Walking through downtown Juneau toward all the summertime vendors, the amount of food choices may seem almost overwhelming. With hundreds of tourists milling about, too, it may not seem worth it to venture down to South Franklin to grab a bite.
As I can now personally attest: Don’t let that deter you.
From reindeer sausage to candied salmon ice cream, and more, there are some adventurous bites — and sips — that every local should try. Some of the fare is eclectic and I’ve never heard of it before. Having just moved to Juneau in February, I definitely wanted to get a taste of the town. Here are some unique eats and drinks to try out yourself.
One of the first stops on my journey with longtime Juneau Empire photographer Michael Penn was at Manila Bay Cafe. The options are written out big and bold. Elk, caribou, venison and reindeer are all possibilities. Each can be served in a variety of ways. There are burgers, gyros or simply a meat-on-the-stick option.
For many, the thought of eating reindeer may be off-putting because someone may not like what they think will be a gamey, or wild, meat flavor, or they just want to make sure Santa has enough to guide his sleigh. However, reindeer is far from gamey.
“It’s good,” Jack Lawrence, a visitor from Dallas, Texas, said to me when I offered him a bite of reindeer sausage on a stick. “It tastes like regular sausage. You can’t get this back in Dallas, Texas. It’s tasty. It is very good.”
It tastes like Polish ring kielbasa. The seasoning gives a mild pork sausage sweetness. It is somewhat salty, but like Lawrence said, it tastes like a regular sausage. Having also lived in Texas where a vegetable is considered green beans cooked with bacon so long that all nutritional value is lost and barbecue is serious business, Lawrence enjoying his bite of reindeer should be considered high praise. Lawrence greeted me again to let me know his wife also enjoyed her first bite of reindeer.
Red bean boba
Manila Bay also offers a variety of boba drinks. Boba drinks include tapioca pearls, and at Manila they are blended into a slushy consistency. Varieties can be as tame as strawberry and as different as red bean, used in Hawaiian shaved ice and ice creams, taro, a tropical root vegetable, and matcha green tea.
Having tried both matcha and red bean, I would lean towards red bean mostly because it is such a unique flavor. There is a cream or milk flavor at first but then the bean comes on surprisingly strong. It is not sweet and actually tastes like a plain navy bean. Because there is a blend of savory and sweet, it is a balanced drink.
Further down the street comes 60 Degree Coffee and Tea Company, which opened its storefont inside the Merchant’s Wharf Jan. 6 and its cart May 28. Yes, it offers all the regular coffee shop favorites, but it also offers something very different — chaga.
Chaga is a mushroom and at 60 Degree Coffee and Tea, they have transformed it into a drink. According to the company’s website, their chaga concentrate is blended with single source El Salvadoran coffee, Colombian cacao or hand-picked Sri Lankan tea and then brewed. It can be ordered straight up and as a latte.
Wanting to get the exact flavor, I decided to go with straight chaga. It smells like walking through the woods after a rainstorm. Now comes the taste test. Initially, it is a tad bitter. However, it is bitter the way really good, high-grade dark chocolate is bitter. I would describe it as falling face first into very clean dirt. It is definitely different than coffee or tea but has characteristics of both. Like coffee, the slightly bitter taset is either something you like or don’t. Like tea, it is very clean and even floral or woody. The barista offered me something sweet to cut the bitterness, but I declined. It is an interesting alternative to coffee or tea.
Candied salmon ice cream
Nearing the end of the vendors comes Juneau staple Coppa, an artisan ice cream shop in the Flats and an ice cream cart downtown, serving up a variety of ice cream, hot chocolate and root beer floats. Many know Coppa to experiment with flavors like spruce tip and soapberry. Lauren Wilder, visiting from Yuba City, California, said she hardly eats fish but enjoyed her first bite of candied salmon ice cream.
“It’s interesting,” Wilder said. “It tastes a little bit like salt. It also has a vanilla taste and it is full of flavor. This is like a different taste for me. It tastes good and it looks really good.”
I tried the spruce tip ice cream. It is hard to describe, but it is piney. It is not overwhelming and much like the salmon ice cream, the sweetness of the vanilla balances everything out. I love it. I have never drank the water keeping a Christmas tree green, but dogs seem to like it. I imagine the flavors are similar. Maybe I’ll try the water from a Christmas tree this winter.
• Contact reporter Gregory Philson at email@example.com or call at 523-2265. Follow him on Twitter at @GTPhilson.