For most of us, reindeer have always been synonymous with Christmas, and the image of reindeer brings to mind adorable animated creatures that drive a magical flying sleigh. But if you grew up in Alaska, reindeer is what came with your eggs for breakfast.
Reindeer sausage is a longtime Alaskan staple, typically either served as a side at diners or on a bun at hot dog carts. Reindeer were reportedly brought to Alaska from Siberia in the late 19th century, in an attempt to create a new food industry for Native Alaskans who had been relying on whaling until that point.
Reindeer never really became a main source of meat for Alaskans, but sausage made out of Santa’s little buddies found its way into the hearts (and plates) of Alaskans all over the state.
Readers of 10Best recently named Tiki Pete’s Island and Alaskan Dogs the best reindeer sausage in Alaska, and we spoke to owner Brandi Harmon about what makes her sausage the best, what reindeer tastes like and what it’s like to destroy America’s most cheerful holiday.
“My husband sells reindeer products online, so you can get little packs online. And there’s one called Rudolph’s Revenge, and he does different little twists like Santa’s Little Helper,” Harmon says. “I was interviewed by Maxim magazine and somewhere else in New York. And they’re like, ‘Are you ruining Christmas?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, we are. And that’s OK.’”
When she’s not ruining Christmas, Harmon also serves up the best reindeer sausage in Anchorage, as well as Hawaii.
With dreams of warmer climes and living the island life, the native Alaskan first launched her sausage cart about 3,000 miles away from Alaska. Four years later, she’s living the dream life, with winters slinging sausages in Hawaii and summers selling in Alaska.
So what makes Tiki Pete’s sausage the best? Well, for one thing, Harmon gets her sausages directly from her husband’s specialty meat company and she has her own spice blend.
“The ones we [serve] have 33 percent reindeer, 33 percent beef and 33 percent pork, so it’s got a higher percentage of reindeer than most other sausages out there,” Harmon says. “It’s a leaner meat even though it’s got the beef and the pork in it, because reindeer is so lean. It’s juicy, it’s flavorful, it has a smoked finish to it, it’s just a really good sausage.”
But Harmon’s real advantage, she says, is her diploma from Hot Dog University. Yep, that’s a real thing.
“It is awesome, it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done with my life,” Harmon says. “You learn the proper way of holding dogs, how to cook them, how to serve them, what condiments work best with what, and all about different quality and cuts of meat.”
Tiki Pete’s serves Chicago-style reindeer, which does not mean that it has a Midwest accent or roots for the Cubs, but that it’s marinated in an au jus, grilled, seared to order and served with caramelized onions and spicy mustard.
But Tiki Pete’s also has its own little niche among the Anchorage sausage carts.
“We are the only ones up here that serve mac and cheese on our hot dogs,” Harmon says. “It depends on how frisky we are feeling, but sometimes we also do a beer cheese sauce on a pretzel bun – whatever we feel like bringing out and serving up – but our mac and cheese dog is amazing. In Alaska, we’re good eaters. We like to eat up here, so we go through a lot of mac and cheese – let me tell ya.”
For some visitors to Alaska, the thought of eating Vixen all chopped up and put into a casing is blasphemy, but Harmon says most tourists can’t get enough.
“First they want to take a picture of themselves with the menu, because there is reindeer on the menu, and they think that’s awesome, and then they get it, and we have a lot of repeat customers within the same hour,” Harmon says. “They’ll try their first reindeer, and then the husband and wife they share it, and then the husband comes back for another one or two.”