In This Alaskan City, the Food Outshines the Northern Lights
As the lone urban enclave within Alaska's vast and rugged interior, Fairbanks receives thousands of adventurous travelers each year. In the summer, hikers and wildlife enthusiasts arrive in droves, disembarking at the northern terminus of the Alaska Railroad. In winter, Aurora-chasers come, confident they'll have an opportunity to marvel at the nocturnal anomaly. Although the Borealis is notoriously elusive, your chances of seeing it here during a three night stay in high season is upwards of 90%.
For virtually all of these visitors, food is merely an afterthought. A city of some 30,000 year-round residents, Fairbanks has never been known as a culinary destination. But a steady wave of immigration over the past two decades—notably from India and Southeast Asia—has kickstarted something special. Suddenly, these once-sleepy side streets are ground zero for some of the most flavorful restaurants in the state. Come for the Northern Lights. Stay for the nam tok.
And give thanks to Charlie Boonprasert when you do.
He opened Thai House back in 1989, the first permanent establish in Fairbanks to serve his native cuisine. Initially arriving here to work at a local gold mine, he eventually saved enough to start a restaurant he could call his own, over the frequent protests of his wife, Laong. She emigrated to the town several years later, helping run the kitchen and outfitting the interior with the many Buddhist-themed murals and statues which still define the decor today. She became a widow in 2010 but still serves as much as 300 meals a day out of the 33-year-old eatery.
Along the way, many culinary talents that worked at Thai House have gone on to start their own operations elsewhere about town. In fact, in addition to the progenitor, there are currently no less than 15 restaurants in Fairbanks boasting the name 'Thai' in their title. The city holds the most amount of Thai food per capita in all of Alaska. This even includes a handful of drive-thru iterations, such as Thai Orchid.
While Thai House focuses more on the spicy curries and rich noodles and stews of central Thailand, Lemongrass excels at notable preparations of the north: khao niaw, laab, khao soi—much of it reimagined through the introduction of fresh Alaskan seafoods.
In the heart of downtown, Lavelle's Bistro has been a champion of reimagining. But the locals weren't exactly receptive at first. "When we started twenty years ago we had the idea of doing a tapas style menu with diverse small dishes from around the world," recalls co-owner Frank Eagle. "Upon further review we decided that Alaskans still wanted a steak the size of their head if they were to eat out. Slowly but surely Alaskans have become a lot more sophisticated and willing to try new things. Small plates have finally come into fashion."
At the eastern edge of town, in the cheekily mis-titled town of North Pole, chef Benny Lin has been building up the region's culinary bonafides since 1990. At Pagoda he takes a spin on Szechuan specialities with enough panache that some folks will travel hours to have them. To wit, in 2015, a retired Alaska Airlines pilot had Lin's Mongolian beef, cashew chicken, and famous honey walnut shrimp flown down to him at a Seattle hospital while he recovered from a stroke.
Lin's charisma has also won over some high profile food industry personalities including Guy Fieri. The host of television's Diners, Drive Ins', and Dives has featured the Alaskan restaurateur on his program on four separate occasions. This sort of national attention has helped shine a spotlight on others in the area, most recently chef Amit Paul, who opened Hari Om in 2017. The eatery touts the flavors and techniques of India's "Northwest Frontier region." Well before the restaurant was featured on Fieri's show (in February of 2021), locals were lining up for the chef's celebrated chicken vindaloo and lamb korma. Indeed, the success of these sorts of places didn't happen overnight. Many of the folks who've been tracking the Fairbanks food scene speak of a slow and steady evolution.
"Traditionally, it was never too cutting edge and I think that's largely due to our location," explains Gary Black, managing editor for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. "We're a small city in the middle of Alaska so food trends tend to pass us by. [But] that changed in the past ten years or so, and I credit the arrival of our food truck scene with the change. The trucks and their owners and chefs had an impact in the city's food culture. It started growing and getting creative, and it's had a reverberating effect."
Mein Diner was an early adopter of the format carrying Currywurst, spätzle, and bratwurst to various corners of town. Soon after it was launched, in 2016, Fairbanks introduced its annual Food Truck Rally which has developed into a dependable summertime confab.
"Over the past decade, our food scene has grown to include many wonderful artisan restaurants, food trucks, gourmet food shopping locations, dinner clubs, food competitions and events," observes David Pruhs host of Fairbanks Foodies, a program on local radio station KFAR.
The craft beer boom, in particular, has been especially kind to the proliferation of mobile kitchens. Alaska law restricts the food that can be prepared by brewery tasting rooms, but it doesn't stop food trucks from setting up shop directly outside. As a result, hoppy hotspots including Black Spruce Brewing, HooDoo, and Lat 65 each play host to popular food trucks in their respective parking lots. Pair an IPA with the traditional Filipino lumpia of Hapanun Shack or enjoy a Black Spruce mixed culture sour—brewed with blueberries—alongside a house-ground, burger on brioche from Blue Flame Streetside.
Just don't let all of this newfangled cosmopolitan cosplay fool you: Fairbanks is still a frontier town. Remoteness is a vital component of its charm and—as Pruhs points out—essential to its continued culinary evolution. "We are a community that is isolated so we give ourselves incredible service, amenities, options and opportunities," he says. "With the size of our town, every chef and cook knows they are preparing a meal for someone they know. So the quality is always spot on!"