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Montana Food Adventures--Ongoing & Long!

Hello Mountain States! I am an NYC and DC transplant to Helena, Montana (originally from Denver though, does that get me some street cred?). I have been exploring food here in this amazing state. It has been my experience that there is not a lot of information on places to eat and a lot of misinformation as well so here is my documentation attempt. I have the intention of an ongoing post that will document my findings mostly in the Helena area, but I will comment on other places as I travel.

I have put each category in order based on my liking. Ish.

Helena Food Scene:

Chubby's--(Clancy, outside of Helena)--So far, this is the best steak in the area. An 18oz ribeye inevitably comes as a 24oz ribeye. Always cooked perfectly, medium-rare comes medium-rare. The wings are also the best in the area that I have found, lightly breaded, heavily sauced, crispy and not dry. I had a burger one night and was very disappointed, dry and overcooked. Note that they do not serve food before 5pm or on Sundays.

Chalongo's--This is likely my favorite spot in Helena. Near downtown, without a sign. It is a tiny little place that serves authentic Mexican street tacos. I think they are fancied up a bit, such as the al pastor comes with a little pineapple, etc. But they are two small corn tortillas, made in house, with a little somethin' somethin, al pastor, carne asada, carnitas, barbacoa y nopales (pickled cactus). They don't offer limes by default so be sure to ask for them!

Lucca's--This could be Helena's finest restaurant (that I have tried at least). It is definitely the most elegant and with the best service. It is Italian. It was quite a while ago and I don't remember everything we had, but I remember leaving very happy.

Windbag--A great little place on the walking part of main street (Last Chance Gulch). It was a brothel until the '70's. Now they have decent food. I have enjoyed a fried vegetable plate which is enormous and is crispy and awesome, asian wings are very good and the burgers are my second favorite in town after Silver Star.

Bullman's Wood Fired Pizza--Weird building and space. No atmosphere and tepid service but really good brick oven pizzas. Not Neapolitan pizza which is fine with me. It is definitely the best pizza I have found in Helena. My favorite is the Flathead.

Bagel Co.--This is the best (only) bagel place in Helena. I lived in NYC for a decade and all I have to say is I am happy to be able to get a fresh made bagel here in the wild west.

Early Bird Cafe--This is a great little place. Simple homemade food. Breakfast is their best bet. Everything is scratch made. They have excellent biscuits and decent sausage gravy though under seasoned. Heading into its third decade.

Steve's Cafe--This place is oft considered Helena's best breakfast spot and the line can attest to that, especially on weekends. It is decent home made breakfast food.

Sud's Hut--This is excellent fried chicken. They call it broasted which I think is pressure cooked in oil, which allegedly reduced the oil in the chicken, but the waitress could not explain how. Horrible service.

Planet Gyro--A decent gyro for the middle of nowhere. 85% beef and 15% lamb.

The Rib Shack--This trailer north of town is a welcome addition to the food scene in Helena. They smoke their own ribs, brisket and pork (sliced) which all comes with a side of slaw and beans. The slaw and beans are bought and so is the BBQ sauce, but the sauce is pretty good, tangy and sweet. The brisket and pork could be great, they are tasty and fatty enough, but they pre-slice it in the morning so it always dries out. The ribs are very good, not pre-sliced and make them the big winner. They are not fall off the bone, they are toothsome yet come off easy. The meat is pink all the way through and has a good smoke to it.

Toi's Thai--A Thai restaurant that people drive for hours to enjoy. It is only open for dinner and reservations are strongly recommended as it is a tiny place, but they do takeout. I had a very nice Thai beef salad. The pad thai was standard. Having just moved from Northern VA I have been very spoiled with incredible Thai food. I am sure I will love this place in another year.

Emiliano's--Probably the best of the Mexican restaurants but still lacking. They have great homemade salsa and chips. The rest of the fare is good and home made, but relatively standard Americanized Mexican/Southwestern. I think it is owned by gringos. The fajitas were pretty good when we tried them, we preferred the beef. Chimichanga was a fried thing with some dried chicken made better with their excellent salsa.

Staggering Ox--This is a weird place. Loved by locals, they have a huge menu of "sandwiches" which are more like little bread bowls with a little meat and a bunch of iceburg lettuce in it. I have tried it twice and both times I have been underwhelmed, mostly by the amount of protein and size of the sandwich. I really wanna like it! They have some great things like horsie sauce which is blue cheese and horseradish! It is a very cool scene, there is a sit down in the back, a coffee bar, they have bands and a gaming room. I will keep trying it, maybe I will find a sandwich I like better.

