The White Spot

May 28, 2013 – Lenore Weaver started flipping burgers at the White Spot in 1959, about the time that I arrived in Anchorage as a boy.  In those days it was located alongside an alley on C Street between Fourth and Fifth Avenues in downtown Anchorage.  Near the Army-Navy Surplus store and the endless stream of establishments on Fourth Avenue to which Bob Hope once referred as “…the longest bar in the world.”

As a teenager the White Spot was irresistible.  Great burgers and fries.  Lenore’s fries were so famous that she was known at times to simply ask customers, “What do you want with your fries?”  And the two pinball machines along the back wall of the small space presented a never ending challenge to still developing hand-to-eye coordination.

Lenore passed away in 1999.  Fourth Avenue is more genteel these days than it once was.  The White Spot lives on, in a new location directly on Fourth Avenue near A Street, just a couple of blocks from its original location.

Tom Doerner owns the place now and works the grill in the still small café like a master.  The White Spot retains the fame of its burgers and fries but Tom has added halibut, plated or in a sandwich, ablaze with the fresh seafood flavor that keeps regulars coming back for years.  He also offers cole slaw in place of the fries.

I met my longtime friend Willie Hensley there for lunch.  In addition to being a close friend for a few decades, Willie is one of the most interesting people I know.  An Inupiaq from Kotzebue, he is the author of the book “Fifty Miles From Tomorrow” that tells the story of his life and that of his people.  The Inupiat are those people whose traditional homelands are along the northern and western coasts of Alaska.  The northern Eskimo.

It was his paper, written for a graduate course at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks many years ago, that laid the foundation for what became the Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement Act in the early ‘70s changing the economics of Alaska forever.  After a successful career in politics and business, Willie now divides his time between consulting and as a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of Alaska in Anchorage.

On this day he was just another hungry Alaskan.  And so was I.  Hungry for a White Spot burger.

Though I have heard rave reviews of the White Spot halibut that would have to wait for another day.  I wanted a White Spot burger.  Better yet a White Spot chili burger.

It came covered with chili and heavily sprinkled with onions and the hand full of pickled jalapeno slices I had asked Tom to toss on top.  It was every bit as good as I remembered from the days when Lenore worked the grill.  So were the fries.  Perfectly browned and bright with familiar flavor.

As I attacked the chili burger and Willie his cheeseburger, three nuns came in and sat at a small table next to us.  One of them told Tom that her sister had sent money for her to come to the White Spot.  They ordered the halibut.

A Harley pulled into the empty parking space directly in front of the door.  The rider, in full Harley leathers, his braided pony tail and full beard shot with streaks of gray, came in and sat at the counter.  He left his puppy perched on the passenger seat, wearing little doggie goggles and safely encased in a container that appeared custom designed to keep the little pet safe.

A couple seated next to the Harley guy asked about the puppy.  We learned her name was Sheba.   The lady asked if she could pet her.  “Say her name first,” was the reply.  She did.

Peaceful coexistence.  So White Spot.

Barbeque on Turnagain Arm

May 25, 2013 –  Alaska is the most beautiful place in the world.  Yeah, I’ll admit its splendor is more easily appreciated in late May than mid January.  But pick a month.  Any month.  It’s still the most beautiful place in the world.

Though it had snowed hard for a couple of days the weekend before, by the time my wife arrived to join me in Anchorage spring had arrived.  She wanted to do nothing this day but drive down the Seward Highway, take pictures, drink in the glory of her native land and see a bear.  I wasn’t all that excited about the last on her list.  But I figured the odds were against her running into a bear.

As to the rest, it was brilliant.  Not a cloud in the sky.  Blue as far as the eye could reach.  Across the inlet the spring light made the magnificent spires of the Alaska Range appear almost touchable though they’re many miles away.  My wife was rapidly depleting the battery on her iPhone as she snapped away with the camera.

