Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A Family Affair

It wasn’t our plan to have lunch in Hardin, MT but it was after 1:00 p.m., we were hungry, and Hardin was the closest town of any size that might have a restaurant.

So we found ourselves driving the main street in Hardin and past a restaurant that looked like it had seen better days, a lounge and restaurant combo where the odor of beer reached the middle of the street as we drove past, two fast food places (one a Taco John’s and the other I don’t remember), and a small pizzeria and sandwich shop. Pizza or sandwiches it would be.

As we walked into 3 Brothers Pizza, we were immediately greeted by a handsome young man who said “Sit where ever you want and I’ll be over with menus and get your drink orders.” Very nice I thought. Then I saw on a sign above the counter “We serve Wilcoxson’s ice cream.” Very, very nice I thought. Then I opened the menu and thought very, very, very nice. Did we stumble across something special? We think so.

Now the first thing to understand is that one of the previous owners of this small café also owned the movie theater next door. In fact, to use the restrooms you go into the theater lobby. The restaurant is decorated with film reels and other movie items, and the menu gives movie names to many of the items. For example, the My Big Fat Greek Pizza contains artichoke hearts, garlic, tomatoes, sweet bell peppers, black olives, and feta on a basil pesto base.

Hard to believe, but I was not in the mood for pizza. Instead, I looked at the list of paninis. The first, the Madagascar Melt, was turkey, ham, bacon, pesto mayo, and swiss on grilled ciabatta bread. The second, the Catch & Release Salmon, was grilled King Salmon on ciabatta with pesto mayo, roasted sweet peppers, and swiss. But, while not being in the mood for actual pizza, I could not resist the Mystic Pizza Panini with pepperoni, Canadian bacon, Italian sausage, cheese, and their house pizza sauce, again on a ciabatta roll.

Throwing caution to the wind, Chuck ordered a half pound Angus burger – the Doc Holiday - served on a Kaiser roll with crunchy onion straws, American cheese, bacon, and BBQ sauce. Both of our sandwiches came with commercial kettle chips and our choice of slaw or pasta salad.

While we were waiting for our food, a woman perhaps a few years older than Chuck and I came over to our table and asked where we were from. Small town businesses always know their customers and can spot a tourist from 100 yards. We talked for a bit about our travels and at some point I asked if she was the owner. “Heaven no!” she responded. Then we learned the rest of the restaurant's story from Sheila.

3 Brothers is now owned by her son and his wife, but they kept the restaurant’s name when they purchased the business. Her son, Clint Carleton, is a pizza fanatic who serves as the official ice cream scooper and genial host. (While we were there we observed a constant stream of mothers with their children ordering ice cream for takeout.) Claire Carleton is the chef and has worked in the food business for thirty years. This is her first chance to run her own restaurant. Both Clint and Claire have lived all their lives in Hardin and have been involved with the Little League and the Community Theater.

The handsome young man who greeted us and took our orders was Clint and Claire’s son, Zack, who shares the restaurant duties with his brother Tyler. A daughter, Rachel, is pregnant and is exempted from restaurant duty. While we were there we met another grandson, Adam, and felt that we were a part of a Carleton family reunion. Suddenly, everyone was talking at the same time with us being an integral part of the conversation.

So after all of this “hail fellow well met,” how was the food? In a word, wonderful. Chuck forgot to ask that the burger be cooked medium, so it arrived medium well (the restaurant industry standard). But no problem. The burger was still juicy and the combination of the excellent smoky BBQ sauce and cheese enhanced the meat’s flavor. The slaw was a superior version of this side. The cabbage was shredded and not chopped and the mayo dressing was mixed with just enough dill. The secret ingredient was a small amount of sugar. Since I make a mayo and dill dressing for my slaw, I am going to add a little sugar the next time I make slaw.

My Panini was the best of all worlds. All of the great flavors of a pizza (the menu lists a “The Duke” pizza that contains all of the same ingredients) on what seemed to be a whole wheat, seed-topped roll. The sauce was tangy and not too thick, but not so thin that it made the roll soggy. I normally don’t like Canadian bacon on pizza but it worked on the sandwich. My side was the pasta salad which was corkscrew pasta lightly tossed in a vinaigrette dressing.

I mentioned earlier that 3 Brothers serves Wilcoxson’s ice cream. Did we leave without having some? What do you think? Of course not. Chuck had his favorite, huckleberry. I chose the pecan praline, and while it was very good, wished I had ordered my favorite cream and coffee fudge.

We spent so much time talking with the Carleton family (l. to r., Sheila, Claire, Clint, and Zach) that we didn’t have enough time for the rest of our afternoon plans.

No problem. Our afternoon at 3 Brothers was one of those special chance meetings that have made the past year so memorable. For the food and for the warmth of the Carleton family, this is a 5.0 Addie stop.

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