ice cream, I’ve never gone for the upscale items. It seemed peculiar to me to order something from the driver’s seat of my truck that would normally be brought to me by a well-groomed waiter and eaten with a knife and fork made of silver. But, what the hell, I decided to give it a go.

I pulled up on a Saturday evening into one of the two drive-up lanes for ordering. The extensive menu listed prime rib as that night’s special. I was surprised to be asked how I would like it cooked and replied “medium rare.” Because I was bringing home food for the chicks in the nest, I also ordered some fare that I thought they would enjoy, including a half-rack of Pepsi ribs (I assumed Chef Lou uses Pepsi Cola as a marinade or flavoring agent) and the fried fish dinner. Three entrees, three large lemonades and about 30 bucks later, I was cruising home, the smell of dinner wafting around the front of my truck.

At home, in front of the television, the spawn and I opened our containers. The prime rib was perfect. It melted in my mouth and was accompanied, to my surprise, by a baked potato and two sides, easily making it a meal for two. The Pepsi ribs were tender, sweet and covered with grilled onions. (We couldn’t finish them that night, but the next night, I removed the bones and used the onions and rib meat on top of a salad.) The fish dinner was two big pieces of batter-fried fish and was absolutely wonderful. I’d gotten tater tots to go with the fish for the kids–you’ve got to stick to tradition in some way when you go through a drive-through.

It is not often that I come away from a review with a newfound appreciation for a restaurant I’m already familiar with. I had already loved the Westside Drive-In but now I think I’m in love.

–Bingo Barnes dreams of a horn o’ plenty filled with cuts of meat.

43° North 

Once upon a time, the only fine dining available was in downtown Boise. But as the population center has shifted west over the past decade, the demand for great restaurants has allowed fine dining establishments to thrive in Eagle and Meridian. One such place relatively new on the scene is the 43º North Restaurant.

On a busy Saturday evening, barely managing to score a reservation for our desired time slot, my dining companion and I got gussied up for the drive to Meridian and the hope of a great meal. We weren’t disappointed.

The restaurant has high ceilings, a wine bar with tables sparingly spaced to avoid a crowded feeling. The earth tones and amber hues of the artwork adorning the walls give a rich and warm feeling to the place. I was particularly fond of the curved glass elements on the partition, in which were placed small candles. The flickering light was inviting and beautiful.

Arriving at the beginning of the dinner rush, we were seated at our table and promptly addressed by Patch, our waiter. Patch is a handsome man, well-mannered and delightfully coiffed with a well-trimmed goatee. We liked his effervescent personality as he described the specials for the evening. They sounded delicious, but we decided to go with items off the regular menu.

After the corking of a nice bottle of Pinot Noir, the appetizers we’d ordered–roast carrot soup and duck confit–arrived. The soup, drizzled with local lavender honey, filled our noses with a hearty aroma. The honey and light hints of lavender tingled our taste buds. Although the soup was delicious, I thought the boneless duck leg confit with purple potato cakes and a light dollop of a pear and port syrup was divine. It didn’t take us long to clean our plates, and it didn’t take Patch long to remove our empty dishes in preparation for our entrees.

My dinner companion’s order of jumbo sea scallops with lemon pepper fettuccine–which Patch informed us is handmade–with a wild mushroom cream sauce was delicious. The scallops (which can be so easily overcooked) were grilled to perfection with a sprig of rosemary. We had initially asked Patch if we could substitute rice for the fettuccine due to a dietary concern. He was happy to accommodate. It’s always a good sign that a waiter will accommodate the request of a customer and that the chef in the back is willing to alter a carefully planned dish. But after an impromptu, live-action dining therapy session we decided to stick with the fettuccine, and in the end, we were glad. Patch was gracious and didn’t show so much as a hint of being annoyed with us although he had every right to be. Patch was, well, down with it.

I ordered grilled filet mignon, which arrived carefully balanced on a crispy truffle polenta cake and topped with blue cheese butter. It was cooked to just the right temperature, and I couldn’t have asked for better. Both entrees were worth the journey from Boise and for those readers who live in Meridian, they sure are lucky to have a great fine dining experience right in their neighborhood.

–Bingo Barnes loves to fill his nose with hearty aromas.