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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

Big Al's has OK pizza, but next time try the non-pizza items on the menu. (And I don't mean salad.)

You will thank me.

Four thumbs up.

Nice blog. I lived in Fairbanks while I went to UAF and for about a year afterward. I am planning a visit in October. It will be my first time back since 1998.

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