Open & Shut: Patio dining revs up at Hilltop, a pop-up Vietnamese eatery opens, an
Open & Shut is an ongoing series looking at the comings and goings of businesses in Southcentral Alaska. If you know of a business opening or closing in the area, send a note to reporter Alex DeMarban at firstname.lastname@example.org with “Open & Shut” in the subject line.
Finn’s Kitchen at Hilltop Bike Park: Anchorage-area adventurers now have access to mountain bike trails with berms, jumps and wood features coupled with burgers, sandwiches, local brews and wine that they can have on a dog-friendly patio with live music on Friday nights.
Hilltop general manager Trevor Bird is hoping to reinvigorate the popular nonprofit-owned winter ski area during summer with its operations as a bike park and its new cafe, Finn’s Kitchen. They’re aiming to create another Anchorage community staple, he said.
“The trails that we’re building are for all skill levels. The terrain that we have really lends well to mountain biking, and then you add in the food, the patio, the ambiance. It’s just a kind of a natural fit for a great hangout spot,” Bird said.
Finn’s Kitchen is currently open, but the bike park will likely not reopen until mid-June.
The cafe, which opened in late January, is a departure from the previously offered powdered hot cocoa and hot dog fare during the ski season at Hilltop. Finn’s offers a full menu of sandwiches, burgers and several local beers and cider on tap. Its namesake is a friendly red-haired dog seen bounding around the park year-round and greeting newcomers, tongue lolling. (Finn the dog belongs to Hilltop’s director of operations.)
Live bands will play outside each Friday beginning in June and into August, Bird said.
As for the bike park, Bird said the Hilltop team has big plans: Two more trails will be built this summer, along with new features on current trails.
There are currently three trails, Gnarnia for beginners, Schralp D’Huez for intermediate biking and an advanced trail called Taco Sauce. The park also has a pump track, and a jump line called Osteoblast.
With fundraising efforts and a matching grant from the Rasmuson Foundation, they plan to build more trails next year and purchase rental bikes.
But with the upswing in outdoor activity during the pandemic and a scarcity in bike parts, a fleet of bikes is too difficult to secure for this summer, Bird said.
Still, Hilltop is offering a wide range of bike school classes for ages 8 and up this summer, along with individual coaching sessions, mountain bike skill clinics for adults, and women-specific clinics from ShredMaiden X Spoke Sisters.
Almost everyone who grows up in Anchorage has a story about learning to ski or snowboard at Hilltop, Bird said.
“Our goal is to do the same thing with biking,” Bird said. “Taking a small bike, getting you to feel comfortable on the bike and then putting you on trails that build up your skills so that we create a lifetime biker.”
Phan Le: This pop-up diner in downtown Anchorage serves a small seasonal menu of six traditional Vietnamese dishes with a modern twist.
About three weeks ago, Robert Guarco began serving his creations in the evenings, Thursdays-Sundays, out of the kitchen at 817 W. Sixth Ave. The space is occupied by a different business during the day, a longtime Anchorage breakfast and lunch spot, Cafe 817.
Guarco began Phan Le with the help of his mother, Jaclyn Jackson. The two co-own the business. They intend to find their own kitchen space soon, he said.
But for now, Guarco, the creative mind behind the menu, is focused on building a solid foundation for his restaurant — perfecting the dishes on the menu, getting the word out about the business and finding more local produce to use.
Guarco said he used his experience in French cooking and fine dining to develop his own take on traditional foods served in Vietnam. The menu includes locally sourced meats — Alaskan ribeyes in his version of Shaking Beef (Bo Luc Lac) and Guarco’s halibut with turmeric and dill (Cha Ca Va Long).
He said he’s also particularly happy with his vegan pho, served with locally grown mung bean sprouts.
“I wanted a food option for everyone,” he said.
Phan Le also serves “true Vietnamese coffee,” a rare find in Anchorage, according to Guarco.
Guarco grew up in Eagle River and he said he fell in love with cooking while working as a server in local restaurants. He began working as a cook in higher-end restaurants around Anchorage to learn as much as he could, most recently doing a stint as a fish cook at the Crow’s Nest.
Guarco’s grandmother and mother had fled from Vietnam during the war and came to the U.S., eventually landing in Alaska.
“My dream was always to start something of my own,” he said. “Vietnamese food just felt right.”
When naming his new venture, Guarco and his mother picked Phan Le without realizing that flipped, the words are the name of his great-grandmother, Le Phan.
“It just means more now, but by accident. By total fate,” he said.
AK Bark: Marketing itself as “intensely Alaskan,” this locally owned pet supply store opened its first spot six years ago in South Anchorage.
But business has grown. That’s partly because COVID-19 kept more people home, tending to pets’ needs or adopting new ones, said owner Mark Robokoff.
That’s demonstrated by the fact that people are increasingly buying pet birthday cakes that the store sells, he said.
“It’s like, ‘I’m still at home with the dog, so let’s throw them a party,’ ” Robokoff said.
In mid-June, AK Bark plans to open its second and much bigger location in Midtown Anchorage, near the corner of Fireweed Lane and Eagle Street.
AK Bark offers standard pet store merchandise, but it stands out from national brands in part because it sells hard-to-find gear for the north, Robokoff said. There are snowsuits for pets, lots of booties and skijoring gear. The store even sells a spiked Kevlar predator vest for small dogs, to protect against potential attacks from eagles, wolverines and other wildlife, he said.
The store has found a niche since opening, he said.
“I’m just a dog person, but we’ve found out there’s a lot of things that Alaskans want to get for their pets but that you can’t find at a big box store up here,” he said.
Crumbl Cookies: The first Crumbl Cookies in Alaska will open on Friday morning.
Connor Heid, 21, said he and his aunt and uncle, Camille and Owen Ala, own the franchise rights in Alaska for the fast-growing chain.
“We have deep Alaska roots, and we’re happy to be Alaska-owned and operated,” Heid said.
The Utah-based chain has exploded since its founding in 2017, Heid said. It has more than 450 locations in dozens of states.
It features several rotating cookie flavors each week, from about 200. It also has an ever-present staple, a milk chocolate chip cookie.
“So it might be raspberry cheesecake, s’mores, key lime pie” or other cookie types, depending on the week, he said.
The Anchorage Chamber of Commerce is teaming up with the business to hold a ribbon-cutting event for Crumbl’s soft opening on Thursday morning. Friday’s grand opening starts at 8 a.m., and will feature a DJ and free swag for guests, Heid said.
It’s located at Tikahtnu Commons, at 1118 N. Muldoon Road, Unit 145, where the Denali Federal Credit Union had been located.
On The Border Mexican Grill & Cantina: This casual Tex-Mex establishment will make its Alaska debut in mid-June.
It will be Anchorage restaurateur Jack Lewis’ latest venture, the Texas-based chain said in a statement.
With more 120 joints nationally, On the Border is known in part for its fajitas grilled over mesquite wood, plus margaritas. It will open at the Tikahtnu Commons shopping center in East Anchorage, and expects to employ about 80 people.
In Alaska, Lewis has opened a number of other businesses, including Sourdough Mining Co., Firetap Alehouse, The New Peanut Farm Sports Grill, BurgerFi and Krispy Kreme Doughnuts.
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