Alaska without the Cruise Ship Part 15: Eating Well in Skagway

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.

Since Skagway is at the dead-end of a fjord, fishing is not a major industry here and, as a result, seafood is not as plentiful in local restaurants as it is throughout most of coastal Alaska.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t any good places to eat in Skagway, however.

This small town of merely 800 people has an array of surprisingly diverse eateries. And, let’s face it, after a week of eating salmon or halibut every day, it was nice to mix it up a little with some cuisine that wasn’t pulled from the ocean.

Olivia’s at the Skagway Inn
My favorite restaurant in Skagway is Olivia’s at the historic Skagway Inn. Like so many other buildings left over from the gold rush days, the 1897 Skagway Inn was initially built as a brothel. Today, this Victorian style treasure has been beautifully restored as a bed & breakfast and is proudly included on the National Register of Historic Places.

Just outside the inn is a wonderful little garden. Skagway is known as the “Garden City of Alaska” and local residents take great pride in growing their own food–as does Olivia’s. The Skagway Inn garden is the first stop of the restaurant’s Garden Gourmet tour. This is where we met Chef Wendell. With wicker basket under arm, he walked us through the garden picking lettuce, chives, rosemary, thyme, and even some edible flowers which I had no idea one could actually eat. We then followed him into the restaurant where the greens we just picked were transformed into a Garden City Salad topped with a savory homemade Shallot Garlic Vinaigrette.

The thyme and rosemary were saved for a cooking demonstration within the dining room itself–a classy, white-table cloth interior that was both charming and sophisticated. This is where Wendell lit up a small burner and walked us through the entire process of making Creamy Halibut Chowder–nearly the only seafood I would end up eating in Skagway. And what chowder it was! Wendell combined the thyme and rosemary with heavy cream, sweet Marsala wine, garlic, red bell pepper, halibut chunks, and a few other spices and vegetables to create a true delight. The chowder, which Wendell served right off the burner and onto our table, was unbelievably fresh, with individual flavors that popped and tingled and teased the tongue with its delicious creaminess. I’ve never been much of a chowder fan, but this chowder was outstanding.

The rest of the meal, like most restaurant meals, came through the kitchen door carried by a waitress. I was surprised to discover that Olivia’s specialty was tapas. These Spanish treats had made it all the way to Alaska where Chef Wendell treated them with the same culinary affection as he had lavished on our chowder. The tapas were a wild assortment of fish, meat, and vegetable and were all very delicious. Dessert was a return to the garden where stalks of rhubarb were magically transformed into a tasty Rhubarb Crisp.

Just as I hadn’t expected to find tapas in Skagway, I also didn’t expect to find a Thai restaurant. More truthfully, I hadn’t expected to find a good Thai restaurant.

On my last night, after my friends had flown home, one of the locals I met recommended Starfire on 4th and Spring (no website). I certainly had my reservations. Having previously spent a few months in Thailand, I have a very high standard for Thai food and only expected to be disappointed.

The menu featured the regular assortment of egg rolls, pad Thai, and curries. I opted for some Prik Pao: rockfish topped with tomatoes, bell peppers, mushrooms, onions, basil, tamarind, and fresh chilies.

The menu ranked the spiciness of a dish with 1-5 stars. Prik Pao only had three. The waiter, however, was concerned that it might be too hot and warned me about the spiciness. I almost laughed. Not only have I eaten traditional food in Thailand, but I live in Los Angeles where I regularly consume spicy Mexican food. Some Alaskan chef masquerading as a Thai cook wasn’t about to prepare anything too hot for my palate!

Man, was I wrong.

That Prik Pao packs an unbelievable punch, one that literally made my forehead bead with sweat. Two beers and one glass of water later, I was happy to head outside into the cool air and return my body back to its normal temperature.

Heat aside, the Prik Pao and its mélange of flavors was shockingly excellent. I’d recommend asking the cook to tone it down a bit, however, unless you plan on melting the rest of Alaska’s glaciers.

Red Onion
Like the Skagway Inn, the Red Onion is also a brothel-turned-restaurant. The Red Onion, however, is far more casual than the Skagway Inn and is, in fact, more of a saloon than a restuarant.

As a result, the food here is mostly of the bar type. Pizzas and sandwiches dominate the menu with a couple of salads thrown in for the healthy-minded. Appetizers included chips & salsa, nachos, hummus, and chicken wings. And, shockingly, there is not a single fish entrée on the menu!

The food is satisfying but seems secondary to the drinking. One comes here for the atmosphere of a wood-floored 19th century saloon that has seen its share of mankind over the last 100 years. The best way to enjoy it is hunched over a beer. When hunger strikes, however, the bar food is a nice fulfilling accompaniment and has the added bonus of being cheap. My three-cheese pizza ($9) was greasy in a drinking-friendly sort of way and was the perfect afternoon meal after tromping through the woods of Skagway.

Dejon Delights
This is not a restaurant but rather a tiny little shack on 5th Avenue where the fishermen of nearby Haines sell their smoked goods. Had a local not recommended it, I would never have poked my head into the small storefront which was just large enough for two refrigerated cases, a couple of shelves, and a counter.

Behind the counter sat a hirsute fisherman with a long gray beard and that old weathered look that only a person who has spent far too long on a boat can achieve. As if to add to this cliché, he was actually whittling when I walked in.

Dejon Delights specializes in fish which are cured, smoked, and packaged for the long flight home. I figured I should pick some up for friends and did so out of that sense of gift-giving obligation that strikes all travelers. The next time I return to Skagway, however, buying more fish will be a top priority. It was delicious. I bought a package of smoked salmon and one of smoked halibut and when I returned home and threw an Alaska slide show party, both were wolfed down almost immediately. The salmon was wonderfully smooth, smoky, and robust. But the halibut was the real crowd-pleaser. I has never tasted smoked halibut before; It was a little tougher than I expected but the smoky flavor was infused throughout the fish, imparting subtle tones of alder wood and brine.

Thankfully, I can now get my fix without actually having to travel all the way to Alaska. Dejon Delights delivers. It’s not cheap, but I’m thinking of trying out their “Ultimate Delight” This Red King Salmon cured with “herbs and spices and slowly cold-smoked over a blend of Alaskan cottonwood and birch” sounds sublime.

If you’d like to get a taste of it yourself, click here.

Glacier Smoothies
This little nook on 3rd Avenue is a simple, homey, wood-lined café serving up local Ravens Brew Coffee (from Ketchikan) and an assortment of tasty food. The breakfast menu is bagels and muffins, but the lunch menu includes some rather good and reasonably priced sandwiches in the $6 range. And, of course, there is a nice selection of refreshing smoothies.

Glacier Smoothies is the spot I gravitated towards any time I needed a short rest from exploring Skagway. I’d order some decaf, a slice of extremely rich Reese’s Peanut Butter Pie, and kick back with my journal or a book. Locals came and went and everyone seemed to know each other. As if this café couldn’t get any better, they also play an online radio station that is just so very perfect for the place, a mellow fusion of indie music that so perfectly encapsulated the down-to-earth atmosphere of Skagway. I loved it!

Yesterday: Touring the Glaciers of Skagway by Helicopter
Tomorrow: The Crazy Nightlife of Skagway Tomorrow