The Dive Bakery--This is kind of a strange place. They have a bread of the day, but mostly they make sandwiches and crepes. We tried a couple crepes, one savory, one sweet with nutella. The fillings were fine, but they had pre-made a stack of crepes which were coldish and just made them nearly inedible. If I go again, I will ask for a fresh made crepe. That should make them much better.

No Sweat Cafe--This is a nice local granola/hippie place. A lot of veg options. They have a hamburger. It is made with 10% pork sausage and therefore is cooked all the way through. It is tasty, but gets a little dry. I wanna like this place and although they are very nice the service is absolutely dreadful. The second time I went in I waited fifteen minutes to be greeted. Another ten to get a coffee. What should have been a 30 minute meal took an hour and a half. A place like this could be much busier and better if they could get people through, say, during their lunch hour.

Brewhouse Pub & Grille--Awesome calamari. Most likely frozen, but it is the thick steaks, not the little tiny rings, lightly seasoned and battered and deep fried to tender prefection served with a chipotle mayo type sauce. Wife had an ahi sandwich, didn't get passed the first bite. I can't remember what else we ate and so must have been underwhelmed. They allegedly have excellent beer, but as a teetotaler cannot comment.

Silver Star--This is kind of an expense account place. I think it is pretty over priced for what one gets, especially at dinner. At lunchtime they have probably the best burgers in town, 10 bucks, but they are cooked to order and the meat is ground in house.

Riley's Irish Pub--I have been here a couple times. They have decent wings, maybe my second favorite in town. I also had an Irish lamb stew which had good flavor but the lamb was dry and hard to chew.

Godfather's Pizza--Dreadful pizza buffet. Do not recommend.

Taco John's--One step above Taco Bell. One small step.

Sara's Blue Ribbon Porkies--Ahh the porkie. A Montana oddity. A pounded or minced piece of pork, pattied, dipped in wet batter and deep fried. I have tried a couple with equal results in which I can't really discern any flavor or texture, the bread and the patty and everything just blened in with one another, like a poorly made crabcake sandwich. I haven't found one I like yet.

Shelly's--This is another weird place. Think red and white grandma kitsch. Horrid service, we were ignored for a good 15 minutes and there are only a dozen tables. My second attempt at a porkie, same tepid results. No one of the three of us liked our food and the other two were locals.

Overland Express--I had an unmemorable lunch here and do not recommend it. A couple tasteless sandwiches.

L&D Chinese Buffet--Affectionately known by locals as "Lost Dog", this place is just not as horrible as I want it to be. It has a couple decent items if one gets them right as they come out of the kitchen like the roast pork and vegetables in brown sauce, a little sweet, a little spicy. A not that bad egg drop soup! The one thing about them as far as being a buffet is that they are busy so the food turns over quick during meal times.

Montana City Grill & Saloon--This is a big place in Montana City near Helena. I had a very dissapointing steak here, thin ribeye, overcooked. Their house salad comes with canned shrimp and canned crabmeat on top of it, I highly recommend asking to leave it off.

Red Roof Cafe--Strange little place. Had an ok breakfast here, but the guy cooking and waiting was off. He was ranting about trying to close and customers coming in and so on...smile and nod...

R-B Drive-In--This is owned by the same people who own Red Roof. It looks equally dirty and disheveled. Had a flat grill burger, it was ok, basic diner/drive-in style burger, good onion rings and a good chocolate shake (something hard to mess up anywhere).

Jade--Chinese is something that is lacking here, at least good or traditional Chinese. This is a dreadful restaurant that serves the worst of Americanized Chinese.

La Casa Fiesta--About along the same lines as Emiliano's. Average Americanized Mexican food. I would go to Emiliano's as I preferred the salsa there.

Melaque Mexican--A very bad Americanized Mexican place. Everything is canned and packaged. I did not like anything I had there.

Places still to try:

Montana Club--

Chinese Kitchen--Takeout place.

Benny's--A contender for best restaurant. I know she is very much into local and organic ingredients. I have not yet been.

Mediteranean Grill--

Blackfoot River Brewing--

On Broadway--

Pita Pit--

Wok & Roll Sushi Bar--Looks decrepit. Unlikely I will enter the premises.

