“Miss, where are you living?” (U.S. border agent)
“Ohh … you’re coming to eat Thai food.”
“What?” (Me, looking puzzled)
“Whitehorse people come to Skagway to eat Thai food.”
On my first trip down to Skagway, Alaska (in May 2017), crossing the border, I was thoroughly perplexed at the statement by the U.S. border agent. The longer I have lived in Whitehorse, the more I have grown to understand that Yukoners crave Thai food and many will drive to Skagway just to taste the delicacies it offers.
So what would make you drive four hours, round-trip through a mountain pass, and cross an international border to eat Thai food? Apparently, tasty, authentic Thai food that you cannot get in the Yukon. So it was time to go and discover what all the fuss was about and to meet the owners/operators, Jeffrey Hitt and Judd Davis, in Skagway at their restaurant, Starfire.
“The Starfire restaurant has been delighting locals and the hundreds of thousands of cruise ship passengers and crew that pass through Skagway each and every summer,” said Hitt. “We pride ourselves on serving fresh, authentic food at reasonable prices.
“And let’s face it, this is Alaska, so reasonable is relative!”
Davis learned his recipes for Thai cooking in several places; one of these was a restaurant in Austin, Texas, called Thai Passion. In order to work in their kitchen (staffed only with Thai native-speakers), he had to learn to speak and read Thai. As he did this, he worked with native Thai chefs and learned to create authentic, traditional dishes. Davis also travelled to Thailand, often, studying and learning the traditional foods served by the grandmothers and mothers of his friends.
“We each came to Skagway as seasonal workers and met while working in the Chilkoot Room at the Westmark Inn,” Hitt recalls. “We soon discovered that we were both from Austin, Texas, and had long careers in the restaurant industry—Judd, in the kitchen; and Jeffrey, in the front of the House as waiter, bartender and manager.”
In 2004, the Texans joined forces and bought a little café, Sabrosa, from a friend leaving Skagway. Two years later they had an opportunity to start their own business in a former Filipino restaurant on Fourth Avenue. This is where Starfire began. “Judd had been cooking for ‘Thai Nights’ in several locations around town, and they were always popular with the locals. We felt we could probably pay the bills by feeding the cruise ship employees, who are predominantly from Southeast Asia,” said Hitt. “Never in a million years did we think this crazy idea would be as popular as it is today.”
As we entered to sit down in May, on a Friday night, it was like the “eerie calm before the storm.” The kitchen was stocked and ready to go for the onslaught of the busiest weekend of the season, the Canadian May long weekend.
“Starfire is an extremely popular place for Yukoners. Why do you think Yukoners drive all that way just for Starfire?” I asked.
“Good question,” Hitt remarks. “Our first few years, this really caught us off guard. We couldn’t believe that Yukoners would want to drive to Skagway just to eat our food. Now we plan and staff around all Canadian holidays.”
I ordered the Prik Pao, a delicious fried rockfish fillet with basil, tomato, bell pepper, mushroom, lime juice, tamarind and fresh chilies. The authentic taste and spices was like actually eating in Thailand. The portions were large, so I was glad my friend Nicole was happy to share the plate. As we were gurgling down the food, Brandon alerted me to the lost opportunity for taking photos for this very article; as such, the plates were almost devoured before I realized (hence, the half-eaten “plate” photos). The tasty dish was too overwhelming.
“We import our spices and several other ingredients from Thailand. What makes us unique is our passion and commitment to the food and the industry,” said Hitt. “We wanted to create an alternative to typical Alaskan fare, such as fish and chips or burgers and fries.
“Many tourists are tired of that by the time they reach Skagway. We could very easily cut corners (and improve profits) by taking culinary shortcuts, but we are committed to providing the best food and experience possible.”
Starfire is open from mid April to October 1. Check their website for details, www.starfirealaska.com.