Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Good Eats in Haines: Chilkoot River Sockeye and Much More

Although I only spent four days in Haines, Alaska, it was just enough to fall a little bit in love.

No, not with a rugged Alaska man—but with a quirky, friendly community and some amazing meals I had there. You gotta love a small town that has a hammer museum and whose local newspaper chronicles out-of-town visitors. Here’s an excerpt from Chilkat Valley News’ Unduly Noted section:

Pat Annis enjoyed her first visit to Haines since her son, Bill Annis, moved here in 1996.… She had a great time walking around town with Bill, visiting the Eagle Foundation and Alaska Indian Arts, and talking with Fred Shields at his gift shop.

(I’m only slightly disappointed that my visit didn’t make the paper.)

Surrounded by dramatic Inside Passage mountains and set on a long, narrow peninsula between the Chilkoot and Chilkat Inlets (Lynn Canal), Haines retains a more low-key character than Skagway to the north. Unlike Skagway, only one cruise ship a week stops in Haines, so it’s not overrun by tourists. (I don't mean to disparage the economic benefits that cruise ship dollars contribute to these small towns.)

Alaskan cuisine can trend bizarrely unhealthful (nowhere else have I been served a garden burger deep fried), but in Haines I ate some of my best meals ever. And that’s coming from a woman who can remember great meals enjoyed over 20 years ago.

It Doesn’t get Much Fresher Than This
If you don’t fish, or even if you do but don’t live close to a healthy salmon run, how often do you dine on wild salmon caught just a few hours ago?

On a damp, drizzly morning, we head to the forest-fringed, glacier-fed Chilkoot River just outside town. The sockeye are running, and fisherman extraordinaire Ron recently hooked a salmon in the same spot. First timers luck?

“If I don’t catch anything, we’ll pick up some halibut in town for dinner,” says Ron. “But give me about 20 minutes.” Marilyn and I drive a mile upriver (it’s a very short river!) to Chilkoot Lake and watch bald eagles.

An excited Ron greets us when we get back. Amongst the half dozen or more people fishing nearby, he is the only one who caught a 10-pounder within 5 minutes.

Chilled bottles of Alaskan Pale Ale come out of the cooler in the back of the truck, and we celebrate Ron’s catch and tonight’s salmon feast. Which, after being marinated and grilled to perfection, is incredible.

Mosey’s Mexican
Great Mexican fare is not what people usually associate with Alaska, but Mosey’s gets a thumbs up from my Arizona transplant friends. We dine there one evening on colorful fresh tacos, piquant chile verde, and (we all decide is the best) Petersburg shrimp enchiladas.

Views of the fjord and the mountains beyond are superb from the deck of the converted home that houses Mosey’s, but tonight we dine inside because it’s a bit chilly. I’ve noticed that portion sizes here in Alaska are on the large side, even for American standards, so tonight’s dinner spills over into tomorrow’s breakfast with scrambled eggs.

A Haines Institution: Fireweed
Before I headed north to Alaska, a health-conscious former Alaskan (via France) told me I had to eat at Fireweed, famous for its fresh baked pizza and overall healthful fare. So I take his advice and have both a lunch and dinner there.

Inside Fireweed, which is in a former historic Fort Seward building, it’s warm and light with wood-beamed ceilings, strings of white lights, and an open kitchen. While lunch slices of pesto pizza are excellent, my dinner of fresh, succulent grilled halibut on a bun baked onsite with salad greens is the best. When dining in Alaska during fishing season, there’s truly nothing better.

Baked to Perfection: Sarah J’s Shoppe
In search of good tea, we wander into Sarah J’s Shoppe, which just opened about 4 weeks ago—so new that Sarah doesn’t have a website yet. This cute little coffee shop/teahouse/bakery on the edge of Fort Seward and just a few blocks up from the cruise ship dock has wonderful teas and baked goods. And they take requests.

“A customer asked me where the pie was, so I baked this for him,” says Sarah of the beautiful golden-crusted pie stuffed with apples and peaches in the display case.

While I indulge in a fragrant peach green tea and molasses ginger cookie (just the right balance of chewy and crispy), Marilyn gets good coffee and a butterscotch blondie. Despite being a spare and careful eater, I notice that ever-slender Marilyn quickly finishes her baked treat.

I sneak there again early the next morning for more tea and breakfast before catching the ferry back to Juneau. Somehow I walk out with a fresh raspberry-lime muffin, a slice of day-old cranberry caramel cake, and a blondie, none of which make it to Juneau before being consumed.

And a Shout-out
While I spent three perfect nights with my campground host friends Marilyn and Ron at Chilkat State Park, my last night was at the comfy Hotel Halsingland in a converted historic Fort Seward building. A special thanks to Charles, who manages the front desk, for his amiable, friendly service.
Remember Holling, the gentlemanly bartender from the TV show Northern Exposure from the 1990s? This retired anesthesiologist from Houston sounds exactly like Holling (actually actor John Cullum), with the same low-key, affable manner.

When You Go
Just go! Here’s a link of ways to get to Haines. Personally I loved riding the Alaska Marine Highway ferries up and back. I hiked, ate well, and generally relaxed, but there’s much more to explore here in the summer.


Lindsey said...

Yum yum now I am starving. I love Alaska too- people were great, and the sights were always breathtaking.

Anonymous said...

Hey Jillwin:

Hangin' in Haines? Not the underwear capital of the US is it?

jill said...

Okay DB...duly noted and blog title changed!

Lindsey, thanks, hope you get back up there some time soon to enjoy the great food, people, and gorgeous scenery.

Gayle said...

Your Alaska blogs sure got my taste buds going, literally and figuratively. That food! Mmmmmm. Love the photos and descriptions. I swear, fun follows you, girl.

Tom said...

The food sounds great, fresh and beautifully seasoned. The photo of the Beelzebub-size devil's club leaves brings back memories of our trip to Seward a few years ago. Seems everything is out-sized up there.