I had heard about a new barbeque place just a few miles south of Anchorage.  We found the Turnagain Arm Pit close to where the road leading into Indian Valley wanders away from the highway.  I thought someone was showing their sense of humor when naming the place and hoped that the food would offer a more appetizing attraction.  It did.

Owner and Pitmaster Jack Goodsell spent 30 years in the medical world.  Then he went to Murphysborough, Illinois, to study barbeque under Pitmaster Mike Mills.  Now he cares for prime cuts of beef and pork while he enjoys one of the most breathtaking views in the world.

We were pretty confident that we were in good hands when we got out of the car.  Jack likes to introduce himself as “Jack Goodsmell” and with justification.  The irresistible aroma of slow cooked ‘que was in the air, drifting out over the waters of Turnagain Arm.  We crossed the drive through and went into the small building, our noses leading us on.

My wife asked for a half rack of baby back ribs.  I wanted brisket.  The chopped brisket sandwich.  Though there were tables available inside, we’re Alaskans.  When the sun is shining and it’s warm, well, at least less cool, we’re going to be outside.  We found a table for two on the deck.

The brisket was perfect.  Moist.  Tender.  Just enough smoke to strengthen the flavor without overpowering the beef.  Faultless.

My wife made the same comment on her ribs.  Just the right amount of smoke.  Though they were underdone slightly in places, she wasn’t unhappy.  And later that evening when we heated the leftovers briefly they made an ideal snack.

Both entrees had come accompanied by small containers of beans that were shining with flavor.  Seasoned with bits of green pepper and small chunks of brisket, I couldn’t get enough of them.  The lady behind the counter told me they use six to eight different kinds of beans, depending on what was available.  Nicely done.

We hit the road again, our bag of leftovers carefully tucked away.  We stopped at Bird Point for more pictures, skirted the end of the Arm and began climbing into the mountains as we entered the Kenai Peninsula, Alaska’s playground.  Another photo op at the summit of Turnagain Pass where the late spring resulted in snow still all the way to the edge of the road.  But it was warm.  Neither of us wore a jacket.  The blanket of white covering the mountains that surrounded us was just decoration.  Beautiful, splendid, awe inspiring scenery.  Decoration.

Our final stop on the way back to town was at McHugh Creek, one of the most beautiful scenes on the highway.  McHugh Creek rushes down from where it drains the melting snow from high in the Chugach Mountains above it.  As a teenager I spent many hours hiking far up the mountainside above the creek and sometimes just sitting, watching the cold clear water hurrying through the narrow walls of the small canyon that forms its stream bed, listening to its roar.

Over the years there have often been bears around McHugh Creek, occasionally with disastrous results.  My wife was determined to find a bear.  I wasn’t displeased that she was disappointed.

As we walked back to the car she asked, “Could you move any faster if a bear showed up right not?”

“Probably not,” I said, honestly.

“Then I picked the right hiking partner,” she said, laughing at the old Alaskan joke.

I chased her toward the car.  Sure enough she beat me to it.

Spenard Roadhouse

May 17, 2013 – The neighborhood in which I grew up isn’t often called Spenard these days. Now they call it Midtown Anchorage. Sounds more sophisticated, I guess.

I miss the old Spenard. Yeah, it was a little bit tacky but it was a lot of fun. In those days it was a neighborhood. Anchorage, Alaska itself really, was a small town then. Everybody knew most everybody else. It’s grown into a sophisticated mid-sized city now. It’s better. But I don’t know everybody now. I miss the old Spenard.

Those were my thoughts as I sat in the Spenard Roadhouse waiting for my son, David, and granddaughter, Remy. A little on the maudlin side perhaps. Then I noticed the silver and gold moose rack looking down on our table. And that made me laugh out loud. The spirit of the old Spenard Lives! A little bit tacky and a whole lot of fun.

Outside Alaska was reminding us that it is, well, Alaska. It was snowing. Two days past mid May and snowing. A silver and gold moosehead on the wall and snow falling outside. I was home and feeling better by the minute.

