That Food Guy
Monday, October 17, 2016
  China Lights - Eagle River, Alaska

 China Lights
12110 Business Blvd #2
Eagle River, Alaska 88577
(907) 694-8080


The China Lights Restaurant in Eagle River is a small to medium-sized facility located in a strip mall. This particular restaurant has been there since 1980. A sister establishment, located in Anchorage, has been extant since 2010. I have not visited the Anchorage facility so everything herein pertains to the Eagle River store.
I have a mixed history with China Lights that goes back a long time. I first became aware of the Eagle River China Lights when I moved into the area about 1995. A fan of Chinese food, I was quick to spot it and mentally mark it for later. Sometime later I had that urge for some fried rice, one of my favorite foods, and went to China Lights for takeout.  It was excellent! I really loved it; very flavorful with a great seasoning combination I wished I could emulate. I was very happy to have some tasty Chinese food close at hand.
It was a busy time for me then. There was work and the extracurricular activities such as dog mushing that kept me busy and it was a long while before I was in town, at the right time, to get some more fried rice takeout. It was, to put it plainly, terrible. The rice was almost crunchy. It wasn’t seasoned at all except for a splash of soy sauce and there was only a pittance of vegetables and chicken thrown in. Even steaming it a bit at home I was unable to revive it and, sadly, most of that order ended up in the compost pile. After that encounter I pretty much erased the mental note and never again considered the China Lights as an asset. Over the ensuing years I have driven past the China Lights many, many times but never had any inkling to try it again.

During this 2016 trip to Alaska I noticed some TV ads for the China Lights. They mostly featured the Anchorage store, especially the interior shots showing the buffet, but the ad did tell of the two locations, Anchorage and Eagle River. That got me to thinking… (Sometimes that is a dangerous thing to do.) So, if the China Lights has been there all this time without going under they must be doing something right and not chasing away customers like they did me. Also, if they have made enough profit to open or take over another facility they must have a fairly large and satisfied customer base. Perhaps, I thought, it was time to give China Lights another try.
I called good buddy Larry Tower and asked if he would like to go to lunch one day soon. On the appointed day we made the fifteen minute drive to China Lights. Apparently the buffet is popular and the hostess/waitress assumed we were there for the buffet and when she seated us she didn’t offer the menu as an option. I thought for a moment and then decided, “Why not?” We would try the buffet today and I could come back later for a “lunch special” take home meal rather than eat in. She took our beverage order and bade us to go and select from the buffet.

As I mentioned, the store is of modest size. It is well decorated in the Asian theme with bas-relief paneling depicting Chinese scenes. The ceiling is embossed tiles in a copper color. Various wall hangings and objects d’art round out the décor. There are several booths along the front window wall and the main dining area features tables and chair that can be arranged as needed to accommodate different sized groups. There is no room for free standing serving bars as you would normally find in a Chinese buffet. In the addition of the buffet to the more traditional sit down and dine in and take out there was little room for adding the serving bars. There is a salad bar and steam table combination, serve from one side only and about 16 to 18 feet long, against the back wall. That leaves little room for a large number of selections one would normally associate with a Chinese buffet. As I remember the selections (and memory can be spotty) the selections, with some of my initial impressions, were as follows.
Soups – Egg flower and  - one other: Egg flower soup good, didn’t try the other

Almond Chicken – Lots of chicken, pretty good but a bit confused flavor wise

Sesame Chicken – A mainstream sesame chicken but a bit weak in the sauce

Mongolian Chicken – A good amount of chicken with pretty good flavor, interesting

Spicy Meatballs - a bit over cooked, kind of bland

Vegetable Lo Mein – more noodles than vegetables

Pot Stickers – not exceptional, need the sauce

Fried Rice – for a filler dish, not too bad with good flavor and fresh looking vegetables but not as good as my sampling many years ago

Spring Rolls – little prepackaged rolls a bit chewy/crunchy

Tempura Vegetables – onion rings and medallions of squash, I believe.

Sweet and Sour Chicken – ahhh, yes! The New York-style is here too. Too bad…

Sweet and Sour Sauce – It’s red.

French fries – that one puzzles me – I didn’t try them but French fries in the limited space available?

Assorted fruits and Desserts -

 What is the allure of the Chinese buffet? I would answer that it a place where, for a relatively small amount of money, you can eat to your fill with palatable food; a place to go get stuffed. To that end China Lights does quite well. Its selections, although limited by space, fare well compared to any of the other buffets I have tried in the past. I do have some minor issues with some of the offerings but overall, as I mentioned, it is quite good as Chinese buffets go.

