The Best Foods under the Big Sky: What to Eat in Montana

Photo By: Lynn Donaldson

Photo By: Lynn Donaldson

Photo By: Lynn Donaldson

Photo By: Lynn Donaldson

Photo By: Lynn Donaldson

Photo By: Lynn Donaldson

Photo By: Lynn Donaldson

Photo By: Lynn Donaldson

Photo By: Lynn Donaldson

Photo By: Lynn Donaldson

Photo By: Lynn Donaldson

Photo By: Lynn Donaldson

Photo By: Lynn Donaldson

Photo By: Lynn Donaldson

Photo By: Lynn Donaldson

Photo By: Lynn Donaldson

Photo By: Lynn Donaldson

Photo By: Lynn Donaldson

Photo By: Lynn Donaldson

Photo By: Lynn Donaldson

Photo By: Lynn Donaldson

Photo By: Lynn Donaldson

Photo By: Emma Light

Photo By: Lynn Donaldson

Photo By: Lynn Donaldson

Photo By: Lynn Donaldson

Photo By: Paul Bellinger

Photo By: Jacob Cowgill

Photo By: Lynn Donaldson

Photo By: Lynn Donaldson

Photo By: Nicole Tavenner

Photo By: Lynn Donaldson

Bite Into Big Sky Country

Montana is known for its open expanses and beautiful wilderness. That natural bounty yields exceptional food, including bison, huckleberries, chokecherries, morels and some of the best beef in the country, along with local favorites worth a detour.

Huckleberry Swirls

“The whole reason we moved to Montana 23 years ago was because of my husband’s mistress: the Montana huckleberry,” jokes Paulette Njirich, who owns the Libby Cafe with spouse Jim. Each year, the Njiriches purchase more than 1,700 pounds of plump, purple berries from local pickers to feature in items like Huckleberry Flapjacks drenched in homemade huckleberry syrup. “They’re not a pancake; they’re not a crepe,” explains Jim (who inadvertently invented them one day by adding huckleberries to potato flapjack batter), when describing the flapjacks’ texture. “And they’re loaded with huckleberries,” adds Paulette, who crafts from-scratch Huckleberry Swirls. “I dust [the dough] with finely ground walnuts, sugar and lemon and really pile on the berries. Then I roll them up and bake before topping them with huckleberry cream frosting.”

Chicken-Fried Steak

Sitting amid upscale galleries and outdoor shops in downtown Bozeman, the Western Café has served a comfort-packed menu to Gallatin Valley families since 1906. The signature dish, which lures fans from throughout the state, is chicken-fried steak. “Everything about it is made from scratch,” says server Tandy Miles Riddle. “They cut it fresh off a slab of beef several times a day, as-needed.” The breakfast version is coated in homemade breading, grilled and nestled in a bed of sausage gravy. At lunch, it comes with mashed potatoes and brown gravy, a fresh-made biscuit, salad and dessert. “It’s hearty food. Big portions. Montana-style,” adds Riddle.

Steak

Beef: it’s what’s for dinner at Sir Scott’s Oasis in Manhattan, where legendary steaks, staggering portions, and Old-West hospitality are served in spades. Meals begin with a cracker basket and relish tray loaded with nine type of vegetables — including homemade pickled cauliflower — followed by three hefty courses. Don’t be fooled by the barn wood; they age and cut all meat in-house, peel and slice every vegetable, and make all batters, breading and seasonings from scratch. Go big with a sirloin or try the finger steaks and Jo-Jo’s. Both come with soup or salad, homemade garlic toast and either a sundae or sherbet for dessert.

Hootdogs

“It was a wild hair idea,” laughs Rita Hofer, a King Colony Hutterite woman who on a whim skewered a hot dog, swaddled it in fry-bread dough, then dunked it in a vat of boiling oil. Voila: the Hootdog! Hofer serves her creation with a side of ketchup and mustard at the Lewistown Farmers Market on Saturdays from June through early October. Hofer had fun incorporating the word Hoot, a slang term some Montanans use when referring to a member of her Anabaptist-descended religious colony, the Hutterites.

