1021 W. Northern Lights Blvd.
$6-13 per plate
Monday-Friday 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; closed Sunday (also closed Jan. 7 to Jan. 23)
Spenard has always hosted many choices for good food, and it’s a frequent destination for local diners in the know. That said, it’s easy to get into a rut there and miss a new discovery -- like a small place that’s only open for lunch.
Sweet Basil Café sits on Northern Lights Boulevard, just east of Spenard’s walking core and a disproportionate slice of the city’s best eateries. The Spenard Roadhouse is only a block away, with the Bear Tooth Theatrepub, the City Diner and Pancho’s Villa all within a mile. It’s stiff competition, but lunch this week was able to stand up to it.
On my Tuesday visit I brought two friends of mine, Nick and Everett: big strong guys who do physical work with night crews and need some real calories to make it through an evening. Although it was one of my days off from work at the station, I’d skipped breakfast before I picked them up so I was definitely in the mood for something solid myself.
Sweet Basil’s owners are successful caterers and their restaurant has a fairly eclectic look, with the former Taco Bell’s segregated seating area opened up into a small dining room with wooden tables and chairs. The absence of overhead menus and plastic benches emphasizes the proximity of the restaurant’s kitchen, which is separated from diners by only a line of display cases containing breads, pastas, sauces and desserts available for purchase as take-out items.
Lunch is the main focus of Sweet Basil’s service menu: a blend of sandwiches and wraps presented alongside heavier fare like pasta and full-size salads, which are also available in half portions. The beverage menu is bolstered by a few smoothie selections, as well as limited beer and wine options.
I ordered a Molokai Pork Wrap ($9), while Everett chose a Piper Club ($9) and Nick went for a dish of creamy Parmesan pasta ($13). The server asked Everett to choose a bread for his sandwich -- then asked Nick to choose his pasta from a case of Alaska Pasta Company products behind him, including four-cheese or squash ravioli, fusilli, egg noodles and lemon pepper noodles among others.
Nick also tried a 16-ounce Pink Flamingo smoothie ($5.75) as a beverage, containing a blend of apple, strawberry, mango and banana. It’s a fruit mix that Nick liked, praising it as less sugary than most smoothies; in addition, he appreciated the fact that it wasn’t served actually frozen, which made it more drinkable.
Even though two or three other parties were seated in the dining room ahead of us, we passed the time in conversation about the holiday shopping rush and the buildup to Christmas at our respective jobs. The lone chef on duty was moving efficiently and we were served perhaps half an hour after we placed our orders.
My pork wrap was a definite Alaska-sized portion, a modestly described item that arrived taking up no less than half my plate. Sweet and dripping onto the plate as I bit into it, the wrap’s blend of kalua pork and rice recalled a carnitas burrito, enhanced by the addition of lettuce, tomato and cheese. With the meat piled an inch thick inside the toasted tortilla at points, as well as a side portion of rotini pasta salad lightly coated in a flavored olive oil, I was quite full by the time I made it through the pasta.
Everett was certainly pleased with his sandwich, which seemed to be one of those meals that turns out to be more than the sum of its parts. Thick turkey, bacon and cheddar cheese between slices of Sweet Basil’s house bread formed the basis of the sandwich, along with lettuce and tomato backed up by an intriguing addition: avocado. Between mouthfuls, he said the combination worked very well, and that it reminded him of the delicatessens he’d visited in New York City during his service with the Navy.
Nick’s pasta looked even more insurmountable than my own culinary challenge, but he tore into it with a gusto I didn’t understand until I asked to try some. The herbs, cream and Parmesan of the dish gave way to the more assertive flavors of wild mushrooms and garlicky chicken, all held together by the simple but fresh egg noodles Nick had opted for when he ordered. It was one of the better examples of comfort food I’ve seen in recent memory, and it didn’t last long on his plate.
Reeling from the repast as we were, the dessert cases suddenly made sense. We picked up a double-chocolate brownie and some chocolate rum balls because we were so impressed by the food, but we ate them on the road, simply because we had to digest for a while before we could do so. Like everything else we were served, they were excellent examples of food made with care.
If you don’t make it to Sweet Basil this week, you’ll have to wait a bit to try the place for yourself since it’s closed from Jan. 7 through Jan. 23. Even then, you may find yourself in tight quarters: if the caliber of the meals we ate is any indication, the small but superb staff will have plenty of customers when they return from a well-deserved break after the holiday rush.