On my first go through the buffet line, I got a bowl of egg flower soup and a plate with tempura vegetables, sweet and sour chicken, a pot sticker, spicy meatballs, sesame chicken, some Mongolian chicken and my favorite, fried rice. The soup was good. There were a lot of egg shreds and the broth had a good flavor as well as a nice mouth feel; it wasn’t just a bowl of flavored water. The selection of the tempura vegetables was limited to some onion rings and some small medallions I think were squash. The items were battered and fried but the batter was very heavy for tempura and detracted from what taste the vegetables had. The pot stickers were a bit chewy and perhaps had been in the pan too long. The spicy meatballs relied on the sauce for the spice and the texture was coarse, perhaps a lot of filler, Not one of my favorite for the selection. The Mongolian chicken was one of the better dishes they offered. It was flavorful with lots of chicken. The sesame chicken was much like other buffet sesame chickens, an amber sauce and toasted sesame seeds. It didn’t stand out, kind of bland, and I think the sauce needed a bit more sesame oil to liven up the flavor. The sweet and sour chicken here was what I have come to learn is called New York-style; breaded chicken pieces and a red sweet and sour sauce on the side. I learned to like sweet and sour chicken a long time ago on the West Coast. It was dish of breaded and fried chicken pieces, stir fried Bell peppers, onion and sometimes thinly sliced carrots and pineapple chunks all tossed with a red sauce with definite sweet and sour overtones; a medley of many great flavors and textures. I am a bit biased and it is difficult to be positive about a dish that is missing most of its elements. The China Light’s version was heavily breaded chicken (I suspect the breaded chicken is a bulk pre-made kitchen supply) and the sauce was indeed red, sticky and sweet but lacked any definite sour component. It was just like all the other buffet sweet and sour chicken just a shadow of the real thing. The fried rice was good. It was a filler dish to be sure, an inexpensive food to bulk out the meal. Even so, it had good flavor and there were some little goodies in the mix to add to the taste and texture.
Larry, my dining companion, said that he was satisfied with the meal and if he were in the neighborhood when it was time to eat he wouldn’t mind eating at China Lights again. He pretty much echoed my feelings. Aside from the negatives I noted above, China Lights is on a par with just about any other Chinese, all you can eat, buffet.

To date my favorite Chinese restaurant in Alaska is the Imperial Palace. It is located in Anchorage which is a 45-minute drive away from home. China Lights, on the other hand, located in Eagle River, is barely a 10-minute drive away. I suspect that on my next trip to Alaska I will try out China Lights and order from the menu for a sit-down dinner. I remember once I had some great food from there. It would be very nice to know that a good and trusted source was near to home. I will let you know how well that turns out in a later blog post.
It should be noted that there is a certificate proudly displayed on the entranceway wall of China Lights:  Top 100 Chinese Restaurants:  Exterior 100%, Service 100%, Food 97.06%

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Tuesday, October 11, 2016
  Double Musky – Birthday Dinner 2016

The Double Musky Inn

Cajun cooking, emphasizing steak & local seafood, in a roadhouse with Mardi Gras-style décor.
A Birthday Dinner Tradition
Mile .3 Crow Creek Road, Girdwood, AK 99587

In another reality Larry Tower and I would have been brothers. As it is we share a common first name and share the birthday month, September. Over the years we have developed a ritual, a tradition. We would splurge a bit for our collective birthdays and go have a pepper steak dinner at the famous Double Musky Restaurant in Girdwood, Alaska. See previous eating adventure 2012 here. It had been a long four years since we last were able to get together and share a meal at the Double Musky. During this trip to Alaska, 2016, with joy we kept the tradition alive.

The Double Musky is located in the Girdwood Valley, about an hour’s drive south from Anchorage along the Turnagain Arm of the Cook Inlet. There is a world-famous ski resort there with a lavish resort hotel. It is a very busy place during the winter ski season. It is still a mecca for the Alaska visitor even in the summer although the pace is a bit more relaxed during the warmer weather. The beauty of the Alaska wilderness surrounds and seven glaciers in the surrounding Chugach Mountains can be seen from various vantage points in the valley

On this occasion we would also have the pleasure introducing another person to the Double Musky. Larry’s most charming and lovely companion, Wasana, would be joining us for a night out with the boys. We had much to tell her, much about why and how we came to this place and what this night was all about. It took a bit of time to coordinate all of our schedules but we finally got it all together October the eleventh. It was an overcast day with a raw feel to the air, about 30 degrees. The Alaska fall weather was definitely here. I did my home chores and a few local errands. In the afternoon I drove to Anchorage’s Eastside to meet up with Larry and Wasana where we would carpool for the hour drive to Girdwood. We didn’t want to leave too early because The Double Musky is only open during dinner hours.