Beans & Sheepherders

For many Montanans, eating Beans & Sheepherders at the historic Jersey Lilly Saloon in Ingomar is a rite of passage akin to baptism or marriage. The remote cowboy bar has been dishing up Bob Seward’s illustrious pinto bean and ham soup (accompanied by garlic-toast croutons and spicy housemade hot sauce) since Seward bought the place in 1948. Son Bill invented Sheepherders, a prairie hors d’oeuvre consisting of sliced onion, sliced orange and small cubes of cheddar, all intended to be stacked DIY-style on a saltine then gulped in one bite. The sum of the parts equals a zestful and deliciously unexpected whole.

Fry Bread

If you’re not lucky enough to have a grandmother or special auntie who makes fry bread, then head to Crow Fair the third weekend in August. Held on Montana’s Crow Reservation, the annual event celebrates Native American culture, and reunites family groups with a traditional powwow, dances and Indian horse races. At the center of “Teepee Capital of the World” is a dance arbor surrounded by vendors selling all sorts of carnival fare — including fry bread and Indian tacos (fry bread with taco toppings). Locals eat theirs unembellished, slathered in honey, or sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar.

Ice Cream

Wilcoxson’s Ice Cream is as much a Montana dietary staple as a hearty steak or a juicy hamburger. Boasting 58 flavors, including local strongholds Bobcat Batter and Chocolate Runs Through It, the Livingston-based company has been filling bellies throughout Big Sky Country since 1912. Sandwich shops like The Pickle Barrel (in Bozeman, Belgrade, Livingston and Billings) whip Wilcoxson’s into milkshakes or serve it in softball-size scoops on cones. Wilcoxson’s Huckleberry Ice Cream Bars can be snapped up at most any grocery story, gas station or hardware store between Yellowstone and Glacier with a “Proudly Serving Wilcoxson’s” sign displayed in the front window.

Nut Burger

Carhops and waitresses at the 16-seat, U-shaped lunch counter of Matt’s Place Drive-In in Butte still serve milkshakes made from house-churned ice cream, and hand-cut fries, along with the notorious Nut Burger, a 100 percent lean Montana patty cooked on a cast iron grill and topped with a mixture of mayo, chopped cashews and pecans. When the James Beard Foundation bestowed a 2016 America’s Classics Award to the drive-in, it called the Nut Burger a “masterpiece [whose] topping melds with sliced pickles, tomatoes, and onions righteously.”

Prime Rib

A soak in the hot springs pool is practically mandatory before entering the dining room at Chico Hot Springs, a rustic yet elegant hideout tucked in the shadow of Emigrant Peak in Montana’s Paradise Valley. Visitors are as likely to be seated next to a wet-headed fashion editor or movie star as they are a fishing guide in the dining room, where Chef Jeremy Berg serves a slow-roasted 12-ounce prime rib crusted with garlic and fresh herbs, caramelized onions and horseradish sauce. Many guests consider it the best prime rib on the planet, let alone the state.

Flathead Cherries

Few things taste more like summer for Montanans more than flathead cherries. Named for the temperate region in which they’re grown surrounding northwestern Montana’s Flathead Lake, Flathead orchards produce naturally sweet and tangy Lapin, Rainier, Van and—most quintessentially—heart-shaped Lambert cherries. Dozens of charming clapboard cherry stands and you-pick orchards, like Fat Robin on Finley Point, dot the lake’s eastern shore between Polson and Bigfork. Local bakeries and farmers markets showcase the mahogany red fruit in everything from pies, scones, jams and chutneys to Glacier Brewing’s Flathead Cherry Ale and The Raven’s Spring Brook Yak meatloaf topped with Cherry BBQ Sauce.

