Hello Mountain States! I am an NYC and DC transplant to Helena, Montana (originally from Denver though, does that get me some street cred?). I have been exploring food here in this amazing state. It has been my experience that there is not a lot of information on places to eat and a lot of misinformation as well so here is my documentation attempt. I have the intention of an ongoing post that will document my findings mostly in the Helena area, but I will comment on other places as I travel.
I have put each category in order based on my liking. Ish.
Helena Food Scene:
Chubby's--(Clancy, outside of Helena)--So far, this is the best steak in the area. An 18oz ribeye inevitably comes as a 24oz ribeye. Always cooked perfectly, medium-rare comes medium-rare. The wings are also the best in the area that I have found, lightly breaded, heavily sauced, crispy and not dry. I had a burger one night and was very disappointed, dry and overcooked. Note that they do not serve food before 5pm or on Sundays.
Chalongo's--This is likely my favorite spot in Helena. Near downtown, without a sign. It is a tiny little place that serves authentic Mexican street tacos. I think they are fancied up a bit, such as the al pastor comes with a little pineapple, etc. But they are two small corn tortillas, made in house, with a little somethin' somethin, al pastor, carne asada, carnitas, barbacoa y nopales (pickled cactus). They don't offer limes by default so be sure to ask for them!
Lucca's--This could be Helena's finest restaurant (that I have tried at least). It is definitely the most elegant and with the best service. It is Italian. It was quite a while ago and I don't remember everything we had, but I remember leaving very happy.
Windbag--A great little place on the walking part of main street (Last Chance Gulch). It was a brothel until the '70's. Now they have decent food. I have enjoyed a fried vegetable plate which is enormous and is crispy and awesome, asian wings are very good and the burgers are my second favorite in town after Silver Star.
Bullman's Wood Fired Pizza--Weird building and space. No atmosphere and tepid service but really good brick oven pizzas. Not Neapolitan pizza which is fine with me. It is definitely the best pizza I have found in Helena. My favorite is the Flathead.
Bagel Co.--This is the best (only) bagel place in Helena. I lived in NYC for a decade and all I have to say is I am happy to be able to get a fresh made bagel here in the wild west.
Early Bird Cafe--This is a great little place. Simple homemade food. Breakfast is their best bet. Everything is scratch made. They have excellent biscuits and decent sausage gravy though under seasoned. Heading into its third decade.
Steve's Cafe--This place is oft considered Helena's best breakfast spot and the line can attest to that, especially on weekends. It is decent home made breakfast food.
Sud's Hut--This is excellent fried chicken. They call it broasted which I think is pressure cooked in oil, which allegedly reduced the oil in the chicken, but the waitress could not explain how. Horrible service.
Planet Gyro--A decent gyro for the middle of nowhere. 85% beef and 15% lamb.
The Rib Shack--This trailer north of town is a welcome addition to the food scene in Helena. They smoke their own ribs, brisket and pork (sliced) which all comes with a side of slaw and beans. The slaw and beans are bought and so is the BBQ sauce, but the sauce is pretty good, tangy and sweet. The brisket and pork could be great, they are tasty and fatty enough, but they pre-slice it in the morning so it always dries out. The ribs are very good, not pre-sliced and make them the big winner. They are not fall off the bone, they are toothsome yet come off easy. The meat is pink all the way through and has a good smoke to it.
Toi's Thai--A Thai restaurant that people drive for hours to enjoy. It is only open for dinner and reservations are strongly recommended as it is a tiny place, but they do takeout. I had a very nice Thai beef salad. The pad thai was standard. Having just moved from Northern VA I have been very spoiled with incredible Thai food. I am sure I will love this place in another year.
Emiliano's--Probably the best of the Mexican restaurants but still lacking. They have great homemade salsa and chips. The rest of the fare is good and home made, but relatively standard Americanized Mexican/Southwestern. I think it is owned by gringos. The fajitas were pretty good when we tried them, we preferred the beef. Chimichanga was a fried thing with some dried chicken made better with their excellent salsa.
Staggering Ox--This is a weird place. Loved by locals, they have a huge menu of "sandwiches" which are more like little bread bowls with a little meat and a bunch of iceburg lettuce in it. I have tried it twice and both times I have been underwhelmed, mostly by the amount of protein and size of the sandwich. I really wanna like it! They have some great things like horsie sauce which is blue cheese and horseradish! It is a very cool scene, there is a sit down in the back, a coffee bar, they have bands and a gaming room. I will keep trying it, maybe I will find a sandwich I like better.
