News
In Rod Heppe's kitchen, the pantry is in the driver's seat and a bank of fryers sit where students once did. Heppe's Klawock Diner is one of the most of unusual, and most popular, eateries on Prince of Wales.
Hungry on Prince of Wales? Look for a beat-up old school bus 092910 NEWS 2 For the Capital City Weekly In Rod Heppe's kitchen, the pantry is in the driver's seat and a bank of fryers sit where students once did. Heppe's Klawock Diner is one of the most of unusual, and most popular, eateries on Prince of Wales.

Photos By Libby Sterling

Klawock Diner proprietor Rod Heppe stands in the diner's kitchen, housed in an old school bus. The pantry is in the driver's seat, and a bank of fryers sits where students once did.


Click Thumbnails to View
Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Story last updated at 9/29/2010 - 1:33 pm

Hungry on Prince of Wales? Look for a beat-up old school bus

The first thing I noticed about the Klawock Diner was that we'd biked right past it. This wasn't hard to do. For one, there's no sign. For another, it's set back from the road. And, of course, there's a beat-up old school bus out back.

Thankfully, it didn't take long to catch our mistake. Klawock's business district isn't exactly bustling. We knew the diner existed and we were determined to find it, drunk, as we were, on the idea of warmth, dryness, and fried fish.

Process of elimination - it had to be one of the few structures that wasn't the gas station or AC store - eventually led us to what I'd initially figured was someone's house. But sure enough, as we rolled up we noticed the sign, hand-painted on plywood, resting against the building, waiting to be hung.

And the school bus? Turns out that's the kitchen.

"Motor starts and everything," said Rod Heppe, 54, who assumed proprietorship of the Klawock Diner - formerly Dave's Diner - this past July. "I could drive it on out of here right now, if I wanted."

Of course, that's not likely. Heppe's got plans. Big plans. And he's quick to share them, even during lunch rush, even with a group of soaked strangers who were obviously about to take full advantage of free coffee refills.

"I've been working 14 hours a day, seven days a week to get this place how I want," he said, ducking nimbly through the side emergency exit of the bus, which doubles as the kitchen door. "Yeah, we can't hire any cooks taller than me."

"Close" would be a good way of describing Heppe's kitchen, with a pantry in the driver's seat, refrigeration units cramming the back rows, a bank of fryers sitting where the students would go and other culinary bric-a-brac stashed into every possible cranny.

In some ways it fit, considering the history of the American diner - the first diners were housed in recycled railway dining cars. In fact, the classic pre-fab Art Deco diners of the middle 20th century were actually manufactured on train building equipment. Still, it wasn't an ideal set-up.

"There's not much space, but it's a landmark," said Heppe, explaining his reticence to get rid of his school bus-cum-prep space. Apparently the previous owner, Dave Walker, parked it there - with kitchen already inside - back in 1985. Heppe does, however, plan to pressure wash it; landmark or not, the thing's covered in a quarter-century of grime.

Since taking over, Rod Heppe details similarly modest but significant improvements: a little paint here, a little re-modeling there, a little outdoor seating area for those rare sunny days. He also streamlined the menu, aiming for a style he characterizes as "simple, easy, tasty."

"It don't have to be fancy," he said, as he tossed some halibut into the bubbling grease. "You get a good cook in the kitchen, you can build a business pretty quick."

Slim and wiry with a cyclist's frame - in his free time, he tours the island on an old Peugot carbon-fiber road bike - Heppe's slight build belies his idea of portion size. The "small" halibut platter includes two filets; the "regular," features three. The menu's so-called "light" options all come with French fries. And there's milkshakes. And homemade pie.

We stood for a minute or two in silence, Heppe staring at the fryer, us staring at Heppe wondering what he was staring at.

"The secret to a perfect halibut burger," he said, readying some tongs, "watching and waiting for the exact moment the first piece floats to the top."

First piece? Yeah, Heppe's halibut burger is actually a double. I wager he'd make you a double-double, too.

Originally from Forks, Washington - of Twilight saga fame - Rod Heppe originally came to Prince of Wales as a log truck tire-man/assistant mechanic. Gastronomically self-taught, he went into cooking some 15 years ago - "it was something I always liked to do" - working in various restaurants on Prince of Wales and in Ketchikan, as well the coffee shop on the Inter-Island Ferry, which, itself makes a surprisingly excellent halibut burger.

Outside Craig, Prince of Wales' dining options are limited (if you're looking for more than microwaved burritos) - there's another coffee shop in Klawock, a take-out joint in Coffman Cove, and a random hotdog stand on the road to Whale Pass. As such, word travels fast, and Heppe has already cultivated regulars, tourists and locals alike. It doesn't hurt that the Klawock Diner stands across the street from the most popular salmon hole on that part of the island.

More than that, Heppe credits his nightly dinner specials. Some evenings, he offers diner mainstays like meatloaf. On others, he'll go "off-the-wall" - Chinese food, shrimp curries and other dishes he characterizes as "clear-out-the-fridge" plates.

His own personal favorite: Friday's special - Panko-fried local spotted prawns ("six of them; the big ones"), potato, vegetable, garlic bread (for $12.99).

The Klawock Diner is located is located at 6648 Big Salt Lake Road in Klawock. Keep your eyes peeled for the sign - Rod Heppe promises to put it up soon - or call 907-755-2986.

Either way, you'll know it by the school bus.

Geoff Kirsch is a writer in Juneau. Visit his website at www.geoffkirsch.com.