Chokecherries

In May, Montana’s riverbanks and foothills become drenched in the sweet scent of chokecherry blossoms. Come August, when the berries ripen to deep red, locals rush out with buckets and coffee cans to pick a few before the birds and bears pluck bushes clean. At Lewistown’s Chokecherry Festival in September, fans sample chokecherry jam, syrup, pie and wine, along with Montana Wild Chokecherry Liqueur. Made by Willie’s Distillery in Ennis from 600 pounds of locally harvested chokecherries, the cordial harnesses the fruit’s sweet yet tart flavor and is delicious in a spritzer or poured over ice on a hot summer day.

Grizzly Paws

In a Victorian-era hardware store in downtown Philipsburg, glass-front display bins that once held nails and drill bits now overflow with cinnamon sticks, jaw breakers and more than 1,000 types of hard candy to create The Sweet Palace. A taffy puller whirls nonstop in the front window as apron-clad candy makers buzz around the kitchen whipping up homemade marshmallows, brittles, fudge and dozens of hand-dipped chocolates, including Grizzly Paws. These two-and-a-half-inch “paws” of handmade vanilla caramel dipped in either milk or semi-sweet chocolate have slivered cashew “claws” with almond crunch and white chocolate “grizzle” swirled on top.

Catholic Burgers

Catholic Burgers are available for but a fleeting moment the second weekend of July at the Wolf Point Wild Horse Stampede on Montana’s Fort Peck Indian Reservation. Sold 24 hours a day from a stand with a perpetually long line, the treats were conceived in 1947 as a fundraiser for the Immaculate Conception Parish. Working around the clock in four-hour shifts, spatula-wielding volunteers keep a watchful eye on grills laden with local beef and onions sizzled in pickle juice, which aficionados ask for piled high on top.

Bison

Deliciously tender, slightly sweet and lower in fat and cholesterol than beef, bison is featured in several appetizing forms at Mustang Fresh Food and Catering in Livingston. Temptingly close to Yellowstone National Park, Chef Carole Sullivan delights locals and visitors alike with fresh takes on this staple Montana meat — be it Bison Rocks (bison, butternut squash, kale, cheese and spices on a homemade bun), a savory bison meatloaf sandwich or bison-based mole with butternut squash, onions, tomatoes and roasted red peppers. The local sourcing and quality flavors make her food a must-have for visiting VIPs, as well.

Pie

Wisdom, a spit of a town in the heart of Montana’s Big Hole Valley, is home to The Crossing Bar & Grill at Fetty's and some of the best pie under The Big Sky. Clad in a crisp, hot pink vintage apron, Diane Havig — who owns the business with her husband, Dennis — greets customers with a rolling pin as she perfects crusts on lattice-topped apple pies, huckleberry-blueberry pies, sour cream raisin, chocolate-bottom peanut butter, rhubarb and buttermilk cream pies — so many glorious types of fresh homemade pies that the dining room chalkboard barely squeezes in the list.

Stuffed Mushrooms & Ribeye

Don’t be surprised if you have to sidestep a pile of muddy irrigation boots on the sidewalk in front the Edgar Bar. The steakhouse, about 35 miles south of Billings on the well-traveled route to Cody, Wyoming, is popular with ranchers for its stuffed mushrooms as big as biscuits, which are filled with herbed cream cheese, lightly battered and served GFD. “Golden Fried Delicious,” explains manager Kim Feldkamp. The bar’s well-marbled certified Angus rib eye, cut in-house and expertly char-grilled, is known for its rich flavor. “You can almost cut it with a fork it’s so tender,” notes Feldkamp.

Hutterite Chicken

Descended from the Anabaptist movement, Hutterites live in small, agricultural colonies that dot rural Montana, and often travel to area farmers’ markets to sell eggs and produce. Locals are crazy about all-natural, hormone-free Hutterite chicken sold in grocery stores and listed on many menus. Chef Jeffery Burgess at Union Grill inside the historic Grand Union Hotel in Fort Benton serves a rustic pan-roasted version that’s brined in lavender, thyme, lemon and lime.

