That Food Guy
Monday, June 03, 2013
  Aboard the MV Columbia 10/16/12 – 10/19/12

MV Columbia underway on the Lynn Canal. Passing Haines en route to Skagway.
Aboard the MV Columbia 10/16/12 – 10/19/12 
Alaska Marine Highway System
Haines, Alaska to Bellingham, Washington

Dining Room
First off I would remind the reader that the vessels of the Alaska Marine Highway System are there provide transportation to the far flung and isolated ports of call along the inland waterway. They will haul your vehicle, seemingly no matter what the size, and if you can’t afford the cost of a cabin you can snuggle down in the chairs of the observation lounge or pitch your tent on the fantail. In that respect they have no equal. They are not cruise ships but they do things the cruise ships cannot. Whatever else the ships of the Alaska Marine Highway System do provide is an extra, a convenience for the traveler. In that respect they do an exceptional job as well. This blog will be a cumulative narration of the meals I enjoyed during my trip from Haines, Alaska to Bellingham, Washington aboard the MV Columbia.

Breakfast - eggs, bacon, hash browns,
 toast and coffee.
There are two places to eat aboard the Columbia. One is the dining room, a more formal experience with linen tablecloths and real silverware and you order from a menu. The other is the snack bar cafeteria, a more casual affair. Snacks are available all night and during mealtimes the short order cook can provide you with burgers, hot dog, grilled sandwiches or steam-table entrees that change daily. I decided to try out the fare the first morning in the dining room.

The dining room was not busy at the moment and I was shown directly to a table. My server, Celistino, was there a moment later and took my order. As is my breakfast custom, I went looking for bacon, hash browns and eggs. That was listed as combination number 1 (2 eggs any style, ham, bacon or sausage, breakfast potatoes, toast. $9.75) Celistino was careful to remind me that I might also enjoy a morning cup of coffee. I did not have a long wait. While I was waiting I took the time to look around the dining room. It was neat and clean. The tables were all set with tablecloths, napkins and silverware, glasses and coffee cups and saucers; a bit of elegance on the high seas. The order was prepared quickly. Neatly arranged on a platter with a slice of orange for a garnish, the eggs were to order though perhaps cooked a bit too long on the one side. The hash browns were nicely browned, crispy outside and cooked through the middle.  The bacon was fried nice and crisp and there were four slices to the order. Two slices of toasted white bread with the butter and the jellies on the side all made for a hearty breakfast.  Aside from the eggs being slightly overcooked, the meal was prepared and served well. It was a relaxed meal, no rush and I felt I could linger as long as I liked; Celistino, my server, refilled my coffee cup when near empty until I bade him to stop. 

There is a sign on the table. It explains that the staff of the MV Columbia as well as all the employees of the Alaska Marine Highway System are State of Alaska employees, officers if you will, and the rules forbids then from accepting tips or gratuities. Even though the staff was not working for tips, their service on this trip has been of high quality and certainly in any other circumstance would have earned them a generous reward.

Sweet and Sour Pork, Egg Roll
Also, canned green beans and a biscuit
Snack Bar Dining Room
My next meal aboard the MV Columbia was the next day for lunch. I decided to try out the snack bar and get a cheeseburger and fries. After all, if you can’t make a good hamburger, or fries for that matter, the rest of the offerings are suspect. It is a combination facility. There are prepared sandwiches, salads and desserts in a refrigerated self serve counter. That is available on a twenty four basis. For scheduled lunch and dinner hours, there is a short order grill offering the usual hamburgers, hot dogs and grilled sandwiches. There is also a small steam table where entrees for the daily special are prepared in the kitchen that adjoins the dining room and the snack bar. I was a bit early and got in line to order my cheeseburger. However, a hand lettered sign offered the daily special, sweet and sour pork (Lunch Special 31, $9.00). I couldn’t pass that up.  The rice and the sweet and sour pork were already in the steam table trays. The cook was momentarily flustered and he told me that the egg rolls hadn’t yet been cooked. I told him I would wait. It only took a few minutes before the egg rolls were done and he ladled out a generous helping of rice and sweet and sour pork.  As a curiosity, I will add that it was just an entrée and the usual serving is the entrée, a vegetable and a roll. He asked me if I wanted the green beans and being hungry I said yes. He added the roll and the egg roll to complete the serving. While I was waiting I also picked out a fruit salad ($4.00) and a 12-ounce soda ($1.75). The green beans were from a big can and heated up for serving. They were as good as canned green beans can get. The rice was well cooked, a nice sticky oriental style. The sweet and sour was well made. The sauce was not overpowering; I had pineapple chunks, some carrots and sweet red peppers. The pork serving was several large pieces of a mix of roast and ribs. It was a large serving with only a couple of small bones. It was tasty and the meat tender, easy to cut with the plastic knife and fork. The egg roll, a large one at that, was also a prepared heat and serve from the distributor. Basically,  It was a seasoned cabbage filler. It was an egg roll but not outstanding. It would have benefitted from some sort of dipping sauce. The fruit salad was a prepared offering in a plastic container. It consisted of melon, cantaloupe and honeydew, with red grapes. The melon was ripe without being mushy. I would judge the salad fresh as there was virtually no liquid in the bottom of the container. It was a tasty meal, served in large portions and one that I enjoyed. Considering that it was a steam table cafeteria offering it was very good. Add to that the cook had to hurry and fill my order all the while working on the other orders and he did it with a smile. It was an enjoyable meal. The dining area is neat and clean, well tended. It also can be busy at meal times so I didn’t linger as much as I would have liked to make room for other diners.
Cheeseburger and French fries

