Wednesday, April 26, 2006 

Big Al's beats No. 1 pizza

Sometimes I doubt the intelligence of the average person. I’m trying not to be snobby here, but when a newspaper readers’ poll ranks Pizza Hut the No. 1 pizza place in town, I begin to wonder. Pizza Hut? Since I loathe chain restaurants, I decided to visit the No. 3 pizza place instead.

Big Al’s Pizza is romantically located in a former gas station, and ambiance is not part of its appeal. Though recent renovations have created a seating area, the flimsy tables and chairs, plus the constant stream of customers, are not conducive to a leisurely meal. Make no mistake: Big Al’s is primarily a take-out joint.

Since pizza and a salad seemed the best compromise between healthy and delicious, we ordered an antipasto salad ($9.99) and a large half Mediterranean, half chicken combo pizza ($17.99). Big Al’s Pizza also serves pasta dinners and subs, including the only gyro you’ll find in town until Bobby’s or Zorba’s reopens. They even have a gyro pizza, which bears further investigation. There was little to do as we waited for our food, so I watched PBS on the television while Tom pondered the reasons for having pizza boxes stacked on the foosball table.

Although I knew we were in a take-out restaurant, I was still surprised when the salad arrived at our table in a Styrofoam container. Of course, the only other option, paper plates, would not have begun to hold our salad: The massive portion completely filled the container. This was not a traditional antipasto, but a dinner salad with lots of extras like olives, salami, pepperoni and hot peppers. The only logical dressing seemed to be Italian, but an oil and vinegar would have paid homage to the salad’s roots. “It’s OK,” Tom said, “but it ranges too far into garden salad as opposed to antipasto.”

As I prepared to tuck into the pizza, I reminded myself that this was not the pizza that the masses chose. Then I reminded myself what the masses did in 2000 and 2004. Oops, I just got political. I was sure the third-choice pizza would be just fine.

The chicken combo came loaded with toppings: grilled chicken, garlic, onions, mushrooms and green peppers, all in a tangy butter sauce. The crust faced some serious structural issues as it tried to support the weight of the toppings, and I had to eat the first few bites with a knife and fork. Further in, though, the crust held its own. The onions were colorful, but not noticeable in flavor. Instead, the garlic shone through the other flavors: strong, yet mellow.

As I approached the edge of the pizza, the anticipation built: Would the crust meet my exacting standards? Structurally, the crust was fine. It resisted the urge to collapse, even as I attacked it from the side. The dough had large air bubbles and a chewy texture. On paper, it seemed to be perfect, but you can’t put flavor on paper. Although the crust had a warm, yeasty flavor, it lacked the necessary level of salt needed to elevate it to curst perfection. Blood pressure be damned, I like a crust that is just a touchy greasy and nice and salty. Big Al’s Pizza offers a crust that is like the healthy version of my dream crust: The structure may be the same, but the flavor is not.

The Mediterranean side of the pizza was swimming with green onions, and their presence did not go unnoticed. Nestled under the mozzarella I found a layer of feta cheese which had melted into the ricotta, creating a bouncy, sharp layer of cheese. “It’s kind of different from other Mediterraneans I’ve had in town,” Tom said. Instead of the stereotypical sun dried tomatoes and olives, our pizza was topped simply with the onions and cheeses, proving that sometimes simple is better.

In truth, I will never review Pizza Hut. It may be the best in town, but I have a hard time supporting chains when Fairbanks has a variety of local restaurants to meet my needs. And while the crust didn’t meet my exacting standards, Big Al’s Pizza still managed to serve one of the best basic pizzas I’ve found in Fairbanks. It’s a sure bet that I’ll be back, but next time I’ll just get it to go.