Breakfast

Because so many guests bunking at the 105-year-old Virgelle Mercantile Homestead Cabins and B&B go straight from the breakfast table to nearby Cole Banks Landing to launch on multi-day canoe trips down the Missouri River, owners Don Sorenson and Jimmy Griffin provide a hearty spread. Cheerfully laboring over an antique Round Oak wood-burning stove, Sorenson serves dishes like waffles made from locally grown kamut wheat topped with homemade chokecherry syrup; platters of whole-hog sausage; and melons from Pearson’s Big Sandy Cantaloupe. Antiques are for sale throughout the mercantile and upstairs B&B, “But I promise not to sell the chair you’re sitting on,” quips Sorenson.

Pizza

Biga Pizza in downtown Missoula uses fresh, local ingredients on innovative pies like the Flathead Cherry Pizza topped with housemade sausage, flathead cherry chutney, smoked gouda, mozzarella, garlic oil and parsley. Owner Bob Marshall buys cherries for his house-made chutney from The Orchard at Flathead Lake, which has been in the Johnson family since 1976. Marshall also runs daily and weekly specials showcasing whatever happens to be fresh and available — be it wild mushrooms, beef short ribs, dried chiles, shallots, apples or something totally different.

Big Dipper Ice Cream

The perpetual line formed by the window of Big Dipper Ice Cream’s flagship shop in downtown Missoula is a testament to the brand’s popularity. Many consider Big Dipper to be Montana’s richest, most-delectable ice cream, as well as the most-innovative creator of new flavor. Expanding to locations in downtown Helena and Billings, Big Dipper serves generous scoops of standbys like chocolate, vanilla and huckleberry, but veers off the beaten path with cardamom or seasonal specialties like strawberry-jalapeno and LaCroix apricot sorbet.

Lentils

With roughly 1,209,039 acres planted, Montana leads the nation in pulse crop production (leguminous items such as chickpeas, peas and lentils harvested solely for their dry seeds). Timeless Natural Foods, a line of gourmet heirloom organic lentils and grains grown in Montana’s Golden Triangle, distributes to restaurants and grocery stores throughout the state. Claudia Krevet of Claudia’s Mesa in Bozeman showcases Timeless’ black beluga lentils and semi-pearled farrow in sides like Coconut Rice with Fried Vermicelli and Almonds plated with Cuban-style Braised Beef at the Latin American- and Caribbean-inspired pop-up dinners she hosts throughout the area.

Wagon Wheels

“Real Food. Real Fast. Since 1952,” is the slogan at Dash Inn, a classic drive-thru with no indoor seating (carports only!) in Lewistown. Owned by Tom and Kim Rapkoch, the drive-thru’s outdoor menu lists more than 200 no-frills road foods, including fried chicken, burgers, onion rings and cones. But the star of the show is the Wagon Wheel. “Basically, it’s a burger on toasted bread that’s crimped and sealed around the edge,” explains Tom. Others see it a perfect little flying saucer of deliciousness, tasting best when washed down with a Hot-n-Tot (Coke punched up with homemade cinnamon syrup).

Rocky Mountain Oysters

The best place to eat Rocky Mountain oysters (calf testicles) is at ranch brandings from late March through June, where they’re cut, cleaned and fried on the spot. Evan Johnston, a rancher near White Sulphur Springs, prefers to cook them in an outdoor turkey fryer with the casing left on. “I like the pop it gives when you bite in,” says Johnston, who coats the “oysters” in flour, then eggs, then crushed saltines. They’ve got an earthy, almost buttery flavor, with a slightly spongy texture. “Eating them seems almost symbolic in a way,” says Johnson, “like ringing in the New Year.”

