Montana, the fourth largest state in the U.S., has a populace of 1.02 million and receives over ten times that number in visitors annually. People come to explore Glacier National Park and the northern edge of Yellowstone, to hunt or ski, to absorb the immensity of the American West and its prairies, rivers, and peaks. I came for my own change of scenery. I’m on the road three weeks out of the month, mostly in major or up-and-coming cities, chronicling what’s essential and what’s trending in dining scenes around the country. It seemed appropriate at some point this year to swerve — to visit a remote corner of the nation, some place out of reach from the buzzing moment in popular restaurant culture. Montana, where I’d never been, beckoned. I was genuinely curious: What would the eating establishments be like in a state whose residents total less than the population of Dallas, Texas?
I knew from research ahead of time not to sweep through expecting undiscovered gems or some as-yet-unreported culinary movement out of the Northwest Rockies. Instead, I quickly learned to embrace the restaurants that thrive in Montana as features of the landscape. Even more than a sense of place (much of the food falls within the broadly appealing spectrum of Americana), these businesses reflect a sense of community. Each cafe and joint and finer-dining stalwart revealed a facet of their town’s culture. Some have been around for a few years, a lot of them for decades. I didn’t get the feeling that any of these restaurants would be closing their doors soon. In a land whose climate is unforgiving for much of the year, they’ve become snugly woven into the structure of local lives.
Several friends who know the state well advised me to map out a route that began near the Canadian border and then head south and east: two nights each in Whitefish, a ski resort town not far from Glacier; Missoula, home to the University of Montana; and Bozeman, a town in the southeast corner of the state known as a yuppie haven. Some natives refer to it as "Boze Angeles."
If you travel to eat, Bozeman had the best food by far of the towns I visited
I’ll say upfront that I easily grasped Bozeman’s reputation: If you travel to eat, it had the best food by far of the towns I visited (and also a convenient airport). Make reservations early for Blackbird Kitchen. Carina Lee Lampkin would find success with her delicate pastas and crackery-crusted pizzas in just about any city in the nation. She fills out her menu with smartly composed salads and, because the locals ask for it, several meat dishes — maybe a Montana sirloin steak with roasted potatoes or leg of lamb with Carolina gold rice and salsa verde. For breakfast, I loved the soft omelet at Nova Cafe filled with bison chorizo. (Ted Turner maintains a bison herd on his 110,000-acre Flying D Ranch not far from Bozeman.) An inveterate fried chicken hound, I could taste the Southern bona fides in the bronzed bird at Roost: Co-owner Joe Darr is from Chattanooga.
But I’m glad I didn’t go straight to Bozeman and wallow in its handy gratifications. By wandering a wide arch I ate in ways that showed me the rich, honest character of Montana. My time there was a powerful reminder that when traveling, restaurants can sometimes capture our imaginations as much (or more) with their moods or histories or clienteles as they can with their cooking.
The panorama in Whitefish made for a breathtaking start to the trip. Mountains rising like rounded waves out of Flathead National Forest frame wide Central Avenue, the town’s main thoroughfare. Steep-roofed shops line the street. It was a warm Tuesday afternoon in late August; people had flocked to a farmers market in nearby Depot Park. We bought a perfumed cantaloupe to eat for breakfast the next morning. A food truck was selling bahn mi meatball sliders and sushi rolls filled with crab tempura and asparagus.
My taste buds strained to detect any gaminess in the ground elk meat, but it came across as tame, like lean grass-fed beef
But I saved my appetite for dinner half a block away at Tupelo Grille, a restaurant with a warren of colorful rooms and folksy art on the walls. The menu zigzagged through a hodgepodge of 90s-era New American tropes (coconut shrimp, ahi tuna with Asian slaw, steak gilded with gorgonzola and caramelized onions) but also veered into Southern territory: fried catfish sticks, shrimp and grits, chicken and dumplings. I sidestepped all those for the dish squarely aimed at tourists wanting a taste of Montana: elk meatloaf over mashed potatoes with huckleberry demiglace. My taste buds strained to detect any gaminess in the ground elk meat, but it came across as tame, like lean grass-fed beef.
