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Dakotas, Montana, Idaho, Colorado ~ trip report (long)

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Here are my food notes from our summer trip:

Scottsbluff, NE
Whiskey Creek Steakhouse, 1802 E 20th.
Strongly recommended by our hotel receptionist, turned out to be part of a small chain. Packed bar with “good ole boys” knocking back a few while their daughters serve what looks a mainly local crowd seated in booths. Service is a comedy of errors, drinks in glasses still hot from the dishwasher, cold food on hot plates, hot food on cold plates to compensate, wrong orders, etc. Food was actually surprisingly good, excellent steaks and the sides varied from acceptable to very good.
Emporium Café, 1818 1st Avenue.
The find of our entire trip, an amazing place to find in Nebraska. Outside looks like a converted private home, don’t be deceived; inside the dining area is spacious and airy and beautifully decorated. The servers are again a team of very young girls, but here they have been very professionally trained. The service is way beyond efficient it is urbane and sophisticated. The menu is imaginative and the dishes presented with style and flair by a kitchen brigade who understand their craft. The food would grace a top establishment in New York or Los Angeles.

Around Custer State Park, SD
Tatanka Dining Room, at Bluebell Lodge in the park.
Barely adequate food and willing service; about what we have come to realise is the norm for concession operators within the park service. (Note the cabins at Bluebell are excellent, but if you plan to self-cater the shop doesn’t actually stock anything at all to make a meal from!)
The Alpine Inn, 225 Main St, Hill City.
An extraordinary operation, but it works for them. No reservations accepted and when we arrive there must be 90 to 100 people waiting for tables; the hostess tells us 35 minutes for a table, which seems both optimistic and absurdly precise. Exactly 34 minutes later we are seated! No menu, just iceberg quarter to start, followed by filet mignon; choices are dressing for salad and large or small steak. Filet is not my favourite cut but this steak is probably the finest filet I have ever had. One large steak one small, total check $22 plus tip, incredible!
The Bavarian Inn, near the junction U.S. 385 and U.S. 16, Custer.
Salad bar to start (good) then standard German entrees (fair), good selection of beers, reasonable prices.

Pierre, SD
La Minestra, 106 E. Dakota Avenue.
Another amazing find in the boonies, this place has a very west coast vibe to it. Again no reservations accepted and we arrived at 6.00pm to find the bar packed with professionals sharing appetisers and a variety of small plates while enjoying cocktails and wines from an interesting wine list. Restaurant is also full, but we are quickly seated at the last available table. The front of house team seems to be at least one short of complement and despite heroic efforts service is very slow. Likewise with the food, some of the dishes are excellent, others fall some way short. Overall one felt that we had perhaps caught them on an off night. We would certainly return and this is an automatic (only?) choice for any chowhound who finds himself in Pierre.

Bismarck, ND
Bistro: An American Café, 1103 E Front Avenue.
Big, modern, high ceilinged place with an eclectic clientele. A band was setting up on the deck out front when we arrived about 7.00pm and by the time we left the client base was becoming more twenty somthings so I guess this is the nearest thing to a scene that you will find in Bismarck! Service was brisk and pleasant; menu was the modern American typical of this style of establishment and the dishes were competently executed. Talking to locals throughout our stay in Bismarck it was constantly mentioned as the best choice in town, which it probably is. However we felt that it was one of those places that wasn’t quite as good as it’s own high opinion of itself. While not excessively dear it was possibly 10 percent the wrong side of the price quality curve.
The Walrus, 1136 N 3rd St.
Buzzing bar and restaurant with a very good selection of draft beers. Barmaid persuaded us to have the sushi to start, I am no sushi expert but it was very good. Not so the pasta entrees, mac cheese poor and lasagne utterly disgusting. Other entrees looked OK and I would rate this place as worth a second chance.
Two cautionary notes ref Bismarck, Camly Cuisine a Vietnamese place downtown that came highly recommended has now closed (much lamented by many locals) and on Sundays the entire city is closed! I have never encountered a State Capital city where all the restaurants close Sundays, we ended up eating at an all you can eat Chinese buffet out by the interstate.

Medora, ND
Pitchfork Fondue, at the Medora Musical.
Considering they feed between 1,000 and 2,000 inside an hour this was pretty good. Steaks are skewered on pitchforks and plunged into vats of boiling oil; this results in a crust forming on the outside and hopefully a tender succulent centre, we ate ours easily with the plastic knives and forks provided, which says something. Sides were on a buffet and the ones I had were good.
Restaurant at the Rough Riders Hotel.
Decent, well cooked fare with some adventurous touches. Whoever did the saucing understood his job. Waitstaff were oriental (Korean?) with limited English, but mostly coped OK. Prices were reasonable.

Miles City, MT
The historic Montana Bar, 612 Main St.
We detoured through Miles City to break up a long drag on the interstate and weren’t looking for a meal, but we couldn’t resist a couple of drinks in this place, it’s a gem. Go in and wet your whistle if you pass through.

Billings, MT
Holiday Inn Grand Montana, 5500 Midland Road.
I rarely eat in my hotel but we arrived tired after a long day and it was 104 degrees out. Food was OK, draft beer was good and the waitresses smiled!
The Rex, 2401 Montana Avenue.
Old school steakhouse all dark wood and clubby leather seats inside or sit outside on the large patio. We liked the atmosphere inside. Really friendly service and no long waits despite being very busy. Standard steakhouse fare was well executed and they had seafood specials that are flown in daily. Certainly the dozen oysters on the half shell that I started with were very fresh. Not cheap, but very reasonable for this type of establishment.

