Missoula food was once for the dogs—or, more accurately, it was dogs. When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark traveled with the Corps of Discovery through western Montana, they preferred to feast on traditional fare like elk, venison, buffalo and fish, but they weren’t always so lucky. When rations dwindled thin, the company of carnivores craved canines. That’s a new level of, um, ruffing it, so to speak.
Thankfully, Missoula cuisine has evolved to the point that we now actually have establishments that create snacks for dogs (Go Fetch
, 736 S. Higgins Ave.) rather than of them. In fact, Missoula restaurants have developed quite the reputation for some of the finest food in the region. And while there are no shortages of fine dining establishments—and we use the word “fine” loosely, considering jeans and a collared shirt are about as formal as we get—there are a few dishes that, over time, have become de rigueur in our neck of the woods. Consider the following required eating.
Cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger
A houseguest who recently traveled from Oklahoma City to Missoula via San Francisco and Seattle arrived claiming three different people in the three different cities had all insisted he couldn’t leave without indulging in a famous Mo Club burger. I suppose that makes The Missoula Club
(139 W. Main St.), as it’s formally known, our version of California’s In-and-Out Burger, which is an honor not to be taken lightly, and certainly not to be missed.
Tastes like chicken
It’s hard to avoid red meat in Missoula, and folks here are about as adamant about their favorite cuts as they are about their preferred coffee shop. For instance, for every fan of perennial Best of Missoula winner Guy’s Lolo Creek Steak House
(6600 Highway 12 West, Lolo) there’s someone else who swears by the under-appreciated rib eye at Scotty’s Table
(529 S. Higgins Ave.). For every admirer of the grilled beef loin at Red Bird
(111 N. Higgins Ave., Suite 100)—and there are many, since it’s widely considered the best overall restaurant in town—there’s another who wouldn’t trade anything for one of Finn & Porter
’s center cut filets (Doubletree Hotel, 100 Madison St.). There’s one cut, however, that transcends the steak debate, despite being a bit astray of mainstream fare: Rock Creek Lodge
’s Rocky Mountain oysters (exit 126 off Interstate 90, in Clinton), aka bull balls. The featured item at the annual Testicle Festival is typically filleted, beer battered and deep fried, and tastes something like a cross between chicken and shrimp. When a recent customer asked how the delicacy was best enjoyed, the server responded, “With lots and lots of cocktail sauce.”
I scream, you scream
Twelve years ago, a couple Missoulians cranked up an old ice cream maker in the back room of the Kettlehouse Brewery and started creating Big Dipper
ice cream. Today, the corner of Fifth Street and Higgins Avenue is the site of one of the most popular summer—and, as an example of its fame, winter—destinations for sweet tooths seeking the original homemade creation. As for the most popular flavor, it’s a toss-up between the Coconut, Mexican Chocolate, Green Tea or Cardamom. Or maybe the White Mint Oreo. Or the Mocha Chip. Or, well, you get the point.
Just up Highway 93, about 35 minutes from Missoula, and only a few miles from the entrance of the National Bison Range, sits the aptly named Bison Café
(27330 Highway 93 North, Ravalli). It’s best to stop here before or after looking at the animals preserved by our government to keep bison from extinction—the refuge was created in 1908 when the animal’s population was dangerously low—and actually eat a bison burger. Don’t worry, bison numbers are quite healthy today and, more importantly, this historic café (built in 1934) serves one of the best bison burgers in the area. As an added bonus, wash it down with a huckleberry shake, made with heaps of fresh huckleberries, vanilla ice cream and whole milk.
Sweet spiced tea
The first thing you think of when you think Montana cuisine is Indian food. Okay, maybe not, but that’s part of what’s so endearing about stumbling upon the chai at Tipu’s Tiger
(115 1/2 S. Fourth St. West). The local institution—the alley restaurant’s long been strictly vegetarian, although a recent sale will reportedly lead to the addition of chicken to the menu—made its name as much for this beverage as anything else. It’s so sought after that a chai mix is now available for purchase online (tipustiger.com) and locally at the Good Food Store, among other outlets.
Grand greasy spoons
In a college town, great bar food is as important as any other cuisine, and Missoula has no shortage. At the top of the list, however, are three items at three of the most popular watering holes. The Dinosaur Café
(428 N. Higgins Ave.), inside the historic Charlie B’s, serves some of the best Cajun vittles around from inside a closet-sized kitchen at the back of the bar. Try the authentic gumbo first. The Iron Horse
(501 N. Higgins Ave.) offers what are largely considered the best sweet potato fries in town. And the Old Post Pub
(103 W. Spruce St.) has a pretty extensive menu with daily specials (there’s a dedicated fish taco following), but the ridiculously huge nachos are where to start.