You can't swing a bushel of nettles in this town without hitting the front stoop of some newly opened restaurant. We count 12 since last fall, with five setting up shop within a few downtown blocks in the span of three weeks. That's a lot of fresh grub to wrap your head around—or mouth, as the case may be—and it could lead to a few worthy establishments slipping through the cracks, like that dropped french fry you find under the car seat four months after your cross-state road trip.
We're here to make sure you don't lose any one of those delicious fries, so to speak. What we mean is, we're here to fill you in on all of the new eateries so that you can fill up. Consider this your culinary cheat-sheet, a savory scouting report, a fully vetted, Indy-style rundown of restaurants that have opened since last fall. (Yes, last fall. We had to create some sort of cutoff or else we'd still be eating.)
The whole experience not only made us hungry, but also appreciative of Missoula's ever-expanding edible offerings. With great opportunities to dine out come great responsibilities, so we've added some helpful hints on dining etiquette, as well as cautionary tales from members of our newsroom lucky enough to work in the local food service industry.
So, dig in. Find a new place. Experiment with different types of cuisine. Support a new business. Just make sure the first thing you say when you stroll up to the counter is not, "So, what's good here?" You'll learn why on the opposite page.
Opened: November 2012
Where it's at: 2230 N. Reserve St., Ste. 100
What it's about: This Mexican chain restaurant touts the fact that there are no freezers or microwaves in its kitchens, and that everything—from the guacamole to the corn tortillas—is handmade.
Signature dish: Cafe Rio offers the usual array of Mexican food, from tacos to burritos to quesadillas. It's hard to go wrong with a pork barbacoa burrito slathered in enchilada sauce ($8.75).
Recommendation: If you feel like tormenting employees, order the nachos. That's all it takes to hear the staff break out into "Nacho Man" to the tune of "Macho Man."
Dickey's Barbecue Pit
Where it's at: 143 W. Broadway
What it's about: This Texas-based chain, which started in Dallas in 1941, smokes its meats overnight. The Missoula location becomes downtown's first official barbecue joint.
Signature dish: The chopped brisket sandwich with sides comes in at $7.99.
Recommendation: Dickey's includes a full bar and stays open way past last call on weekends3 a.m., to be exact—making it one of downtown's few late-night sit-down options. If you're anything like us, the whole menu tastes good at this point.
Five On Black
Where it's at: 325 N. Higgins Ave.
What it's about: Tom Snider, a 24-year-old University of Montana finance graduate, opened this Brazilian-inspired "fast casual" joint based on a business proposal he put together in school. The cuisine focuses on stews and sides in a "build your own bowl" format.
Signature dish: Feijoada, a Brazilian stew with black beans, bacon, sausage and beef chunks ($5-$8, depending on bowl size).
Recommendation: With bases like rotisserie-cooked beef, chicken, roasted vegetables and several toppings to choose from, you have no reason to not get a little adventurous with your flavors. The coconut-milk-roasted sweet potatoes are toothsome. Try pairing your bowl with an imported Brazilian soda, like Guarana Antartica, that you won't likely find anywhere else in town.
Einstein Bros Bagels
Where it's at: 150 W. Broadway
What it's about: Mainly East Coast-style bagels. They also serve sandwiches, salads and bagel dogs, plus coffee and espresso. Part of a national chain, but locally owned by the same family that ran Mullan Station.
Signature dish: Toasted everything bagel with a healthy schmear and a cup of Neighborhood Blend coffee ($4.50).
Recommendation: Grab a baker's dozen of bagels with two containers of cream cheese and a coffee carrier to go—they call it "Joe to go"and become the hero of the office or your apartment (about $31).
Opened: December 2012
Where it's at: 2700 Paxson St., Ste. M, next to Southgate Mall
What it's about: GoodieVille bills itself as Missoula's only entirely gluten-free bakery, but also offers a full breakfast, lunch and dinner menu full of both standard and vegan options.
Signature dish: A front counter stocked with baked goods—doughnuts, cupcakes, loaves of sorghum and brown rice sandwich bread, etc.attracts the most attention. From the breakfast menu, look for the biscuits and sausage gravy ($6) or vegan biscuits and mushroom gravy (also $6).
