Flavors: Hitting the Southeast Montana Burger Trail – Miles City, Terry and Forsyth for Deliciousness and Community

2024-04-03 19:51:30

By Stella Fong

This program originally aired on Yellowstone Public Radio as an episode of Flavors Under the Big Sky.

Download the Southeast Montana Burger Trail Passport and discover the 23 unique burgers found in small-town eateries created from local favorites. Photo by Visit Southeast Montana.

Hitting the road and stopping for a burger in one of Montana’s towns may nourish us in ways we never expected. While savoring a hamburger we can learn the beef about a community and its people. All it takes is exiting the highway and venturing into the settlement.

The Southeast Montana Burger Trail, with 23 stops, helps guide the visitor. Brenda Maas, Director of Visit Southeast Montana took me on the road to Miles City, Terry and Forsyth. She created the Southeast Montana Burger Trail several years ago in the area that encompasses 13 counties and two Indian Reservations.

With the Southeast Montana Burger Trail, Maas said, “We can give a little bit more guidance to visitors who might be a little bit hesitant to go into a location.”  

At the Montana Bar and Tubb’s Pub on Main Street in Miles City, Chef E. J. Schrock shows off the Stuffed Burger he just finished cooking. The burger, made with Certified Angus beef is stuffed with bacon, onions, mushrooms and American cheese. Photo by Stella Fong.  

“I also know what happens when people go into these small mom and pop, main street businesses that are all owned by locals in the community. They have an experience that, A, they don’t know what it’s going to be like. B, it’s usually quite unique and I think they walk out of there with a different perspective.”

From Billings Maas and I drove the 144 miles to Miles City where we first stopped at the Montana Bar/Tubb’s Pub.  The historic bar from 1908, currently owned by Blake Mollman, held many stories and memories from yesteryear. From the Brunswick bar to the bullet holes and longhorn trophy mounts the establishment was a museum.

Here Chef E.J. Schrock cooked up the Stuffed Burger made with two ¼ pound Certified Angus patties stuffed with bacon, onions, mushrooms and American cheese. The diner can choose from a number of options. After 20 minutes on the grill, the burger came to the table with good caramelization on the outside with perfectly steamed ingredients inside. The juice that was mostly captured by the toasted bun was the sign of a tender hamburger.

Down the street from the Montana Bar was Vintage and Rustics in Montana. Here in a nearly 30,000 square foot space was an antique mall bringing with treasures, a bakery and the Remember When Café  with a 21-seat counter in space with a retro vibe. Fonzie and Elvis would be right at home in this colorful restaurant with chrome chairs and tables that was once a Woolsworth. Owner Vicki Leesburg and her husband, Mark opened this shopping and eating meccca in 2016.

One day while, “driving to school to get my kids, this building had a for sale sign in the window and the instant thought ran through my head that, oh my gosh, we could do an antique mall.” She presented the idea to her husband who supported her proposal.

At the Remember When Café in Miles City, Chef Zoe Beardsley serves up the Bleu’s Burger made with West Dakota Kobe drizzled with housemade blue cheese dressing and topped with crunchy onions on a house baked buttered bun with a strawberry smear. A side accompaniment of slaw completes this fun and nostalgic burger treat. Photo by Stella Fong.

The featured hamburger here was the Bleu’s Burger made with American Kobe style beef sourced from Vicki’s brother’s ranch, West Dakota Kobe in Mandan, North Dakota. Chef Zoe Beardsley who had been working at the café for four years grilled up the hand-pattied burger served on a house baked roll with strawberry jam and drizzled with homemade blue cheese dressing and topped with crunchy onions. The burger combined the flavors of fun and nostalgia with the meat as the star.

At Tilt Würks Brewhouse in Miles City, Chef Frank Perkins holds the Buckin’ Bronco Burger made with ½ pound Angus beef. This burger comes fully tilted with Flamin’ Hot Cheetos seasoning , smoked bacon, fresh jalapeño rings, smoked bacon and topped with onion rings and ghost pepper or jalapeño cheese finished with a spicy aioli. Photo by Stella Fong.