An aside about seafood; one of the features of our dining experiences this trip was the astonishing quality of the seafood we ate despite being just about as far removed from any ocean as it is possible to get anywhere in the world. Someone seems to have finally cracked the logistic and ordering problems and is flying in a consistent quality product. Of course after trying it with some trepidation at first we ordered more and more as a welcome variety to a diet of beef.

Great Falls, MT
Eddie’s Supper Club, 3725 2nd Avenue N.
The whole place is like a timewarp, preserved in aspic since the fifties, with plush booths upholstered with red vinyl, waitresses with big hair who call you honey and a clientele dressed in jeans and Stetsons. I expected to meet the Marlboro cowboy in the men’s room! Everything is man sized, the margaritas were big and strong, the steaks big and tasty, we didn’t bother with sides. A great night out, but my constitution couldn’t stand it too often.

Missoula, MT
Hong Kong Chef, 2009 Brooks St. (Hwy 12), at the Jnct with Hwy 93/Stephens Ave.
Hong Kong Chef is located in a suburban shopping centre, and from the outside looked as if it would be the typical Americanised Chinese food normally found in this type of strip mall. However we had a couple of recs for it and it was Sunday evening when options are limited so we gave it a try. I am glad we did. Inside the dining room was comfortable and deceptively spacious. The food was good quality and an authentic style that I would normally associate with Chinatown in Toronto or San Francisco.
Paul's Pancake Parlour, 2305 Brooks St. in the same strip mall area as above, about a mile south of downtown.
We rarely eat breakfast, but today was nominated “chill out and catch up with the laundry” so I went in search of a late breakfast. I knew I had the right place when we pulled up to find people waiting in line outside for a table a 10.00am! Staggering piles of perfectly cooked food served with a smile. A must visit.
McKenzie River Pizza, 137 W Front St.
Good selection of draft beers and very good thin crust pizzas make this small chain a reliable choice in several Montana cities. Yet in this branch, good enough though it was, there was a slight nagging feeling that it used to be even better. Maybe it was me having an off day!

Lewiston, ID
Thai Taste, 1410 21st Street
Enormous portions of good quality food, pleasantly served in a very simple dining room. I found some of the dishes slightly bland, but suspect that this was a selection failure on my part rather than any failing by the kitchen. A very, very good option in a town with few independent outlets.

Boise, ID
The Cottonwood Grille, 913 W River Street.
Quite simply we loved this place, if we lived closer than 5,000 miles we would be regulars! As it is we went twice in our three days in Boise, an almost unprecedented occurrence in 50 years of serious chowing. The food is adventurous but unpretentious; saucing is deft, lifting the food but allowing the ingredients to speak for themselves; the seafood is exceptional. The wine list is well chosen and well laid out, with the high-end bottles priced to sell, encouraging the diner to trade up. Most importantly, unlike many who consider themselves “serious restaurants”, they have not lost sight of the whole point of the business, that the diners are there to enjoy themselves. Service is exemplary, but never stuffy; there are enough servers, so that even in a really busy restaurant they always have time to socialise, their smiles shine through as genuine, they don’t wear the haunted look of the over stressed. Finally the room, someone has really paid attention to the small details, everything belongs, is just right, but it is never fussy, never shouts “Hey look!” It is a supremely comfortable space that one quickly feels at home in. Anyone who appreciates the whole dining experience should make The Cottonwood Grille a must when in Boise.

Salt Lake City, UT
Squatters, 147 W. Broadway
Microbrewery serving pub food, mainly the usual suspects gussied up a little. If I lived in SLC I would probably be a regular here, but more for the beer than the food, which is decent but unexceptional.

Grand Junction, CO
Pablo's Pizza, 319 Main St. Closes 8:30pm
Another time warp! This time it’s a sixties hippy joint from San Francisco. Thin crust pizzas are the thing here and they do them well, soups, sandwiches and desserts are also available, along with beer and wine. A decent option if you want something simple and unpretentious.

Denver, CO
Bistro Vendome, 1424 Larimer Square
Many have tried to do a take on those back street Parisian Bistros, this one largely succeeds. The space works well, tucked away just enough to evoke the feeling of those labyrinthine Paris lanes and with a patio overlooking a small square for outside dining. Menu is classic bistro fare and everything we had was well executed. In fact the only thing that was not authentic Paris was the service, which was warm, friendly and efficient; not at all suitable for France!
Luca d'Italia, 711 Grant
We have largely given up on eating Italian in the USA, we have so often gone to restaurants that have been highly recommended only to be deeply disappointed! This is mainly an evolution issue, Italian restaurants in America serve what has evolved into Italian/American, it is not what Europeans recognize as “Italian Food”. Luca d'Italia is an exception, chef-owner Frank Bonanno has gone to great pains to maintain the integrity of Italian regional cooking and he succeeds brilliantly. Hands down the best Italian food I've had in many years of chowing round the USA. service is impeccable, friendly yet sophisticated. One tip, the portioning is on the European scale, so those raised on enormous piled plates might want to order a side with their entrée. For the quality it was very reasonable, total cost for 2 (3 courses, cocktail, glass of wine, and brandy each) $130. A real gem, highly recommended.

We had a fantastic time, many thanks to all the hounds who posted their finds, and to the many folks we met on our journey who helped us with gems of local info. Pirate

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  1. What a fantastic report! Thanks!

    I have relatives in Montana so we go to Billings sometimes. The last time we ate at The Rex, the food was just so-so.