Ketchikan, Alaska’s “First City,” is an island reached by plane or boat. A popular cruise port, tourists flood into the city daily to view the artwork along the waterfront of the Inside Passage, the Native American totem poles, and to savor the variety of fresh seafood in a city that is known as the Salmon Capital of the World.
It’s home to black bears, wolves, and bald eagles, and some of the most spectacular scenery in the U.S. The temperate rainforest keeps the air moist and the flora and fauna thriving. Then there are the waters that provide daily sightings of whales, puffins, and other sea life, and the fresh catches that feed the tourists and residents.
Tourism and commercial fishing are the two main industries in Ketchikan, so it’s easy to find fresh-off-the-boat halibut, salmon, lingcod, and other seafood choices at the local restaurants.
I was invited to visit the nearby Steamboat Bay Fishing Lodge on Noyes Island for a women’s fishing expedition (my first trip since coronavirus). On the way, we stayed in Ketchikan and sampled some of the fresh seafood for ourselves. While Ketchikan may boast that it’s the Salmon Capital of the World, you’ll find many more seafood options being celebrated at the restaurants — halibut is one favorite for local chefs, and it’s my new favorite fish after tasting it, whether it’s wrapped in bacon, slathered in a wine and butter sauce, or stuffed with crab.
When asked why there are so many halibut options in a city known for its salmon, Chris Lemerond, corporate chef for Cape Fox Corporation, explained, “I like to sell halibut because the locals are burned out on salmon. Honestly, they eat salmon all the time. Tough problem to have, I know! I think that halibut is a big seller because not everybody can get out to get halibut. I mean, you have to go way out there. Salmon come in the streams and everybody gets them. So you can go right down to the stream and you can fish and catch salmon. But for halibut, you have to be in the boat, you have to go out, and you have to drop. It’s a patience thing.”
The restaurants in Ketchikan generally focus on what’s in season and what the fishermen are catching. So menus change based on what’s coming off the boats.
“I think the real seafood that comes out of here — in addition to salmon — is the prawns and the halibut and the yellow eye rockfish, and lingcod is really popular when it’s in season. When you can put lingcod on the menu, a lot of people around here treat it as a little bit of a treasure.”
Ready to taste some of the delicious seafood Lemerond is talking about? Here’s where to go to get it.
1. Bar Harbor
The local barbecue joint with a view of the waterway and mountains, Bar Harbor Ale House also serves amazing seafood alongside its smoked meats. We sampled a variety of flavors during our visit: pork belly and peaches, halibut tacos, a bacon-wrapped halibut salad, smoked salmon chowder, and a flatbread topped with shaved pork belly, honey, brie, and walnuts.
The salmon chowder was deceptively rich considering it’s not heavily loaded with cream. Chef Lemerond explains the process for making the delectable soup: “First, we smoke the salmon for the chowder. It starts with a veggie broth that has corn added and cooked for its flavor. Then the salmon is added last. Adding it last gives the soup a dollop of flavor at the end.”
And there’s no shortage of salmon in this chowder. Lemerond says there’s nearly a pound and a half of salmon in one gallon of soup, with just a little bit of cream added at the end. Delightfully rich in flavor, I would have thought it was heavier cream based, but Lemerond said, “The soup has a real depth to it from the veggie stock itself.”
Go for the seafood dishes and the chowder especially, but be sure to try the barbecue as well. It’s all delicious.
2. Cape Fox Lodge
As we stayed at the Cape Fox Lodge two nights, I ate a few meals at the lodge’s Heen Kahidi Dining Room. The lodge is tucked into the hillside on the edge of the Tongass National Forest and overlooks Ketchikan and the waterway. The meals, created by Chef Lemerond and Chef Eddie Lopez, were especially well prepared and presented.