Morels

Foraging for morel mushrooms is a Montana rite of spring. The delectable golden sponge-like fungi appear in different flushes from April through mid-June, popping first along rivers at lower elevations before spreading to the mountains, and often clustering in burn sites. Commercial pickers show up at the back doors of restaurants throughout the state from Chico Hot Springs to Café Kandahar on Whitefish Mountain, where Chef Andy Blanton buys them by the bagful to showcase in seasonal dishes like forest mushrooms in Madeira cream. Many home cooks simply sauté morels in butter and garlic, savoring their delicate, nutty flavor straight from the pan.

Willow Spring Lamb

Montana’s abundant grasslands have been nourishing sheep since Father Pierre De Smet first introduced them to the Bitterroot Valley in 1847. Maintaining this bucolic tradition in the rolling foothills of the Bridger Mountains, Katy and Rich Harjes raise organic grass-fed and -finished lamb at Willow Spring Ranch. One of the best places to sample their noticeably mild and tender lamb is at Saffron Table in Bozeman, where Andleeb Dawood serves it in contemporary South Asian dishes such as Willow Spring Lamb Kofta (minced lamb, red chile, cumin, cinnamon, roasted chickpea, black cardamom and poppy seed), with fenugreek potatoes and fresh naan.

Huckleberry Turnovers

Down a dusty dirt road that skirts the North Fork of Montana’s Flathead River is the off-the-grid (literally—no power lines, no cell service) town of Polebridge. Attracting hearty outdoor souls of all types, the town’s center is the Polebridge Mercantile, an old-fashioned general store and bakery, with a glass-front display case piled high with huckleberry bear claws, cinnamon rolls, cookies, scones, fresh-baked bread and pocket sandwiches. The Merc’s huckleberry turnovers take three days to make from start to finish — not counting the time it takes local pickers to forage for berries. The time and attention poured into each one is evident in every perfectly flakey bite.

Pork Chop John'€™s

In 1923, John Burklund began selling bone-in pork chop sandwiches to miners and passersby out of a horse-drawn wagon in Uptown Butte. By the time John Orizotti bought the business in 1969, the sandwiches were a staple of local cuisine. Today, Orizotti’s son Ed serves the crispy and succulent Montana icons (no longer available bone-in) at two Butte locations. Sit at the Uptown shop’s 10-seat counter and order John’s Original: a boneless pork sirloin breaded with housemade batter, deep fried and garnished on a locally-made four-and-a-half inch bun. Locals top theirs with cheese, ham or egg. Some even add a burger on top!

Pasties

The pasty first arrived on the scene in Butte in the late 1800’s when tin and copper miners from Cornwell, England, had cravings. Referred to as “letters from ’ome,” these meat and vegetable pockets were both hardy and hearty, quickly becoming a mainstay in miners’ lunch pails. Though most of Butte’s underground mines closed by 1975, the pasty still lives on at several Butte eateries. Grab one at Gamer’s Cafe, Joe’s Pasty, or Nancy’s Pasty Shop, where they’re made from scratch with ground beef and weigh in at a pound and a quarter each.

Trout

Because so many Montana anglers practice catch-and-release fishing, many head out to order trout, often from Ox Pasture in Red Lodge. Chef Chris Lockhart’s menu changes every two weeks from May through Thanksgiving, depending on what’s wild and fresh at the moment. The menu can showcase mushrooms in June or an autumn appetizer of duck confit on crispy fried chicken skin topped with crème fraîche and trout roe. Lockhart likes pairing naturally fed, hormone-free trout sourced from Trout Culture in Paradise Valley with things like zucchini spaghetti, carrot-top pesto and roasted tomatoes accompanied by Israeli couscous and roasted vegetables with crème fraîche.