The next day my next meal really was a cheeseburger and French fries. I picked up a tray and moved past the prepared foods to the short order area. I ordered a cheeseburger and fries ($8.75 – Remember, we are paying Alaska prices).  While I waited for my order, I poured myself a Coca Cola from the serve yourself dispenser. My preference is for a grilled meat patty. Since open fires and flaring grease are not exactly a good idea aboard a ship, the griddle fried patty was acceptable.  The patty was cooked through but not overcooked and dry.  The cheese was thoroughly melted over the top of the patty. The burger was served open faced with lettuce, tomato, onion and dill hamburger slices. The French fries were served in a bowl alongside. I proceeded to the cashier. Although the ship does not offer wi-fi or satellite services for personal computers, the ship does have satellite communications capability. You can pay with your credit or debit card just as if you were in any major city in the lower Forty Eight; just a swipe of your card and enter your PIN. A dispenser near the cashier offers all the condiments you might need; just press the plunger and fill your portion cup.

Fry cook making my cheeseburger
Business was light so I quickly found and empty booth. I was looking over my order in front of me while I pulled out my camera to take a picture.  The hamburger bun was the large size, fresh and soft and the cooked hamburger patty came almost to the edge of the bun. The lettuce was a large leaf of curly leaf lettuce, vibrant green, crisp and fresh. The tomato slice was from a large, red and ripe tomato. The onion slice, a thick slab, was from a flavorful red onion. There were seven or eight hamburger dill slices as well. Put the burger on a regular ceramic platter to have enough room to add the fries, it would have been in place, fit in, in just about any eat in restaurant you can think of. But what was most amazing to me, on this car carrying ferry boat, is that they serve fresh, vibrant and favorable vegetables. It is even more amazing when you consider where the ship is and what a complicated and sinuous path they had to follow to be aboard the ship right now. The logistics are simply amazing. A bit of that awe, knowing where I am and seeing what I had before me, was parcel to every meal I had aboard the MV Columbia. I almost forgot; it was an excellent cheeseburger. The patty was cooked through, fresh off the grill, juicy and hot, the vegetables fresh and tasty and just the right amount of dressing – after all, I put it there myself.
Ham and Cheese Omelet,
hash browns, toast and coffee

The next morning I decided to treat myself and I went to the dining room for breakfast.  I selected the ham and cheese omelet (Daily Special number 5: $9.75 Three egg omelet - Denver, ham and cheese or Spanish – breakfast potatoes and toast. I also had my morning coffee, $1.75) The coffee, fresh as usual, had a good flavor comparable to any other upscale restaurant. The servers make frequent tours filling coffee cups to the brim. Sugar is individual serving packets and cream in is offered individual creamers. There were four slices of toast, a nice toasted golden brown, served with ample supplies of butter and jam. The breakfast potatoes were an ample serving of hash browns. They were cooked through with a dark golden brown, slightly crispy outside. They were not at all oily. All they needed was a dash of salt. That brings us to the omelet. Some scaring episodes in my early life have left me very particular about my eggs; about egg shells, grease, over-cooked and undercooked. This omelet was not offensive on any account. It was pan cooked, light and fluffy almost a soufflé. It wasn’t one of those omelets cooked on a griddle where the eggs spread out thin and get cooked to a nice rubbery consistency. It also wasn’t one of those French omelets, folded onto a plate without cooking the other side, rolling the still raw egg on the inside to make what the French omelet chef’s apologize for as being “creamy.” The filling of peppers, onions and ham is cooked on the side. The filling plus some grated cheese blend is folded inside and additional cheese over the top. The filling was ample, the filling cooked till the vegetables were just soft but not mushy. The egg itself was cooked to just the lightest golden brown nd the inside light and fluffy and fully cooked. What’s not to like. I really enjoyed that breakfast; it was almost as if the chef had asked me exactly how I wanted my omelet cooked.

