If there’s one thing you should know about Lionel Uddipa it’s that he forages. The executive chef at Salt, an upscale yet casual restaurant that dubs its food “creative Alaskan cuisine,” gets up early to head to the wilderness. Sometimes, he brings his 2½ -year-old daughter, Juniper, with him. She’s perfect for it, he says. She can spot colors he doesn’t because she’s closer to the ground. He picks mountain strawberries and beach asparagus in the early summer; salmonberries and cloudberries in late summer; spruce tips and devil’s club in the spring; and mushrooms when they’re around.
Know that, and you will know that some of his menu specials are a direct result of his morning walk.
When I visited Salt this month, Uddipa took chicken of the woods mushrooms he picked that day, confit broccolini and Alaskan halibut, and seared it all on a slab of Himalayan salt at my table. Then he excused himself because he was going to New Orleans in the morning to hand over the crown he won last year at the Great American Seafood Cook-Off to this year’s champ. His victory last year was a big coup for him and for the growing number of young chefs who are elevating Alaskan food.
So what is Alaskan food? It’s trickier to pinpoint than Louisiana food, what with its jazzy Cajun spices and general swagger. It’s more soothing than Texan cuisine, with all its devil-may-care charred edges. And it’s more modest yet just as fun as that of New England, with its lobster rolls and abundant oysters. It’s about using every part of a fish, holistic as a necessity, not a statement. It’s foraging in the morning and serving the bounty at night. It’s smoking fish over indigenous alder. It’s cooking seafood from the wild because fish farms are illegal in Alaska. It’s an interconnectedness that’s inevitable in a capital city with a population of about 32,000 that boasts 250-plus miles of trail but only 42 miles of road, making for a culinary scene that works like linked gears.
Salt is owned by Tracy LaBarge, whose other restaurant, Tracy’s King Crab Shack, has become a fixture on the Juneau Seawalk since it opened last year. Before that, she operated Tracy’s out of an 8-by-10-foot shed on the waterfront near the city’s cruise port, at which nearly 1.5 million passengers disembark seasonally.
The roll call of ready orders at Tracy’s was shouted — “Brandon from San Diego! . . . Amy from Omaha! . . . Albert from Tampa!” — as crab legs were transferred out of the pots onto butcher paper and ferried by the dozens from the appropriately noisy open kitchen to the communal tables.
And while crab legs and LaBarge’s method of steaming them hasn’t changed much since she opened the crab shack in 2006, the culinary landscape of Juneau has.
“About six or seven years ago, the joke was if you wanted to get a great meal, you had to go to Seattle,” says Kelly “Midgi” Moore, founder and CEO (that’s “Chief Eating Officer”) of Juneau Food Tours and the company’s main tour guide. But in recent years, several young Alaskans who had gone to the Lower 48 to earn their culinary chops returned and opened restaurants. Juneau was much more welcoming than hypercompetitive markets such as New York City and San Francisco. “People just started creating different dining concepts, but usually keeping it local and working nose-to-tail. I refer to them as ‘guerrilla chefs’ — they made it by getting in there, having fun and being creative. They didn’t all have professional training, either.”
If you were to map out a family tree of Juneau restaurants, many branches would extend from LaBarge. In addition to owning Tracy’s and Salt, she co-owns McGivney’s, a sports bar that serves elevated pub grub; over the years, she has employed many people who’ve gone on to start businesses nearby. Take Dave McCasland, who once tended bar at Salt and now owns Deckhand Dave’s, a downtown food truck with an elaborate dining pavilion adorned with fishing nets in a nod to a prior job as a commercial fisherman and cook for the crew. It’s a gig he chose over working as a scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The specialty at Deckhand Dave’s is fish tacos, which
McCasland presented paired with a beer from Devil’s Club Brewing, a creative company a few blocks away, while he waxed rhapsodic about sustainability and growing his business. “My fryer is nicer than my sled,” he said, referring to his snowmobile, which is the typical prized possession among his young, nature-loving friends.
Elsewhere along the Juneau Seawalk is Barnacle, a food company founded in 2016 by Lia Heifetz and her boyfriend Matt Kern. Matt, who worked as a fisheries biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for seven years, left to start the business with Lia, who was doing community development work around food security. Today, they’re veritable ambassadors for kelp, which they harvest by hand and use to make an assortment of salsas, pickled items and dried seasonings. The day I met them in their shop — a converted shipping container — and tasted their wares, I learned about “mariculture” and the many environmental assets of kelp.
