Alaska without the Cruise Ship is a 17-part series exploring the ease and advantages of touring Alaska on your own steam and at your own speed.
Juneau and the area which surrounds it is a feast for the senses, especially my two favorites: sight and taste.
Towards the end of every day, after cramming our heads with beautiful scenery and sights of amazing wildlife, we would turn our focus towards making our stomachs just as satiated–a very easy and rewarding task in Juneau.
The Hangar on the Wharf
The city has a number of casual places to eat. The Hangar on the Wharf, for example, is the perfect place for a tasty halibut Cajun sandwich, a side of fries, or a handful of other pasta, seafood, burger and sandwich items. The restaurant, as implied by the name, has an aviation theme and is decorated with propellers, model planes, old photographs of local pilots, and other aviation knickknacks, including menu items such as Plane Caesar Salad and the Bi-Pane Special. The atmosphere is light and airy and the food is basic and simple but also very delicious. The best thing about The Hangar, however, is that it is located right on the dock and is the ideal location to sit and watch the cruise ships pull in to Juneau. It was a bit foggy the day we visited, but that made it all the more alluring as enormous vessels suddenly appeared out of the fog and pulled up to dock.
Silver Bow Bakery
A few blocks away, tucked into a side street, is quaint little Silver Bow Bakery. This mellow little café sees far less tourists and is the perfect place to hole up with a good book and a cup of Joe. The breakfasts (waffles, bagels, fresh baked breads) and “hearty sandwich” lunches are cheap here and the desserts phenomenal. The back room of the café also doubles as a movie house, with art films and other favorites projected onto an eleven-foot screen. This is where the local writers and artists tend to congregate–at least the day I visited. A handful of people were sitting around scribbling in notebooks or tapping away on their laptops, a steaming mug of coffee at their side.
The Twisted Fish
At the other end of the spectrum, the most expensive and upscale restaurant in Juneau is the Twisted Fish. This dockside restaurant located near the tramway has the regular litany of steak and seafood options with a few surprises thrown in. The salmon in filo pastry dough, for example, turned out to be a unique variation on all the fish steaks I’d eaten already. It was the first time I ate salmon in Alaska–halibut had been my fish of choice up until visiting the Twisted Fish–and it was delicious.
The warm wooden interior, was rather noisy, and full of tourists, but was still a very enjoyable location to dine away the evening and sample from southeast Alaska’s largest wine selection. With the exception of some rather lackluster desserts, the Twisted Fish served up the best food we had in Juneau.
Gold Creek Salmon Bake
Perhaps the most touristy place to eat in all of Juneau is the Gold Creek Salmon Bake. I doubt any locals actually visit the place, but nonetheless, I still highly recommend it.
The Salmon Bake is an all-you-can-eat affair. For those of us traveling Alaska without a cruise ship buffet at our disposal, this was our only chance to really stuff ourselves silly. And we did a great job of it.
The Salmon Bake is just a few miles outside of town and easily accessible by a large bus that picks up diners from the dock and whisks them into the forest to be stuffed and gorged. And when I say forest, I do mean forest.
The Salmon Bake is located outdoors, alongside a meandering stream and sheltered by a thick canopy of trees. Wooden picnic tables and old pieces of mining equipment from the gold rush days decorate the eating area–which is much more of a campground than a restaurant–while gentle, forested hills on either side block the outside world from penetrating into this peaceful sanctuary.
Just past the entrance is a barbeque pit manned by two cooks busily tending to an array of salmon steaks sizzling away. The alder wood smoke and subtle hint of cooked salmon floats gently through the air, permeating the already pleasant atmosphere with a sense of homey comfort.
In addition to the fresh salmon, the $34 entrance fee also includes all-you-can-eat barbecued chicken, tasty ribs, rice pilaf, baked beans, a couple of different types of salad, and corn bread. Lemonade is also provided but wine and beer are extra. What makes this all so wonderful, however, is that after the meal, diners can grab some marshmallows and roast them over a campfire as the perfect conclusion to such an amazing place.
Overall, the food is quite good. It wasn’t the best we had during our stay in Alaska, but combined with the great atmosphere, cool setting, and marshmallow roasting, the Salmon Bake was a great experience well worth our time. Sure, you could get a better tasting meal elsewhere for about the same cost, but as they say in the MasterCard commercials, the experience itself is priceless.
Alaskan Brewing Company
One of the greatest rewards of traveling is when an experience exceeds your expectations. This happened one dreary morning when a heavy storm blew in and instead of flying to an island to go bear watching, we ended up touring the Alaskan Brewing Company.
I’ve been on a handful of brewery tours before and have rather lost my enthusiasm for them. Once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all; only the free post-tour drink varies.
And so, I wandered into the brewery with arms crossed and a surly attitude for finding myself there instead of face to face with a bear out in the wilderness. And then Gordon started to speak. Gordon was our guide for the tour. This middle-aged Juneau local bore a striking resemblance to comedian George Carlin in both looks and personality. While this is certainly a plus for any tour guide, what really made Gordon pop was the passion he so clearly has for his job. This man loves his beer. And loves explaining how Mother Nature, along with some help from science, is able to transform simple hops and barley into a golden elixir of life. Indeed, Gordon gets positively animated explaining the reproduction of yeast as though it were the miracle of birth itself.
I had initially been quite surprised to learn that beer was brewed in Alaska and naturally assumed it must not be very good. I was completely wrong. Although the Alaskan Brewing Company is the only brewer in all of Alaska, it has won so many awards–such as “Best Beer in the Nation” in 1988–that I can’t believe that other crazy loons aren’t brewing beer up here as well.
I was able to learn just how good the beer is at the conclusion of the tour. Now, every brewery tour I’ve ever been on provides one, maybe two samples at the most with the $5-10 entrance fee. The Alaskan Brewing Company, on the other hand, was free to tour and had virtually unlimited samples to enjoy. And, they were tasty!
The samples were arragned like a wine tasting, from lightest to darkest. My favorite was the Alaskan Summer Ale, one of the lighter varieties, that was smooth and crisp and quickly became a staple with our meals the remainder of the trip.
The last beer we tasted, the darkest, was surprisingly funky. Alaskan Smoked Porter is a muddy brew that’s dark as night and just as disorienting. This utterly unique beer is smoked with alder wood–the same wood that is used to smoke salmon.
The result is a culinary disconnect; I’m drinking beer but it smells like fish. It didn’t actually taste like fish, but it was almost impossible for me to separate that hint of alder wood from all the smoked salmon I’ve had in the past. I gave it my best shot, however. I tried a number of sips, letting the beer roll around on my tongue and really trying to get into the spirit of it, but at the end of the day, I had to admit I simply didn’t like it.
I do recommend giving it a try, however; I can’t say I’ve ever had a beer as utterly unique as that Smoked Porter.