5300 Old Seward Highway
$5-$9 per plate
10:30 a.m. through 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday; closed Sunday
It’s been a while since I visited a sit-down burger joint for lunch, but this week we’re running a poll on speakupalaska.com because we want to know which ones are your favorites. While we haven’t formally named a winner yet, my boss asked if I couldn’t be persuaded to review the current front-runner; I took a look at the poll before answering, and gave him a cheerful yes.
The Arctic Roadrunner is a local institution in the finest sense, its every detail readily recalled by many Anchorage residents: the letterboard outside often displaying nutshell editorials on tolerance rather than this week’s special, the interior décor dominated by hundreds of photos of satisfied customers over the decades since its founding in 1964, the alternately intriguing and infuriating insistence on taking only cash at the register.
Of course, what people remember the most is the food itself -- relatively simple but hugely filling burgers, sandwiches and milkshakes that recall an earlier era. Many longtime residents split among the Roadrunner, its sister store Local Burgerman near Spenard and rival Downtown eatery Lucky Wishbone when asked who serves the best burger in Anchorage.
I showed up at the Roadrunner shortly after 11 a.m., determined to both beat the lunch crowd and order something that looked particularly ambitious. One of the Roadrunner’s quirks is an insistence on ordering a la carte; while some sandwiches on the menu come with specific sides, you’ll have to order burgers, fries and drinks separately since there’s no prebuilt option to order a meal.
When I walked in, I took a quick glance down the menu posted on the wall near the front counter, one page listing burgers and the other sandwiches. After a moment of consideration I ordered the chain’s flagship burger, the Kodiak Islander ($6.30), along with a regular peanut-butter shake ($3.95) and a side order of coleslaw ($1.25) to lighten things up a bit.
While the large log-cabin dining room offers plenty of seating -- as well as a small but welcome fireplace -- the service is resolutely fast-food, with employees calling customers back to the counter by order number to receive their meals. I barely had time to read the wall placard dedicating my table to a longtime patron (“Mr. Clyde Boyer, Since 1964”) before I got my tray perhaps five minutes later, versus the 20 or more it can take on a busy Saturday.
The Kodiak Islander on my tray consisted of a warm bun containing a quarter-pound patty adorned with the Roadrunner’s basics -- mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato and onion -- atop which sat a formidable blend of toppings: half of a cooked mild chili pepper, along with half a slice each of bologna, salami, ham, American and mozzarella cheeses, along with an onion ring “to top it off.” It’s the middle child of three similar burgers on the menu between the Kenai Whopper, which adds a second beef patty, and the smaller Lord Baranof, which replaces the chili-pepper half with relish.
Biting into the burger was nothing short of a culinary D-Day: the always-tasty beef and bun disappearing beneath the muted heat of the chili, the salt of the salami, the crunch of the onion rings and the hits of pork flavor from the bologna and ham. It’s all piled high on half the bun, however, so once I’d eaten to the burger’s midpoint it practically turned in its dress and slippers as if the clock had just struck midnight, leaving my taste experiment demoted to a fine but relatively mundane hamburger. The result is something of a split decision, since it’s healthier to halve the heavy toppings…even if the choice left me wanting more.
I knew from prior experience that I’d be ordering not a soda but a shake, a hugely popular Roadrunner item that bridges the gap between drink and dessert. My choice of a peanut-butter shake was a deliberate challenge, because not enough peanut butter can simply color a vanilla shake but too much can gum up a straw and cause consistency issues -- but it's one the kitchen came through with flying colors. Several long pulls on the straw confirmed that it kept the peanut butter’s flavor intact, while remaining thick yet drinkable.
The modest Styrofoam cup of coleslaw was every bit as welcome a change of pace from the burger and shake as I’d hoped, its straightforward mayo base compensated for by the use of fresh-tasting and slightly sharp cabbage. It’s a good and inexpensive companion for a burger if you’re eating alone, especially given the huge portions even small Roadrunner orders of fries or onion rings tend to contain (hint: bring a friend).
Despite the number of calories involved, I’ve got to say that my experience at the Roadrunner was surprisingly enlightening, if only because of a supreme irony. Even as I finished off my Kodiak Islander and wished the restaurant were more adventurous in its burger options, I briefly regretted not ordering my Roadrunner usual, a Barbecue Beef Sandwich -- a longtime staple of its sandwich menu. Can't you teach an old dog new tricks? Certainly -- but sometimes the old dog is charming just the way it is.