Sunday, June 28, 2009

What’s a Nice Young Man . . .

from Virginia and South Carolina doing in Whitefish, Montana? Clay Nelson’s smokin’ up a storm and putting out some fantastic barbeque – that’s what.

Knowing that we were headed to Whitefish, I googled my favorite site,, and found that Piggyback Barbeque was the second highest rated restaurant (behind a very upscale place with wine-tasting dinners). Since it had been some time since we had eaten barbecue, off we went. Why? To quote Clay’s business card: “’cause it’s good!”

This is another of those small and very informal places that we love. Both inside and outside seating was at picnic style tables and along one wall was an upholstered bench (banquette is to fancy for a BBQ joint). You order at the counter and take a seat waiting for the counter person to walk through and yell “Chuck.”

The menu reveals Clay’s Southern roots. The appetizers include hush puppies, fried green tomatoes, and fried dill pickles; one of the salads is topped with blackened catfish; and the sandwich list includes a catfish Po’ Boy and a fried green tomato BLT along with pulled pork and brisket. The entrees are pulled pork, brisket, dry rub ribs, chicken, and various combos of these.

Chuck is still looking for the ultimate brisket, so he ordered the brisket platter with beans and buffalo chips. My choice was the pulled pork platter with slaw and beans. We shared an order of the hush puppies.

We received a generous basket of the hush puppies filled with chopped onion rather than the customary (to me) grated onion. While tasty, I thought they could have used more flour and less corn meal in the batter. These were a bit heavy and filling.

So did Chuck find the ultimate brisket? He’s still looking. The meat was tender, moist, with good smoke flavor. To me, an added benefit was the large number of chunks with the smoking bark. I love the intense flavor of the bark. Chuck less so. Chuck’s brisket standard is the thinly sliced brisket we had at Arthur Bryant’s in Kansas City, MO, and all of the brisket we have had since has been either thickly sliced or in large chunks.

His buffalo chips were slices of potato about 3/8ths of an inch thick and fried until crisp outside and moist and steamy inside. And the beans could give any southern cook real competition. Both of our servings contained a liberal amount of smoked pork and were made with a dark sweetener like molasses or cane syrup. Delicious.

My pulled pork was the hit of the meal. We have not tasted such good pulled pork since our Pork-a-Rama in Memphis last fall. Again, the meat was served in large chunks, was tender and moist, and had a discernable smoke ring. Chuck was a happy camper. Our portions were so large that I ended up giving him a significant (or kind of significant) portion. With this I had the vinaigrette tossed slaw. Clay indicated on the menu that this was not a creamy slaw (my preference), but if you are having pulled pork you have to have slaw. I was pleasantly surprised. This was quite good with only a light vinegar flavor.

The Piggyback Barbecue offered three different sauce choices. One was a North Carolina style with red pepper flakes swimming in a sea of vinegar; another was a South Carolina mustard and vinegar sauce; the final, labeled Montana Sauce, being a tomato-based sweet sauce with the copious addition of red pepper flakes. It was the latter that we both chose to top our barbecue.

As we left, I told Clay that my pork was as good as most and better than some that I had eaten in Memphis. I think he was pleased with my evaluation. and I hope he would be pleased to know that I am awarding him 4.0 Addies. Would have been higher if the hush puppies had been lighter.

Before leaving Whitefish, we stopped briefly at "the busiest Amtrak stop between Seattle and Minneapolis." Train service began on October 4, 1904, but it wasn't until 1927 that The Great Northern Railway hired architect Thomas D'Arcy McMahon to devise a depot for Whitefish. With a timber-framed, Tudor revival exterior, the building matches the Swiss appearance that had proved popular at Glacier National Park’s chalets.

It was James J. Hill who restructured failing sections of the Great Northern and extended the railway cross country, into the Pacific Northwest. Hill placed his own nickname on the new line, and the “Empire Builder” was inaugurated on June 11, 1929, completing rail service from coast to coast.

But it was this vehicle permanently parked outside the depot that caught our attention. Called a "Bruck" and described as "tastefully furnished," this custom-designed bus-truck transported as many as 21 passengers and their baggage on the 15-mile journey between Whitefish and Kalispell from 1952-1972.

Of special interest to me is the fact that the Bruck replaced the Galloping Goose, a short-line, gas-electric train, that had provided service between these two cities from 1904 to 1950.

I had heard of the Goose, but never knew what its route was. Now I know.

Learn something new . . . .

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