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On Menus: In Alaska and the Canadian Yukon

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Chinese Food in the USA

Winter Volume: 2003 Issue: 10(4) page(s): 20, 21. and 32

In Alaska and the Canadian Yukon, looking for a good Chinese restaurant can be somewhat akin to panning for gold. Finding the real stuff is rare, and small finds might have glistening sides. Alaska is a state where few folk made fortunes and few eateries shine, Chinese or otherwise. But like panning for gold, it is hard to stop looking and one does turn up a goodie and others with offerings that can glisten.

In Alaska, with its statehood only in 1959, we can attest to at least one gem, but more on that later. In Juneau, its capital city, another, but; but not one road goes there. You can get there only if you pilot a plane or captain a ship, or get a ride on one of these. In a capital city with many harbor seals, lots of bald eagles and bears, a plethora of salmon and a huge salmon hatchery, and a gorgeous glacier, on no road to Juneau you can get Chinese food. Amazing in this state with one mile of road for every forty-two square miles of land, and none to the capital.

Nonetheless, this city’s thirty thousand residents and the many tourists who embark on day trips from cruise ships that stop in port, are not without Chinese food. The one downtown eatery, Dragon Inn; 213 Front Street: Juneau AK: phone: (907) 586-4888 is small, but with its own few gems. Its menu boasts, among other things, Peking Duck, Mo Shu Pork, Kung Pao Shrimp, and more. There is Sirloin Steak Chinese Style, Chopped Lamb, and Fried Squids Salad. The steak is marinated as is their lamb, in honey, soy sauce, and rosemary. The squid is served with light soy sauce and balsamic vinaigrette; it is on a bed of fresh baby greens.

Most folk eating in this dragon opt for the Chicken Fried Rice and their gorgeous Home Made Fresh Flan; it comes with a caramel glaze and truly does shine. Some eat other foods and warm up with their Fresh Brew Expresso or refresh with their None Alcohol Pina Colada drinks. Trying none of those, we drank tea to accompany a recommendation of their Medium Bulk Mushrooms and their Sauteed Eggplant in Hot Garlic Sauce.

Pining for a Chinese restaurant in Fairbanks, called the Golden Heart City, we try ORIENTAL HOUSE at 1101 Noble Street; Fairbanks AK; phone: (907) 456-1172. This six-day-a-week eatery has a sign outside (and shown on this page in the hard copy of this issue) that says it serves Chinese, Korean, and American food. Their menu has lots of Chinese dishes, very few American ones; and not a Korean item--even though the owners are Korean as was our American-born Korean waitress.

They spoke about their kimchi but did not serve any. Our rice comes to the table in a covered Korean stainless steel rice bowl. This is not the only mixed message. The restaurant is listed in the city telephone directory as 'Peking House' but the management says they changed name and ownership five years ago.

Virtually all Chinese restaurants in this city and most others in Alaska serve buffets. The one touted as the best in/near Fairbanks was in a suburb called North Pole. Chinese buffets leave us cold so we did not go there. That was a good choice as our Oriental House fortune cookie said 'your ability to pick a winner will bring success' and some things in our meal there did just that. The portions are huge, and we are also delighted by a separate private-party dining room furnished with antique-type rosewood furniture absolutely gorgeous.

Pan Fried Potstickers are gorgeous, too, hand made and yummy. Hot Bean Curd, better known to most as Ma Po Doufu, is also very good, but the Double Mushroom Pork is less so. Its previously frozen peas and carrots, fresh scallions, and fresh red and green peppers are crisp and tasty while the meat, probably pre-boiled, did chill us as it swims in all too much thick brown sauce.

The small city of Seward Alaska sports two Chinese restaurants across the street from each other. One is PEKING at 338 4th Avenue; Seward AK; phone: (907) 224-5444) and the other is ORIENTAL GOURMET at 313 4th Avenue in Seward AK: phone (907) 224-7677. Oriental serves Japanese and Chinese foods, Peking sneaks in dishes teriyaki, too. A half mile away, in the small boat harbor is SUE'S TERIYAKI KITCHEN at 303 South Harbor Street; Seward AK; phone: (907) 224-4593, does too. None entice, as they only snare two customers between them all at tables and another one at the bar.

