Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Shaka Ulu


No, no restaurant review today. Instead, I present...the Ulu!


The what? The Ulu is a special Alaskan style of knife, or anyway cutting implement. According to the literature, these were originally made of slate, then various types of bone. I have heard stories about them being cut from circular saw blades in the early days of metal ulus. Anyway, as near as I can tell, they are unique to Alaska. I never heard about them before I got here; however, once you do get here, they're pretty impossible to ignore. Tourist brochures urge you to take the tour of the factory, and of course, buy at least an ulu, though there is much, much more to purchase.
The Ulu factory is so eager to draw in the tourists that they run a free trolley to and from several stops downtown. Once you get to the place, what there is to do basically is shop. Now, the ordinary experience may well be more dynamic, because we were there on a Sunday. We asked the girl behind the counter about the tour and she said "Well, there's only one guy working today." She gestured over to a big window that showed a guy, alone as advertised, applying a sander to a bunch of wood bowls. "You can watch him if you want..." Then she wandered off to 'help' other shoppers. That said, it is an impressive shopping experience. Besides many, many different sizes and styles of ulu and bowls, as well as ulu instructional videos and recipe books, there are a lot of different other things to buy. Everything from syrup and candy to earrings to Alaska videos. We purchased some foodstuffs about which I will be posting in the near future.
So how does the Ulu work? Once you get the hang of it, pretty darn well. We did not purchase a video, because although I am a sucker for tourist nonsense, even I have my limits. Your first instict is to grab that handle and chop straight down. This will work, because the thing is SHARP. Razors envy the edge on these suckers. However, the best bet is to sort of stroke with it, or rock. It really does work well with the bowl, as it keeps the things being chopped contained. This doesn't work so well with things you are just slicing, as I found that sliced items just sort of roll to the center. Possibly there is a technique to get around this - if so it was probably detailed on the video. :) However, for things you are dicing or mincing, it works extremely well. Will it displace knives as we know them? Probably not, but ours works pretty well, and we have already used it a number of times for chopping up veggies.
Ulu! Don't forget it!


Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Moose's Tooth Brew Pub and Pizzaria

Ever since he moved up here, Mr. Eating Alaska has been hearing from his coworkers that the Moose's Tooth has the best pizza in Alaska, and also that it is not unusual to wait 45 minutes for a table. Indeed, every time he drives past the place - lunch, dinner, weekdays, weekends - the parking lot is overflowing and a line snakes out into the overflowing parking lot. However, we had a mission in midtown this past Saturday, and drove by just on a chance. As it was about 15 minutes before lunchtime opening, there were only a few people waiting to get in, so we joined the gathering throng.
It is an agreeably funky place with an overwhelming decor theme is "wood" with strong overtones of moose. The menu is pretty much in line with the general upscale pizzaria theme. As you might expect for a brew pub, there are a lot of beer options, and quite a few wine choices as well. However, we did not get into the beers, as though the sun was over the yardarm somewhere, where we were it was only noon.

We had an incredibly delicious appetizer, roasted garlic. It is, as you would expect, a head of roasted garlic which is served with some bread, chopped tomatoes, oil and garlic, and gorgonzola-basil spread which was perfect with the garlic. There are other appetizers on the menu that we intend to try in the future, but I don't know how we are going to pass up that garlic. For an entree, we split a 5 cheese pizza, which was also very, very good. For those of you playing along at home, the cheeses are mozzarella, provolone, parmesan, gruyere, and (yet more) gorgonzola. For the less adventurous, you can eliminate the gorgonzola and/or gruyere. We thought the last two cheeses gave it a nifty tanginess that really made it stand out.

