A Cheechako and a Taco
at the La Cabana
by Marci Peterson
Where am I today? was the first thing I said to myself when I woke up.
After sleeping ten nights in different hotels along the drive to Alaska, each morning greeted me with different furnishings. And here was another one.
How much longer till we arrived in Anchorage? Enough light filtered in through the curtained window for me to see that my surroundings had a modern and sterile appearance. Oh yeah, I must be in Anchorage. No more unique, cozy places like those from the last few nights. I was excited to be in the big city, but more than that I was hungry!
I dressed and went to the lobby. A middle aged man sat behind the desk smoking a pipe. He greeted me with that genuine smile I came to associate with the people I had encountered since crossing the border from Canada into Alaska–a warm greeting in cold weather.
I introduced myself and said, "Where's the nearest MacDonald's?"
He grinned and said, "You must be a Cheechako?"
"No," I said. "I'm Polish."
He started coughing. Maybe suppressing a laugh or taking in too much pipe tobacco? He cleared his throat and said, "A Cheechako is what we call a newcomer." I kept my expression blank to hide my embarrassment. "That means you haven't spent a winter up here yet."
"Well I'll be here for a few winters."
"Then you'll earn the title of Sourdough," he said.
I envisioned myself becoming lazy during the long cold winter days, my body transforming into what resembled a mound of soft bread dough before it's baked. No, I wouldn't let that happen. Winter was my favorite time of year and I took every opportunity to be outside and celebrate it even if only to build snow people. "So no MacDonald's?" I said.
"Nope. We have several burger places here I think you'll find better than MacDonald's," he said and clicked his teeth down on his pipestem. "Military?"
"Air Force," I said and proceeded to answer his questions about where we had come from and our trip up here. Again I found the character of this man similar to the other Sourdoughs I had met. They made a stranger feel welcomed. I could hardly wait to devour this state.
We checked out of the motel and went a few blocks to have breakfast at the Pancake House on 5th Ave.
The building where we wanted to inquire about renting an apartment was nearby and decided to walk there after our meal. On the way we passed two small homes and came upon the third one right next to the apartment building. It had a canopy over the walkway and up the stairs to the front door.
A hand painted sign perched on top of it that showed two mountain peaks with the wording underneath advertising the TWIN PEAKS BRA SHOP. I love this place!
An affordable, clean, tastefully modern furnished efficiency apartment was available and we took it. There was one problem though. It barely had enough places to stow what was packed into our Corvair. I had to be clever with organizing things. But first I had to take a picture of the TWIN PEAKS BRA SHOP sign. Who back home would believe this is my neighbor?
I was complaining to myself that I didn't like being labeled a Cheechako. I spent the last few days of winter on the ALCAN. Wouldn't that count in making me a Sourdough? Wait. That brought the image of me as a mound of dough again.
Our landlady filled us in on fun things to do and recommended the restaurant across the alley called the La Cabana.
My second thing to complain about was the fact that Anchorage–the "big city"–didn't have a MacDonald's, but it had a Mexican restaurant? Really? A Mexican restaurant in Alaska? That's the last thing I could've imagined.
Several more people in the apartment building we had just met also said it was some of the best food in town. I just kept shaking my head over it. Several days later, a couple invited us to join them there. On the walk over they asked why I was shaking my head. "Just too much to take in," I said.
The La Cabana was spacious with heavy Mexican décor. And here I was north of the border in a south of the boarder dining room. Where's my passport?
I looked at the menu, which was all Greek/Spanish to me. I had never eaten Mexican food before. What was what? My dinner partners told the waitress this was my first time eating Mexican food and she recommended I start with a taco. (I was so thankful she didn't call me a Cheechako!)
I ate one, then another and a third. Delicious as the food was, eating in a Mexican themed restaurant while living the Last Frontier was hard for me to swallow. But there I was– a Cheechako eating a taco, at the La Cabana.
Eventually, I became a member of the La Cabana fan club–a Sourdough recommending it to Cheechakos.
Author Marci Peterson met sled dog racing champion, George Attla, the Hustlia Hustler, at the 1969 Anchorage Fur Rendezvous Sled Dog Race.
Check out her story, A Penney's Worth of Mush
What are your memories of enjoying the Mexican food in Anchorage, Alaska's La Cabana restaurant.