Better was to dream about what to cook as we watch many dozens of hundred pound halibut and ling cod and smaller catches of salmon being photographed by their lucky catcher folk. When we do sample fish in this town, all too many places overcook theirs, even their halibut cheeks, a personal favorite.

In Anchorage we strike gold! Everyone told us to get away from downtown and get ourselves to the university district. We are rewarded after driving to FU DO at 2600 East Tudor Road; Anchorage AK; phone: (907) 561-6611. Owned by Helen Ma and Thomas Hsu–as its chef, this eatery, whose name means 'Rich City,' really does shine. In place sine 1986, Hsu cooks fine Chinese food and admits to making things less good such as the Pu Pu Platter, Chow Mein, and Chop Suey for those who do not know or do not want his gem-like shiny cookery.

We sit down in this rich city and pao cai comes quickly as does tea. We order Pork with Spicy Sauce and witness an example of the chef’s talent. The meat is tender and terrific, the half dozen vegetables in it fresh, crisp, and colorful. The Chinese celery cabbage is divinely delicious. Hot Bean Curd, Chef Hsu’s version of Mapo Doufu is politely piquant and somewhat unusual with its big pieces of silken doufu, previously frozen peas and carrots, strips of bamboo shoots, button mushrooms, and crispy slivers of cloud ears.

We can not say enough about the Noodles with Black Bean Sauce. These long beauties arrive in a savory dark sauce topped with a fried egg once over lightly. Broke that yolk, mixed it well, and we slurp the noodles with their accompanying pieces of shrimp, scallops, squid, onions, even pieces of pork kidney. Going there just for that dish alone is worth the trip.

The five hundred or so Chinese in Anchorage are lucky to have Thomas Hsu. He makes, and his menu touts, Seaweed Soup, Moo Shu Chicken, Crabs in Mandarin Sauce, Sauteed Sea Cucumber, and other items to devour while sitting in this plain store-front place under one of two huge chandeliers. It is goldmine of good food for those who order well.

A fortune cookie at this restaurant says 'you will trek to many exotic places.' We have and Fu Do is exotic and exceptional if you avoid the typical daily lunch specials such as Sweet and Sour Pork, Broccoli Beef, Almond Chicken, or Shrimp with Vegetable. Go there for the exceptionally fine Chinese food that so many of his customers demand such as the Beef with Chinese Greens, Hot Pepper Beef, Black and White Mushroom Chicken, Prawns ala Peking, Three Seas Delicacies, Scallop with House Sauce, or his Snow Peas with Black Mushrooms. Many of the dishes here can be ordered small, medium, or large and that enables tasting additional dishes made by this talented transplanted Taiwanese chef. Would that all Chinese restaurants did this.

In the Canadian Yukon, a province that was the eye of the Gold Rush, there is plenty of land for restaurants, but few use any. This is probably because it is the ninth largest province with somewhat more than thirty-one thousand people and topped by many more animals that live there.

In Skagway, the tiny tourist town near the corner of the province of British Columbia where many minors began their foray to garner gold, in those days there was a tent city. Today it is a cruise ship stopping point with one Chinese dish. We found it at OPHELIA’S on Fourth Avenue just off Broadway. Skagway, BC and it is Mongolian Beef. It is on the menu there along with Philippine Odobo. As time for the train is short and it only looks so-so, before boarding the narrow gauge railway to the Yukon we do not grab any. We do not want to trudge for months, as the minors have done, so we plan to taste it on to our next stop.

In Whitehorse, we go seek golden Chinese food but could not decide where to eat it. Jim Robb, author of a unique guide of what he calls 'The Yukon's greatest treasures, colorful characters, and exceptionally fine people,' offers some advice. He features one of the first people to serve Chinese food in that town, Mah Bing. He is in the first of a series of very big paperbacks called The Colorful Five Percent, he wrote and illustrated. Its information, he says, we are welcome to use.

He tells us that The Hollywood Café in the Yukon town of Whitehorse was where Mah Bing once worked. This place advertised and served Chop Suey and was owned and run by Harry Chan and his nephew George. No doubt the dozen wristwatches up Mah Bing’s arm, that he gladly sells on the spot, add to its timely talents.

Mah Bing was always looking for special foods such as bear paws to make soup or medicine. He sold those from there, too, or from wherever he could. Locals told me, and the book confirms, he uses bean sprouts and chickens raised by the boss and who knows what else. Other tales told, but no one will say if true or false, are that he drank two bottles worth of booze a day and is known to handle his share of bootlegging. Mah Bing passed away some years ago. Forget about verification, but we can attest from several conversations with locals, that he did impact this small city where gold was mined nearby.