Review published in The Ester Republic


Eating out: Hot Tamale

Somewhere in the middle of China, there must be a factory that churns out tchotchkes for Mexican restaurants: lookalike sombreros, maracas and serape blankets seem to be practically an obligation in these places. But Hot Tamale in downtown Fairbanks is refreshingly lacking in the same old knickknacks. Instead, old cacti and hand-painted tiles adorn its many nooks and alcoves, and the sound system offers Spanish rhythms instead of Top 40. And, much like the authentic décor, the food at Hot Tamale seems to come from old family recipes rather than a corporate cookbook.

We popped into Hot Tamale for dinner recently and found the place full of mushers and spectators from the GCI Open North American dog sled races, taking place just across the Chena River. Settling into an alcove, I noticed a drink special for 50-cent margaritas. Even the waiter grimaced as he said they were made with strawberry wine, so we ordered our usual cheap drinks: 50-cent Tecate Cervezas. My boyfriend Tom attacked the dinner buffet ($10.95), while I opted to order up a variety of tacos, including potato ($2), fish ($3.50) and carne asada ($2.50).

In his first run on the buffet, Tom came back with a mixed plate. The enchiladas looked tasty but had a corn flavor that overwhelmed the filling. “It's got that 'sitting under a heat lamp' issue,” Tom also noted. Sitting under those lamps may have been what intensified the corn flavor. The burrito, wrapped in an achingly tender flour tortilla, was a hit. The chicken was lightly seasoned, and the onions were cooked until they were just soft but still had bite.

Even though I had ordered my tacos individually off the “side dishes” section of the menu, they arrived artfully displayed on a large platter with chili peppers and a twist of lemon. More impressive to me, though, was the cilantro. I am not a cilantro fan, and I cringe when restaurants toss handfuls of the stuff over perfectly good dishes; fortunately, at Hot Tamale the tacos only had a delicate sprinkle of the fresh herb. It is also worth noting that while the potato taco came with just one tortilla, the carne asada and fish each had two, and there were ample fillings to top them off: five tacos for the price of three!

The lettuce and cheese were still cool and crisp, contrasting with the warm potatoes. Unfortunately, while I had hoped that the potatoes would be like good home fries - cubed, spicy and crispy - I found them mushy and bland. I moved on to the carne asada, and wasn't disappointed by the spicy grilled steak. The seasoned meat would have been a pleasure to eat on its own, but still stood out while wrapped up in a tortilla and toppings. We occasionally eat fried halibut tacos at home, but I dislike the effort required to fry the fish. Hot Tamale served up halibut with a discernible batter flavor that did not overpower the mild fish taste. Although I found myself missing the array of toppings we usually add, the fish taco was still flavorful, and the second tortilla soon succumbed to the pressure of the fillings.

In his second raid on the buffet, Tom came back with a beef and bean chimichanga. The silky filling was mostly shredded beef with a bean puree, and the chimichanga was crisp. Also on his plate was a mixture of halibut, shrimp and spinach in a creamy cheese sauce. I'm not sure if it was meant as a taco filling, but it was heavenly just to dip bits of tortilla in the concoction. “It's almost too rich for a meal,” Tom noted.

Rather than order desserts, Tom decided to make one last attack on the buffet, coming back with a plate full of sweets. The chocolate cake was run-of-the-mill, but the brownie was dense, fudgy and slightly bittersweet. The fried tortillas with blueberry topping looked fantastic, but there was something about the dish I couldn't quite put my finger on. The tortilla was light and crispy with a dusting of cinnamon sugar and powdered sugar, but the topping was a little off - the slight lemon flavor made me suspect it came from a can.

I returned to Hot Tamale the following week for lunch with my friend, James. Our eyes proved bigger than our stomachs as we ordered: pozole soup ($6.95), halibut quesadillas ($7.95) and the daily special ($8.95), a large platter with a beef taco, chicken enchilada, tamale, rice and beans. Every meal at Hot Tamale begins with warm tortilla chips and salsa, which helped to fill us up before our food arrived.

