Lunchbox: The Plaza Cafe

The Plaza Cafe (at the BP Building on Benson Boulevard) serves this buffalo chicken po’ boy sandwich for $6.50 a la carte; French fries and a fountain drink can be added for a $2.50 upgrade charge. Salad bar items are $6.99 per pound; the plate shown cost $4.12.

The Plaza Cafe
900 E. Benson Blvd.
$5-$8.50 per plate
Breakfast hours 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. weekdays; lunch 11:15 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11:15 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Friday

While restaurants are at the core of Lunchbox, I’m always on the lookout for unorthodox stops, something that’s new on levels beyond its opening date. Some recent word of mouth got me interested in just such a place near the station.

The BP Building on Benson Boulevard is one of Midtown’s major landmarks, easily the most instantly recognizable Anchorage headquarters of an oil company thanks to its standalone profile and sprawling, landscaped campus. Beyond the BP Energy Center meeting space and a daycare for employees’ children, much of the building is surrounded by Disneyland-style numbered parking lots, which seemed silly until I realized just how many vehicles were still there even at lunch hour. Approaching from the south, rather than entering the building proper I made a quick left and found myself in another outlying structure -- the building’s cafeteria.

Rather than functioning under a single banner, The Plaza Cafe is divided into several sections, each with its own slightly different hours. After offering trays and utensils in a pickup area, the space opens to a rotunda centered on a well-stocked soup-and-salad bar, with an espresso counter and two main grill counters available on the side; one serves a standing menu of American fare, while the other is devoted to rotating specials offered as a single package meal. After a slow circuit of the room, dodging brisk groups of employees in business casual, I skipped the gyro platter with lentil soup and built-to-order pair of tostadas on offer, instead sampling a buffalo chicken po’ boy sandwich with fries and drink from the American counter ($9) alongside a modest plate of items from the salad bar ($6.99 per pound, $4.12 as billed). Past the cashier’s stand, the bustle of the serving area gave way to near-silence in a simple but elegant L-shaped dining area, occasionally punctuated by World Cup soccer commentary on a pair of TVs and passing diners’ quiet but intense conversations on the state of oil exploration in Alaska.

There wasn’t anything particularly exciting about the po’ boy, but I was still pleased by it -- perhaps I became more attached taking a few minutes at the counter to watch it being made by a gregarious chef, a pleasure when eating out so rarely involves contact with the kitchen. A simple preparation, the sandwich involved half a dozen prefab chicken nuggets tossed in a bowl with some buffalo sauce after cooking, then lined up on a toasted baguette bun accompanied by lettuce, tomato and some Dijonnaise. The blend worked well, with the latter ingredients absorbing the extra heat from a slightly warmer sauce than I’d expected, although the fully cut bun was hard-pressed to keep the nuggets inside. The fries were straight out of a bag but generously apportioned, dumped into the box densely enough to conceal the carrot sticks which had been added as a side for the sandwich.

I found more interest in the items I’d picked up from the salad bar, a decent blend of intriguing surprises and well-done old standbys. In the first category, a deli bar meant to top diner-built cold sandwiches had an array of roasted vegetables including some sauteed crimini mushrooms -- they weren’t spiced, but had a flavor all their own which I don’t often find in salad bars. I ate them before moving on to the plate’s show-stealer, a dish labeled as “pork loin, bleu cheese and black grapes” -- the lightly peppered pork played nicely against the lightly added sharpness of the cheese, with shredded Romaine and the occasional grape cleansing the palate between bites of protein. A simple hand-built salad of iceberg lettuce, black olives, julienned carrots and cheddar cheese tasted fine and uniformly fresh, tied together by a French dressing darker and richer than I first thought; the sample of red potato salad I tried wasn’t heavy like some versions, with a good deal of potato flavor prevailing over the modest notes of dill in its background.

It’s always interesting to visit an organization’s dining area just to take in the culture -- from the way so many people buying food took it to their desks rather than eating in the dining area, to the tabletop cards pitching not new menu items but the importance of BP employees registering to vote on Ballot Measure 1 (“Oil Tax Reform: Producing Alaska’s Future”). I’m also glad I took in the food, since I didn’t even know the building had a cafeteria; it’s a workmanlike eatery with fairly cheap prices by Anchorage lunch standards, and one of the quicker services I’ve encountered in recent memory. It’s definitely worth a stop for the change of pace, as well as anyone with an interest in Anchorage’s hidden eats, and I had to smile at the legend above the door: “BP Exploration.”