If you detect the scent of smoke near Indian along the Seward Highway this season, don’t dial 911. Instead, slow down and watch for the red-roofed building near Mile 103. That’s where you’ll find the Turnagain Arm Pit BBQ, one of Alaska’s newest roadside eateries.
Depending on your sense of humor, the “Arm Pit” portion of the name may be either amusing or off-putting. If you fall into the second group, it may help to reframe it. Think of the Arm Pit as a casual spot for some smoky pit-style barbecue, in a scenic location along the Turnagain Arm of the Cook Inlet. I’ll wager the Arm Pit has the best view of any BBQ shop in Alaska or the Lower 48. During nice weather, you can enjoy your meal on the large, outside deck, taking in the views of the Chugach Mountains behind the shop and the vista of the Kenai range across the inlet.
I’d heard the Arm Pit BBQ described as Texas style, so I walked in with preconceived expectations about the menu. One glance dispelled Texas as the point of origin for the restaurant. Nary a beef rib to be found, and a Texas BBQ joint would not have pulled pork featured at the top of the menu. Giving top billing to pork is no longer considered a hanging offense in Texas, but the Arm Pit’s signature item would raise eyebrows in Longhorn country. The “Boar Tide” is a pulled pork sandwich topped with a plank of bacon. While it sounds yummy, a pitmaster serving it in Texas would likely be labeled a traitor and promptly deported from the Lone Star state.
Meat at the Turnagain Arm Pit is smoked low and slow, a technique required for good barbeque. Beyond that, it is a bit difficult to pigeonhole the regional style. There are elements reminiscent of both Memphis and K.C. BBQ styles, brisket that has roots in Texas, and even some hints of Carolina ‘cue, too, with mustard sauce offered on the side. I decided to toss the geography lesson out the window. I’ve simply dubbed the Arm Pit as having “pan-Southern” barbecue.
Offerings include racks or half-racks of pork ribs, either as lean, tender baby backs or as the meatier St. Louis style. Heed the sign posted on the wall that proclaims, “Life is too short for a half rack.” My dry rubbed St. Louis ribs were juicy and had the rosy pink ring indicative of slow smoking. They came with a small cup of vinegar punched tomato-based barbeque sauce but it stayed on the side. Good ribs don’t need sauce.
Sandwiches feature pulled pork or beef brisket, with the option to have the beef sliced or chopped. Classic BBQ calls for sliced brisket — chopping seems blasphemous to those who think a well-smoked brisket should be kept intact. The bark on my sliced brisket was tasty, highlighting the flavorful spice rub used prior to smoking. Unfortunately, the beef itself was somewhat dry. Adding the sauce helped a bit but it couldn’t compensate for the overdone texture of the meat. Brisket can be finicky and dries out easily, so perhaps this particular piece was just an outlier.
By contrast, my pulled pork sandwich was juicy, tender, and piled high on the bun. The moist meat carried smoke mixed with the flavor of “Turnagain Silt,” the name bestowed on the signature dry rub used on Arm Pit pork. While flavorful, to my taste the sandwich lacked a touch of salt. When I couldn’t find any with the other condiments I asked at the counter, resulting in a stern look from the staffer. Had I broken an unwritten rule, was further seasoning of the food not allowed? She returned a few minutes later bearing a kitchen-size shaker. A few sprinkles of coarse salt and my sandwich was good to go. It came with two small cups of sauce, one a thin, vinegary tomato-based sauce and the other a thicker mustard sauce that was reminiscent of South Carolina. My sandwich needed neither — the meat stood on its own.
Rib platters and sandwiches automatically come with cups of beans and cole slaw on the side. I expected the beans to be savory, and found instead that they were a sweet, sticky style with small bits of chopped meat mixed in with several different types of shell beans. The long shreds of crunchy slaw seemed naked at the first bite. I capped the cup, shook it upside down, and redistributed the very light, sweet vinaigrette dressing throughout the slaw. It provided a refreshing compliment to the richness of the pork.
Several varieties of large side dishes are available a la carte, including sweet potato fries, hush puppies, fried okra, and large containers of the baked beans and cole slaw. Currently all meats are served as individual portions with beans and slaw, so the larger side portions are a bit redundant — except for extremely hearty eaters. Once the restaurant begins serving meat family-style, by the pound, then I think they’ll sell more of the alternate accompaniments.
Current beverage offerings include canned sodas and southern sweet tea. Rumor has it that the shop is in the process of acquiring a license to sell beer and wine. If that happens, it will be a nice addition for the restaurant. Sweet tea goes well with barbecue, but it can’t compare to a cold beer – preferably Alaskan – on a hot summer day.