Getting to Know Juneau

By Ginger Dingus

“Didn’t I check you in at the hotel last night?” Just as I’m about to dip my spoon into a piping hot cup of crab bisque, the young man standing in front of me catches me off guard. Not only is he skillfully cracking the shell of a giant king crab leg, we’re outdoors at Tracy’s King Crab Shack on Juneau’s wharf, not up the street at the reception desk of the Baranof Hotel. I admit to being a bit groggy from a late flight and mostly sleepless night. But who knew Juneau, the capital of Alaska, was such a small town?

It’s no accident I’m sitting at the counter of this local dining hotspot. Kelly “call me Midgi” Moore has brought me and my husband here on her two and a half-hour Juneau Food Tour. Midgi’s foodie walks are currently celebrating their third year. When she’s not leading the group herself, she happily turns over the guiding to fellow residents who know the territory intimately. “I want people to know what Juneau is about from the dining scene perspective,” she says.

That dining scene has “exploded in the last four years,” according to Midgi. Sure, you can still grab a beer and a reindeer sausage sandwich at the Red Dog Saloon. Thanks to a new crop of creative chefs, you can also graze at an Italian deli, go upscale at SALT or sip imaginative craft cocktails at V’s Cellar Door. Midgi is determined to introduce us to her hometown—and several chefs—one delicious bite at a time. “I have three goals for your tour,” she announces. “Have fun. Learn something new. End the tour with a happy belly.”

After meeting Midgi at the Alaska Commercial Fishermen’s Memorial on the waterfront, we walked down the city’s newly enhanced and extended Seawalk, a.k.a. the wharf. Tracy’s King Crab Shack marked the first of our tour’s six diverse tasting locations. Started literally in a small shack near the cruise ship docks more than a decade ago, Tracy LaBarge expanded her café to a larger indoor/outdoor venue. She will be relocating again this year. Along with creamy king crab bisque, we sampled a mini crab cake, all the while watching our friendly hotel clerk deftly prepare steamed king crab legs. Those giant crab legs, by the way, are on the menu for $26 a pop. Doused in melted butter and a squeeze of lemon, they’re worth every penny.

Tales of Juneau’s Treadwell gold mine and favorite pooch, Patsy Ann (immortalized by a bronze statue looking out to sea), served as entertainment and education as we strolled to taste treat number two. At Alaska Knifeworks, owner David Summers showed off his unique selection of ulus, Alaskans u-shaped kitchen knife of choice. Then we nibbled crackers topped with smoked salmon spread and licked spoons heaped with kelp marmalade. I know you’re wondering. The kelp tastes remarkably like orange marmalade.

We moved on to Panhandle Provisions, a combination deli and meat shop featuring local Alaskan and Pacific Northwest meats, most prepared in-house. Our charcuterie bites included a tangy hard cheese, soy-cured salmon and beef bresaola (air-dried).

Having primed our appetites on appetizers, more filling tidbits were in order to round out our progressive lunchtime adventure. Downstairs at V’s Cellar Door, owner V Santana likes to heat it up with Korean and Mexican fusion. Her rendition of halibut fusion nachos was so incredibly yummy; we vowed to return and sample more, including her unique craft cocktails. Anyone for homemade spruce tip gin? It’s an only in Alaska concoction made from the tender needles of the Sitka spruce.

An even more delicious surprise was on hand at our next stop. The modern, upscale SALT restaurant and bar is owned by none other than Tracy of King Crab Shack fame. If you’re looking for a high-end dining experience in Juneau, this is the place. As we sat at the attractively set table admiring the décor, a trio of beer battered Alaskan cod tacos made with blue corn tortillas magically appeared. That would be one plate of three tacos for each of us. SALT pours 25 wines by the glass. Sauvignon Blanc was chosen to pair with our fish tacos. Our tour was getting better by the bite. We quickly added SALT to our must return list.

No taste of Juneau would be complete without a glass or two of the local brew. Built in 1913, the Victorian-style Alaskan Hotel and Bar offered just the right ambiance for checking out generous portions of Alaskan Brewing Co.’s finest. We sipped Amber, based on a Gold Rush era recipe; White, a wheat ale; and Free Ride APA. As for the hotel, it’s the oldest operating hotel in the state. Considering its history of gold miners, bordellos and prohibition, it’s little wonder many claim it to be haunted.

We could have sat chatting for hours, but all great tours must come to an end. Before saying good-bye, Midgi reminded us of her three goals. Did we have fun? Check. Had we learned something new? Yes, plenty. Were our bellies in happy mode? You bet!

READY TO NOSH?

Juneau Food Tours take place daily, April 30 to October 1. In addition to six tasting stops during the 2.5-hour tour, each guest is given a bright orange tote bag packed with bottled water, gingersnap cookies baked at Taku Lodge and a delightful morsel of Chef Stef’s toffee. For details and current prices, check www.juneaufoodtours.com; or call 800-656-0713. If you’re cruising to Juneau, check with your ship to see if the tour is available as a shore excursion.

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