At one point, Kern excused himself to talk to a man slowing down on his bicycle. It was Marc Wheeler, who owns Coppa, a small shop where he sells sandwiches and hangs art by locals on the walls. The highlight, though, is the ice cream and sorbet he makes. Rhubarb sorbet, a popular flavor, is made with local farmers’ product. But perhaps most Alaskan of all is Wheeler’s chunks of salmon candy. Having grown up on a strict New York City diet of bagels and lox, I expected this would be an affront, but it turns out that the flavor makes fine sense, as it mixes extreme sweet and extreme salt, the same combo that makes chocolate and peanut butter so beloved. Like so many things in this town, it was exotic, yet completely familiar.
Same goes for the cocktails at the Narrows. Well, to be more specific, same goes for the ice in the cocktails at the Narrows. Jared Curé, a Juneau native and grandson of a restaurateur, opened the bar in 2017 after 10 years in San Francisco working in the software industry and falling in love with that city’s craft cocktail scene. The brick-walled space, once an unremarkable dive, features a fireplace; stacked logs are part of the decor. His menu leans classic but features some drinks with a local twist, such as the rhubarb fizz. To drive home the Alaskan pedigree, he uses ice balls that have been customized for him by Alaska Glacial Ice, a company that harvests from the Harriman Fjord in Prince William Sound. The dense spheres double as a garnish of sorts as their natural crystal patterns, formed by centuries-old compressed air, add intrigue to the drink.
When it comes to drinking hyperlocal, though, nothing beats Amalga Distillery, which has a tasting room that’s a lively hangout. Husband-and-wife owners Brandon Howard and Maura Selenak produce a gin and single malt whiskey on the towering copper still that anchors the cheery, airy space. The whiskey is aging on the premises. The gin, served in the draft cocktails, is made with regional botanicals that include peppery devil’s club, sweet spruce tips and woodsy Labrador tea, much of which the couple forage themselves.
On my last evening in Juneau, I had dinner at In Bocca al Lupo, an Italian restaurant whose kitchen is run by chef Beau Schooler, a 2016 semifinalist for the James Beard Rising Star of the Year award. I had learned about the restaurant while drinking coffee that morning at the charming Rookery Cafe. Schooler, who co-owns both with local businessman Travis Smith, is heavily tattooed and has a brow that seems permanently furrowed . He’s one of the guerrilla chefs Moore referred to, a term that seemed even more apt when my oven-roasted cauliflower showed up as an entire head impaled on a knife. While Schooler skittered in and out of the kitchen, wiping wayward specks from platters holding edgy dishes such as parsley cavatelli (Alaskan scallops, parsley, garlic, chili flakes, cauliflower), a boyish chef made pizzas at a station behind the bar and slid them into a wood-burning oven.
I chatted with the hostess before I left, and she thanked me for coming to “our little undiscovered gem.” At that moment, I thought she meant the restaurant. Now, I suspect she meant Juneau.
Weisstuch is a writer based in New York City. Find her on Twitter and Instagram: @livingtheproof.
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In Bocca al Lupo
120 Second St.
The restaurant run by chef Beau Schooler showcases a modern Italian-influenced menu of pizza and creative dishes with local ingredients, plus a large wine selection. Entrees start at $14.
134 North Franklin St.
This distillery doubles as a lively bar that sells cocktails mixed with gin (starting at $5) made on the still that dominates the airy space. Whiskey is aged on the premises.
356 South Franklin St.
In a seasonal shop located in a converted shipping container, Juneau natives Lia Heifetz and Matt Kern sell food made with kelp they harvest. You can buy its kelp salsa, pickles and seasonings year-round on its website and in various stores around the state.
148 South Franklin St.
Understated and stylish, this downtown bar, known for its classic and creative cocktails (from $10) is in a former dive bar built in 1912.
356 South Franklin St.
A former commercial fisherman founded this seasonal food truck with a nautical themed dining space. The fish tacos that made it famous are served with the local catch. Entrees start at $11.99.
Tracy’s King Crab Shack
432 South Franklin St.
This energetic seasonal seafood institution on the water specializes in king crab legs (from $26.95) and crab bisque (from $8.95).
200 Seward St.
Modern, imaginative cuisine with local and often freshly foraged ingredients takes center stage at this high-end, yet casual, bistro-esque destination. Entrees start at $22.
917 Glacier Ave.
This cheery cafe and scoop shop, a local favorite, is known for its imaginative flavors of homemade ice cream, sherbet and sorbet (starting at $3). It also serves coffee, tea, sandwiches and salads.