Alaska’s Diners Do Everything Bigger
We asked chef Erik Slater for his favorite Alaska diner and he had a few thoughts
Alaska is gigantic. I’ve lived here for 20 years and traveled and worked as a chef in a solid number of towns—Anchorage, Girdwood, Juneau, Seward, out in middle of the bush—just to name a few. I still have yet to see and eat it all.
One of the things I love best is a good greasy spoon diner or café. They have always been my go-to after a hard day at work, followed by drinking late into the night (an industry hazard as a chef). But I appreciate a place that’s going to help me forget that I am human after feeling invincible the previous night.
Alaska isn’t short of these places—shit, sometimes they're the only thing in town. But a good one is always, always a mom-and-pop place where you’re going to find the most comforting comfort food that’s been done the exact same way forever, and that is unique to that town. These places don't follow trends, jump on culinary bandwagons, or try to make it more than what it is. The cooks make these dishes from scratch, so well that no one else can touch them, and they help you get through the rest of your day.
Diners in Alaska are not quite the same as they are on the East Coast. As the largest city, Anchorage has a few, but if you head down the road, and even keep going all the way to the end of the road, you will find some of the best hangover cures coming off of any griddle anywhere.
For me, it’s hard to pick a favorite because they are all different and good for completely different reasons, so I wanted to share my highlights from around south-central Alaska. These places exemplify how we do breakfast in Alaska—like we do everything else—with passion, soul, spirit, hungover, and bigger than everyone.
The Lucky Wishbone, Anchorage
It’s been an Anchorage staple since 1955 and generations have grown up on this place. Open at 10 a.m. (plenty of time to sleep in), it serves a handful of breakfast-style sandwiches but is better known for the fried chicken. (A secret love of mine, a cruel mistress.) The whole chicken is broken down, buttermilk-battered, and fried. It’s been done the same way since they opened and nothing has changed about this place. It is the iconic Anchorage diner and I can’t think of a better hangover cure than good goddamn fried chicken.
Jackie's Place, Anchorage
Jackie's Place is tucked away in a shabby, always half-full strip mall in midtown. When I first moved to Anchorage in 1996, this was the hangover spot for us. Classic chicken fried steak, thick biscuits and gravy, loco moco, and Portuguese sausage—the best. Old brown coffee cups, lots of brown glass, a fucking giant wooden spoon and fork hanging on the wall, nicotine stains on the ceiling. Before the cool, hipster places opened up around town, this was the spot for breakfast at 2 p.m. Hipster spots be damned, it’s still good.
The Smoke Shack, Seward
This is my local spot. It’s set up in an old Alaskan Railroad train car with eight tables where you might be able to squeeze a four-top in if you’re really good friends. They do a great breakfast. First, they smoke all the meats there. The portions are ample enough to sop up any leftover bourbon from the night before. The breakfast burrito will put you right back on the couch and the huevos rancheros with green chile will make you feel as though last night was totally worth it. It gets busy in there and sometimes it’s like they cook only one dish at a time—but good things come to those who wait. It’s just harder when you’re hangry. They also make their own barbecue sauces if you want to step it up.
The Talkeetna Roadhouse, Talkeetna
This place reeks of sourdough. The story I heard was that they use a strain they found in a basement, from 1902. Serving as a base for climbing Denali, Talkeetna has been hosting big breakfasts in the same old house since 1917. The sourdough pancakes are ridiculous and bigger than the plates, the huge-ass cinnamon rolls are legendary, the biscuits and gravy come into my top three best ever. Hint: The thick pepper bacon can be stuffed in your pocket for later as you walk around town (watch out for bears). Their "Rudy in a Parka"—reindeer sausage with cheese baked in potato dough—gets brought back to Seward by the bagful and handed out like candy to all the restaurant-industry folks. Everyone sits family-style so there are always interesting conversations to be had, and I can't think of a better place to eat that kind of breakfast on a -20°F Alaskan winter day after drinking local stouts and IPAs.
The Bake Shop, Girdwood
I worked here one summer when I was a snowboard bum in Girdwood. The guy who owned it was an executive chef at Squaw Valley and opened the restaurants at the resort. When he bought bake shop, he didn't change a thing. We had some great talks that summer about cooking and restaurant business, he gave me some of the best advice that has stuck with me over the years, and now that I have my own place I still make it a point. He said it’s okay to make fish and chips, a burger, hot dogs—just make it the best one out there. It’s simple, solid advice and it’s exactly what he’s done in the this little ski town. There is an awesome breakfast potato plate with tons of veggies and shredded fontina. He makes sourdough pancakes, homemade jams and marmalade, fresh sweet rolls that Cinnabon wishes they could make, and even his own sliced sourdough bread loaves.
Ski towns are not coy about morning hangovers, so the breakfasts are great. But the bottomless bowls of soups like African groundnut stew and Szegedin goulash—all made with fresh stock and served with a fresh bun and butter—are a cure-all.
Erik Slater is the chef/owner of Seward Brewery.