The young lady tending our table brought two year old Remy some crayons and a page of pictures to be colored. It made me feel even more at home when I noticed the pictures were of a wolf and a Beluga whale. It didn’t bother me at all that Remy decided the normally white Beluga should be colored blue. It was her Beluga.

The Spenard Roadhouse advertises eight locally brewed beers on tap. I like that. And even better, one of their offerings is the Broken Tooth Fairweather IPA, an excellent beer that David as lead brewer for the Broken Tooth Brewing Company is responsible for creating.

The menu is eclectic and creative. They offer several selections that are classified as gluten free and even a few labeled vegan. But for those of us who are hearty, no holds barred meateaters there is plenty to satisfy.

It was another of those travel recovery days for me. I had arrived the night before and once again missed dinner. I was hungry. The heartiest dish on the menu was a short rib meatloaf. Shortribs are on my wife’s list of items that she would order for her last meal. We have them often at our house and I’ve come to love them as well. We’ve prepared them many ways, including the time I had the local butcher remove the meat from the bones and grind it so I could mix it with regular ground meat for some of the best burgers either of us ever ate. I went for the meatloaf.

David opted to try the chicken and waffles, a combination that has recently become popular thanks to the wanderings of Guy Fieri and his colleagues on the Food Network who have brought to prominence several locally owned restaurants across the country that would otherwise have been unknown outside their local followings. Remy, we decided, would be satisfied playing with a bowl of mac & cheese.

The meatloaf came slathered with a mushroom gravy, accompanied by garlic mashed potatoes and creamed kale, and topped with a bit of roasted tomato jam and crispy fried shallots. The meatloaf was very good with the deep, dark flavor that I love though I thought it could have done with a little less of the mushroom gravy. The mashed potatoes, well, how do you go wrong with garlic mashed potatoes? You don’t. But the star on my plate was the creamed kale. The slight bitterness of the kale perfectly balanced by the creaminess. I would have ordered a separate bowl of it if it was offered. Superior.

David’s chicken and waffles were pleasing. The waffles were stuffed with bits of bacon, chunks of apple and rosemary. With the blueberry compote, maple syrup and agave butter, it was a combination of sweet and savory that offered contentment. The chicken was lightly breaded and presented so that it became a necessary part of the meal. That’s why they call it chicken and waffles.

Remy was happy with her mac & cheese. And with her blue Beluga. Outside it was still snowing. Alaska’s little joke.

Tomato & Basil Pasta Sauce with Sausage

May 11, 2013 – What is it about a pot of something cooking on the stove that makes us feel so at home?  Short ribs, beans, gumbo, pasta sauce.  There’s just something about food simmering in liquid in a pot on a stove that comforts us.  Wonderful smells wafting throughout the house.  Taste memories of family, friends and times gone by.

Now I’m not fond of pureed anything.  I like chunky soups and sauces.  Food with substance.  Heartiness.  That includes sauces for pasta.

I know, I know.  Pureed sauce clings to the individual pieces of pasta better than does a chunky sauce.  I’m willing to surrender clinginess in favor of chewiness.

My wife prefers pasta sauces that are creamy and smooth.  She’s not wrong.  Neither am I.  This is just one of those things on which our likes diverge.

Chunky or smooth, a tomato and basil pasta sauce is so easy to make.  One of the easiest meals that can be prepared in a kitchen.  Cook down some tomatoes, fresh or canned, with some onion and garlic, a few spices, and you have it.  You can cook it for minutes, just enough to break down the tomatoes, and you’re done.  But to really get the flavors of all the wonderful vegetables and spices in their full intensity slow-cooked is the way to go.  It’s still easy to do.  There’s no extra work involved.  It just takes a little longer.

And you can decide if you want it chunky or smooth.  For chunky, just let it cook.  For smooth, run it through a food mill or food processor after it’s cooked down.  It’s just as simple as that.