A Taste of the City--

Karmadillos--

Local chef monthly dinner--I have not tried this yet due to timing. It is some local chef's that do a dinner once a month. Two months ago it was Cajun/Creole. This month is Korean. Next month is southern Italian. The menu's always look amazing. There were renting the Red Roof Cafe kitchen, but are moving to the Caretaker's Cabin in Reeder's Alley for Italian dinner on Sept 10th. There is a mailing list. If you want information on it e-mail me and I will send you her name, the woman who organizes it.

Helena Groceries:

Van's Thriftway--The best grocery store in town. They have decent produce, today I saw they had FRESH NAGA JOLOKIAS!!! The best butcher that I have found in town. An excellent bakery with daily fresh made donuts, breads and pastries galore. They also have a very good fried chicken in the deli.

Park Avenue Bakery--Very nice little bakery.

Helena Coffee/Candy/Misc Scene:

Coffee Shack--Helena's first drive-thru cafe (self-proclaimed). This is my favorite place in town. They are fast, friendly, remember me and my order every time and have a large selection of sugar-free flavors.

General Mercantile--This is an amazing place. I would say if one only had for one stop in Helena this would be it. The guy has been there for some 45 years I think. It is an amazing nook and cranny kind place with all kinds of candy and toys and oddities. It has a lot of sentimental stuff and gag stuff but without being kitschy at all. They also have good coffee. There are tables hidden throughout where one (or two) could have very private and hidden conversations. I love it here.

Parrot Confectionary--This is an amazing candy store and soda fountain. It is nearly 100 years old. The real treat is to go into the kitchen and talk to the candy maker. I don't know if it is always the same guy, but the one we had was incredible. Gave us a full tour, while he worked, let us try tons of candy, showed us ancient machines and devices, explained about good chocolate and on and on. This place is a treasure.

Big Dipper Ice Cream--Good creamerie. Fun flavors and home made. Can you say anything bad?

The Donut Hole--Old school donut shop. Home made donuts and gut wrenching black coffee. Another treasure.

Fireside Coffee--This was an odd kinda place on the way out of town. I remember a lot of grey hair.

Hastings--Interesting place. It is a chain, but I think maybe just in Montana. They have an all right cafe, but are ridiculously slow. Takes like 10 minutes an order. They also have books, DVD rental, game rental and other odds and ends.

Firetower Coffee House--I initially liked this place, but had a couple service problems and no longer go there. I went in 10-12 minutes before and was told that they were no longer making coffee and was refused coffee. I was in retail for a long time and this is completely unacceptable.

Great Falls:

Jaker's Bar & Grill--Very mediocre, corporate chain kind of food. We went on a recommendation and were disappointed in everything we ate. Over-cooked burgers, etc. Won't return.

Kim's Oriental Market--What a find! Fresh made kimchee! I stocked up on my Korean chili pastes and she had a couple Thai sauces. It is a small place, but whoa! Great to have stumbled upon her.

Missoula:

Vietnam Grill--I had a nice bun bo hue here. They have left out the blood and tendon and don't have the shrimp paste, but I understand that those are unpalatable to people unfamiliar with the cuisine. Frankly, knowing that I can get Viet food only 94 miles a way makes me incredibly happy. It is one of my favorite cuisines. (Now where is my korean, ethiopian, spanish, peruvian, japanese...)

Vietnam Noodle Restaurant--Again. Very happy to have actually two Viet restaurants near-ish me. I had bun thit nuong cha gao here. It wasn't great compared to what I have been used to. Wife had a pho dac biet. The protiens were Americanized (no tendon or tripe) and a little overcooked, but the broth was truly excellent! I actually bought an extra pho to go and used the broth to make my own soup at home over the weekend. Yum!

Craig:

Izaaks--This is high on my list of places to try. It might be one of Montana's best restaurant contenders.

Joliet (near Billings, on way to Beartooth Pass):

Quickstop Drive In--A wickedly messy diner style burger (The C & R Special) dripping with greasy goodness with awesome onion rings and a huge chocolate shake. You will likely never be near there, but it is definitely one of those places in which Guy Fieri would stop and have a bite.

Cravings/desires/need to find:

Japanese/sushi. Traditional chinese. Korean. Ethiopian. Central/south american. French. A good burger (Ray's Hell Burger please). Anything else unique, unusual, made with passion, etc...

Livingston:

Fancy place in a hotel here that looked good at some point.

