Sam & Lee’s, a Chinese restaurant in Utqiagvik, Alaska.
The town of Utqiaġvik, Alaska – formerly known as Barrow – sits at 71 degrees north. Located 350 miles north of the Arctic Circle, the settlement of six or seven thousand residents (though only 4,373 according to Google) is a vibrant and diverse place despite being frozen solid in winter. So frozen, in fact, that you can walk straight from town right out onto the Arctic Ocean. At this time of year, you could try walking all the way to Russia – or Greenland, Norway, or anywhere else with a coastline on the Arctic Ocean – across the ice if you were so inclined. It might come with some risk, however, given that Arctic sea ice this year is “incredibly thin” and covering a smaller extent than usual. If you lucked out with the sea ice and made it to Russia, you could probably continue walking to China for a hot bowl of noodles or a plate of dumplings.
Or you could just stay in Utqiaġvik and visit what might just be the world’s northernmost Chinese restaurant. With whites, blacks, Koreans, Mexicans, and Samoans, among many other ethnicities, living among the native Inupiat population, there are also several restaurants serving up everything from Mexican to Chinese cuisine. Utqiaġvik is not the northernmost settlement in the world: Longyearbyen, on the Norwegian island of Svalbard, owns that title. But Longyearbyen does not have a Chinese restaurant. It happens to have a Thai restaurant, which is unsurprising given its sizeable population of Thai ex-pats, along with several Norwegian eateries. But from a glance at TripAdvisor’s list of Longyearbyen’s restaurants, I don’t think you could order a bowl of egg drop soup in a pinch.
Several towns in Russia also lie north of Utqiaġvik, but it’s unclear whether they have Chinese restaurants. TripAdvisor and Yelp reviews are not exactly a dime a dozen for settlements like Tiksi and Khatanga. Qaanaaq, in Greenland, lies at 77 degrees north, but only has one restaurant, located in the town’s sole hotel.
That leaves Sam and Lee’s Restaurant in Utqiaġvik, Alaska as the best contender for the world’s northernmost Chinese restaurant. The restaurant, which serves Chinese and American cuisine, has become something of a local institution. Mr. and Mrs. Kim, a Korean couple, opened the restaurant some 34 years ago. Sam and Lee’s is one of 40,000 Chinese restaurants across the U.S. – a total that surpasses the nation’s number of McDonald’s, Burger Kings, KFCs, and Wendy’s combined, according to Jennifer 8. Lee, author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles. Case in point, Utqiaġvik has a Chinese restaurant but none of those four fast food chains.
I’d heard a lot about Sam and Lee’s during my first couple of days in Barrow, so as someone who seeks out Asian food whenever possible, whether it’s a steaming bowl of spicy Uzbek noodles (lagman) in northeast Siberia, muskox Thai curry in Greenland, or North Korean food in Vladivostok, I had to make it to what just might be the world’s northernmost Chinese restaurant.
I was in Utqiaġvik for an Arctic business development tour that had us on a tight schedule from 8am-9pm every day. The only time I could really miss any event was at breakfast – and fortunately, Sam and Lee’s opens at 6am every day. (They also don’t shut their doors until 2am). So last Thursday, as fierce winds blasted down the city streets off the surface of the frozen Arctic Ocean, I trudged over to the restaurant around 6:45 am. The sun wouldn’t rise for another two hours, but the yellow sodium lamps lining the town’s streets guided the way.
After about fifteen minutes, I arrived at the little red restaurant. Sam and Lee’s sits on the ground floor of a small red house at 1052 Kogiak Street. A welcoming Chinese gate frames the entrance. In a very un-Chinese fashion, the walkway leads through two sets of doors, which are typical of all Arctic abodes in order to keep out the cold.