About a mile south of Main Street at Tilt Würks Brewhouse the Buckin’ Bronco Burger was found. The ½ pound Angus burger was fired up with Flamin’ Hot Cheetos seasoning, fresh jalapeño rings, smoked bacon and topped with onion rings and ghost pepper or jalapeño cheese finished with a spicy aioli. The Buckin’ Bronco Burger was not for the faint hearted as it kicks the tastebuds with flavor and just the right amount of heat.

Black splashes from pinball machines have been refashioned to formed the lighting above the bar and line the back hallway. Large windows provided views to the large tanks brewing beer.

Proprietors Dennis and Rhonda Lighthold have outfitted Tilt Würks with a pinball theme. General Manager Larry Morris shares of the full tilt theme, “They had a very cool vision for a brewery, sports bar, casino. They put this together in 2016.” “We really focus on sports. We focus on the community. We focus on being one true sports bar here in Miles City.”

At the Roy Rodgers Bar and Grill, Chef Libby Koppenhaber just finish firing up a Fried Green Tomato and Bacon Burger topped with slices of smoked bacon house breaded tomato and finished with balsamic vinegar. Photo by Stella Fong.

40 miles east of Miles City was Terry, bordered by the badlands, rolling hills and the Yellowstone River. This was home to the Evelyn Cameron Museum and Kempton Hotel. Across the street from the hotel was the Roy Rodgers Bar, Grill and Casino with the featured hamburger, the Fried Green Tomato and Bacon Burger.

DeAnna Anderson and her husband bought the establishment at auction in 2018. “My husband has always wanted to have a restaurant,” Anderson shared. The couple did not “know anything about running a restaurant. We had traveled all over the United States and some other countries. We love to eat good food, but we had never been in the restaurant business.”

After purchasing the building, the couple proceeded to reface the front and opened up the interior space along with updating the kitchen and restrooms.

In the kitchen Libby Koppenhaber cooked up a Fried Green Tomato and Bacon Burger with a side of onion rings. The tomato, breaded and fried in house gave the burger a delicate crunch while the drizzle of balsamic vinegar elevated its deliciousness.

At The Joseph Café in Forsyth, Chef Ty Pettigrew brings out the Broken Knuckle Burger made with Cowboy Meats beef, topped with crisp bacon, pepper jack cheese and chipotle mayo and crowned with a jalapeño stuffed with cream cheese and sour cream.

On our way back to Billings, we stopped in Forsyth to experience the Broken Knuckle Burger at the Joseph Cafe. The name broken knuckle came from the coupler draft gear or knuckle that is broken due to excessive forces, causing a train to pull apart.

Ty Pettigrew grilled up a 6-ounce patty made with beef from Cowboy Meats that was topped with bacon, pepper jack cheese and chipotle mayo. The spice from this burger could break taste buds but the fire was just right and the sour cream cheese stuffed into a jalapeño half helped moderate the heat. The burger had a good balance of caramel, smoke and spice.

Lori Paris and her husband Tom bought the cafe in October of 2023. “We were living in Wyoming and we decided, besides doing major career changes, we wanted to go to a small town. And so, we chose this place because I needed to go back to where I grew up.”  With her background as a hair dresser and his in construction, they couple was still learning the ropes of the restaurant business.

The Southeast Montana Burger Trail not only brought deliciousness but connection to community. The passport can be downloaded onto one’s phone and at each eatery the diner can check in digitally. After visiting four places, one can earn a Southeast Montana Burger Trail sticker, but when eight points are earned, one will receive a Burger Boss t-shirt.

As the explorer on the Southeast Montana Burger Trail, Maas shared, “We may love burgers, and it’s really fun to win a t-shirt. But on top of that, it really helps the local communities. And when our communities and our rural communities in Montana do well, then the rest of us are going to do well too.”