Lunch Like a Local
It’s tough to nail down exactly why but food really makes a person feel alive. Paris we are not, but Missoula has its fair share of unbelievably fun eateries.
That’s not hyperbole (whatever that means - I think it’s a math term), these restaurants and bars are the hubs of interesting dishes and sometimes-perplexing plates.
Spanning the culinary gambit from franchise chain five-dollar belly-fillers to multi-course wallet-slimming affairs, this town is awash with stuff to satisfy. Here are the local establishments ATG recommends according to how much time you have or, more importantly, who is paying.
CATEGORY: It's No Longer Breakfast, I Have 15 Minutes & a 10-Spot
TACO DEL SOL
Over 20 years ago someone came back from San Francisco with the impression that mission-style burritos would catch on in Montana. Understatement of the freakin' century. Taco Del Sol is a massive hit in Missoula, so much so that they’ve expanded to cover every compass point in town. But go to the original, conveniently set in downtown next to a Vietnamese restaurant and across the alley from Missoula’s best dive bar.
Here you will attempt to wrap your mouth, which until now you thought was average size and you were proud of it, around a monster flour or wheat tortilla stuffed to the gills. You will have to tear your eyes away from the sheer size of the thing to decide on accouterments. Obviously, guacamole and sour cream with rice first, then black, pinto, or refried beans. Meat comes next with either fish, a selection of beef styles, pork, or chicken serving as the center mass of this gravitational anomaly. The veggie selection fits somewhere inside and you have to decide what’s going to expand in your stomach the least: cabbage or lettuce. Top it all off with jalapeños, pico de gallo, hot or mild sauce, and a creamy delight simply known as “white sauce.” That last is especially necessary if you order the fish but is a nice addition to the pork which, if you add cabbage and pico de gallo, you call a “Cuban.”
All this comes in under $10 and makes you wish siestas were an American tradition. They have beer and a selection of sugary Mexican sodas to wash it all down. Find this dangerously fast/cheap hole-in-the-wall at 422 N. Higgins Ave.
FIVE ON BLACK
It’s a story as old as time. The son of a doctor visits Brazil during the World Cup, discovers interesting and delicious food, and comes back to open a café a Brazilian times better than a regular café. Five on Black is the result of Tommy Snyder’s entrepreneurial brain on feijoada (pronounced like “freshwater” without the R's). At the “Fiver” as no one calls it you follow a five-step process to build your beautiful, bountiful Brazilian bowl.
Step 1 is the base of rice or greens, a good start.
Step 2 is where the real work begins – pick your dish from chicken, beef, tilapia, roasted veggies, or the aforementioned feijoada. All are spiced just right but the feijoada, or Brazilian stew, is where the watering of mouth becomes a waterfalling.
Step 3 adds a side of either coconut roasted sweet potatoes, steamed collard greens, or black beans.
Step 4 is the saucy one with a choice of mango BBQ or spicy coconut.
Step 5, the final step besides paying and devouring, tops the dish with ingredients designed to customize texture and flavor. There’s a chunky tomato vinaigrette, spicy chimichurri, fresh lime, cilantro, or another exotic Brazilian staple farofa – toasted ground manioc flour. It accentuates the smoky and salty flavor of your meat choice.
Now that we’ve finished building our bowl and we’re considering what to do with the extra $1.50 from our $10 it's time to buy 3 pao de quiejo. This cheesy biscuit is the real MVP and almost overshadows all 5 steps of the previously explained process. You know what? Let’s just skip all that and order a dozen pao de quiejo - each. Get 'em at 325 N. Higgins Ave.
THE EMPANADA JOINT
Argentinian hand-sized pockets of crispy pastry rolled beautifully and filled with scrumptious meat and/or veggies and a gravy-like sauce that drips down the knuckles as you bite in. The recommendation could stop at that last sentence and you’d probably head right to The Empanada Joint. But wait, there’s also dipping sauces.
Yeah you can eat 'em dipless but why? Get an ‘F’ (beef) with chimichurri or a ‘B’ (beet) with White sauce. All the empanadas are literally branded (it’s Montana) with a single letter on the outside so you can easily identify which delicious flavor is about to disappear into your gullet.
