Montana feeds Seattle 

A healthy portion of Emerald City eateries serve up the Big Sky

On the phone with Grant Carter, owner of Bitterroot BBQ in Seattle's maritime-chic Ballard neighborhood, I'm just getting done explaining my call when he interrupts me.

"Do you know about RockCreek?" he asks.

I tell him I do not.

"Well, that's another one."

Noted.

What I'm calling about is Montana's curious tendency to crop up throughout Seattle's culinary scene.

At Carter's stripped-down barbecue joint, located on one of Seattle's hippest strips, patrons can sit on an always crowded communal bench to peruse sauce-splotched menus made of Bitterroot Mountain topo maps (Montana Manhattans: $5). On Capitol Hill, a bar simply named "Montana" is like a Bob Marshall Forest Service cabin marooned in urbanity and a magnet for the impossibly hip locals, including pixie-cut girls with Macklemore knock-off boyfriends (Mon-fucking-tana bumper stickers: $2). Rumbling around various locations is a food truck from which a Blackfeet Indian slings frybread he swears is better than anything he ate at the Browning Indian Days growing up. And now in Fremont—the self-proclaimed "Center of the Universe," there's RockCreek, a soon-to-open seafood joint named for the chef's favorite trout fishing river.

Which, coincidentally, is how Bitterroot BBQ got its name as well.

Carter and his wife, Hannah, spent seven years in Missoula, much of that time casting lines into the 'Root. The two met at the University of Montana and struck up a relationship when Grant lied and said he was doing well in the statistics class they had together, which landed him a study session with the girl.

After moving to Seattle and working for other restaurants for a few years, the Carters decided to take a leap and open their own place. When they did, Grant says, they wanted to name it something dear to their hearts, if not evocative of a valley known for its brisket.

Indeed, with no strong barbecue tradition in Montana, the fare is a more generalized "Northwest barbecue" than anything firmly rooted in Big Sky Country. The beef is sourced from an Oregon co-op and smoked with applewood from eastern Washington. But it's enough to make any Grizzly homesick that you can wash it down with a cold Bayern Pilsner.

Montana beer is a big deal for the Seattle establishments, especially if you name a place after the state.

"If there's one complaint it's that we don't have their favorite Montana beer," says Kate Opatz of the generally responsive ex-pats who come into her bar, called simply Montana. The bar typically has Big Sky and Bayern on tap, but she blames Montana liquor laws for bottling up many of the state's microbrews.

click to enlarge Mark McConnell’s Off the Rez food truck is inspired by Browning’s Indian Days, which he attended every summer while growing up. - OFF THE REZ
  • Off the Rez
  • Mark McConnell’s Off the Rez food truck is inspired by Browning’s Indian Days, which he attended every summer while growing up.

A Whitefish native, Opatz says the idea for the bar came when she was visiting home and realized what Seattle's drinking scene was missing.

Montana bars are "dark and comfortable, totally unpretentious, the bartender knows your name," she says. "There were enough common threads between just about all the old bars you see there—creaky wood floors, lots of beers on tap, snapshots of regulars stuck around—that I felt pretty sure we could replicate that vibe in Seattle and people would love it."

A year and a half in, she appears to have been correct. During working hours on a sunny weekday afternoon, Montana is full with patrons who may or may not work and wouldn't look out of place at the Badlander. Along with a brown-and-yellow color scheme, the walls are lined with a mishmash of memorabilia, the coolest of which is a huge carved wood sign that reads "MONTANA DEMOCRATS."

When a Montanan comes in, Opatz says, "the best is when they end up there by accident and slowly realize what's going on from the décor."

The easy explanation for this spreading spate of Montana-philia is that, when one decides it's his or her time to get the hell out of the state, the Interstate Highway System provides a straight shot at Seattle.

In some iteration or another, that's what happened when Mark McConnell's mother left the Blackfeet Indian Reservation and moved to Seattle. But she took her family back to Browning for Indian Days every summer, where McConnell developed a taste for frybread.

McConnell's Off the Rez food truck has been a sensation since it first began rolling in February 2012, and proven what Montanans have known all along: Indian tacos are delicious.

"I'd say 80 percent [of customers] have never heard of it," he says.

McConnell, 29, admits that as a boy he had little interest in learning the tricks of his grandmother's trade. But when he decided he wanted to get in on Seattle's still burgeoning food truck scene, his mind kept going back to the reservation. So, working with a chef and pumping his mom with questions, he produced what he likes to think would hold its own back in Montana.

"I like to think it's better" than what's offered in Browning, he says with some embarrassment.

As for the latest establishment, RockCreek owner Eric Donnelly tells curious food blogs around town that his focus will be sustainable seafood, suggesting fare like crab, mussels, striped sea bass and Kona kampachi. The lack of trout is duly noted.

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