The Big Sky stereotypes are, in many instances, true. There’s the rugged and the rural, the cowboy hats and cattle, the dusty bars and rusty pickups. And where there’re stretches of pasture and hungry outdoorsmen, there’s bound to be no-nonsense comfort food. Hence the hamburger. Among the pantheon of Americana, the burger sits proudly aside the likes of pizza, tacos, and deli sandwiches. It’s simultaneously unique to the U.S. and the product of a melting-pot of immigrant cuisines. The burger is that American holy trinity of salty, savory and starchy, and in the outdoor-centric background of Montana, it’s prominence is all the more apparent. Here are the 10 best burgers in Montana.
Home to Bitter Root Brewing, Hamilton is a charming, medium-sized rural Western town. It rests aside I-93, along the spine of the Idaho-Montana border, a two-lane thoroughfare for tourists and sportsmen. And these passers-through always bring empty stomachs, growling for filling, fuel-filled comfort food. Nap’s has become an iconic stop, not just for providing primo local Montana beef, but more importantly, for its portions. The regular burger is a whopping 12 ounces, and the (in)famous Belly Buster is a belt’s worst nightmare at 17 ounces! Simply dressed, with lettuce, onion and tomato, these patties are the one true “Whopper.” And don’t forget the delicious fry sauce.
The burgers are truly scratch-made. The meat is ground in-house, twice a day. And this, the highest-quality local protein in the region, has over 20 incarnations. The cornucopia spans the bold and tangy (No 11: with braised bison and horseradish to the hilt), the gilded lily (Kitchen Sink: cheese, ham, bacon, onions fried egg), and decadent (Bacon Jam: gouda, bacon jam, roasted garlic aioli). And all burgers are available in either beef or bison. (The latter is almost always the way to go.) Chicken, vegetarian and gluten-free options available.
Nearing its second decade, the Ale Works has crafted pleasing Americana for the oft demanding Bozeman populace. The premium draught beer and cocktail program bookends the high-end comfort foods, drawn from fresh, local-as-possible ingredients. The quality of product mirrors the kitchen’s delicious execution and friendly staff. And then there’re the burgers, all from pasture-raised beef. Some notable creations are the Smoke Stack (bacon and horseradish barbecue sauce) and the Jake (jalapeño relish, cilantro crema and avocado).
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. A labor of love 30 years in the making, the Washington, D.C.-based Five Guys is a manifestation of maintaining quality via simplicity. And this model has since spawned 1,500 locations nationwide. The fresh-baked buns are soft and of a delicious sheen, the patties taste of pure beef and are properly seasoned, and fries are done strictly in peanut oil. Certainly not a joint for a wagyu or vegan or black-bean burger, Five Guys is all about uncomplicated, diner era perfection: cheese or no cheese? any toppings? Done.
A product of the 1980s burger boom and some cunning market research into the industry, Frugal’s straightforward quality has developed a fan base throughout the Northwest. Holding true to simplicity, the burger’s here are no-BS. Expect a classic sesame bun, a sizzling patty and the simplest of accouterments: ketchup, mustard, mayo, lettuce, pickles, tomato. It’s this lack of complication that both assures a consistently tasty product and engenders that comforting veil of nostalgia. One only needs some wire-rimmed glasses, a convertible and a leather jacket, and that diner-era culinary naiveté is happily embraced.
The Windbag Saloon repeatedly wins “Best Burger in Town.” And being in the capital city, home to two colleges and a plethora of discerning palates, this title is no easy feat. This enduring cornerstone of the downtown’s Walking Mall was recently renovated, adding a sleeker interior replete with dark-wooded high boys and a pristine shuffleboard table. But the alluring retro charm remains: the brothel-running mascot and bright-red marquee above the entrance still harken to the cowboy-centric twentieth century. Served on locally-made buns, the Bullock (bacon and bleu) and Classic are standouts. And if for some reason, a burger isn’t on the agenda, they have the area’s best salad, too.
The town of Whitefish has the unique privilege of lying along picturesque Flathead Lake, amongst tentacles of panoramic wilderness stretching from Glacier National Park. The staggering beauty of the area elevates any otherwise mundane activity, especially those involving food. A top contender in any food category, Buffalo Cafe has some particularly good hamburgers. Here, the approach blends unpretentious comfort foods with locavorism and modern pairings. Employing quality local Montana beef, creativity and technique craft some inspiring combinations: The Hot Date combines bacon, grilled dates and a spicy samba aioli; and the increasingly rare patty melt is a thing of sourdough beauty.
“Sorry, We’re Open”. The neon sign says it all. For 35 years, the tongue-in-cheek vibe at Burger Bob’s has drawn burger lovers from around the state. With self-described “dishwater coffee and questionable atmosphere,” the joker-like lowering of expectations seems to bolster the pure satisfaction of eventually eating one of their burgers. The meat is ground fresh, from local Montana cattle, using sirloin instead of the fillers and terrestrial bycatch used in large productions. The eight-ounce Big Time Bob is the way to go: a well-executed, straightforward beef-centric belly bomb.
This self-proclaimed pub and casino truly lives up to its “tavern” moniker. The small, intimate establishment is supremely approachable and unpretentious. A mixture of locals and visitors homogenizes into a casual, jovial atmosphere, bookended with sounds of a sizzling grill and the bing-bongs of video poker. While it is rather stripped down (and proudly so!), Flipper’s channels its energy to only the crucial facets of a decent bar/grill: cold beer, hot burgers and friendly staff. The Chrondo is a home-run: bacon, jalapeños and a slathering of Siracha. And after hitting the hamburger jackpot, try your luck at some video Keno.
The retro lightbulb marquee is supremely welcoming in two respects. First, it’s always nice to see the (once) glossy revenants of the bygone West. Second, the neon, “Burgers and Beer” teases all one needs to know about the establishment. They do two things, simply. And they do them well. The burgers are without frills and teeter the line of greasy and charred: reminiscent of its dive-bar roots. Simply choose the size, single, double or “Griz,” and the type of cheese. That’s it. Who ever said a lack of choice was a bad thing?