Inside Alaska's Food Trucks in the Middle of Winter
We at Bon Appétit would never unleash another food truck story on your eyeballs without good reason, but when our freelance contributor Jenna Schnuer told us about the food trucks that stay open all winter in Anchorage, Alaska (where she lives year-round), we had to know more about what she dubbed “some serious badassery.”
After 20 years working in the fisheries industry, Kathy Robinson got a culinary degree at the University of Alaska Anchorage, then decided it was time to add her Wheel Good Food trucks to Anchorage’s small but feisty food truck scene. Along with serving at events around the city, Robinson now rolls her trucks, the Bombolina and the Sonha, farther afield—from a construction site 28 often-icy miles north of Anchorage to, recently, film sets. One movie shoot took her to “the wilds of Alaska,” where it was 12 to 15 below zero. “Working at 12 below, nothing’s easy,” she says. “It’s just a long cold day.”
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Keep your clogs. Between cooking in a steel box in negative temps, the open service window, and exhaust systems that suck out any warmth along with the cooking smoke, it’s rubber-and-wool extreme-cold-weather boots (a.k.a. Bunny Boots) for Kathy Robinson.
“The hardest part of the job,” says Robinson, “is driving the truck when it’s dark and we’re suffering nasty weather whether it’s freezing rain, 12 below, ice floes over the highway. It’s a big truck. It’s 15,000 pounds—and if the wind is coming across the highway … you’re going ahhhhh.” For all that, she adds, “it’s a blast.”
The late-night dining scene is not one of Anchorage’s selling points. “It was down to Leroy’s [Family Restaurant] and Taco Bell,” says John D’Elia, chef/owner of Urban Bamboo, and he felt the city’s bargoers needed other options. The former executive chef of Marx Bros. Café, one of Anchorage’s top restaurants, D’Elia got his truck—and its five-foot hibachi grill—rolling on Independence Day 2012. That gave D’Elia time to adjust to his new cooktop before the temps took their winter dive—average lows through the winter months? Single digits.
D’Elia, who favors insulated Xtratufs (the unofficial boot of Alaska), takes to bar parking lots at 11 p.m. or midnight three to six nights a week throughout the winter, serving bargoers (some rowdier than others) until the last patrons spill out at 4 a.m.
One of the best things you can smell outside a bar (or at the food stands during an Alaska Aces game): Urban Bamboo’s Spenard meatloaf, bacon-wrapped pork and lean beef, served by the slice on a soft potato roll. The meatloaf is named for the neighborhood that, more often than not, is the truck’s stomping grounds. Other menu regulars include a surf-and-turf skewer with reindeer sausage and spot shrimp, as well as the Bamboo BLT, loaded with braised bacon and pulled pork on a Hawaiian sweet roll.
No, Kendo’s Thai Food doesn’t roll on out. Doesn’t matter. Unless the temperature drops below 5 degrees, Kendo Shine spends part of most Tuesdays through Fridays (from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. or food runs out) cooking Thai food in what looks like an abandoned trailer. Some Alaskans might not call those hours tough, but considering Kendo’s warm weather roots—he grew up in Bangkok and lived in Hawaii before moving to Anchorage—we’ll give him a pass.
Over the last 14 years, Kendo has built a devoted following catering to the area’s port, construction, and railroad workers—and their 30-minute lunch breaks. Hidden behind Anchorage Community Works (a co-working and art space), this is industrial Anchorage, not the touristy section.
Kendo’s menu offers eight items—chicken only, no beef, shrimp, or tofu—inspired by dishes from Thailand. “I only cook what I like,” he says. “If I don’t like it, I don’t cook it.” Once he slides the window open, the best way to order is to just ask him what’s good that day. The answer (always): “Everything. You have 10 minutes? I’ll make you something good.” His personal favorite—and what he orders on annual trips back to Bangkok’s food stalls: Thai basil chicken. While the heat of his food helps offset the outside temps, perhaps he can help thaw out his fellow food truck owners with season-ending food tours of Thailand.
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