ANCHORAGE -

Lunchbox: Hard Rock Cafe Anchorage

The Hard Rock Cafe Anchorage serves this Texan pulled-pork sandwich ($12.95) with included sides of citrus coleslaw, French fries and cowboy beans. Fountain drinks are $3.60 apiece.

Lunchbox: Hard Rock Cafe Anchorage

Hard Rock Cafe Anchorage
415 E St.
$13-$32 per plate
11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday
907-274-7625
http://www.hardrock.com/cafes/anchorage/

With the city’s newest restaurant throwing a gala celebration in Downtown Anchorage last weekend, I thought I’d slip in before the Fourth of July weekend to see how it holds up to the hype.

The Hard Rock Cafe occupies a prominent corner property that used to house Rumrunner’s Old Towne Bar and Grill, which closed in 2012 after a pair of violentincidents. It briefly reopened last year as the Bear Paw Restaurant, an establishment so much tamer than Rumrunner’s it was devoid of personality, before closing once again to undergo its metamorphosis into a Hard Rock location. Much of the exterior remains recognizably Rumrunner’s, right down to the brick tower holding the marquee. Remembering the massive crowds at the opening of Anchorage’s first Olive Garden, I drove into town at 11 a.m. sharp expecting the worst…only to find a parking space 50 feet from the door, no line and a mix of tourists and locals ambling in as casually as if the restaurant had been there a decade. My mother joined me soon after I took a table, for a second opinion on how Hard Rock fits into the Downtown dining scene.

The most revolutionary changes since the Rumrunner’s days have occurred inside the building. The bouncer checkpoint has given way to a densely staffed greeter station, with a small “Rock Shop” of merchandise bearing the restaurant’s logo tucked away into a corner. Only a modest row of booths now marks the bar’s old location, with a new one built as a large island that accommodates seats on three sides; a mix of lights and frosted-glass panes dangling above it creates a stylized aurora borealis. Rumrunner’s second bar and dancing area on the main floor has been broken up into a kitchen and crew spaces, but the first-floor dining area’s mix of bar seating, booths and tables seemed up to the task of handling lunchtime traffic. Memorabilia from acts like David Lee Roth, Soundgarden and Quiet Riot adorns the walls as memorable décor in glass cases. As I looked at an elevated hybrid stage/seating area which used to be the old DJ/dancer stand, Mom pointed out that the windows were larger than they had been before: “It makes it nice and light here in the day.” Hardwood floors look good but lead to raucous acoustics, with TVs playing music videos and the unbroken single room leading to a noise level much like that of the Glacier Brewhouse; the noise occasionally hits Rumrunner’s levels when staff ask patrons to shout “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!” for a diner, which happened three times during our visit and my mother ultimately deemed “excruciating.”

Thus far, lunch at the Hard Rock appears to be a limited menu -- paging through it, we were greeted with three salads and no soups on offer, followed by about half a dozen dinner-sized beef, fish and fajita entree options. Hard Rock’s two core selections include about half a dozen barbecue items in plate and sandwich form, as well as a similar number of half-pound “Legendary” burgers backed by a few other sandwich types. While each Hard Rock offers a unique “Local Legendary” burger you have to ask the server about (ours is topped with reindeer sausage), I instead asked a photo offering “pulled hickory smokehouse brisket” I couldn’t find on the menu, only to have the waitress confirm that none is actually sold here. I was still drawn to the barbecue page by my suspicion that the kitchen’s personality rested there, so I ordered a Texan sandwich ($12.95); Mom was somewhat put off by the burgers’ size and instead opted for a honey mustard chicken sandwich ($12.95). She’d also perused the beverage menu more closely than I had, putting in an order for a nonalcoholic Berrilicious ($4), which she found similar to an orange-strawberry daiquiri: “It's really tasty -- may be a little too filling to go with a full sandwich.” With the restaurant filling up she had a fair amount of time to drink it, as our food came out in just under 25 minutes.

Alone among sandwiches on the menu, the Texan offers a $4 “go-big” charge to double its meat portion from five ounces to 10; I didn’t do so and still found the sandwich intimidating, the large bun seeming to suitably match the higher prices. As a pulled-pork sandwich with upgrades, I thought the towering mass of fried jalapeno slices and onion strings would dominate the sandwich, but I was surprised to find the chipotle barbecue sauce fighting back against their influence on my tongue. Rich and tangy, overflowing from the sides of the bun with every bite, the sauce was warm without being hot, moderating the vegetables and counterbalancing them in a way a burger patty simply doesn’t when they’re placed upon one at other restaurants -- even before the addition of cheddar and Jack cheese which melted onto the pork, I found the blend more than the sum of its parts and a pleasant treat. The sandwich also draws a full barbecue-plate sampler of sides, ranging from a generous Red Robin-style portion of steak fries (peppered, served hot, delicious) to a citrus coleslaw (delightfully tangy, with unexpected power from chopped green onion) and a cup of cowboy beans (bland, lacking spice, might as well have been refried).

Always wary of too-heavy food, Mom immediately took a wary look under the hood of her chicken sandwich, nodding in approval at the generous amount of lettuce and tomato stacked atop the Dijon dressing on the bun’s base, then peeling off one of its two strips of bacon crossed atop the chicken breast and slice of Jack cheese within. “The chicken's moist and tender, not overcooked; brioche bun is good,” she noted between bites, even reversing her opinion on the bacon by adding it back in: “The saltiness of the bacon is really helping the sandwich.” By the time she was finished she declared the sandwich good, turning a slightly more critical eye to the imbalance between her accompanying pile of fries (“Portion size is way too big…this is almost more food than the sandwich”) and serving of citrus coleslaw (“This is a beef I have with restaurants why do they serve coleslaw in a thimble?”). That said, only a few fries survived by the time she was finished and the waitress took her plate.

It can be a little hard to justify the Hard Rock’s initial price points, given its competition in the Downtown area, but the food we ate was excellent and offers the promise of great things. While the rock-music premise is well-executed, as you’d expect from such a widespread brand, its level of allure varies widely from person to person; in my case, I’d recommend buying a T-shirt if that’s what you’re visiting for. The restaurant definitely has plans to fit into the community, though, with our waitress mentioning plans to use the indoor stage for acts during a block-party grand opening in September, and as it gets settled a meal at the Hard Rock is likely to become a soft sell.