My pozole soup came to the table in a massive bowl. The oily broth had a smoky, tomato flavor, and was mildly spicy. Bits of chewy hominy filled the bowl, surrounding the tender pork chunks. The soup would have been a meal on its own.

The quesadillas were simple: tortilla, cheese and halibut. That combination may have worked well with a different meat, but the halibut was too mild, and the quesadillas tasted bland as a result. Topping them with guacamole, salsa or chilis helped ratchet up the flavor.

James hunkered down over his plate and barely let me get a fork in. I did steal a bite of his enchilada, and found it much better than what Tom found at the dinner buffet. The strong corn flavor was still present, but the beef was savory and the enchilada tasted fresh. “For north of the 45th parallel, this isn't bad,” James said as he devoured his food.

In a town with many Mexican options, Hot Tamale offers good food with some unusual twists. The use of halibut, for example, tips its hat to the Alaska setting, though it falls short at times. But for basic Mexican fare at reasonable prices in a great location (plus really cheap beer), it's hard to beat Hot Tamale.

Review published in the Anchorage Press


Noodles abound on South Cushman

Noodles, it would seem, are the spice of life. They feature prominently in the cuisine of many countries, taking on different flavors and textures depending on their preparation. In Vietnam, noodles are called pho, so it’s fitting that the newest Vietnamese restaurant in Fairbanks chose the name Pho Fairbanks.

A friend had raved about Pho in the fall, but when I tried to visit I found the restaurant had closed. It seems they were merely renovating, as Pho has opened its doors once again. Tom and I ventured onto South Cushman recently, interested to see what Pho had to offer.

Early on a Saturday night, the restaurant was empty. Not just quiet, but empty: Tom and I were the only people there. When we entered, the staff hopped to attention, switching the television over to a sitcom rerun, presumably for our pleasure. Still, the menu offered a variety of dishes as well as some funny spelling errors. I’m not sure what fried wanton is, but I’ve recommended it to my single friends.

We started our meal with a shared plate of fried corn fritters ($6.95). I could have easily eaten the plate by myself and been satisfied. I noticed a sheen on the patties as I grabbed the first fritter, and I worried that they might be overly greasy, but the thin discs held up well. “I’m not getting a lot of corn, but it’s tasty,” Tom said. We had ordered the dish with a presumption that we’d be getting typical American-style fair food: fried balls of corn mush with honey butter. Instead, we found savory fritters made of ground pork and shrimp, dotted with a few whole kernels of corn. The fritters came with a viscous, lightly spicy sauce. The sweet tang was reminiscent of honey and vinegar, with a kick of chili oil. A small dish of cucumbers and carrots in a vinegar sauce accompanied the fritters.

Our meals arrived at the table, and I was once again surprised by the size of the bowls. When the main course is basically a soup, you should expect large portions, and these were no exception. My bowl of suki yaki ($9.50) was filled with clear noodles, chunks of chicken and greens, topped with fried garlic. I was disappointed that the chicken lacked flavor, but the rest of the dish was savory. The spinach was a surprise: perfectly tender despite being immersed in hot broth. The waiter had also given us a plate of icy cold bean sprouts and a bowl of hot sauce, and I sued these to experiment with the dish. The sprouts added a crunch to the dish that the cooked celery could not, and a liberal amount of hot sauce changed the flavor of the bowl from savory to spicy.

Tom, meanwhile, was struggling with his bowl of Bar-B-Q pork noodle ($8.50). “Let the record show I’m resorting to a fork,” he muttered as he gave up on his spoon. His dish had traditional noodles and slices of pork, but lacked the vegetables of mine. I tried his dish, and was once again struck by the blandness of the meat. Initially I thought that it must be because the chicken was boiled in the dish, but after tasting Tom’s food, I decided that the soup just leaches the flavor out of the meat.

In the end, Pho was an average meal with above-average portions. While our soups were large, one of them was overly bland, and the other one was helped greatly by the addition of sprouts and hot sauce. Despite being the only customers in the restaurant, I had to go to the counter to find our check. Our first dish turned out to be the best one, but what I remember most about the evening is searching for dessert in the Mighty Dollar store next door.

