Blink, and you’ll miss it.
Like so many places in this small town, it emerges from behind the trees as you pass by, and then it’s gone. It took a friend to point it out to me before I realized that it was a restaurant, and not simply someone’s house.
In a way, that’s the first test. The Chugiak Cafe has limited parking and seating, which fills up before the sun is over the mountain each weekend morning. Because of this, they have learned to blend in, needing no new customers but the same locals that come through.
If you get to the point where you realize it’s a restaurant, and if you manage to get a coveted parking spot out front, then stepping inside is another story. There are several entrances into several different rooms, each of which serves a different purpose. You could end up where the to-go orders are taken. You could end up in the dining room. You could end up in the cafe. Good luck knowing which is which.
By some stroke of luck, we ended up in the cafe, where we were instructed to wait until tables in the dining room opened up. Unlike the austere waiting areas of other restaurants, the table we sat at felt more like a corner table at Grandma’s house. “Grandma,” or in this case the barista, apologized for the wait and plowed us full of sweet drinks.
I ordered The Rachel, a cup of black tea topped with a white mocha. I’m not one for sweet coffees or teas, and they typically mean little more to me than a boost of caffeine before the main course. But this drink stuck with me. For days afterward, I found myself thinking about it during moments of quiet and mumbling, “Man, that drink was good.”
Once we’d made our way to the bottom of our mismatched thrift store mugs, we were taken to the main dining room and sat down at a corner table. Here, we were surrounded by Carhart-clad locals. Many of them wore the tired faces of the hungover, the new parents, the hard laborers getting their hot Sunday morning meal.
When our food arrived, a mixture of paninis and omelettes and biscuits with thick gravy drizzled over top, the portions begged for a good appetite. Luckily, we’d brought ours. We worked through our meals at the pace of true Alaskans who’d woken up that morning to the first frost. I realized halfway through my omelette that I hadn’t had to reach for the salt yet; everything was salted properly.
This small gesture, liking the unnecessary but sweet sprinkles on top of the cupcake, was all I needed to be convinced that the Chugiak Cafe was not, at the end of the day, a restaurant. If it hadn’t been for the fact that I paid for food at the end of it all, I would have thought that I’d stumbled into someone’s overcrowded home with a fancy sign out front.
At the end of the day, that is the beauty of this establishment; it doesn’t feel like an establishment at all. I imagine that my breakfast scramble would have been the same had I called up the owners and asked to come over for a meal. It’s the same breakfast that your best friend would make for you after a nasty hangover.
So if it is a weekend, and you are hungover, and you’re willing to brave a tiny parking lot, you can eat like a local.