Recommendation: You know that friend or coworker who always reminds you of their gluten intolerance and/or vegan lifestyle? Now you've got somewhere to take them for lunch where they can dig into a 12-inch vegan pizza ($12) while you enjoy a heaping roast beef sandwich with lettuce, tomato, mayo and gouda ($6.50 cold, $7.50 hot).
Masala Indian Food Cart
Opened: Fall 2012
Where it's at: Depends, because it's a cart, but track it via Facebook or by calling 406-370-9407
What it's about: This seasonal cart sets up at events, markets and brewery sidewalks to offer Indian dishes like red lentil curry and grilled lamb with masala rub. The cart's chef and owner, Theodore Smith, is spending this spring traveling in India and blogging about it at theodoressmith.wordpress.com.
Signature dish: It's hard to go wrong with dishes you won't find on many other menus in town, like chickpea curry or pork vindaloo ($5-$8).
Recommendation: In late summer, the grilled corn on the cob with Flathead cherry chutney offers a new take on a familiar Montana treat ($1-$2).
Where it's at: 322 N. Higgins Ave.
What it's about: After successfully opening a Bozeman version of this upscale wine bar and restaurant, owner Brett Evje brought the concept to Missoula.
Signature dish: The menu includes vegetarian options, but carnivores will find the most to love here. The seared scallops appetizer ($16) balances a tender inside with a perfectly seared outside, and is topped with buttery foie gras and wisps of crispy shallots. For an entree, the adobo-rubbed chicken ($18) with black bean cake, corn salsa and bacon lardons offers a similar contrast of textures, with a perfect hit of spice.
Recommendation: It's more difficult to accommodate groups, but Plonk's two-seat tables make for a intimate dining experience. Plan to dress up (in Missoula, that means jeans without holes and your best hoodie) and enjoy a romantic evening.
Where it's at: 3075 N. Reserve, Ste. N, in the Grant Creek Town Center
What it's about: Craving greens? Romaines offers soups, sandwiches and an extensive salad bar, with an emphasis on local ingredients.
Signature dish: With more than 30 toppings available for salads, let your imagination run wild. Or order one of the signature salads ($5.50-$7), like the basic Caesar, Greek, Asian or Popeye's Delight (with spinach, bacon bits, hard boiled egg, mushrooms and candied walnuts).
Recommendation: Where else are you going to get some fresh—maybe even healthy—fare while running errands on Reserve? Forego the Costco hot dog for once and get some greens. Craving man food? Try a braised beef sandwich with a side salad ($8.50).
Opened: September 2012
Where it's at: 247 W. Front St.
What it's about: This cafe offers artisanal twists on familiar classics. Hardcore foodies might even come across something new, like the carrot root sformato sandwich with roasted apples, caramelized onions and parmesan. (Sformato is a vegetable-based Italian dish similar to a soufflé.)
Signature dish: Riverside really puts an emphasis on seasonal ingredients, doing most of its shopping at the farmers' markets and constantly rotating its menu. In early spring, the menu includes a lentil-walnut burger ($9) topped with beet relish, grilled frisee, radish and roasted garlic mayonnaise.
Recommendation: The Chef's Lunch ($15-$17) includes a microbrew or wine, sandwich and side, with a selection that rotates every week.
Opened: March (although technically it's a re-open)
Where it's at: 137 W. Front St.
What it's about: The venerated downtown music venue and bar reopened in March with a slick remodel and full kitchen that offers small plates, or tapas, during low-key dinner shows, which usually feature a local acoustic singer/songwriter. Think salads, manchego-cheese-filled croquettes, red-pepper hummus and calamari.
Signature dish: The stone-fired flatbreads ($7-$8), which arrive on a wooden paddle branded with the Top Hat logo, include accoutrements like roasted wild mushrooms, serrano ham and goat cheese or roasted garlic, spinach, manchego and tomato.
Recommendation: Long may the bleu-cheese-stuffed, bacon-wrapped dates reign on the menu ($5).