My first lunch upon arrival in Ketchikan was at Heen Kahidi, and the meal set the tone for my newfound love of halibut. I ordered the Alaskan Gold Rush sandwich — a delicate piece of fried halibut topped with candied bacon, provolone, and honey mustard on a potato bun. My friend ordered the Halibut Gruyere, a similar sandwich, except the fish was grilled and it came with a gruyere sauce. They were both amazing.
The seafood shined at every meal. We had salmon eggs benedict for breakfast one morning and shrimp scampi and pan-seared scallops for dinner.
3. Annabelle’s Famous Keg And Chowder House
Another hotel restaurant, Annabelle’s is located inside the historic Gilmore Hotel. The chowder is a must-try since it’s in their name and is said to be the best seafood chowder in Alaska. There are two dining options in Annabelle’s. On the left side of the building you can sit in a tavern-style bar and order from an antique-looking 1927 newspaper that’s the menu (and can be taken with you as a souvenir). Or sit on the right side for a fine-dining environment with a traditional menu. Both menus have the same choices; it’s just a matter of which environment you choose to dine in.
The famous seafood chowder has a blend of scallops, halibut, and salmon added to simmered potatoes, tomatoes, celery, onion, and assorted herbs that are finished with half and half. Or choose the clam or smoked salmon chowders. In addition to the chowder, other specialties include clams sauteed in an herb, garlic, and white wine sauce, a crab macaroni and cheese, prawns, or a blue cheese crumb-crusted halibut — all are rich, decadent, and satisfying.
4. Alaska Fish House
The waterfront Alaska Fish House is known for its Dungeness crab, smoked salmon cornbread, and another delicious incarnation of smoked salmon chowder. Chowders are popular at all the restaurants — the cooler temps and rainforest atmosphere lend well to a warm bowl of chowder any time of year.
The Alaska Fish House is more of a crab-shack type establishment, so look for hearty servings of fish tacos, fish and chips, fish burgers, and hamburgers.
5. 108 Tap House And Burger Bar
108 Tap House, Ketchikan’s newest culinary addition, adds flair to the dining scene. It’s not a seafood restaurant, but it’s a meal you won’t want to miss. Smashed burgers are made in front of you and served alongside craft cocktails concocted with special touches such as an in-house dehydrated lemon slice. The poutine, cheese curds, and hummus fries are big on flavor and style as well.
I ordered the 108 Burger, a bacon-wrapped burger with Beecher’s Flagship cheese, caramelized onions, butter lettuce, tomatoes, and house-made pickles. It was enormous and one of the best burgers I’ve tasted.
The cocktails are as sleek as the redesigned interior, incorporating tea and coffee-infused liquors into drinks such as the Earl Grey Old Fashion with 108 Earl Grey-infused bourbon, simple syrup, bitters, sweet vermouth, and a cherry dried orange. The Smoked Boulevardier is a dramatic presentation of Whistle Pig rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, Campari, and an orange slice topped with a bubble of smoke.
6. The Taste Of Ketchikan Tour
To sample a variety of dishes, take the Taste of Ketchikan tour. This guided tour starts along the downtown area coastal walk as the guide points out the artwork and artists of the region. At the edge of Ketchikan’s notorious red light district on Creek Street, the tour ends at New York Cafe in a private dining room where the chef prepares several courses, all centered around the catch of the day.
My Alaska Tours co-owner Shauna Lee said, “The chef comes out and explains each course — and it’s always the catch of the day. So guests learn, ‘This is the fishing boat that it was caught on. These are the fishermen who caught it. And here’s what a halibut looks like.’” The chef will also explain “all of the aspects of the particular fish.”
7. New York Cafe
You can stop by New York Cafe without joining a tour to enjoy fresh, local seafood, and American and Mediterranean cuisine with vegetarian options at your own pace.
When looking for locally sourced foods, in addition to seafood, you’ll find plenty of reindeer, local beer and spirits, Alaskan birch syrup, fireweed honey, salmonberries, and blueberries in Ketchican. There’s even a blueberry festival each August to celebrate the beloved fruit.