At Cafe Kandahar — the week’s fanciest meal, in a dim, wooden-beamed room at Kandahar Lodge above Whitefish — I learned why elk is often presented in some fashion other than steak. Wisps of elk carpaccio, gussied up with olives and tomato jam and balsamic squiggles, were tender with the subtlest suggestion of pleasant chewiness. A straight-ahead entree of elk strip loin was tough to the point of inedibility. It made a bison tenderloin seem like cultured butter by comparison.
I zoomed in on Wild West meats, but plenty of far more easygoing pleasures presented themselves in Whitefish. Pig & Olive Sandwich Shoppe in the town’s new Stumptown Marketplace specializes in a corn dog (made by Redneck Smoked Meats in nearby Kalispell) fried with onion rings; it resembled an abstract rendering of Jupiter. The lunch fare at Loula’s Cafe, a typical assortment of sandwiches and salads was serviceable, though they’re rightly famed for their homemade pies, including six variations with huckleberries (I can vouch for the ones mixed with peach and with other berries).
On the two-and-a-half hour drive down from Whitefish to Missoula, sign after sign advertised huckleberry jams, jellies, preserves, syrups, and candies like licorice and fudge. Visitors to Montana hanker after huckleberries, and locals have responded with a booming cottage industry. Native to the inland Northwest and most commonly found in elevations above 4,000 feet, the huckleberry’s summer growing season is relatively short (typically July and August), but their flavor and processed forms are inescapable year-round.
A smoky yellow murk clung to the mountains around Missoula, blown in from the forest fires brought on by the drought further west. The restaurants registered as a typical college town mix: solid pies at Biga Pizza, sustaining chilaquiles and other hearty breakfast dishes at Catalyst Cafe, global tapas (hummus, poutine, kefta meatballs, ceviche) at The Silk Road. Several people had recommended Lolo Creek Steakhouse just outside of town, and the hunting-lodge motif did not disappoint. Taxidermied wolves leaped from perches near the ceiling. There were antlers galore. The food charmed with its guilelessness: A firm piece of smoked salmon paired with a runny piece of brie and served with an array of crackers. Iceberg salad chock-o-block with croutons. A righteous stuffed potato alongside my sirloin (choice grade, less marbled and more affordable than prime) and Alaskan king crab combo platter. Families filled most of the tables.
I ate my favorite thing in Missoula at a stall called Ninja Mike’s: A Frankenstein’s Monster of a breakfast sandwich
A food writer friend who’d taken photography classes in Missoula most of the summer told me her favorite thing about the local food scene was Clark Fork Market on Saturday mornings. I immediately saw why. It was a rambunctious gathering, full of happy-looking people buying produce from close-by farms, Montana beef and bison, beautiful apricot-filled pastries … and fresh huckleberries! It was the last week for them. They tasted nothing like bulbous store-bought blueberries. The flavor and size was more akin to Maine blueberries but with a racy tartness all their own. At the market I ate my favorite thing in Missoula at a stall called Ninja Mike’s: A Frankenstein’s Monster of a breakfast sandwich laden with fried eggs, cheese, sausage, scarlet tomatoes, avocado, and caramelized onions. It was like something I’d throw together for myself at home, and it felt reassuring to sit down at a picnic table with friendly strangers and scarf it down.
After the farmers market we left for Butte. In a state where big silences and palpable isolation fill the long stretches on winding highways between major towns, Butte felt particularly still. The town was only on the schedule as a stopping point for lunch along the 200-mile drive between Missoula and Bozeman. The plan changed when I took in the exterior of the Pekin Noodle Parlor. Its narrow yellow façade fronts a long, red brick building constructed in 1909. A poster in the restaurant’s window announced the celebration of its one-hundredth anniversary in 2011. An unlit neon sign above the door spelled out CHOP SUEY. It was a cloudless Saturday afternoon. Down the street sat buildings of similar age but in more dire states of disrepair. A mountain range rippled hazy and gray in the far distance beyond them. The noodle parlor opened at 5 p.m. I turned to my friend Natalie, who had joined me on the road trip, and said, "Let’s stick around for dinner. I gotta see this place."