Review published in The Ester Republic


Pazzo G's doesn't hit the spot

When I was younger, whenever I brought home a report card, it always said the same thing: “Mary shows promise but fails to work up to her potential.” I’ve felt the same way about Gambardella’s Pasta Bella. Although I enjoyed my first meal in Fairbanks at the restaurant, the food never really stood out enough to make it into my restaurant rotations. It wasn’t bad, it might have been good, but I always remembered it as run of the mill.

When I heard that Gambardella’s was opening a new restaurant at the site of the old Athenian, I thought this could be their chance to win me back as a customer. So we bundled up and headed off to Pazzo G’s. As I stepped inside, though, I couldn’t help but wonder if the restaurant had changed hands at all. The Greek columns and plates still adorned the walls, though they were joined by framed burlesque albums. “Oh, they just moved it over a country,” Tom said. And though our waitress was friendly, the service was still lacking, as one member of my party had to get his own silverware off another table.

We decided to challenge the kitchen staff with a vegan entrée, as well as a salad, lasagna and appetizer. The focaccia ($5.95) arrived at the table quickly, bringing with it the mouthwatering aroma of fresh rosemary. The bread itself was marvelously soft and floury, with a delicate touch of rosemary. It was lost, however, with the accompanying tomato sauce. Diced onion floating in the sauce seemed to hint at a homemade delicacy, but it tasted like it came straight out of an aluminum can.

I opted to eat light, and selected a pear salad ($10.95). The dish was not only tasty, but stunning as well. “That’s a beautiful salad,” Tom noted. “Very intricately arranged.” The bed of greens was topped with slices of grilled chicken, pears, slightly sweet walnuts and fresh croutons. The promised raspberry vinaigrette never appeared, but the substitute dressing was a creamy Italian with a peppery kick. The crunch of the sweet walnuts was a nice counterbalance to the softness of the pears, and the croutons put the dish into the pleasure zone. Clearly homemade, they were large, crunchy, buttery and salty. What more could a girl ask for?

Tom was finding out that a boy could ask for a whole lot more. His plate of lasagna ($10.95) was large, but bore that trademark Gambardella’s touch: blandness. I suppose the dish was perfectly average, but average never stands out in my mind. The sauce was savory, the portion was large, and that’s about all there is to say about the dish. It takes unusual ingredients, such as goat cheese or sautéed portabellas, for a lasagna to become spectacular in my book.

Jacob, our resident vegan, chose to order a firenze pizza ($10.95), but wanted it vegan. The waitress took the request without complaint, even when he started angling for more vegetables to make up for the cheese. Making vegan pizzas isn’t hard, but they do have a tendency to dry out without the insulating layer of cheese. It is worth noting that Pazzo G’s managed to keep the pizza moist. “I like the flavor,” Jacob said as he bit into a slice. “I would’ve liked more mushrooms, though. I was trying to hint at that.” I tried some of his pizza, and while I missed the cheese, it was perfectly acceptable without it. Layers of vegetables were interspersed with a tomato sauce.

None of the dishes were bad, but none were perfect. My salad came with a strange yellow blob on the plate that Tom guessed was butter. Jacob’s pizza was tasty, yet no better than a pizza from any other restaurant. And so Pazzo G’s falls victim to the Gambardella’s curse: OK food that doesn’t stand out in my mind. In this aspect, Pazzo G’s really misses the mark. In opening a new restaurant with a different name on the other side of town, the Gambardellas had the chance to go out on a limb. They could have tried new dishes, sought out new recipes, or just made crucial changes to their menu. Instead, they opted to serve a virtually identical menu.

In the end, I was not the only one unimpressed. “It’s an OK place to come if you drive two or three miles to get here,” Jacob said, “but not if you have to go any further.”

Review published in The Ester Republic