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  1. You will like the Mediterranean Grill. I was there last fall and it was the best food I had in my short stay in Montana. I also talked to another hound who had recently moved from that area and he also like it.

    Outstanding rundown of the state's eateries!

    -----
    Mediterranean Grill
    42 S Park Ave, Helena, MT 59601

    1. The original comment has been removed
      1. Update:

        Helena:

        A Taste Of the City--Went last Saturday night. It was an odd place with only a few tables. It is in a house of Hwy 12 near the stadium. We got there around 1700 and left a couple hours later and were still the only customers. The waitress told us that they were moving to East Helena in the coming months. The food: Fried calamari and rib-eye egg rolls for appetizers, for entrees we had a Niman Ranch filet, a rib-eye and the lamb chops. The calamari was gross. It was fishy and in so much oil that the little breading couldn't adhere to the squid. Rib-eye rolls were okay, though I felt like I was eating little chunks of someone's left over rib-eye. My lamb chops were from a fresh kill I think. They were tough and flavorless-very disappointing. The rib-eye was pretty good, but was served with the most ridiculous presentation I have ever seen (my wife actually laughed out loud. They took the entire rib-eye and rolled it up and shoved asparagus in it giving it a look that reminded me of the walrus guy in star wars. The filet was the winner of the three but was served with a very dry potatoes au gratin.

        Karmadillos--Out of business

        Chinese Kitchen--This is a takeout place on Hwy 12. It is better than average Americanized chinese. Probably the best we've tried in Helena. I have a hope that they will make some more authentic food for me over time. I will start trying to impress upon them I want it.

        Dive Bakery--Update: Went back there and asked for them to make us crepes fresh and they looked at me like I was an idiot. They did not want to do it so we walked out. Will not return or recommend them.

        Lolo (Missoula):

        Lolo Creek Steak House--This is 10 miles or so out of Missoula. I was looking for a smaller, less expensive and not corporate place for dinner. I found it on line. I don't think any of their steaks are over $30. It is a nice big cabin with dreadful dead animals all over the walls. They have a cool iron grill in the middle of the room over charcoal where you can watch your steak cook. The service is great and friendly. They are a family run joint (though the owners appear to own most of Lolo). Food: Cocktail shrimp, salads, rib-eyes and brownie sunday. Cocktail shrimp were fine, nothing special, obviously made earlier and refrigerated. Salad were sad, my caesar had brown wilted lettuce in it, the house was the typical pile of iceburg. Each steak comes with a potato and a slice of Texas toast. Nothing special there. The steak comes and I look at it and I am already disappointed. It is small, thin (maybe 1.75"-2" thick) and with no char, barely any grill marks. It is choice like all their meat so when I cut into it there was not a lot of marble, but the temperature was a perfect medium rare. Then I took a bite. Whoa! What a shock, dry-aged! And from what I could tell for a while. I asked the waitress and she, said, "What is dry-aging?" She sent over the manager and he confirmed that the meat is dry-aged for 21 days before it comes to the restaurant and then for a few more days at the restaurant. So not the best meat, but it had some of the best flavor in a steak that I have had outside of New York at Lugers or the Diner. Considering the dry-aging, I think this place is a steal. Next time I will get a T-bone and nothing else. Yes, that means desert was bad too. The brownie was warmed up and turned into a brick we couldn't cut it with our forks. But what a steak!

        1. Update:

          Helena:

          Bert & Ernie's--Weird place. I was told it was a wine bar/fine dining establishment and indeed there were a bunch of old (rich?) white people there and the menu was pretty pricey but it was more like a run down Irish pub inside. We had wings, fried portabellas, two burgers and a french dip. Wings were gross, small, heavily breaded, over cooked. Fried portobella strips were the only thing everyone liked. Hamburgers were over cooked and nondescript. The french dip was foul. The meat in the center was cold, the cheese wasn't melted, the mushrooms were canned. Lastly, the service was terrible, it was slow and he had the audacity to be haughty, he actually rolled his eyes at my wife when she asked for the grilled rye bread on her burger instead of white. Do not recommend.

          Overland Express--Went here again and had the recommended chicken nachos and dragon wings. The wings were overcooked and way too salty. The nachos were a gloppy mess. Had a burger, it was overcooked and bone dry. Service was non-existent. Place is filthy, looked in kitchen and it is disgusting. Do not recommend.

