Big Pancake Country

It took us a while to understand Montana roadfood. One of the cross-country restaurant guides we wrote in the early 1980s didn’t list a single place to eat there. We didn’t think readers would notice. What threw us off balance was the lack of the typical pleasantries we found in other regions. Where were the gingham curtains and flower boxes in the windows, the waitresses who say, “Y’all come back,” or the gratifying views of ocean surf or soft rolling hills?

By Jane and Michael Stern

Originally Published 2005 Gourmet Magazine

It took us a while to understand Montana roadfood. One of the cross-country restaurant guides we wrote in the early 1980s didn’t list a single place to eat there. We didn’t think readers would notice. What threw us off balance was the lack of the typical pleasantries we found in other regions. Where were the gingham curtains and flower boxes in the windows, the waitresses who say, “Y’all come back,” or the gratifying views of ocean surf or soft rolling hills?

Montana is a big and rugged state, and in our naïveté, we didn’t see the way its restaurants express that muscular character with unique western charm. Forget frills. The memorable roadside meals in Big Sky country are dished out in places with all the panache of a truck stop or a county jail. But the food can be wonderful, and the staff in some of these joints live by an alternate code of etiquette that we have learned to love.

Case in point: Kozy Korner Cafe & Bar. Following a tip about a place roughly 100 miles north of Billings, in Winnett, that serves “the most humongous pancakes on earth,” we arrived at the crossroads town for breakfast just after dawn. The tipster hadn’t remembered the name of the pancake place, but he assured us that Winnett was so small that we’d have no problem finding it. When engaged in such missions, we find it useful to look for the building where cars and pickup trucks are gathered, but at 6:45 A.M., there was not a single vehicle parked anywhere. As we sat in the idling car in the apparently empty town, a guy on a bicycle loaded with a rack trunk and panniers pulled up to a faded building that looked like it had been a gas station long ago but now appeared defunct. “Pancakes?” we asked as he removed his helmet and secured the bicycle outside the front door.

“Pancakes!” he answered, explaining that he had begun a westward trip in St. Louis eight months earlier and was really looking forward to carbo-loading a tall stack to start the long day’s ride.

At exactly 7 A.M., a neon “Open” sign in the window lit up, and Buck Wood unlocked the door from inside, wordlessly pointing us down a short hall into the dining room. His wife, Ellen, waved a nonchalant hello from the open kitchen, where she was mixing batter in a stainless-steel bowl. As we found ourselves a table, Buck poured coffee.

“May I have some water if you get a chance?” Jane asked.

“There’s water in your coffee,” he answered in his grouchiest voice, bringing glasses of ice water straightaway.

Jane then inquired if he had any milk for coffee (as opposed to the powdered-creamer packets on the table).

“What is this, a dairy?”

“Yes!” Jane replied, following him toward the kitchen and pointing to the wall decorated with wooden cutouts of goofy-looking cartoon cows wearing farm clothing.

“Go, girl!” Ellen called out to Jane as Buck went to the refrigerator and stood in the kitchen pouring milk from a quart carton into Jane’s cup. She had earned a wink and a smile.

A few minutes later, Buck walked to our table from the kitchen with two pancake stacks that looked like layer cakes. Kozy Korner pancakes are a half inch thick, but not heavyweight, their tangy buttermilk-batter insides girded by a fragile skin. We finished off our six, and as we paid Buck at the cash register—they cost $4 per stack—we noticed that the cyclist, a slender man with about zero percent body fat, had eaten his way through three and was discussing with Ellen whether he ought to get two more or three more.

With stacks of Kozy Korner pancakes a recent memory, we were not looking for anything as we barreled along Highway 87 heading for Great Falls. But 100 miles west, as we neared the town of Stanford, we spotted Candel’s By-Way Café. Attached to a convenience store and with all the visual appeal of a backyard utility building, Candel’s had a sign we could not ignore: “Fresh Pies and Cinnamon Rolls.”

We didn’t notice any décor on the walls because the moment we entered, all our attention was drawn to the smell of hot peach pies coming out of the oven. They were homely, the mark of having been made by hand, and we watched each piece we ordered fall apart on its way from tin to plate. The crust underneath the warm peach pie was the melt-in-the-mouth kind, so fine that we found ourselves hunting stray slivers on our emptied plates. Cool sour cream raisin pie was one of the best anywhere, with a wicked tangy-sweet character. Its goodness is especially remarkable considering that Montana is not a big dairy state.

“Why are these pies so good?” we called out from our counter seats, quite literally ecstatic from finding them. Sheila Candelaria credited them to her mother, from whom she learned to bake growing up on a ranch south of town.

As it turned out, pies aren’t the only reason to inscribe this place on the honor roll. “We cut the steaks, we make our seasoning mixes, even our chicken strips are from scratch,” Sheila told us, singing especially high praises of the chunky, garlic-studded salsa that accompanies the Mexican food her husband, Mike, makes.

His beef and bean burrito is smothered with orange-hued chili rojo that tastes like nothing more than puréed sun-drenched peppers and spices. We could hear our chicken-fried steak getting pounded tender through the pass-through window. Instead of being sheathed in the typical thick batter coat and smothered under gluey gravy, this one has a thin, brittle crust and is served on a puddle of refined white gravy with a pepper punch.

Everyone in town comes here to eat, and the people we met felt comfortable lingering over coffee and conversation. As we paid our bill at the cash register, we noticed a book of blank nonpersonalized checks from the Basin State Bank—for customers who don’t have cash.

“You’re trusting,” we said to Sheila.

“We know everyone who comes in,” she replied. “They are our friends.”

We don’t have an account at the Basin State Bank, but after a morning at Candel’s By-Way Café, we felt like friends, too.

That night in Great Falls, we went to Eddie’s Supper Club for steaks. A white-painted cinder-block bunker, Eddie’s reminds us—from the outside—of a maximum-security prison. It is a combination coffee shop, liquor store, and supper club. We love the supper club part of the operation, if only for its monomaniacal décor of nothing but horses: trotters in action, a bucking horse tossing a cowboy, cow ponies at work tending cattle.

Since it opened in 1944, Eddie’s has been known for “campfire steaks,” which our waitress explained get their unique flavor not from the fire over which they are cooked, but from proprietor Maureen Newman’s sauce. It adds zest to the buttery beef and gives the outside a caramelized crunch. “Tastes just like that old Marlboro Cowboy cooked it over the campfire,” promises the menu. Eating steaks while ensconced in the plush booth of a dimly lit supper club, surrounded by images of personality-plus horses, we were overwhelmed with gratitude for the fact that dining in Montana is different than anywhere else.

Candel’s By-Way Cafe (permanently closed)

Junction of Highway 87 and Highway 80,

Stanford, MT

Eddie’s Supper Club (permanently closed)

3725 2nd Avenue North,

Great Falls, MT

Kozy Korner Cafe & Bar

1 South Broadway,

Winnett, MT

Discuss

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