We returned at 5:20. The parking lot next to the restaurant was already starting to fill. We followed others through the entrance, which led to a steep flight of stairs and a second floor landing. Light from the street-facing windows filled the front of the dining room, though no one was sitting there. Everyone, including us, wanted a private, curtained booth — Pekin’s defining design feature. Two rows of booths formed a tight hallway that ended at the kitchen. Technicolor-orange paint radiated off the walls. Sitting down at our table, it felt like we would be eating inside a traffic cone.
We followed the guidance of the neon signage (now lit) and ordered chop suey, splurging on a "fresh shrimp" option for $12.95 rather than the canned shrimp version priced at $9.95. The first bite of the dish — soggy celery and onion threaded with quickly wilting bean sprouts in a glossy sauce dominated by soy and cornstarch — brought back forgotten dinners of my 1980s childhood with unnerving clarity. We would dine out on egg rolls, wonton soup, sweet-and-sour pork with pineapple, and green pepper steak. All staples on Pekin Noodle Parlor's menu, delivered from jangling carts yanked along by no-nonsense servers wearing red tunics.
By the time we got up to leave around 6:30, a crowd of all ages had gathered in the restaurant’s foyer, waiting their turn for a booth. The cooking didn’t especially impress, but there were no regrets about lingering in Butte. I couldn’t have understood how vital this 104-year-old restaurant remained to its town without experiencing the place myself.
Earlier in the day we had rounded the corner from Pekin and come across a museum dedicated to the history of Butte’s Chinatown. Chinese miners and laborers arrived in Butte in the mid-1800s. They sometimes found gold but also faced a rash of discriminatory laws; many left during World War II for west coast jobs created by the defense industries. Pekin Noodle House endured. Ding K. Tam — also known by his Americanized name, Danny Wong — began working for his uncle at Pekin in 1947 and eventually took over the business, which he and his family still run.
A bookstore sat a couple of blocks down from the museum. I asked the woman organizing shelves if she could recommend a restaurant for lunch that she thought most epitomized Butte and Montana. She sent us to Matt’s Place. It began in 1930 as a drive-in and sits on the bottom floor of a rambling whitewashed building that looks like it belongs on the Jersey shore. Natalie and I sidled up to the U-shaped counter in front of the soda fountain, feeling like we were in a Norman Rockwell painting, at the very core of the American experience. We clutched our paper-wrapped burgers — thin, crisp, oblong patties drooping over buns and stacked with generous toppings. I ordered the Nut Burger, the signature curio topped with coarsely crushed peanuts mixed into mayo. It sounded downright odd but I ended up savoring it. We spent a slow, sweet lunch sipping milkshakes and watching locals of all ages come in, plant themselves at the counter stools, and greet the staff like they’ve been coming to Matt’s all their lives. Which is almost certainly the case.
Blackbird Kitchen: 140 East Main Street, (406) 586-0010, blackbirdkitchen.com
Nova Cafe: 312 East Main Street, (406) 587-3973, thenovacafe.com
Roost: 1520 West Main Street, (406) 404-1475, roostfriedchicken.com
Tupelo Grille: 17 Central Avenue, (406) 862-6136, tupelogrille.com
Cafe Kandahar: 3824 Big Mountain Road, (406) 862-6247, cafekandahar.com
Pig & Olive Sandwich Shoppe: 12 Spokane Avenue, (406) 862-7444, facebook.com/pigandolive
Loula’s Cafe: 300 Second Street East, (406) 862-5614, whitefishrestaurant.com
Biga Pizza: 241 West Main Street, (406) 728-2579, bigapizza.com
Catalyst Cafe: 111 North Higgins Avenue, (406) 542-1337, thecatalystcafe.com
The Silk Road: 515 South Higgins Avenue, (406) 541-0752, silkroadcatering.com
Lolo Creek Steakhouse: 6600 US-12, Lolo, (406) 273-2622, lolocreeksteakhouse.com
Clark Fork Market: clarkforkmarket.com
Pekin Noodle Parlor: 117 South Main Street, (406) 782-2217
Matt's Place: 2339 Placer Street, (406) 782-8049