You might choose to do just a little extra work and remove the skin from the tomatoes.  It’s easy to do by blanching them.  After cutting out the stems, drop the tomatoes into boiling water until the skins begin to split, about one or two minutes.  Take them out of the boiling water and plunge them into cold water to stop the cooking process.  The skins will then peal easily off.

Here’s our take on a delicious, slow-cooked tomato and basil pasta sauce with a little Italian sausage thrown in.

Tomato & Basil Pasta Sauce with Sausage

2 T olive oil                                                           3 sprigs of thyme

6 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped                        1 t dried oregano

1 large onion, diced                                              Salt to taste

6-7 tomatoes, stemmed & coarsely chopped       Freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 bay leaves                                                         1 bunch basil, chopped fine (about 1 C)

3 sprigs of rosemary                                             1 C tomato juice (optional)

6-8 links of Italian sausage, hot, sweet, or a combination of both

Heat the olive oil over moderate heat in a stock pot or Dutch oven.  Add the onions and garlic and cook until soft, about five minutes.

Add all the other ingredients except for the basil, sausage and tomato juice.  Cover and simmer over low heat for two hours, stirring occasionally.

Adjust the seasonings to taste, add the sausage links and cook uncovered for another three hours over low heat, stirring often.  At this point you want to reduce the sauce and let it thicken.  You might want to add a little tomato juice to aid the thickening process.

If you want your sauce smooth, remove the sausages and run the sauce through a food mill or food processor.  Return it to the pot with the sausages.

Adjust seasonings to taste.  Add the basil and stir to mix well.

Toss the sauce with warm pasta.  Serve with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

Bon Temps!

Acme Oyster House

April 30, 2013 – The other great New Orleans restaurant that opened in Baton Rouge after Katrina, and stayed, is the Acme Oyster House. 

Of all the wonderful restaurants in New Orleans, the Acme Oyster House is my number one.  It’s the first place I visit when I’m in the Big Easy.  It’s where I take first time visitors.  It’s where my wife first had raw oysters and boiled crawfish.  She tried the raw oysters following her discovery just a few minutes earlier of the quaint Vieux Carre custom of the “go cup” at a bar a couple of blocks down Bourbon Street.  Without the “go cup” there might not have been oysters.

I discovered decades ago that the Acme Oyster House is the perfect place to spend a rainy Sunday afternoon, sitting at the bar, watching the talented swift fingers of the shuckers opening oyster after oyster.  Oysters, gumbo, red beans & rice, boiled crawfish and cold beer.  Superlative foils to bad weather.  When the weather is sunny, just absolutely good food.

The Acme Oyster House opened in 1910 in a three story building on Royal Street in the Vieux Carre.  A disastrous fire burned the Acme Saloon Building to the ground in 1924.  That was when they moved into what had been an elegant 1814 townhouse on Iberville Street, just half a block off Bourbon.  It’s not elegant these days but it doesn’t have to be.  The food is enough.

By the mid 1980s the Acme had fallen on hard times.  Business was slow.  There was only one waitress on duty.  That led to the neon sign, still prominent in the window, saying, “Waitress available sometimes.”

Native New Orleanian Mike Rodrigue had faith in the Acme and in 1985 he bought it.  His faith was well placed.  The Acme has returned to its former popularity.  The expansion into Baton Rouge and a few other communities within short driving, and delivery, time of the Gulf oyster beds have done well.  These days the Acme goes through almost four million oysters a year.  That’s nearly 10,000 a day.  Bound to be some pearls in there somewhere.

When it comes to the Acme, I am completely traditional and immovable.  I want oysters, raw.  And red beans & rice.  If it’s a long afternoon, there might be a bowl of seafood gumbo involved also.  And if there are enough of us maybe even a bag of boiled crawfish.  But first oysters.  Then red beans & rice.

These are Gulf of Mexico oysters.  They’re bigger than the ones harvested on the Atlantic Coast.  I’ve seen oysters as big as my fist at the Acme.  On this day they weren’t that big.  Maybe two oysters to a fist.  Big.  Meaty.  Plump.  Juicy.  Beyond compare.

