Lunchbox: Southside Bistro

The Southside Bistro serves this grilled chicken banh mi sandwich ($12), with a cup of soup available as an upgrade from fries for an additional $2. Fountain drinks are $2.50 each.

Southside Bistro
1320 Huffman Park Dr.
$6-$15 per plate
11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, closed Sunday and Monday

With many of Anchorage’s upcoming new restaurants yet to open this summer, I recently found myself in South Anchorage with some spare time on my hands -- and a hankering to make a long-delayed stop.

The Southside Bistro is tucked into one end of a gentrified strip mall on a curving road to the Huffman Road Carrs; nearby landscaping can make it hard to spot, but the area is readily accessible from roundabouts along Huffman. An unassuming façade makes the restaurant something of a cipher at a glance, although a posted menu at the Arctic entry helps diners give it an appraisal; parking is sufficient to the task, with other businesses in the mall closing earlier and leaving more room available at night.

You won’t get a true feeling for the restaurant until you step inside, with an elegant black-and-tan color scheme accentuated by French culinary posters adorning the walls. Lighting is deliberately muted, with lightweight blackout curtains sacrificing the plate-glass windows’ commanding view of the Huffman post office for a sense of intimacy and most of the internal space lit by spots in the ceiling. The dining room sports about 20 tables, with the curved space split at its midpoint by a host’s station and the kitchen; along with other lunch guests I was ushered left to the bar section, still a decent-sized dining area in its own right with a dozen tables plus booths along the walls, a modest nine-seat counter and liquor rack shoehorned in almost as an afterthought.

As with many of Anchorage’s newer restaurants, the Bistro’s menu is decidedly eclectic, with a loose Italian core of about half a dozen pasta and pizza choices overshadowed by an array of soups, salads, lunch entrees and appetizers ranging from a pear salad to pork schnitzel. After a close reading of the menu and a few minutes of intrigued indecision, I went with a grilled chicken banh mi sandwich ($12), replacing its default side of shoestring potatoes with a cup of the house soup ($2 upgrade charge). With about half a dozen people in the room near the end of the bistro’s lunch hours, I was offered a basket of bread, receiving three warm slices of a fine sourdough; I didn’t immediately dwell on them, since the food left the kitchen in about 10 minutes.

I was first drawn in by the soup, the smell even more intriguing than the concept -- cream of sun-dried tomato and roasted garlic. The waitress had lightly peppered it upon request, with a drizzle of cream already left across the top; the first few spoonfuls were decadent in their own right, a bisque-style preparation with the consistency amping up the tomato flavor to a potent intensity that made even the garlic a side note. The bread I’d been offered before was seemingly meant to be dipped in the soup, combining with it to offer a delicious treat that could easily be a meal in itself -- from the first bite, I never missed the potatoes.

The banh mi, a Vietnamese sandwich combining many of the mainstays found in pho (soup) bowls with an airy bun, patiently awaited my attention and didn’t seem harmed one bit by the delay -- already a cool sandwich, the layer of chicken at its bottom buried under a mountain of greens, the first bite tasted like a breath of fresh air, thanks to the leading-edge flavor blend of cilantro and serrano peppers. Much of the sandwich’s core was similarly light and crunchy, with pickled carrots alongside shredded daikon radish and sliced cucumber briefly offering the illusion that there wasn’t meat in the sandwich at all. Only a bite into the underside, where the warm spiced chicken and sweet chili mayonnaise awaited, gave a savory underpinning to the mix above; the whole thing was well-contained by a croissant-like bun, which relied on a crusty exterior to counteract the lightness of the dough and the wetness of the ingredients. It’s moist enough to be the kind of sandwich you lean into as you eat it, to ensure it’s kept over your plate.

Much of Anchorage’s dining scene tends to focus on the north side of the city: Downtown, Turnagain, even what we call East Anchorage. While the newer establishments I’ve visited have kept me from making trips south, the Bistro is a reminder that there are good things to be found there; like many places with a formidable dinner menu, lunch gives the casual diner an excellent opportunity to sample its wares at an affordable price. My visit lived up entirely to the Bistro’s motto, “Fresh Fun Food,” and I think you’ll find the same if you stop by.