I would also like to say a word about their home-brewed cream soda. That word is YUM! I have been a cream soda fan since childhood, as I grew up with the A-Treat version. (A-Treat is a local soda company based in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley. Along with standard colas, they make odd sodas like Pineapple, Punch, and grapefruit. I dearly love A-Treat sodas. But anyway, I digress.) Moose's Tooth's version is very rich and has just the right level of sweetness. If their beer is anything like as good as this soda is, you will be reading about it in the future.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Taco Kings (play songs of love)

One of the things that surprised me about Anchorage is the sheer volume of ethnic restaurants. There are a profusion of Mexican, Indian, Greek, South American, Chinese, Japanese, Thai…you name it. This sort of goes with the wealth of ethnic foods in the supermarkets. I was stunned by that too. The Mexican and Asian aisles in an average Fred Meyer's or Carr's are packed with an incredible variety of foods and condiments, most of which are pretty authentic, if I'm any judge. This is stuff that was not readily available in our stores on the East Coast, so I'm double surprised to see it here. Anyway, back to today's restaurant.
Taco King is a mini-chain of about 4 locations here in Anchorage and boasts some pretty good Mexican food. I will grant you I am not Mexican, but it was good food, and seemed pretty close to what I've read about in the cookbooks. I had pozole, which was very, very good. The pork was well done, and the hominy complemented it well. The broth was very flavorful and spicy without being too hot for people who like their taste buds and want to keep them around. The vegetable accompaniments - cilantro, chopped onion and tomato, and shredded cabbage- added spice and vegetal freshness that went perfectly with the soup. I had originally planned to order a sandwich or appetizer as well, but in the end was glad I had only the pozole - it was a big portion and hearty besides. Mr Eating Alaska had carne asada dinner, which was also very good. The beef was also nicely seasoned, and well cooked - some crispy brown bits but not over-cooked or dry. Wrapped in the delicious corn tortillas, it made some excellent tortilla. The dinner came with beans and rice on the side. The beans were exceptional - less gratuitous salt than I have ever tasted in refried beans. The rice was typical - maybe a little bland. It was more like red-colored regular rice than Spanish rice.
We went to the Tudor street branch last night, and there was a steady crowd level in the branch we visited, so this does not seem to be a undiscovered jewel. The restaurant was clean and the d├ęcor gives the usual Mexican look a decent shot - with some charming eccentricity.

Even in Alaska, there are Gourmets

Yesterday we went to a great shop, Summit Spice and Tea Company. Anyone who thinks they will have a hard time finding exotic and/or unusal spices in the Anchorage area need only visit this shop to have all their fears laid to rest. They carry gourmet food items from around the world, as well as local items. Spices, condiments, regular and herbal teas, chocolate - they have it all!
Now, I like to cook. I like it a lot. As a result of this, I have a LOT of cookbooks. Several hundred of them are currently lurking in the kitchen, and in spite of my oft-repeated resolutions to lay off getting more, I just can't seem to stop. Just now I am focusing on international and American regional cookbooks. That along with subscriptions to Saveur and Gourmet and Bon Appetit means that more often than not I am looking for some non-mainstream ingredients. There were a couple of halfway decent sources for this type of thing back in PA, but mostly I had to order online or substitute for something "close enough", because eventually you simply have to get supper on the table. Even still, there are quite a few recipes I have wanted to try that I have just had to shelve, because I just couldn't get the ingredients and didn't want to try it with half measures. Well, walking in this store gave me hope for those poor abandoned recipes.
Just in the salt section alone they have everything from Mesquite salt to French sea salt to Hawaiian pink sea salt. Green, white, black and pink peppercorns and Szechuan peppercorns besides. Several different curry blends, different oreganos, cardamom in pods or decoricated or ground. The further I walked into the store the happier I got. Every spice I could imagine lined the wall, and incredible chocolates filled the islands in the center of the store. Tucked in here and there are foods from all over - a variety of British things, some hot sauces from the Caribbean. It was only by a serious act of will that I got out of the place without one of everything they have. However, I will be consulting the island of misfit recipes and I will be back. Oh yes, I will be back!
There is also a broad selection of teas - both herbal and regular tea. I didn't really focus on this area because I was overwhelmed by the other stuff, but I did notice enough to say that a tea lover would not find a trip to this store a waste of time.