I entered into the warm and toasty restaurant and took a seat at one of the comfy red booths. Dining here was more like eating in someone’s living room than being in a sit-down restaurant. The walls were decorated with photos of children, presumably the Kims’, doing things like wearing traditional Korean dress and performing at a musical recital. Every table had a bottle of soy sauce on it, along with two jars of white powder – one marked “S” for sugar and the other with “C” for creamer. Palettes of soda cans sat stacked at the back of the restaurant, ready to be popped open to satiate the town’s healthy appetite for Coke, Sprite, root beer, and the like. When dining out in Utqiaġvik, soda appears to fill the gap of alcohol. Utqiaġvik is a “damp” town, meaning you can consume alcohol there, but you can’t purchase it. It’s incredible to think that every single menu item has been brought in by plane or barge since no roads lead to Utqiaġvik. The limited and expensive transportation explains why everything seemed to be in bulk at Sam and Lee’s, from the endless array of take-out boxes to the soy sauce packets and soda cans.
Decorations on the wall at Sam & Lee’s.
Soy sauce, creamer, sugar, salt, pepper, and jam.
Dining at Sam & Lee’s.
As I read through the vast menu, a big television hanging at the front of the restaurant played the morning news from Anchorage. The news anchors were talking about International Women’s Day and the ongoing Iditarod. It all seemed so very far away from Utqiaġvik. A waiter dressed in a black hat and camo came up to take my order.
While I was waiting for my short stack of pancakes ($7) and a cup of coffee, a fellow diner came in from the cold and ordered a Denver omelet directly from the chef, at the window where the food comes out from the kitchen. He sat down at the booth in front of me and said hi.
Some people ordered at the window here.
Ten minutes later, out came my “short stack” of two pancakes. Each was larger than a dinner plate, and an enormous square of margarine was melting lazily on top. As I dug into my breakfast of carbs, sugar, and fat, an Alaska Native couple, the woman dressed in a floral parka (a common traditional design), grabbed a booth and ordered more omelets – served with generous helpings of hash browns and toast.
A short stack of pancakes with the Anchorage morning news on in the background. Still more than enough food for one.
My pancakes were the doughy, stick-to-the-ribs-type, making them perfect for a cold Alaskan morning. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to try the Chinese food at the world’s northernmost Chinese restaurant since the cook, I learned, doesn’t arrive until after 10 am. Locals told me their Chinese food is the best in the state. And it’s not only Chinese food that the serve. Alongside Egg Foo Young and Egg Drop Soup, you can order a “Happy Meal” (shrimp, scallops, and meat sauteed with fresh vegetables), “Steak and King Crab,” “KungPao Chicken Pizza” (every restaurant in Utqiaġvik, I learned, serves pizza), “Jalapeno Poppers,” “Fish &Chips (served with French Fries – DOES NOT include potato, vegetables, and garlic bread)” and a “Reindeer Sausage and Cheese Omelet,” just to name a few of the finest examples of fusion cuisine in the Last Frontier.
Half (!) of the menu.
Though I didn’t get to try the Chinese food, I did enjoy the rare opportunity of eating pancakes cooked by a chef who said he had worked at the IHOP in West Hollywood for twenty years before coming up to Utqiaġvik. I asked him why he moved all the way to this little corner of the world. “Everyone has a purpose,” he said to me. “I wanted to breathe fresh air – and the planet’s air, it starts at the North Pole and comes down from there. The air here is the freshest in the world.”
After I paid my bill and walked back out into the cold, the air did feel pretty fresh. At 15 degrees above zero, it felt downright balmy compared to the previous day’s temperatures, which had sunk to 20 degrees below zero. Walking across Kogiak Street, I looked back on the bright red restaurant. The sky had brightened significantly since I’d arrived an hour before.
One day, I’ll have to go back to try the Korean-Chinese-Alaskan food served up by Sam and Lee’s. It might also be a good idea for Mr. and Mrs. Kim to consider opening a Korean restaurant. One woman from Utqiaġvik told me, “My friends and I love eating muktuk (frozen whale skin and blubber) with rice and kimchi.” She laughed, “All us young people, we like fusion, you know, like Asian-Eskimo fusion.” Her husband himself was starting to cook Cajun whale steak, inspired by his mixed African-American and Inupiaq heritage. With Nordic cuisine starting to gain more global recognition, it may be only a matter of time before other Arctic cuisines begin making their way onto southern palettes. Rather than a Chinese restaurant opening in the Arctic, perhaps an Arctic restaurant will open in China some day soon.
Walking back through the streets of Utqiagvik after breakfast.