Some eateries capture your affections before you even take your first bite. And so it was with Glacier Bowl and Poke, the humble, cobbled-together looking drive-up poke shack that opened this winter in a non-descript parking lot on the Old Seward Highway in South Anchorage.
Painted a sunny shade of gold, festooned with Christmas lights and sporting a large, lit-up sign with the simple imperative: "EAT," the ramshackle little spot is decidedly, inspiringly beachy — especially during the coldest, darkest days of the year. In short, this little spot promised a taste of summer.
Needless to say, I was eager to try it. My unequivocal love for poke is on the record. But because my policy is to wait several months before critiquing a new spot, I was forced to exercise great self-control in driving past Glacier Bowl. Until last week, when the wait was over.
The relaxed charm of the exterior is matched by laid-back friendliness within. I drove through in the afternoon with a preorder for that night's dinner. My server gave suggestions, asked only for a first name and assured me that it would be ready on time later that day. It was. Ordering is a three-step process: First you pick your protein (choices are: calamari salad, salmon, ahi tuna, grilled steak, grilled chicken or red crab). Then you pick your "set up" (bowl, "pokerito" or tacos). Lastly, you choose your "style" (Fireweed is a housemade hot sauce and Glacier is a housemade teriyaki). Both preparations come with avocado, seaweed salad and a house "mix." I opted for ahi two ways and steak two ways (for the non-poke-loving members of my family).
There were a couple disappointments. For starters, the grilled steak ($12.25), although it had good flavor, was overcooked and dry. The problem was compounded by the fact that the meat was cut into rather clumsy chunks. More thinly sliced meat would have helped make the meat less chewy and would have better distributed the sauce and seasoning. Second, our avocado halves were underripe. And there is nothing sadder than an underripe avocado. The promise of creamy, buttery, luxurious avocado flavor was unfulfilled by the bland, rather woody fruit that fought our plastic spoon. I can appreciate the challenge of having a stash of perfectly ripe avocados — they remain underripe for so long, are perfect for a day and then are overripe, squishy grenades the next. Perhaps a stock of "Plan B," island-style guacamole would make a good substitute for those days (hours?) when the avocados are off their game?
And now for the good news. The luscious cubes of jewel-like ahi ($11.75) were fresh and glistening. Both delightfully different preparations of the tuna were exceptional. The Fireweed style was tangy and assertive, acidic and bright. It's a lively dish with bravado and balance.
The side of calamari salad (also available by the pound, $8.50 for 8 ounces, $16 for 16 ounces) was an unexpected highlight. Lovingly sliced into thin, tender loops, it almost had a pasta-like texture. The flavor is smoky and salty, with a hint of sweetness. It tasted like the ocean and was transporting.
I ordered the second ahi poke Glacier style as a "pokerito," which is, obviously enough, a poke bowl wrapped up into a burrito. The presentation is … weird. Why exactly would you wrap a poke bowl in a tortilla? I mean, I suppose you could cut it in half and share it. I guess you could eat it one-handed while driving (not that you should, but you could). And, of course, you can toss it safely into a purse or backpack. Huh. It seems that I've just come up with three excellent reasons to wrap a poke bowl into a burrito. Kindly disregard my original skepticism.
But there never was any skepticism about the poke itself. It was perfect. The housemade teriyaki was nuanced — subtly sweet, not cloying, with a gently savory finish that doesn't rely too heavily on soy. The buttery, clean-tasting ahi was really allowed to shine. It was beautiful and I look forward to ordering it again.
I returned the following week, and, despite my longing to order the Glacier ahi again, I conjured up heroic levels of self-discipline and branched out. (Service was, again, charming and my dogs each got a piece of grilled chicken for being patient while I waited for my order.)
This time, I opted for the grilled chicken burrito ($11.25) and the red crab bowl ($12.75). The chicken burrito was, like the pokerito, massive. The method of cutting bigger chunks of meat, which worked against the steak, was perfect for the chicken, which retained a tender, juicy interior. I opted for the Glacier style of sauce — which was, again, well-balanced and tasty — but thought afterward that I should have chosen the more assertive and zippy Fireweed sauce because chicken can always use a bit of punching up.
Happily, the red crab needed no punching up. The seasoning on this generous portion of crab was spicy and robust, but not so powerful that it masked the sweetness of the meat. The bright and briny, vibrantly green seaweed salad on the side provided a perfect palate-cleansing bite. It was beautiful to look at and to eat.
The house "mix," by the way, which was included in each of the bowls, was a pocket of beautifully seasoned, softly cooked onion; tiny rings of raw scallion; and minutely diced green apple, which added a welcome sweet-and-sour element to each dish.
Glacier Bowl and Poke is a small spot with a lot of heart and big flavor. A glance at their Instagram also shows they have big plans. A second location is in the works (predicted to be open this summer) and their outdoor stage/seating area will soon be hosting live music events. I guess there's more than one way to bring island flavor to South Anchorage. Now excuse me while I go dig up my flip-flops.
Glacier Bowl and Poke
Hours: 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday to Saturday, 10:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday
Location: 11460 Old Seward Highway
Contact: glacierbowls.com and 907-444-4946