Reindeer Sausage - Yep, we're in Alaska

One of the first places we ate out here was called either Big Al's or a Taste of Russia (there were signs that said both things) in Downtown Anchorage. It is possible that the hot dog cart is Big Al's and the deli it is attached to is A Taste of Russia. We had gotten the tip that the hot dog carts downtown were not to be missed, and decided to combine trying one or more of them out with another mission that took us to the downtown region of the city. It seemed that everyone else got the same tip, because the carts were all swarmed. There are quite a few carts out in this area, and they are hard to resist. They send a smoky, meaty perfume into the air that makes even hardened vegetarians hungry. The one we finally settled on was out front of a deli in a little strip mall. It is staffed by Al, an extremely friendly man who is a former paratrooper. If you stop by, thank Al folr serving in the armed forces! His wife, also very pleasant, is inside running the deli part of the business. They trade condiments and rolls back and forth, and generally keep a running conversation going through the front door of the deli.
The grill menu is pretty limited - hot dogs and reindeer sausages. However, that's really all they need to have. We decided - what the hell - reindeer. I had a few bites, then ceded the balance of my half to Mr. Eating Alaska, who is a bit more of a carnivore than I am. Not that it was bad, not at all. But it was very, very meaty. The sausage is a coarser grind than a standard sausage, and is more mildly spiced. It was not very different in flavor from beef - maybe a bit gamier. This is one of those situations where there is really no easy way to describe the flavor of something. It tastes kind of like a couple of other things, but really not like anything but itself. Try some if you get the chance, then you'll see what I mean. If you like meat in general, you won't be sorry!
The Taste of Russia part remains something of a puzzle. The sole Russian-ness in the place comes from some souvenirs which they also sell along with food. Russians did have the first European settlement in Alaska and their influence, though faint, is pervasive. Even today, there is a small but steady trade in matrushka dolls and similar items. The deli menu consists of standard sandwiches and accompaniments, which is good for those who would like to try the reindeer but are accompanied by people who are kind of freaked out by the whole notion.

Bear Tooth Brew Pub and Theater

The neatest eating experience we have had here in Anchorage has to be the Bear Tooth Theater Pub. It appears to be an Anchorage institution, and I can already tell we will be going there as often as we can manage it.
The Bear Tooth is a movie theater that shows a variety of different movies each week from 2nd run mainstream movies to kids movies to classics to arthouse flicks. Movie ticket prices are $3 each for adults (no idea what kid's tickets cost). But here's the great part. At the lobby concession stand, you can order an actual meal. Some of the options are bar-style appetizers, pizzas, sandwiches and wraps, and that sort of thing. We split an order of Wonderful Little Garlic Treats and a margherita pizza. The appetizers were very good - very flavorful but not so garlic-y that we needed to avoid all human contact until they wore off. The pizza was pretty standard - tasty and well done. As an added bonus, the Bear Tooth is attached to a local craft brewery, so you can buy good beer and wine in the theater as well!
So how it works is, you place your order and receive a mini-construction cone with a number on it. You go in the theater and pick out your seats. Seats are in rows with a rectangular table in front of each row. You go get your beer or wine. A server brings your order in to you when it is ready and takes your cone. You watch the movie and eat. Enjoy!

First Meal in Alaska

My first meal in Alaska took place shortly after I got off the plane. I had flown in from Pennsylvania (and boy were my arms tired!) and had basically had some breath mints and a small bag of pretzels to eat over the past 18 hours, due to a series of misadventures. Anyway, my blood sugar was low and I had roughly one molecule of patience left when my husband picked me up from the airport. Realizing I was not fit to be seen in public, he whisked me off to our new home, where he ordered us a pizza.
Now, I know what you are probably thinking. Pizza. First meal in Alaska, big deal, actually bothering to write a review of home delivery pizza. BUT...let me explain to you why this was such a very big deal, and noteworthy, to me at least. In our last two homes in eastern Pennsylvania-both of which were in suburban areas, I might add-we were totally unable to have pizza delivered to our house. Could not find a pizza restautant that would send a pie to our house. So the fact that we moved to Alaska, purportedly the wilds, the end of the earth, and were able to get pizza delivered right to our door, absolutely dumbfounded me.
Anyway, we ordered from Sicilys Pizza - so even in Alaska the "Italian" meme is intact. Not only did we order a delivery pizza, but we ordered it online! Advanced! Their pizza options are really wide. You can get thick or thin crust, a wide variety of toppings including standards like pepperoni and peppers and some different things like gyro meat and feta cheese. Also, you get a little cup of garlic butter dipping sauce. We got a fairly standard pizza-pepperoni and green peppers, which duly appeared at our house about 1/2 hour later. It was pretty good!