          1 Reply
          1. re: sekelmaan

            There was (maybe still is) a Bert & Ernie's in Great Falls. Terrible.

          2. This is awesome. The definitive area review. There are a few posters that I look forward to for their expertise in their regions, nsxtasy in Chicago a definite go to. And Buffetbuster on roadfood.com for trip reports.

            But you have made me wish that I had any reason to visit your area for the food recommendations alone. This thread should be required reading on how to post a concise review without hyperbole and "to die fors".

            6 Replies
            1. re: INDIANRIVERFL

              I too have been enjoying your reviews. It sounds like our tastes overlap quite a bit. We recently relocated from Butte to Great Falls, and are always looking for new places around the state. If you spend some time in the Mining City I'd love to see a few reviews. I already know my favorites (and the stinkers), but it would be fun to compare.

              In Great Falls, Goode's Q and Bayou Grill has been our favorite (by a long shot). They recently relocated to 10th Ave South behind San Remo's Casino. Highly recommended! Big Sky Bread and Pastry (13th Ave South at 9th St) might have the best bread in Montana.

              1. re: Jeebs

                Thanks for the feedback guys! I really appreciate it.

                Hey Jeebs, where should I go in Butte? I wanna get back to Great Falls just to get to that Korean grocery store. Have you tried the Korean restaurant up there? I heard there was one. I read about Goodes and I'd love to try Bayou Grill.

                FYI: If you go to the DC/NoVA area the CH'r to read is: Steve (We just moved from the area.)

                1. re: sekelmaan

                  I haven't made it to the Korean store or restaurant, but they're on my list. Goode's Q and Bayou Grill is one place, both BBQ and Cajun, all great. I've had their gumbo, ettouffee, po boys, and brisket, and haven't been disappointed yet. Service has been great.

                  As for Butte, the Uptown Cafe always serves a good meal, I just wish they'd change their dinner menu more often (lunches and specials are always rotating, however). Dinner can be spendy, but lunches and early bird specials are more forgiving on the wallet. Most dishes are Mediterranean-ish, with a few Mexican or classic American specials. Desserts are great.

                  Broadway Cafe and Trimbo's both have great pizza, with a nod towards Broadway because of their enclosed deck and live music on Fridays. Trimbo's was featured on an episode of Man vs Food where the host consumed an enormous calzone.

                  Hummingbird Cafe is a nice stop for organic food, coffee and smoothies, although I preferred it when you ordered at the counter (it's now table service for dine-in). Good place for a simple lunch in a nice setting.

                  Fred's Mesquite Grill is my favorite place for a burger and a beer.

                  The Pekin should be visited by anyone with a knack for history and quirky old restaurants. They just celebrated their 100 year anniversary, all under the same family. You may or may not be enamored with the food, but eating there is an experience in itself.

                  Lydia's is an Italian restaurant that hasn't changed in decades, and was started by an Italian immigrant probably 80 years ago. We don't eat there often, but I always enjoy it when we do. Every meal comes with huge plates of antipasto, spaghetti, raviolis, and ice cream to finish. Eating here is a a step back in time. Much like the Pekin, it's a quirky remnant of Butte's ethnic history.

                  There are other restaurants in town that have historic value and lots of character, but the food is mostly gut-busting fried food or cheap burgers. This would include the M&M, Pork Chop John's (the one uptown on Mercury Street), Muzz and Stan's Freeway Tavern (also on Man vs Food), Gamer's Cafe, and Matt's Drive-In. Pasties and porkies are popular menu items in Butte. If you don't like the Wop Chop at Muzz and Stan's, you won't like a porky anywhere.

                  I should also mention Hennessey Market for groceries. They have great produce, a good bulk section, and local beef, including cuts you don't see everywhere (hangar steaks, oxtails, shanks). Front Street Market is a cool little store with lots of specialty foods and a good wine selection. It's also a good stop for lunch.

                  1. re: Jeebs

                    Excellent list, thank you! Now I need excuses to go both north and south!

                    1. re: Jeebs

                      We just tried Goodes Q & Bayou Grill on a Sunday. Good food, a bit slow service but fine. Had the brisket plate and the 3Q plate, and fried pickles. Was happy to find a place in Great Falls open on a Sunday afternoon (they close at 3:30) while there for other reasons.

                      1. re: Jeebs

                        Can't leave Butte without a Pork Chop John's sandwich, and you must hunt down a Pasty.