Here’s how Tom Stergios orders them: baker’s dozen mix and match with all three sauces, plus a fruit empanada for dessert. He doesn’t share.
This hole-in-the-wall offers 8 flavors of savory empanada plus a dessert style. Get them in gluten-free or regular crust, with sauce or without, but always order a bunch. You won’t regret having extra. Get to 123 E. Main St. before Tom and maybe you’ll get lunch.
A long, long, long, long, long, long, time ago Missoula was called the Hellgate Trading Post. Back then you could get a basket of hardtack and some whiskey for a few beaver pelts and a wink. That’s how Warden’s Market and Deli got started.
The hardtack and whiskey are gone (pity), but the idea remains - trade something for something and both parties are happy. In this case, you’ll be the really happy one because you’re only giving up $10 but you’re getting a veritable feast.
Around here you hear people saying, “I’m heading to Warden’s for_______.” Fill in the blank with whatever you want because they probably have it. Wine, beer, and cigars line most walls but the deli counter is where you want to focus. Ordering is old-school here. You stand opposite the cold case from Warden’s sandwich artists. These are classically trained Michelangelo-esque bread and accouterments sculptors. You order a Whoppa and move along like your lunch depends on it, cause it does. Order, get, and get out. Warden’s is so busy at lunch you’d wish you worked there just so you could sneak a bite of some poor saps sammie. It might be the only way you taste one of these Renaissance masterpieces.
They have other stacked foods like classic Italian hoagies and grilled melts, but really the whoppa is all you need. Ham, Genoa salami, provolone, Whoppa sauce, oil & vinegar, lettuce, tomato & onion on baguette bread. Told ya. They make it ahead of time and you order by the inch. How big can you handle? Measure yours at 451 N. Higgins Ave.
CATEGORY: Enough with the quickie lunches. Let’s have a sit, grab a drink, and enjoy maybe more than one course. Here are the spots you go if you want to skirt responsibility for a bit and come back refreshed… or want to be unable to come back at all.
The door to get in this place is weird. It kind of opens in and out at the same time and kind of in the middle of the frame. There’s a vestibule and then another door and both are usually blocked by families and couples vying for the next available seat. It doesn't make a lot of sense until you experience it for yourself.
Welcome to El Cazador. This far north Mexican food is hard to do right. But they do right by Mexico here. The menu is huge, both in offerings and in actual size. Hope you have big hands.
As with any good restaurant you order by number and get more food on each plate than you and your co-worker can finish together. Seriously we recommend sharing a plate.
Add some Negra Modelo or Mexican Coca-Cola to the order and sip till there’s room to finish your gargantuan enchilada.
Whatever you order make sure you go with someone who won’t judge you or who already knows how much you can fit in your mouth. Maybe don’t do an executive lunch here. Definitely only go with someone who is impressed by your love of cheese on things. It’s an easy stop for lunch or dinner on the corner at 101 S. Higgins Avenue.
Burke is da man!
Everyone says it, but you’ll never forget it after one trip to this BBQ mecca. Opened by Burke, a family member of a guy someone knows at ATG and a classically trained St. Louis BBQ god, The Notorious P.I.G. is home to Burnt Ends. No, not your frizzy cousin who still pays $80 to get perms. Burnt ends are the flavor-packed pieces of meat candy cut from the “point” of beef brisket. All the smokey goodness, none of the potential dryness of the middle.
They also do ribs, pulled pork, turkey, pastrami, and tri-tip and you can order all of it at once. Shouldn’t be legal. Sides include smoked Gouda mac 'n' cheese, pit baked beans, deviled egg potato salad, and more, which can be ordered by the gallon. Yeah, portion control isn’t exactly a language they speak at the P.I.G. Sauces are on the table so when you sit with your meat-heap you can try them all.
Got a group? Order the Old Joe Platter and you’re all set. They also do a thing called BBQ salad. It’s not grilled lettuce but something else entirely. Can’t explain. Try for yourself.
Call me, we’ll go together to 247 W. Front St.
Ahhhh... raw fish in a landlocked state. Ahhhh - scary!! Oh, relax. Sushi Hana sources their fish from the freshest possible providers, going so far as to offer Dollar Night to clear out anything that’s starting to smell, well, fishy.