The Dive Bakery--This is kind of a strange place. They have a bread of the day, but mostly they make sandwiches and crepes. We tried a couple crepes, one savory, one sweet with nutella. The fillings were fine, but they had pre-made a stack of crepes which were coldish and just made them nearly inedible. If I go again, I will ask for a fresh made crepe. That should make them much better.
No Sweat Cafe--This is a nice local granola/hippie place. A lot of veg options. They have a hamburger. It is made with 10% pork sausage and therefore is cooked all the way through. It is tasty, but gets a little dry. I wanna like this place and although they are very nice the service is absolutely dreadful. The second time I went in I waited fifteen minutes to be greeted. Another ten to get a coffee. What should have been a 30 minute meal took an hour and a half. A place like this could be much busier and better if they could get people through, say, during their lunch hour.
Brewhouse Pub & Grille--Awesome calamari. Most likely frozen, but it is the thick steaks, not the little tiny rings, lightly seasoned and battered and deep fried to tender prefection served with a chipotle mayo type sauce. Wife had an ahi sandwich, didn't get passed the first bite. I can't remember what else we ate and so must have been underwhelmed. They allegedly have excellent beer, but as a teetotaler cannot comment.
Silver Star--This is kind of an expense account place. I think it is pretty over priced for what one gets, especially at dinner. At lunchtime they have probably the best burgers in town, 10 bucks, but they are cooked to order and the meat is ground in house.
Riley's Irish Pub--I have been here a couple times. They have decent wings, maybe my second favorite in town. I also had an Irish lamb stew which had good flavor but the lamb was dry and hard to chew.
Godfather's Pizza--Dreadful pizza buffet. Do not recommend.
Taco John's--One step above Taco Bell. One small step.
Sara's Blue Ribbon Porkies--Ahh the porkie. A Montana oddity. A pounded or minced piece of pork, pattied, dipped in wet batter and deep fried. I have tried a couple with equal results in which I can't really discern any flavor or texture, the bread and the patty and everything just blened in with one another, like a poorly made crabcake sandwich. I haven't found one I like yet.
Shelly's--This is another weird place. Think red and white grandma kitsch. Horrid service, we were ignored for a good 15 minutes and there are only a dozen tables. My second attempt at a porkie, same tepid results. No one of the three of us liked our food and the other two were locals.
Overland Express--I had an unmemorable lunch here and do not recommend it. A couple tasteless sandwiches.
L&D Chinese Buffet--Affectionately known by locals as "Lost Dog", this place is just not as horrible as I want it to be. It has a couple decent items if one gets them right as they come out of the kitchen like the roast pork and vegetables in brown sauce, a little sweet, a little spicy. A not that bad egg drop soup! The one thing about them as far as being a buffet is that they are busy so the food turns over quick during meal times.
Montana City Grill & Saloon--This is a big place in Montana City near Helena. I had a very dissapointing steak here, thin ribeye, overcooked. Their house salad comes with canned shrimp and canned crabmeat on top of it, I highly recommend asking to leave it off.
Red Roof Cafe--Strange little place. Had an ok breakfast here, but the guy cooking and waiting was off. He was ranting about trying to close and customers coming in and so on...smile and nod...
R-B Drive-In--This is owned by the same people who own Red Roof. It looks equally dirty and disheveled. Had a flat grill burger, it was ok, basic diner/drive-in style burger, good onion rings and a good chocolate shake (something hard to mess up anywhere).
Jade--Chinese is something that is lacking here, at least good or traditional Chinese. This is a dreadful restaurant that serves the worst of Americanized Chinese.
La Casa Fiesta--About along the same lines as Emiliano's. Average Americanized Mexican food. I would go to Emiliano's as I preferred the salsa there.
Melaque Mexican--A very bad Americanized Mexican place. Everything is canned and packaged. I did not like anything I had there.
Places still to try:
Chinese Kitchen--Takeout place.
Benny's--A contender for best restaurant. I know she is very much into local and organic ingredients. I have not yet been.
Blackfoot River Brewing--
Wok & Roll Sushi Bar--Looks decrepit. Unlikely I will enter the premises.