Treasure State Donuts
Where it's at: 400 E. Broadway
What it's about: Handmade doughnuts with creative twists, like huckleberry glazes. You may have read about it in our 3,000-word ode to doughnuts when they opened.
Signature dish: Glazed yeast doughnut (about $1.25)
Recommendation: Get there early. Doughnut-hungry masses stood in line at 6 a.m. on its opening day, and after a few days, Treasure State shut down to install more equipment and hire another shift. The shop is still plenty popular today.
Flathead Lake Brewing Company of Missoula
Opened: February (although technically it's a re-open)
Where it's at: 424 N. Higgins Ave.
What it's about: The Woods Bay-based brewery closed its Missoula location last fall after a plumbing leak damaged part of the second floor and most of the first floor, which was formerly the separately owned Sapore restaurant. It reopened early this spring as a three-floor complex, with the Imperial Lounge offering fine dining on the first floor, the Pub House focusing on beers and burgers on the second, and the Galaxy Lounge providing killer views on the third.
Signature dish: All the signature Flathead Lake beers, like the Two Rivers Pale Ale and Dirty Ginger, are still here. The revamped brewpub menu focuses on sandwiches and burgers, like the Imperial Burger ($11) with soppressata, pickled peppers and provolone.
Recommendation: Order some beer battered pickles ($4) and pork belly bites ($7) to share with the team during Wednesday trivia night, and wash it all down with the new $2.50 pint special. If you're looking to class it up downstairs, try the Imperial Lounge's pan-roasted dates topped with pancetta and almonds ($8) and the Oliver's Twist pizza with merlot-soaked grapes ($14).
What's good here?
A tale about more than just Costco pretzel rolls
by Jason McMackin
I'm going to tell you something you already know: You and I do not share a mouth. Each of us has our own tongue, cheeks and teeth. And that's part of what makes us special, makes us individuals. Regardless of that obvious fact, when customers come into the restaurant I work at and own, people regularly step up to the counter, briefly scan the menu, smile and ask, "What's good here?" Indeed, what is good here? At the point the question is asked, my mood is not part of the answer.
I can't tell you what you would like to eat. Maybe your tongue is a limp, pallid thing because you smoke cheap cigars all day and eat sardines in mustard sauce for breakfast. Or maybe I'm the one who does those things. Or maybe you're too lazy to read a menu with 12 items on it.
I'm unsure if it's pride or arrogance that makes me get upset when I'm confronted by this query. At our bistro, we get up early. We scratch-make all of our food. We buy as many local and fresh supplies as we can. We take pride in what we do. What really steams me is that when I give the customer the look that says, "C'mon, dude, don't ask me that," and the customer inevitably says, "I know, all of it."
The contentiousness usually ends once the customer answers his own question. My blood pressure dips 10 points and we end up sharing a nice conversation about how you can't get a good fried bologna sandwich these days. We start to trust one another. Hell, we may even come to call each other acquaintances, if not friends.
Sometimes, though, things don't turn out so nicely.
Like many other local restaurants, my bistro vends food at Downtown ToNight. The event takes place on Thursday evenings throughout the summer. There are bands playing a lot of reggae, a lot of Creedence and way too much "Devil with a Blue Dress On."
For the food vendors, the weekly grind of hauling cooking and serving gear to Caras Park can make even the most positive people a bit cantankerous. Factor in the sun, the wind blowing your sporks onto the concrete and a crowd that might have had a few too many and you've got the makings for a hullaballoo.
By trade I am a baker, but at Downtown ToNight I work mainly as a cashier. I'll chitchat with the tourists who stop by our spot and ask where the ATM is. I'll make change for people even if they're not buying anything. I'll send folks to our competition because we won't sell bottled water.
On one particular day a woman in her 60s stood a few feet from our menu board. Her nose scrunched and her lips moved as she read. Her husband stood nearby, wearing a Panama hat. I knew they were trouble before they even stepped in front of me.
"Is this all you have?" he asked.
I began to chew on my tongue.
"Do you have bottled water?" he asked.
I told him we have what was on the menu but that the vendors across from us had bottled water. He seemed satisfied. I was relieved. Certainly we could both go on with our day without incident. Then his wife appeared by his side, hand held to her forehead, possibly in salute to me.