I wasn’t all that hungry so I passed on the gumbo and crawfish.  But I wasn’t going to miss out on red beans & rice.  Outside our kitchen, the Acme’s red beans & rice are the best.  Classically slow-cooked in their thick, well-seasoned broth.  And they come with a huge link of grilled sausage dripping  onto a chunk of French bread.

The Acme Oyster House.  Just add horseradish and Tabasco.

Galatoire’s Bistro

April 29, 2013 – By 2005 Galatoire’s was among a handful of venerable restaurants setting the standards for excellence in New Orleans.  Founded by Jean Galatoire, a young French immigrant from Pardies, France, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, Galatoire’s for decades was so popular that visitors and locals alike would stand in lines often winding down the block to take their turn at the white-clothed tables.

Galatoire’s was 100 years old in 2005 and at the top of its game.

Then came Katrina.

She was no lady.  Nothing ladylike about Katrina.  Nothing nice about her.

Though it had weakened to a still formidable Class 3 hurricane by the time it hit the Louisiana coast, Katrina proved to be devastating to the Big Easy.  I remember going to bed after the storm had passed over New Orleans relieved that the city, I thought, had escaped destruction.  Then disaster in the night!  The levees broke, flooding some 80 per cent of the city and its surrounding suburbs.

There was nothing good about Katrina.

The city was shut down.  Many New Orleanians went elsewhere to await the resumption of services that would allow them to return home.  With the visitor industry no longer in existence, a couple of New Orleans’ best loved restaurants looked north to Baton Rouge.  One of those was Galatoire’s.

New Orleans has recovered from Katrina.  Galatoire’s has reopened in its old home on Bourbon Street.  Thankfully Galatoire’s northern outpost in Baton Rouge remains.

I entered Galatoire’s Bistro with my friends Gerard and Selma Ruth.  I always have dinner with Gerard and Selma when I’m in their neighborhood.  And Selma always has my favorite chocolate pie on hand.  The best chocolate pie ever.

On the inside Galatoire’s Bistro brings to mind the home of the original Bourbon Street restaurant.  The reverberation of sound from the flooring of small white tiles, the large room filled with tables for four with their elegant, snow white coverings.

Gerard told me the turtle soup was very good.  At 82 he still gets around town and is usually in the know.  I ordered the turtle soup au sherry.  Galatoire’s gets turtle meat from a farmer in La Fourche Parish, south of New Orleans, and makes the soup in house.  It arrived at table redolent of tomatoes and spices, sherry served on the side in a vinegar bottle.  I added sherry and then a little Tabasco just to heat it up a bit.  The delicate turtle meat accepted both additions nicely.  A notable start.

I was attracted to crabmeat Sardou on the menu of entrees.  It’s Galatoire’s variation on the better known eggs Sardou, a traditional New Orleans breakfast offering created by Antoine’s restaurant more than 100 years ago and named for a visiting French dramatist of the day, Victorien Sardou. In that dish, poached eggs are set into artichoke hearts resting on a bed of creamed spinach, the whole drizzled with hollandaise sauce. Galatoire’s variation substitutes jumbo lump crabmeat for the poached eggs and turns breakfast into a seafood dinner.

Two large chunks of crab lay at either end of the artichoke hearts on my plate, both untouched by spinach or hollandaise.  With the unadorned sweetness of lump crabmeat on my tongue I wondered for perhaps the 1000th time why we bother adding anything at all to crab.  It’s so good all by itself.

But that’s to take nothing away from the noted crabmeat Sardou.  Though I thought too much liquid had been allowed to escape the creamed spinach, the crab stuffed artichoke hearts were outstanding, the light touch of the hollandaise adding its peerless touch.  A playfully different take on Sardou.

I also had ordered a side of Brabant potatoes.  Just to see if the version we make in our kitchen is equal to Galatoire’s offering.  Pleasant.  Very pleasant.

We didn’t bother to consult the dessert menu.  Selma’s chocolate pie was waiting.