Maple Bars

People drive out of their way and even call in advance to order homemade maple bars at Allen’s Manix Store in Augusta. These satisfying farmhouse favorites measure six inches long and two inches wide, and are slathered with homemade frosting. “They’re a staple in our store,” says owner Susan Ford, whose father bought the old-fashioned general store along the Rocky Mountain Front in 1974. “The secret’s in the icing. My husband, Steve, makes it from scratch in small batches every day to ensure the quality and integrity are consistently delicious.”

Burger

The menu at Burger Dive in downtown Billings lists seventeen types of burgers ranging from straight-up hamburgers to complexly layered items like the Blackened Sabbath Burger. Chef-Owner Brad Halsten offers rotating daily specials like the award-winning I’m Your Huckleberry, which won the 2016 World Food Championships title of World Burger Champion. Slathered with Halsten’s huckleberry-Hatch chile barbecue sauce, this 1/3-pound behemoth is topped with bacon and creamy goat cheese, roasted red pepper mayonnaise and arugula. Each patty is formed from never-frozen Angus beef and is served alongside fresh-cut fries or onion rings on a custom, locally made Grains of Montana bun.

Bread

Blue Truck Bread is farmer-grown, farmer-ground and farmer-baked at Prairie Heritage Farm, a certified organic family farm owned by Jacob and Courtney Cowgill in Montana’s Golden Triangle. Using flour fresh-milled with Sonora heirloom wheat, Jacob crafts four types of sourdough bread to sell from the back of his 1963 Chevy Pickup at the Great Falls Farmers Market from June through September. His signature Papa Bread, named by the couple’s toddler who wakes up and shouts “Papa, bread!” from the top of the stairs, is rich and complex with a hint of sourness that doesn’t overpower the wheat’s earthy, nutty flavor.

Tumblewood Teas

While Montana might not scream “tea” like afternoons in London, Riza Gilpin and Laurie Rennie, owners of Tumblewood Teas in Big Timber, are hoping to change that. The women package 60 flavors of single-origin and blended teas, all sourced from the highest quality plants. Even many of the local ranchers who gather at Big Timber’s Frosty Freez for coffee every morning have converted to loose-leaf Tumblewood. With names like Black Bart and Galloping Green, Tumblewood Teas have undeniable Montana appeal. “These are very serious teas,” says Gilpin. “We name them fun names because Tumblewood is really about enjoying tea.”

Ribs

Though the comfort food-laden menu at the Willow Creek Café & Saloon in Willow Creek is packed with hearty fare, the signature ribs are the dish that have skyrocketed the restaurant to local fame. Coated in a honey mustard-based barbecue sauce, the baby back ribs — available in a full or half rack — fall off the bone when served. Make sure to make reservations: This old-fashioned café, with pressed tin ceilings and antique tables and chairs, fills up fast. Don’t plan on fast service, but do plan to leave satisfied.

Strawberry Scones

“Scones seem like an unusual thing for Montanans to be into,” says Mary Frances Canelli, who with her husband, Gino, owns Mrs. Wonderful’s Marmalade Café in downtown Polson. Yet customers line up to buy Canelli’s strawberry scones like it’s their last chance. “I start with exceptional flour from Montana Flour & Grains and add fresh organic strawberries, picked and delivered daily in-season by Fresh Roots Farm,” says Canelli. Her creamy-tasting scones are moist and rich and shouldn’t be defaced with butter or jam, though they do pair nicely with French press coffee. “They’re chockful of butter and whipping cream,” smiles Canelli. “How can you go wrong?”

Elk

Big-game hunting is an annual tradition in Montana. Every fall, pickup beds filled with the winter’s meat can be spotted on highways from Yaak to Alzada. Unlucky hunters or anyone wanting someone else to help procure a taste of Montana’s wild outdoors can visit Chalet Market in Belgrade, where they process and smoke nearly a dozen types of game items, including lean and savory smoked elk snack sticks. “We don’t over-season, so the rich flavor of elk comes through,” explains owner Gwen Croghan, whose husband Mark employs a long fermentation process (which adds a tangy pop) before cranking the heat to make them shelf-stable.