"What's a pretzel roll?" she asked.
I described the pretzel bread we use on our pulled-pork sandwiches. I get up at 4 a.m. to make that bread. I hand-roll each ball of dough, sometimes 200 of them in a morning. The bread is gorgeous and it's delicious.
"Oh, you got those at Costco," she said.
My partner and I laughed. I explained to her that we bake all our own bread. "No, no, I saw them there, these are from Costco." She reached for a roll to pick it up as if waving one in my face would prove her case. Using my eyes, I convinced her that picking up a roll would be a huge mistake. The air got hotter. The breeze quit. This was her chance to agree with me and order some food. Instead, she said, "These are definitely from Costco."
My partner sensed the tension and busied himself nearby. "I make every goddamned one of these, okay," I said. The woman moved off.
There were other customers in line, some laughing, some mortified. Admittedly, I could have gone a different direction with the exchange, but I felt like making a stand for all of us who work in the service industry, for all of us who've ever been disrespected (or at least thought they were).
The husband stood in front of me looking anxious, like this wasn't the first time he'd been in this situation. He pulled out his wallet and held it in front of his belly. He ordered something. I stared right over his head. He waved the money a bit to get my attention. I folded my arms. I deliberately blinked my eyes slowly, exuding the bored indifference of a good bouncer. He finally walked away.
The next guy in line walked up, shook his head and with a keen wit said, "Where do you get your bread, Costco?"
The customer is always right, even when they're not
by Jamie Rogers
"The customer is always right" is a meaningless adage that not only damages the psyches of service industry workers worldwide, but is utterly irrelevant in the realm of hotdog vending. A well-chopped onion, a softly steamed bun, an all-beef wiener that has been cooked just until the ends split—these are essential components, but what really makes a meh hotdog a pow hotdog has more to do with the attitudinal thrust with which the dog was served than the culinary precision with which it was prepared.
Think about the best wiener towns in the world: In New York, vendors talk on their Bluetooths as they fish another Sabrett from a vat of greasy water. In Chicago, they refuse you service if you order a dog with ketchup. In other words, the crux of successful hotdog vending is forcing the customer to realize the product is so quality that it doesn't matter how he or she is treated during the transaction. When I used to sling wieners, I believed deeply that my meat was the best meat and that by making it available to the public I was doing the community a solid of unthinkable altruism. This is to say that in hotdog vending the customer is rarely, if ever, right.
Of course, this service philosophy has its dangers.
Three summers ago I was manning the hotdog stand on the corner of Main St. and Higgins Ave., when one of our regulars, a 9-year-old boy whose mom owned a nearby retail business—call him Sam—came to get a jumbo doused with ketchup. This was his typical order. (In my opinion, there are two ways to avoid ridicule for ordering ketchup on a hotdog: 1) You are prepubescent or 2) You ask for such an unreasonable amount of ketchup that your preference goes from being sacrilegious to plain shocking. This kid had both going for him.) After we chitchatted for a moment about the things 23-year-old hotdog vendors and 9-year-old boys chitchat about, he scampered back down the block to his mom's shop.
Less than three minutes later Sam's mom returned his hotdog. She asked if he could get another one.
"Like you want to return that one?" I asked, pointing at the foil-wrapped jumbo she clutched in her hands.
She explained that it was different than usual. "It's soggy," she said.
I agreed with her. The hotdog was soggy. You could even say it was very soggy. Sogginess is unavoidable when you put the equivalent of 35 packets of ketchup on a tube of steamed meat and then wrap it in tin foil.
As I explained this to her, the conversation ran away from me. I could see in her eyes that this was no longer about the wiener. She paused, and I remember this vividly: She turned her head and stared into the middle of the street and the passing traffic and seemed to consider her options. Certainly, this conversation was unnecessary—you might call it a shamefully First World confrontation. But then she placed the hotdog on the top of my stand and said, "You know what, I have enough going on in my life. I don't need this."
She stomped away, before returning immediately, towing her son in hand. She marched right past my stand again and crossed the street to buy Sam a sandwich.
