When dining in the northernmost of the 50 states, it’s safe to assume that all eating is local eating. The wild, seasonal foods found, foraged and favored here are of the land, especially the mountains and the ocean. Long, dark winters; 586,000 miles of rugged wilderness; a sparse population and harsh climate all make Alaskans—and their food—hearty and innovative.
Alaskan cuisine is often subject to the whims of the seasons. Perfectly juicy berries abound in the summer, and the freshest seafood, interesting microbrews and fire-grilled wild game are all on offer year round. While summer is bountiful, winter can be bleak. Little grows during this time, and because the season of cultivation is so fleeting, Alaskans have a very strong relationship with their local food. Perhaps they appreciate their food—and food culture—even more for its inherent scarcity.
Historically, residents, and especially chefs, spent the majority of the year preparing ingredients for winter. They would hunt, forage, garden, pickle, ferment and freeze, and because their survival depended on it, they got pretty darn good at turning their unique summer bounty into year-round deliciousness for all to enjoy. Those traditions still live on! Alaska is either the best-kept culinary secret in the United States or the hippest (but remotest) eating destination. Either way, Alaska is likely the last place you’d imagine having your best meal, but don’t be surprised if that’s exactly what you experience here.
The Dining Experience in Alaska
The experience of entering an Alaskan restaurant won’t differ much from what you’d get in the lower 48, and you’ll likely be greeted with a friendly smile and warm atmosphere. While Alaska is wild and rugged, the menus don’t necessarily follow suit. Preparations are typically straightforward and simple, showcasing exceptional ingredients. It’s nearly impossible to find a restaurant that doesn’t have seafood or fish on the menu, so be prepared to eat your fill of this during your stay. (If you’re not a fish person, don’t worry. You can always fill up on reindeer sausage!)
Typical Alaskan Dishes
No matter where you are in Alaska, make sure to enjoy these quintessentially Alaskan delicacies:
● Wild Game
Alaskans are fiercely independent and love being able to say, “I bagged that myself.” Moose, deer, reindeer (caribou), spruce hen and more are all served up as steaks, roasts, sausages and minced meat. There are myriad ways to enjoy!
● Reindeer Dogs
The reindeer dog is essentially Alaska’s version of New York City’s hot dog. You might even find a few places in the state where a proper street-side stand offers up the goods with all the fixings you’d expect on a normal hot dog from the “Lower 48”.
Many Alaskans live, sleep and breathe salmon, and it comprises an important part of the Alaskan culinary scene. (The rest of the world isn’t complaining either!) Steamed, baked, grilled, smoked or dried, salmon comes in chowders, on sandwiches or alone. Simply put, it’s consistently one of the most popular options on any Alaskan menu.
Light and flaky with a mild but distinct flavor, halibut can be found on menus deep fried, in golden-brown beer-battered nuggets served with vinegar, oil and homemade tartar sauce or grilled in a taco with freshly squeezed lime and cilantro sauce.
In Alaska, if it can be turned into jerky, it will be. Experience the entire spectrum: beef jerky, teriyaki jerky, salmon jerky and moose jerky. Jerky is the perfect Alaskan snack food, and it lasts without refrigeration for ages. What more could people living in the frozen north want in their meat?
Whether you’re after clams, oysters, scallops or shrimp, Alaskan waters turns out some of the world’s best seafood.
It might not seem as if Alaska would be the best place for berry picking, but the evidence is contrary. Blueberries, salmonberries, crowberries, watermelon berries, Russian berries, raspberries, lingonberries and more are all available here. You’ll find them raw, in jams and jellies or served up in pies and smoothies or over shortcakes and ice cream.
Perhaps it’s something about the climate that inclines Alaskans to coffee, but many have a hearty appreciation for a humble cup o’ joe. With no shortage of caffeine-infusing outlets, choosing a favorite coffee spot can be difficult, but at least Alaskans are sure to have an ample supply of the jitter juice. (Prizing convenience, Alaskans have a particular affinity for any coffee place with a drive-through window!)
● Craft Beer
Craft-made anything is an Alaskan favorite, and this extends to beer. Craft breweries with on-site restaurants are some of the state’s most celebrated dining establishments. In fact, most decently sized cities and towns have at least one brewhouse. Perhaps this has something to do with Alaskans’ strong sense of community. After all, what better way to connect than by gathering around a table full of uniquely Alaskan-flavored fare?
Backroads Pro Tip
An affinity that requires no explanation, Alaskans love ice cream. The state consistently has the highest per capita consumption of ice cream in America, and it’s easy to see why. Specialty stores throughout the state make pretty creamy, dreamy scoops of goodness. No matter the temperature, if you find an ice cream shop, you’re in for one of the most memorable cones of your life
Order up these local and regional delicacies for a culinary experience that can only be had in Alaska:
● Eskimo Ice Cream
Akutaq, or Eskimo ice cream, is an indigenous Alaskan dish. Considered an old-school survival food in the Alaskan native community and an exotic dessert dish by everyone else, its ingredients are simple and basic. Traditionally made from whipped animal fat, fish, berries, tundra greens and occasionally snow, more modern versions are known to include sugar, milk and Crisco.
● Pilot Bread
The ultimate Alaskan survival food, Pilot Bread is a modern-day version of hardtack and can be described as a “saltless saltine cracker,” but with a tougher texture. No rural pantry, general store or hunting party is considered fully stocked without Sailor Boy Pilot Bread. Used for teething babies and as a bread substitute in an open-faced sandwich, to name a few uses, pilot bread is, arguably, the most iconic Alaskan foodstuff. Pair it with some homemade jerky, and you’re ready for the long haul in terms of indestructible edibles. It’s so important to rural Alaska that Interbake Foods—manufacturer of pilot bread—sponsored an annual recipe contest in partnership with the Native Youth Olympics. They received over 200 submissions their first year (2011).
● Canned Bacon
Another truly Alaskan edible with a nearly interminable shelf life is canned bacon. While it’s extremely hard to come by these days, many Alaskans grew up with iconic yellow cans of bacon occupying permanent shelf space in the kitchen. It was the perfect food—in that bears and other creatures couldn’t smell it until someone popped the top. As an Alaskan kid, getting to open the can of bacon was equal to winning the jackpot. These days, canned bacon pickings are slim. If you happen to come across one, snatch it up, cook it in a cast iron pan over a campfire, and you’ll see why Alaskans love the stuff so much. It’s better by far than any vacuum-sealed option on the market these days.
Tipping etiquette in Alaska is the same as anywhere else in the United States. A 20 percent tip is an anticipated gesture; a larger percentage is particularly generous.
Dining in Alaska is similar to eating anywhere in the contiguous 48 states. Breakfast is available early, lunch is at midday, and dinner is in the evening. The one factor that might throw your appetite for a loop is the ever-dark days from November through January. When the sun doesn’t shine, it can throw off your sleeping and eating habits, but don’t fear. If you find a craft brewery at just about any time of day, the friendly locals will surely help point you in the direction of feast-worthy fare!