A Taste of the City--
Local chef monthly dinner--I have not tried this yet due to timing. It is some local chef's that do a dinner once a month. Two months ago it was Cajun/Creole. This month is Korean. Next month is southern Italian. The menu's always look amazing. There were renting the Red Roof Cafe kitchen, but are moving to the Caretaker's Cabin in Reeder's Alley for Italian dinner on Sept 10th. There is a mailing list. If you want information on it e-mail me and I will send you her name, the woman who organizes it.
Van's Thriftway--The best grocery store in town. They have decent produce, today I saw they had FRESH NAGA JOLOKIAS!!! The best butcher that I have found in town. An excellent bakery with daily fresh made donuts, breads and pastries galore. They also have a very good fried chicken in the deli.
Park Avenue Bakery--Very nice little bakery.
Helena Coffee/Candy/Misc Scene:
Coffee Shack--Helena's first drive-thru cafe (self-proclaimed). This is my favorite place in town. They are fast, friendly, remember me and my order every time and have a large selection of sugar-free flavors.
General Mercantile--This is an amazing place. I would say if one only had for one stop in Helena this would be it. The guy has been there for some 45 years I think. It is an amazing nook and cranny kind place with all kinds of candy and toys and oddities. It has a lot of sentimental stuff and gag stuff but without being kitschy at all. They also have good coffee. There are tables hidden throughout where one (or two) could have very private and hidden conversations. I love it here.
Parrot Confectionary--This is an amazing candy store and soda fountain. It is nearly 100 years old. The real treat is to go into the kitchen and talk to the candy maker. I don't know if it is always the same guy, but the one we had was incredible. Gave us a full tour, while he worked, let us try tons of candy, showed us ancient machines and devices, explained about good chocolate and on and on. This place is a treasure.
Big Dipper Ice Cream--Good creamerie. Fun flavors and home made. Can you say anything bad?
The Donut Hole--Old school donut shop. Home made donuts and gut wrenching black coffee. Another treasure.
Fireside Coffee--This was an odd kinda place on the way out of town. I remember a lot of grey hair.
Hastings--Interesting place. It is a chain, but I think maybe just in Montana. They have an all right cafe, but are ridiculously slow. Takes like 10 minutes an order. They also have books, DVD rental, game rental and other odds and ends.
Firetower Coffee House--I initially liked this place, but had a couple service problems and no longer go there. I went in 10-12 minutes before and was told that they were no longer making coffee and was refused coffee. I was in retail for a long time and this is completely unacceptable.
Jaker's Bar & Grill--Very mediocre, corporate chain kind of food. We went on a recommendation and were disappointed in everything we ate. Over-cooked burgers, etc. Won't return.
Kim's Oriental Market--What a find! Fresh made kimchee! I stocked up on my Korean chili pastes and she had a couple Thai sauces. It is a small place, but whoa! Great to have stumbled upon her.
Vietnam Grill--I had a nice bun bo hue here. They have left out the blood and tendon and don't have the shrimp paste, but I understand that those are unpalatable to people unfamiliar with the cuisine. Frankly, knowing that I can get Viet food only 94 miles a way makes me incredibly happy. It is one of my favorite cuisines. (Now where is my korean, ethiopian, spanish, peruvian, japanese...)
Vietnam Noodle Restaurant--Again. Very happy to have actually two Viet restaurants near-ish me. I had bun thit nuong cha gao here. It wasn't great compared to what I have been used to. Wife had a pho dac biet. The protiens were Americanized (no tendon or tripe) and a little overcooked, but the broth was truly excellent! I actually bought an extra pho to go and used the broth to make my own soup at home over the weekend. Yum!
Izaaks--This is high on my list of places to try. It might be one of Montana's best restaurant contenders.
Joliet (near Billings, on way to Beartooth Pass):
Quickstop Drive In--A wickedly messy diner style burger (The C & R Special) dripping with greasy goodness with awesome onion rings and a huge chocolate shake. You will likely never be near there, but it is definitely one of those places in which Guy Fieri would stop and have a bite.
Cravings/desires/need to find:
Japanese/sushi. Traditional chinese. Korean. Ethiopian. Central/south american. French. A good burger (Ray's Hell Burger please). Anything else unique, unusual, made with passion, etc...
Fancy place in a hotel here that looked good at some point.