Until that day Sam's mom bought at least one soda from our stand every day. Sam had at least two hotdogs a week. After that day, and for nearly two years following, she did not make a single transaction with me or my partner, Casey. No dogs, no soda, not even eye contact or nods of acknowledgment.
As someone who at the beginning of this story extolled the importance of swagger in wiener slinging, it is only fair I note I also have an at-times paralyzing phobia of confrontation. I didn't think she was right—she was definitely wrong—but I came away feeling like the whole scene was needlessly dramatic, maybe even a little hurtful, especially to Sam. I wonder if he's had a hotdog since.
In preparation for writing this article, I went to see Sam's mom at her shop, which she still runs downtown. I parked my bike outside and felt a bit anxious. The incident was a long time ago, and clearly we have both moved on, but I had pissed her off so much she refused to acknowledge me every day for nearly two hotdog vending seasons.
I walked into the store, which was empty save for her. The shop was clean, well-stocked and smelled like cooked onions.
"What can I do for you?" she asked. She didn't seem to recognize me. I explained I used to sell hotdogs down the street. Her eyes widened and said, "Oh yeah!"
I told her I now work as a writer, and I was doing a story about the service industry. She just nodded, and I felt stupid enough to keep talking.
"Well, I guess I'm just writing about how little things can become big things for no reason. Like buying hotdogs ..."
I told her about the day she returned the hotdog and about how she never patronized the stand again. She kept nodding, laughed a little, and walked behind the counter. She told me she didn't remember the incident, but that Sam was 12 now and could I believe that?
Then she picked something up off the counter that smelled like onions. She folded back the wrapper and took a bite as she seemed to consider the conversation I was trying to have with her.
It looked like a gyro.
Being a better regular
Bartenders serve up advice on how to properly belly up
by Alex Sakariassen
Just another slow Monday night at the Golden Rose in downtown Missoula, and famed bartender Claude Alick busies himself cracking cans of beer and mixing vodka Red Bulls. The jukebox blasts a mix of '70s-era funk. Heads bob, feet tap. The handful of patrons bellied up to the bar may as well be listening to tunes at home.
"What you having, Alex?" Claude asks, flashing a pearly grin. I ask for a beer. Claude reaches into the cooler for a PBR tallboy. He doesn't bother to ask if I want him to run my card or keep a tab open.
Normally I'd be here for an escape, or, on a late summer Sunday, to catch the next episode of AMC's hit series "Breaking Bad," which Claude gladly screened for a few of us Rose veterans every week last season. But tonight I'm here with a very specific question: How can I, as a patron, make a bartender's night better? Claude doesn't hesitate with his initial answer.
"Tip heavily," he says.
I'm looking for something more, something that can inform Missoula as a whole on what really sets off the guys and gals pouring our favorite drinks.
"Not acting like a child is a big thing," says the guy on my right, a bartender from another popular local establishment who agreed to talk candidly with me on the condition of anonymity. For my purposes here, I'll call him Tyrion.
"When people get drunk, they're like children," Tyrion continues. "And bartending is basically a practice in babysitting adults."
I can't help feeling embarrassed by the comment. Over the years, I've certainly acted like a child while cutting loose. I've danced on bars, had friends 86'd from various establishments, forgotten to tip. But the wild stories have become fewer and further between since college. It's occurred to me that, while I might have fun acting like an idiot now and then, someone else is paying for that idiocy.
"Missoula likes to get fucked up," Tyrion says, adding that people here tend to party even harder than the Midwest metropolitan area where he grew up. "Honestly, I think Missoula has a problem with that."
Tyrion recalls one particularly irritating incident. A young, drunk woman began dancing on chairs—something that, for her safety more than anyone else's, Tyrion needed to put a stop to. When she refused the first few polite requests to sit down, Tyrion had to gently coax her off the chair. She complied, but it really put a crimp in Tyrion's night.
"Bartenders can tell when you're on drugs," he says, adding that alcohol was clearly not the only factor in this woman's behavior. "And they will stop serving you when you're messed up."
I turn to Claude and ask about buying shots for bartenders. It happens a lot around Missoula, and patrons seem to think it's a hip thing to do by way of a "thank you."
