Amid the recent influx of winter news and other restaurants opening up shop around town, I’ve been neglecting a stop right under my nose in recent weeks — a stop I’ve been waiting all summer to try.
Turnagain Arm Pit BBQ’s newest location — most recently the site of the Chiang Mai Ultimate Thai Restaurant, near the north end of the University Center mall — represents its first attempt to expand beyond its seasonal shack along the Seward Highway in Indian. Despite its low profile in Anchorage thus far, it has a fanatically loyal following, one which had the place hopping when reporter Austin Baird and I took the short trip up the Old Seward Highway to visit on an otherwise calm afternoon
The smell of barbecue smoke is the first thing you notice walking in the door at the revamped restaurant, which has opened up what was a hostess counter into a bar-based seating area which seems to be a requirement for new Anchorage restaurants. Much of the dining room wraps around and to the right of the bar and the kitchen behind it, opening up into an unobstructed single room amply lit from windows along the front of the building; the décor evokes a Southern-picnic motif, with checkerboard tables holding Mason jars which are used as both placeholders and beverage glasses.
Turnagain Arm Pit BBQ’s menu features a rather pure focus on its specialty, much like its fellow recent Anchorage arrival Flattop Pizza + Pool: while you’ll be quite at home in its chosen field, don’t walk in expecting to find a burger or a cup of soup. The main list of 10 barbecue dishes is divided into pork, beef, ribs and chicken choices, rounded out by a modest selection of appetizers, salads and desserts; flipping the page reveals a limited list of beer and wine, as well as dishes available in bulk. Neither Austin nor I wanted to commit to any one species on the menu, so we both opted for the aptly named Barnyard Sampler ($14.50); I ended up substituting pulled pork for a four-ounce portion of hot links, while Austin swapped pork in for a quarter of a chicken. The service was relatively fast, and our food was set down on the table in about 20 minutes.
My platter, as modified, presented me with a broad sample of what the establishment had to offer: an ice-cream scoop of pulled pork, a large piece of barbecued chicken and a reasonable portion of ribs. The pork was arguably the standout dish of the plate, its modest size belied by the vast amount of smoky flavor cooked in, on par with the kalua pig at local plate-lunch favorite Hula Hands. Any hint of stinginess in its portion was compensated for by the chicken, a huge piece rubbed in the restaurant’s “silt” dry rub which gave it a baseline of flavor well accompanied by the sauces on offer. The third sample on hand, a quarter rack of ribs, provided a taste of Turnagain Arm Pit at its best, a messy but delicious pile of pork I attacked with knife and fork before going at it bare-handed. My choices for two side dishes (from among potato salad, coleslaw and baked beans), were workmanlike, with the potato salad surprisingly light and even a little tangy, while the coleslaw’s vinegar-based dressing added to its snap and carried an undertone of sugar which played well against the vegetables.
Austin liked several things about his plate, ranging from the fresh potato salad and beans to hot links and well-cooked pork, but drew on his upbringing in Georgia — including the consumption of what he calls “an amount of pulled pork and brunswick stew that should be regrettable” — to cite a problem with what he called “modified ketchup” on hand to dress the meats. “What’s lacking is the sauce,” Austin wrote about the three options on the table, an original sauce, a hot sauce and a mustard-based option. “There is no vinegar-based sauce, a capital offense in Tar Heel country, and the hot sauce isn’t all that hot.” He gave a tentative overall rating of 8 of 10 “for Alaska,” with a 6 of 10 overall.
I also ordered a Boar Tide sandwich ($15) for digital content supervisor Josh Staab, which nearly had him salivating when I promised to do so before we left the newsroom. When it showed up, though, he too had a problem with sauce — namely, the exact opposite of Austin’s. “Their meat is delicious, moist and filling, but what it lacks in flavor…isn’t made up for with their choice to under-deliver on take-out amounts of sauce,” Staab wrote. “The Boar Tide is an obvious standout — the combination of bacon and pulled pork isn’t a revelation, but like an old friend, it is always a welcome sight.”
For my part, I think Turnagain Arm Pit BBQ is navigating a complicated transition from stand to restaurant with a mix of marvels and missteps, featuring the same kind of emerging identity I’ve seen at newer restaurants like the Bear Paw Restaurant and Yes Bistro. While I have to agree with Austin and Josh’s charge that the food is slightly overpriced relative to its sit-down competition, I very much liked what I was served, and there’s still plenty of novelty in being able to pick up a Boar Tide year-round. I’m looking forward to seeing whether Turnagain can turn that initial novelty into a steady stream of customers who come back again and again.