My Second Cheeseburger
That evening for dinner I went to the snack bar. I ordered a cheeseburger and fries ($8.75). Cooked on the spot, my order was ready in just a few minutes. This meal was not as artistically arrange as my previous cheeseburger. The bun was stacked instead of open faced which made room for the fries on the plate. The once big leaf of crispy lettuce was now a token chip. We were three days out of Haines and I suppose supplies of fresh lettuce would be running low. On the side there was ample sliced red onion, fresh ripe red tomato and four slices of dill hamburger slices. The patty was cooked a bit more than needed, had a little more shrinkage, but not over cooked to dryness. The fries were cooked golden brown and were not greasy. They had been in a holding pan so were not piping hot out of the fryer but they were still warm enough to be appetizing. The ingredients and preparation were the same as the previous cheeseburger save perhaps a low supply of lettuce and a minute more on the grill and a bit less artistic skill. It tasted just as good and was satisfying. To put it in perspective, if this cheeseburger had been preassembled with a bit too much dressing, wrapped in paper and then pre-squashed, placed in a paper bag, it would more than held its own against anything McDonalds or Burger King could offer.
Delicious Shrimp Salad

In the late evening, after the rill has closed for the day, the snack bar dining room is a popular place to meet, play cards, sit and chat, write letters home. I found a table with a convenient electrical outlet and it made for a comfortable place to come and use my laptop computer. I went through the food line to get a soda to sip on while I typed. In the prepared food section there was a shrimp salad. I have always liked shrimp salad, liked it a lot (see http://www.twentymile.com/Cookbook/shrimpsalad2009.htm ). The temptation was just too great and I just had to have shrimp salad for a late night snack. I had actually seen a shrimp salad sitting on the crushed ice in that very spot for the last day or so. I wasn’t sure if it was the same one. I looked it over very carefully through the neat Saran wrapping. Here waqs a small trove of crisp looking lettuce, the tomato, egg and cucumber all looked to be fresh cut. The shrimp had the dull look, not weeping and glossy like shrimp past its prime. I took a chance. When I unwrapped the salad I took a careful sniff. I could smell shrimp but it was a mild fresh smell not like the fishing pier on a hot sunny day. It was as fresh as the shrimp I could buy from the market in the home town of Chugiak-Eagle River.  The salad couldn’t have been more than a few hours old. The shrimp must come aboard frozen and just defrosted to make new salads as needed. Crisp green lettuce, fresh tomato, crisp and cold cucumber and a sliced hardboiled egg all made for an excellent salad and a nice late night snack.

Chuck Wagon Breakfast
Biscuit, scrambled eggs and corned beef hash
The MV Columbia is a car ferry. Its schedule depends on a timely loading and unloading of the vehicles. My vehicle was loaded at near the origin of this voyage. As a result, it is poised to be the second vehicle off the ferry when we arrive in Bellingham, Washington. It is an early morning arrival in Bellingham; the sun had not yet risen as we pulled into the berth at Bellingham. As a result, there just isn’t any time for a leisurely breakfast. In fact, the main dining room wasn’t even scheduled to open. However, to accommodate passengers up very early, the snack bar had a special they called the Chuck Wagon Breakfast ($4.50 Scrambled eggs, corned beef hash and a biscuit). It was a nice way to feed the up early passengers hurrying to get ready to depart the ferry. I, of course, jumped at the opportunity to have a full belly or the rush to the freeway. The server didn’t skimp on the serving; he just kept ladling the hash.  The biscuit: it was a flaky, layered biscuit. It was nicely bake, golden brown on top. It had a good appearance, split easily between layers for some butter. It was a good biscuit but not great; perhaps a bit on the heavy side. It was, however, more than adequate in the early morning. I think the eggs were whole eggs. They cooked a lot of eggs on the griddle and that tends to change the texture, makes then denser, not as light as pan cooked scrambled eggs. They were very tasty. The corned beef hash came from a can, a very big can. There was a steam table tray full of corned beef hash. If you have ever used corned beef hash you know that it tends to be a bit greasy. If you fry it up in a pan the grease seems to go away. Or, you can drain it for a few minutes in a colander and let the grease drain away. IN this case the corned beef in the steam table tray still had all the grease. You can see it oozing out from the corned beef in the picture. I ate the eggs, the biscuit and the top layer of the corned beef. The bottom layer I just had to waste and throw it away. If it hadn’t been for the grease it would have been an almost perfect quick and easy get up and go breakfast.  For all the meals that had aboard the MV Columbia I guess this would be my only complaint and that may be the significant point in this blog. Basically, the food aboard the MV Columbia is A-Okay.

When one considers that the MV Columbia and her sister ships have a captive audience and whatever they chose to provide for the passengers depends upon the character of the Maritime Highway System and the captain and crews of the vessels.  They basically have free rein. To their credit they do an exceptional job and as a result a journey on the Alaska Marine Highway System is a pleasure. To emphasize the point we should compare the Marine Highway System to another major transportation provider for people going to and from Alaska, the airlines. Oh, that’s right. There is no comparison at all.
Snack Bar Kitchen
During the quiet hours
 

Passage Way Between Snack Bar Kitchen
 and Main Dining Room Kitchen
 

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Comments:
While reading the reviews, I was impressed by positive description of the food choices and prices. It sounds like the service is great as well. My wife, daughter and I will be sailing from Haines this year and although we haven't been on the Columbia I can say that the reviews have me looking forward to this vacation trip.
Thanks for the good vibes.
 
Dear Richard, Thank you for the positive comments on my blog entry. With no-reply e-mail this is about the only way to say thank you. Book your cabin early! From Bellingham to Haines is a long trip without a nice comfy place to sleep (I know from my very first trip many years ago). Enjoy your cruise! and thanks again. Larry
 
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