We arrived a few minutes before opening. There were already several cars in the parking area. Our hectic schedules had delayed our birthday get together for almost a month. The early cold weather had blighted the usually verdant garden in front of the restaurant. On this occasion we would miss the vibrancy of a floral garden. The building looked the same as always. The doors were opened soon after and we were shown to a table by the window overlooking the garden. We did look over the menu but at least Larry and I knew what we were having.

French Pepper Steak ($41.00 “Best steak in America,” says Jill Cordes of the Food Network.  A 16-20 ounce New York steak crusted with cracked pepper and covered with a spicy burgundy sauce.)

Wasana read over the menu and had a lot of questions. You can see the menu at the Double Musky website.  At long last she too knew what she wanted to sample:

  Crab Stuffed Halibut  (Market Price, today $47.00 A delicious halibut steak, stuffed with crab meat dressing which contains crab meat, mushrooms, shallots, chablis, heavy cream, creole seasoning
and served with creole beurre blanc

Appetizer bread rolls are included. You have the option of salad with dressing of choice. The entrée is served with your choice of baked potato (with whatever fixings you choose) or vegetable of the day. All three of us chose the salad. It was a mixture of lettuce and greens including spinach, some shredded carrots and croutons. I chose 1000-Island for mine and a good grind of fresh ground black pepper. Every one enjoyed their salads along with nicely buttered pieces of the appetizer rolls.

Wasana’s selection, the crab stuffed halibut, was a large halibut filet folded over the crab stuffing mixture and slathered with a thick delicious lemon butter sauce and a sprig of parsley. Then accompanying baked potato had ample sour cream and sliced scallions.  It was a large portion but Wasana was up to the task and there was little left to carry home in a takeout container. She did enjoy her meal very much. The Creole seasoning was a bit different than she is accustomed to but found it to be an enjoyable new encounter, one that she would enjoy again in the future. Perhaps next year…

The other Larry ordered the French pepper steak with the Burgundy sauce on the side. His choice of a side was the baked potato with sour cream and sliced onions. When ordering your steak, you select from the following menu listed options: “Rare - cool red center - Medium-rare - warm red center
Medium - hot pink center - Medium-well-well – Butterflied - takes time
.” He ordered medium, grilled to a hot pink center. Usually Larry has a large chunk of the steak left over to take home. He was extra hungry this day and he happily finished off all of his French pepper steak and the baked potato, with lots of sour cream and sliced green onions, included. He thoroughly enjoyed his meal and was already thinking about the next time we would visit The Double Musky for our mutual birthday celebration.

I ordered my French pepper steak medium as well, Burgundy sauce over. My baked potato was with all the trimmings including the sour cream and the sliced scallions. The steak, as is usual, cut easily with the knife and was tender to chew. It meat was flavorful on its own, the Burgundy sauce delicious. Some of the bites I took were plain, just a slight dash of salt. Some of the bites were slathered in the sauce. I can’t really say which was better. I would have been happy with that steak either way – I guess I just had the best of both worlds that day. I finished my baked potato and would have eaten all of my steak but I had a use for a bit of my pepper steak; more about that later.

At long last there was clink of forks being placed on the plates for the last time. Everyone was sated, happy with full bellies, ready to pay the bill and waddle home. That’s when our server arrived with a tray of sample desserts. Larry and I had just eaten bread, a salad, a large baked potato loaded with toppings and a one-pound steak with sauce. And now we were being tempted with rich, luscious desserts! To coin a phrase, nothing succeeds like excess. We decided to have dessert to finish off the meal. The other Larry ordered a slice of banana cream pie. It was a nice large slice of pie, a tasty pudding and banana filling, cream topping and toasted coconut; very tasty he said.

It had been a big and filling meal. Wasana and I both wanted something a bit lighter and we both chose the crème brûlée. The serving was a nice 4-ounce ramekin of velvety custard with a caramelized crust. Very tasty, the sweetness was a nice counterpoint after the savory meal.  It all capped off the evening nicely. I too look forward to the next visit with the other Larry to celebrate our birthdays.

Oh, and that bit of steak I took home in a doggie bag? Ah, yes – the next morning I fried up some potatoes, onion and the meat cut into little pieces. In the end I added some peas and carrots to make a big batch of Double Musky French pepper steak hash that would help top feed me well over  several breakfasts. Each of those breakfasts brought back memories of a wonderful evening spent with Larry and Wasana at The Double Musky Restaurant in Girdwood, Alaska.

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