If you’re seriously averse to the idea of eating uncooked yellowfin in a mountain town then get the ramen. You will NOT, with a capital N-O-T, be disappointed. Go with the ginger soy, it comes with pork belly. Mmmmmmm.
Back to the fish for a minute, though. Sushi Hana has been doing it old school since this writer was in high school… yes, sushi was around back then. The perfect order, honed over decades of small bites, starts with miso soup and/or sunomono (cucumber salad) and some tea. Once you’ve warmed up and stretched it's time to get down to business. Order a big Sapporo and turn to the page marked “Makizushi Specialties.” There you will look no further than the Touch of Thai and Dragon’s Fire rolls. A little peanut ginger and a little wasabi. Good opening lap.
Second order moves to the standard makizushi but adds nigiri. Order a Red Sun and California Girl together - you know why. From the nigiri page add maguro, hamachi, a couple katsuo, and top it off with escolar for a buttery finish.
Once the last piece of cold, dead fish is washed down with the dregs of your beer, contemplate ordering more, wish and hope and pray this full feeling goes away, realize it won’t, and finally accept you’re going to bed soon. Do this at 403 N. Higgins Ave.
THE MISSOULA CLUB (MO CLUB)
This place could sit comfortably at the top (or bottom) of our dive bar list. In fact, it didn’t make that list specifically because we needed to include it in the best lunch spots and we hate redundancy. Also, we don’t like repetition. Nope, saying things in multiple ways to achieve the same result is not our style. Simply put, we like to be efficient and that means not repeating things like “we hate redundancy” and “not our style.”
So, about those burgers. The Mo Club (no one - and that means no one - calls it the Missoula Club) is an old, narrow, confoundingly fluorescent-lit, Griz bar. It is home to the most complete collection of official team photos from both UM and MSU. And they do burgers, well.
Behind the straight, sturdy bar sits a flat top grill that hasn’t seen a day off, or a good scouring, in its long lifetime. Decades of grease add ancient deliciousness to your order. Any burger is good, it's up to you on the cheese type and quantity, and every one comes with fresh lettuce and onions. Order a double with horseradish cheddar, move to the odd secondary dining area, and top with mysterious brown mustard that sits in utilitarian squeeze bottles ubiquitously strewn about the bar. Fries and other sides are not on the menu, no distractions from the house specialty. If you must have something with your burger there are personal bags of potato chips, but why spoil the main course? Order a milkshake and wish for a larger stomach after you finish the best burger in town.
Look for the shining white light at 139 W. Main St.
THE POKE SUSHI BOWL
Welp, if ever a name said it all, The Poke Sushi Bowl is exactly that and what more do you need, really? Poke is soy-marinated Ahi tuna. It is delicious in a way that regular sushi aims to be but only sometimes achieves.
Poke Bowl is relatively new to Zootown but the locals have warmed up to yet another raw fish place with gusto. It helps that you don’t have to know how to use chopsticks to each this kind of sushi. Similar to Five on Black and Taco Del Sol, Poke Bowl is a multi-step ordering process. You enter the relatively skinny, but interestingly tall and echo-y space, and check out the menu.
The usual base of rice or veggie is the start. Or you can go unconventional and select a base of nachos… right. Onward.
Step two is protein with Ahi leading the way, and other options like shrimp or seafood combo.
Next, you pick a side and here is where you can go wrong. Poke suggests getting all the sides. No. If you ordered Ahi then your only recourse is to get avocado and cucumber and don’t look back. Step four is sauces and they’re all really good. Spicy pepper aioli for this guy.
Step five is toppings and again Poke recommends selecting all of them. Okay, this time they’re right. Do it. Go big. Then get a fresh watermelon juice and go sit outside to watch the line form for whatever show is playing The Wilma Theatre next door. This production happens at 101 S. Higgins Ave.
Ryan Corwin a Missoula native, is a bit of a dabbler.
By day, he is primarily the Marketing Director for Montana sporting goods stalwart Bob Ward's, but Ryan also dabbles as a writer, a radio disc jockey, a journalism teacher, a barely-exotic dancer, father to the world's cutest baby, and husband to our very own do-it-all Kymberly Corwin.