His town of Whitehorse lasts as does the love of Chinese food he probably started there. The town has ten Chinese restaurants for its twenty-three thousand people. We learn lots in them and in the YHMA, which stands for the Yukon Historical and Museum Association. There is a beautiful tourist information building complete with seven of the ten Chinese restaurant menus, among other things.

Most of the Chinese eateries in this town, and we go to almost all of them, serve some western chow, and have one or another type of an ordinary very-few-item buffet. We do find a great eating place in an old historic building, it is the Klondike Rib and Salmon BBQ. It is the city's second oldest building, but does not serve a drop of Chinese food. The first and oldest historic one was a Chinese restaurant, but alas, it was closed when we are there.

Only one of these eateries does serve foods Chinese, it is the NEW ORIENTAL RESTAURANT at 210 Ogilvie Street in Whitehorse AK: phone: 668-6855. At least it advertises Cantonese and Sichuan foods, but the latter are just the former ones with a hot pepper or two or some chili oil added. This restaurant feels international and even calls their buffet a 'smorgasbord.' The food on it, even with these hot additions, is bland.

Another place, NORTH DRAGON at 2058 Second Avenue in Whitehorse AK sports a popular Chinese steam table. There you can get good Chinese food, but do skip the steam table intended for the take-out crowd. The chef has been cooking here about two years. He cooked Chinese and other foods at McRae's on the highway just outside of town before that for twenty-two years. Here get jasmine tea, albeit in a tea bag; but it is the best Chinese tea in town. His Potstickers are terrific and his huge pot of Wor Wonton Soup wins hearts. North Dragon has a good reputation, maybe because Edson Chan’s great uncle, Harry Chan, opened this town’s first Chinese restaurant many years ago; and he employed Mah Bing.

Edson Chan’s Cantonese Chicken Hot Pan is tasty, the BBQ Pork Chop Suey more American than Chinese, and the Honey Garlic Spareribs a very popular dish we find too sweet. Other customers are licking their fingers with delight. We prefer the Spareribs with Black Bean Sauce and I lick mine after finishing every one of them myself. The Tofu with Ginger and Onions Hot Pot is worth waiting for and the side of Black Bean Sauce we order, when slathered over our Chop Suey does improve it. We notice a couple at a neighboring table doing the same with their Hawaiian Burger. This sauce can improve any dish that needs some flavor.

Since Harry Chan opened what may have been the first Chinese restaurant in Whitehorse which was then on First Avenue, many Chinese people have done likewise. Harry died in 1961 and fire destroyed his original place, but not his S & A Café. That place was run by a fellow called Russian Mike along with a few Chinese men. But many do credit Harry as the originator of Chinese restaurants in this territory, so we stop to drink to him and all this city’s Chinese eateries. There will be more because the YMHA tell us that almost four percent of the population are Asian or African (their grouping), and more Chinese are coming to this region almost daily.

North of Whitehorse near where three men are the first to discover the real glistening rocks; there we go to the Han Museum. No, it is not Chinese, not even about an older population. This new building is about the Trondek Hwech or first nation folk who, with their chief Isaac, found gold here in 1895. This center seems to be searching its roots, so we go on to search for more Chinese food. We find good dishes in CHINA VILLAGE in the Midnight Sun Hotel in Dawson City AK. It is up the street from that museum and looks dark and dreary. Aching for Chinese food, four of us open the door to a just reward.

The Cod Filet with Bean Curd is excellent and we polish it off quickly. Ginger Beef comes next and it is so tough and chewy that one taste is enough for half of us. Then comes the Sen Chou Chow Fen which is very good; our spirits are lifted. This chow fun dish is loaded with shrimp, pork, pieces of omelette, onions, and bean sprouts, and it and the other Chinese dishes we order are worth eating.

Though we did not strike gold in the Yukon and we actually did pan for some, we do like some of the Chinese food we ate and do find some shining items. This province has quite a few Chinese restaurants, some delicious dishes, and some do sparkle. We are always amazed as they are far from access to fresh Chinese ingredients. But Chinese chefs can adapt and adopt the local fare and fare quite well. We should have another drink and toast all of them!

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