Sampling southwest Montana's beef.
A place is defined by its food. Someone said that somewhere, right? Sounds good, and I think it’s true—at least partly. In an effort to prove the saying right, I went looking for Montana’s quintessential food item, beef. In order to find an unadulterated Montana experience, I chose to avoid the big city all together and headed for some cow towns.
Best Overall Meal
An hour’s drive west of Bozeman is the town of Cardwell. The Jefferson meanders around and through and by and large, cows outnumber people. It’s here that I had the best meal in the whole test. Along the banks of the mighty Jeff sits LaHood Park, right off Rte. 2. After a hot day of fishing and floating, a dirt parking lot never looked so good. If you somehow found a shower between river and restaurant, there’s the dining room, but if not (and most likely not), there’s the bar. Slide into a stool and park yourself—you might be there a while. The meal is four courses, or six if you include a shot and a beer. I sat down at the bar a stranger, but before I left, I knew where the best cattle country in Montana was and what flies were working that week. That was all before being treated to a perfect meal, complete with soup, salad, and warm bread. And of course steak. By God, there was steak, and it was fat and juicy and delicious. So if you’re over that way this spring, whether you’ve just slayed singletrack along the CDT, sent Trophy Rock near Homestake, or caught your limit on the Jefferson, stop in. Beef is waiting.
Flavor might be a matter of personal taste (so to speak), but this is my evaluation so I’ll rate htins the way I please. The best steak in my test was most certainly from Land of Magic. No surprise to most around these parts, but it’s still satisfying when something lives up to its reputation. After cruising around Headwaters State Park, I stopped in and was blown away. Ribeye was the cut of choice, and rare was the temperature (I’d received good beta that ordering one temperature colder than you normally would is a good idea here). My face was sunburned and sweaty and my hands were dry and cracked. But all was forgotten in that first bite. Buttery. Salty. Meaty. Washed down with some Willie’s Bighorn Bourbon and a smile. Sounds like Montana to me.
When I think atmosphere, I don’t necessarily think Manhattan. But that’s probably because I don’t spend enough time there, so I decided to remedy that with a stop into Sir Scott’s Oasis. As I pulled myself up to the bar, I asked for a Hopzone IPA, and the bartender asked if I’d like a 14-oz. glass or a 22-oz. glass. I said 14. Big mistake. She called me a sissy and implied I’d probably be ordering the salad with my steak instead of fries, if I had the fortitude to order a steak at all. I immediately fell in love with the place. In an age of niceties and false smiles, she was calling me out—and I appreciated it. She also suckered me into buying another beer. Good business lady. I did indeed order a steak (with fries—heart disease is manly, right?) and felt similar about the steak as I felt about the steakhouse. While it wasn’t quite as thick as the ribeyes from Land of Magic or LaHood, it was damn tasty and combined with the two beers, left me satisfied. So next time you want some Montana atmosphere, skip the refined Plonk or Open Range and shoulder up to the bar at Sir Scott’s—if you’re man enough.
Best Beef Alternative
Tiring of beef in Montana is akin to getting sick of chowder in New England: if it happens to you, don’t say it out loud. Well I am going to say it: after three steaks and many bites of my companions’ burgers, fingers, and filets, I needed a break. Luckily there’s a bend-in-the-road café nearby that serves Montana-sized pork ribs—I’m talking about Willow Creek Café south of Three Forks. I pulled into this place early one Friday evening after biking at Pipestone and immediately felt at home. I was alone, so that was a little awkward, but in hindsight it’s probably better no one I know saw me dive into my half-rack. The ribs were tender, the sauce was tangy, and the other customers smiled their solidarity as I polished off my pork in solitude. I wiped my hands on my bike shorts and paid my bill, gulping down a coffee to avoid a food-coma-induced wreck on my way back to Bozeman.
I was wrong—I wasn’t over beef, I was temporarily over steaks. Burgers, on the other hand, were still on the menu. With that in mind, I stopped into Stacey’s at Gallatin Gateway after taking the dog for a run up Lava Lake. When I picture a saloon from the Old West, I imagine it looks a lot like Stacey’s. A room-length countertop runs along the middle of the joint, separating the dining room from the lounge, and taxidermy and black-and-white photos cover the walls. The jukebox plays country and the conversation alternated among a few topics: cows, elk, and fish. (Not much chatter about trail running.) I ordered a beer and a cheeseburger, slid a buck into the box (Johnny Cash is always a safe bet), and sunk into my stool. Conversations swirled, the music played, and my food arrived. Juicy beef, crispy fries, cold beer. That’s one definition of Montana—one I can agree with.