Jul. 31—HOMER — In what is undeniably one of Alaska's most vital food towns, COVID-19 took a toll on the restaurant industry, hindering tourism and forcing job cuts.
But now a new wave of chefs and restaurateurs is hitting the Homer food scene, bringing with them a fresh outlook and dishes to match.
Between new restaurants, reimagined spaces and upstart food trucks, a number of new businesses have opened this year, reviving this fishing town with quality options ranging from street food to fine dining.
In the building along the Sterling Highway that once housed the Kannery Grill, Cody Fry and Chris Miller recently opened The Green Can. The duo hopes to bring novel and inspired dishes to Homer, like a black pepper crab wok dish and a selection of bao buns.
"There's a tried and true model for Homer it seems," Fry said. "This is what works. This is what you do. And anything outside that was kind of hard. I think a lot of people this year were trying to break that. They're trying to bring new stuff and it doesn't have to all be fish and chips. It can be something else. It can be kabobs over a fire and that's awesome."
Ethan Eutsler found success during the pandemic. He opened Pizza Underground operating out of the basement of Alice's Champagne Palace, serving takeout that became a quick hit.
So much so that this spring he opened The Twisted Goat with his wife, Susan, and their friend Josie Whitby. The restaurant, located a few blocks from Alice's, maintains the takeout option from Pizza Underground with a whole new set of sit-down dining options from cranberry pistachio goat cheese balls to cioppino.
"There was definitely a huge crowd of people that wanted that dine-in option that wanted to sit and have a beer with their food and a place to congregate," Eutsler said. "Pizza Underground didn't really offer that, and being able to combine the two halves. We still offer curbside delivery. You can pay over the phone if you'd like, and I think merging those two things is been a great experience."
Once Pizza Underground morphed into the Twisted Goat, the basement kitchen in Alice's was open — but not for long. Very Good Breakfast and Astro Taco are recent startups operating out of the space.
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Like Eutsler, Randon Birchette worked at a number of restaurants for the last decade before launching his own. Astro Taco is in essence a takeout operation with customers calling in or placing orders online. Birchette said he smokes small batches of chicken and pork for the tacos and burritos, and makes fresh chips and salsa daily.
"The opportunity was there finally," Birchette said. "I've been ready. Just waiting for the right moment. It's been a process but we've been received well. People seem to really enjoy the food and I'm really enjoying doing it. ... Yeah, it feels good. It feels good to work for myself."
Maybe the biggest impact on the food culture has been the new influx of food trucks, according to Homer Chamber of Commerce executive director Brad Anderson.
That includes Venezuelan empanada food truck Que Rico, operated by the mother-daughter team of Jeannette Aragones and Jessica Hahn.
Aragones, a longtime Homer resident, recently retired from South Peninsula Hospital as a certified nursing assistant. Hahn and her husband started outfitting a truck and developing a business plan, and in April, the duo opened for business.
"I've been making empanadas all my life," Hahn said in a message to ADN. "It is a super popular meal in Venezuela. Two years ago I saw a food truck for sale and suddenly everything made sense. It was the perfect truck for sharing something special and different. Even though we have different delicious dishes, I thought that empanadas were the perfect choice for Homer."
The truck includes empanadas with a number of savory fillings like shrimp and cordon bleu. They also have a pair of specialty desserts, a chocolate marquise and an arequipe cheesecake.
The common tie for many of the new businesses is a history in the Homer food community.
Fry and Miller met while working together for the last four years at Land's End Resort. Eutsler has worked at Alibi, Fat Olive's, Alice's and AJ's OldTown Steakhouse & Tavern. Birchette worked at a number of restaurants, including Pizza Underground, before launching out of the same space.
The relationships extend to producers, growers and the fishing community.
"Everybody that we source from are our friends," Fry said. "It's the farmers. The people who get us our seaweed and oysters, they're all people that we've met working here and we love working with. We get our mushrooms from different purveyors we're friends with. The guy that gets us the alder wood planks to smoke the salmon on. It's a collection of a lot of good relationships."
The rebirth has happened just as Homer returned to a more normal summer, Anderson said. Last year was a big year for Homer tourism, he said, but worked shortages caught many businesses off guard. Recently launched food trucks like Que Rico, Black Jaxx BBQ, PikaPika Bento and others have provided new options for both tourists and locals.
"Absolutely, there's been a rebound this year," he said. "The biggest difference has been some of the trucks. They've been able to lessen the pressure put on our existing restaurants. ... It's helped bring some of the new folks on board and test out their skills, and it's added a lot of dynamic to the food scene. We like to see that opportunity for new entrepreneurs."
It's not just food that's getting a makeover. Grace Ridge Brewing relocated earlier this year to an area tucked away on a side road above the highway that takes tourists to the Spit. The move has brought with it more food truck traffic and made it a more essential gathering spot.
And The Green Can's bar service, developed by San Diego consultant Louis Chavez, includes a dozen unique cocktails with ingredients like spit brine and tinctures made of black tea or peppercorns.
"He puts so much work into this place," Miller said about Chavez. "He literally trained every bartender we have, created every drink from the top shelf Scotch to the Champagne to the craft cocktails."
Anderson said the Chamber is planning a local food festival for next year, and he envisions more opportunities for the fledgling food truck fleet as well.
After the restaurant where he was working was forced to temporarily close during the pandemic, Eutsler was at a crossroads. But his experience in the Homer community prompted him to take a chance on his own place.
"I might as well try. I've worked in restaurants long enough," he said. "And, you know, I think that it went really well. And living in Homer, as long as people know you're willing to be part of the community, they want you there. And it's amazing."