Outside the screen door at Theo Smith's house, my senses get hit on two fronts. One: whatever's on vinyl right now is super loud and will need to be turned down if I'm going to talk to him about... Two: the smell.
It's all warm and toasty-spice, familiar and foreign. So I inhale and want to write love notes to every half-decent Indian restaurant I've sat in.
But I am not here to write love notes. I'm here to deliver good news. Smith, the owner and chef of what can sometimes seem like the elusive food cart called Masala, is looking in a serious way to open a year-round place in the Indian-restaurant desert of Missoula. He came close to closing on space on South Higgins before it fell through. "But I'm not too worried," says Smith, 37, some time after he turned down the record player and poured iced tea from a growler. "I've got time."
After all, it's prime cart season right now. And Smith's also got a knack for knowing what works with his. Almost always, there are three aromatic curries in the steam table: one vegan, one with Montana lentils and one for paleos, often featuring animals that grazed not far away. The curries are balanced: authentic and spicy, but friendly to people in a town with no Indian restaurant (right now). On a good day, you might also get street snacks like flaky samosas or pani puris, described on Masala's Facebook page as "three thin crispy semolina shells filled with spiced potato, peas, cucumber, tomato and onion. Last second, add the sweet and sour cilantro water and bite!"
The Masala cart's in its third season and, if you plan well, totally findable. On Tuesday nights, it's at Draught Works. On Wednesdays, Caras Park for Out-to-Lunch and then back to Draught Works for dinner. On Thursdays, Caras again for Downtown ToNight. On the second Friday of the month, it's at Ten Spoon Winery. You can also follow Masala on Facebook for updates.
Got it? Now let's talk about Theo, because he's got a good story. It didn't exactly start in Indonesia, where he was born and where his parents found him and adopted him. Theo is, truly, all about food. And the food thing started with his mom, a good cook who was always giving him dough and letting him page through her recipes.
By the time he was a teenager, he was responsible for at least one family dinner each week. That idea of planning, cooking and presenting food took hold. But, well, his grandfather had been the head of the economics department at the University of Montana. He grew up in Edmonton, where his dad was the dean of the business school at the University of Alberta and his mom was a full-time teacher. So he was going to college, like it or not.
Three credits shy of an art degree at the University of Puget Sound, Theo convinced his academic family he was serious about cooking. But before enrolling in culinary school, he took off for Southeast Asia. He went to Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia. "Growing up, I kept hearing about how I was from this exotic, tropical place and here I was on the Canadian prairie," he says. "I wanted to see how I'd respond."
He trained in classic techniques and then had a set of jobs at high-end Seattle restaurants. But he wanted a different kind of life and wound up in Missoula. Before long, he figured his itch for more ethnic choices was something he'd have to scratch himself. He and a business partner, Tobin Aroner, opened Iza on the Hip Strip in 2009, focusing on Asian dishes.
Smith worked big hours, sometimes 100 a week. It was hard to have a life. Plus, "we knew a restaurant of that size couldn't sustain two owners," he said, and he amicably agreed to sell his share to Aroner in 2011.
Then he was off to the Missions, where he was offered a head-chef position to open the Allentown Restaurant at Ninepipes Lodge in St. Ignatius. But six months in, Smith missed Missoula and knew he had another itch. He wanted the flexibility of a food truck or cart.
He found it, licensed it, opened it and learned from some early mistakes. Two winters ago, he took advantage of the seasonal nature of carts and took off for India, where he covered 4,000 miles "by train, bus and motorcycle," eating everywhere. He got ideas from places like a five-chair dirt-floor stall in the southern part of the country. "There was this one older man in there with a cigarette and a big pot," he says. In that pot was the one dish the guy made, a chickpea curry with coconut milk, turmeric and curry leaves.
"It blew me away. The simplicity and the flavor and this person making and perfecting this one dish," he says. Smith admires it—and has come close to recreating it for Masala—but he knows he couldn't be happy cooking just one dish. As it is, his Indian food cart sometimes morphs into an Ethiopian one.
For a guy who's all about food, "there are limitations with this setup," he said. Lucky for us, he's itchy again.