"I always say, buying a bartender a shot is a bit like buying a whore a piece of ass," Claude says, laughing. Tyrion adds that, while it may feel cool, getting a bartender a drink really isn't. It can actually be kind of annoying, he says. Depending on the bar, it can even get someone in trouble.
So what makes a bartender happy? Lots of stuff. Clearing glasses off your table can ease the night, particularly at bars that don't have a bar-back. Calming down angry or emotional friends is a big plus—stepping in early can prevent a fight from breaking out, and keeps the bartender from having to get involved. "There are people who get drunk and get into fights," Claude says. "Why? That's ridiculous. Drink and laugh. You paid for it."
It's no easy job standing behind the bar. Bartenders have to learn when to stop serving folks who are visibly intoxicated. And the job gets extremely emotional too. Patrons—particularly regulars—tend to share really tough stories, Tyrion says. In that sense, bartenders are almost like psychologists. And if there's one thing Claude hates more than anything, it's inhospitable people working in the hospitality industry. He goes so far as to equate the relationship between a bartender and a patron to that of a doctor and a patient. "It's all about confidentiality," he says. In other words, there's a trust that goes both ways.
So why do it? Why subject oneself to the name calling, the broken glasses, the fights and the drama? "When it's a good job, it's fun," Tyrion says. "When it's a pain in the ass, you're a babysitter. But as a bartender, you feel like the life of the party. You're the host."
It doesn't hurt that the pay plus tips is good enough to work three and a half days a week and still make rent, he adds.
For Claude, the motivation to sling beers extends to all aspects of life. He enjoys getting to know people on a first-name basis, for one, he says while sliding another PBR in my direction. And working nights enables him to spend his days writing, golfing and hanging out with his son. "I feel like this is my purpose."
I couldn't agree more. Not many bartenders would host a "Breaking Bad" viewing party for eight straight Sundays and spend every hour talking plot points.
"Everything in a bar is constant," Claude says. "The chairs, the bottles, the jukebox ... The personality of the bartender, that's the variable."
I close out my tab, making sure to take Claude's advice. I tip heavily.
Q: Do you tip for carry-outand if so, what's the proper amount?
A: Yes, no matter what, according to everyone we spoke with. The answer of what to tip ranges from 10 to 20 percent. "Ten percent for to-go, even at Subway," says Tao Rohitsathain at Sa Wad Dee. "That's what I do."
Q: There's a problem. What's the safest way to send back your food?
A: All that talk of the kitchen taking out its frustrations on your sent-back burger is a bunch of bologna. "You just talk about it. You never do it," says one chef.
The key is to politely communicate with your server. Lauren Ramundo at The Shack Cafe says there's often an easy remedy and the restaurant would always prefer not to send you home grumbling. "Things happen—toast isn't toasted enough, you miss the butter ... and eggs are eggs," she says, referencing that people are particular about the latter.
Q: Is it true that you shouldn't order a restaurant's special on a Monday, because that's when they're clearing out leftovers?
A: False. Most restaurants we spoke with denied this is an issue. "I think that's kind of a myth," says Caitlin Cast, a cook at Sushi Hana.
Q: Is there anything more awkward than the tipping situation with those flip-over iPad checkout thingies?
A: If you've ever been to El Diablo or a few other local restaurants, you know what we're talking about: At checkout, the cashier flips over an iPad that asks if you want to tip 10, 15 or 20 percent, customize your tip or skip the tip altogether. We're in favor of generous tips, but for some this system triggers an uncomfortable moment of pressure and fear of under- or over-tipping.
El Diablo counterperson Jenna Beck says not to worry. The new technology initially surprised some customers"everyone's was definitely amazed by it"but they eventually get used to it. Tip a buck for a burrito and you'll be just fine.
Q: Is substituting items a jerk move? What about ordering off the menu?
A: James Bar server Kelly Fullerton says it's okay to ask for menu substitutions—or even order something that's not listed—as long as you accept the fact that the restaurant can't always make the desired changes. "As long as you have realistic expectations," she says.
Others were less forgiving, especially about ordering off the menu. "Trust the people cooking your food," says one local chef. "You're eating out for a reason."