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A Butte thing, in Missoula

There is no mistake to be made when you walk into Lisa's Pasty Pantry: pasties are a Butte thing. Aside from the giant Mining City landscape mural on the restaurant's west wall, there are old-timey photos of historic Butte everywhere—Columbia Gardens, the old amusement park, Evel Knievel, the "beautiful" Berkeley Pit. Next to the counter there is what I would call, for lack of a better word, a Butte shrine. Its shelves are covered in old beer cans, vintage books about Butte-related things and Irish memorabilia.

"We have people giving us things all of the time," says Lisa McGrath, the pantry's owner and namesake. "People, they have things that they want other people to appreciate or see so they bring them here. And we have a lot more things in the back that we trade out sometimes. Just a lot of Butte history."

Pasties are to Butte what deep-dish pizza is to Chicago. It goes back to Butte's mining days, when an influx of Cornish and Welsh miners flooded into the city for work and brought along what they ate back home. It's stomach-filling food in its purest form: beef, potatoes, onions, salt and pepper wrapped in a pastry, baked and sometimes served with gravy.

"That's kind of funny when people call it a recipe," McGrath says. "It's just because I grew up in Butte and pasties were just a staple there, everyone made pasties. Your mother showed you how to do it."

McGrath cooked up the idea for a pasty place in Missoula when she was attending the University of Montana more than 20 years ago, despite the fact she didn't like pasties as a young girl in Butte. (Her mom cut the onions in her homemade pasties too large, an element Lisa has improved upon. She shreds the onions for her pasties. Onions should be tasted, but not seen, according to her method.) When McGrath told her father about the idea of a Missoula pasty restaurant, he told her to talk to his financial advisor friend. The friend's advice? Bad idea. McGrath and her husband didn't listen. "We were pretty determined, I think," she says. That financial advisor has been eating his words—in the form of pasties, frequently—for the past 19 years.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY DAMEON PESANTI
  • photo by Dameon Pesanti

In addition to the other menu items, Lisa sees about 70 to 100 pasties go out the door every day on average (St. Paddy's is a different story). It's not easy. Everything at Lisa's is made from scratch and by hand, from cubing roasts to peeling potatoes to shredding those onions. McGrath does get help from her family. Her daughter Molly is a manager and her son Cody does the bookkeeping and takes care of the computer tasks. During the busy times of year, they'll be up baking hours before the sun comes up.

All that work and attention to detail keeps her regulars coming back, many of whom are Butte and Anaconda natives. She starts 'em young, too. For years, the pantry has catered pasties every week for a local daycare. It's been going on long enough that now some of the original kids are grown and still have a taste for her specialty.

Lisa's pasties are one of those things that is more than a sum of its parts. The potato and beef stuffing is perfectly seasoned and the gravy is silky smooth, not too thick or thin. And goodness, the pastry is light but durable, buttery but not too rich. You can even get a vegetarian version served with your choice of marinara, alfredo or the gravy. Disclaimer: Lisa says some would call a vegetarian pasty blasphemous. I asked her about deciding to put it on her menu, and she said that being in Missoula, "it seemed like the thing to do." She was right. It is delicious.

So where do you find these heavenly handheld savory pies? If you didn't know where to look, you wouldn't know it's there. Lisa's is at 2004 Sussex Street, one block north of South Avenue, near the mall. She's been at that location for 14 years, and she says business is brisk and changes are afoot. A remodel? A second location? Maybe even a food cart? Time will tell, McGrath says.

In the meantime, the pasties are hot and ready for those needing a taste of old Butte. In fact, that includes Buttians themselves. In perhaps the most flattering testament to Lisa's pasties, McGrath says some of her more loyal customers include Mining City residents traveling through Missoula who stop by to pick up a batch on their way home. Pasties will always be a Butte thing, but that doesn't mean Missoula can't have a place at the table.

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