By Kellen Brent Pierce
A record-breaking inferno of a summer is now in Alaska’s rear-view mirror. As the city’s annually-planted flower gardens being to wilt under the cold rain, most of the area food trucks are due to shutter and roll home for the winter, with the Oktoberfest Food Truck Party being the official last hurrah of 2019’s Food Truck Carnival season.
As we look ahead to what many Alaskans intuitively believe will be a heavy winter, only the bravest of food trucks remain to tough it out, including the Pride of Big Lake, Tiki Pete’s Alaskan Grill.
The latest iteration of Tiki Pete’s is the third generation, with large enough space for both Brandi and Marty Rathbun, as well as all of their equipment and supplies. Before that, all they had was a four-foot by six-foot trailer, and even before that, a most modest push cart.
Voted Best Street Food in this publication’s 2017 Press Picks, Tiki Pete’s uses Vienna Beef hot dogs and they’re still the star of Tiki Pete’s menu, though several incarnations of Smashburger and even a few vegan/gluten-free options have appeared since then. There are even vegan and gluten-free options. Local radio hosts Bob Lester and Brock Lindow have each earned a namesake item, and several others have already been popularized but have yet to be put into print.
For example, there’s the Princess Burger: a half pound of beef, a four-slice cheese skirt, bacon jam, bacon, macaroni and cheese, and cheese sauce,” Brandi says. “When I’m really grumpy or cold or whatever, Marty will hand me one and say, ‘Here, Princess’.”
We get to talking about the also-secret Philly Nacho, which inspires me to suggest a Philly Frito Pie. Brandi is open to the idea. I can see the wheels turning. Did I just witness the birth of a new secret menu item? Go to Tiki Pete’s and ask for one — you’ll find out.
The idea for Tiki Pete’s came from Brandi’s father, a sheet metal worker who always swore that he’d make a living after retirement, “selling hot dogs on the beach.” When Brandi made a hot dog stand materialize in Maui, the reality of the situation set in.
“We realized that it’s really hot in Maui,” Brandi says.
After a few summers of sending family members to work the cart, they decided to bring the operation home to Alaska. “[My son] was supposed to sell hot dogs but he chased bikinis, so I sent my mom to babysit my son and she chased turtles.”
Brandi says she realized that of all the family members, she actually enjoyed the Hot Dog Life the most. Eventually, Tiki Pete’s was selling so much volume that she and her daughter were flown to Chicago to attend Hot Dog University, a program offered by the Vienna Beef Company, America’s first. (No exaggeration: Vienna’s USDA Establishment Number is 1.)
Sadly, “Tiki” Pete passed away in Arizona last year, forcing Brandi to leave the state to make arrangements. At the same time, the business had commitments to honor, and operations were left to Marty, who quickly fell in love with the business, too.
“What other job can you come up with all these great recipes, feed people, make em happy, and put cash in your pocket?” he said.
While Tiki Pete’s has several dates left around town — including the New Year’s Eve celebration downtown, and the Trick or Treat Street later this month — those mobile dates will be served by the smaller, four-by-six cart.
The full-size Tiki Pete’s will remain in place in front of Koot’s and open Monday-Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Follow along for menu updates and special events at https://www.facebook.com/TikiPetesAlaskanGrill/