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Rostra rating: 4
Home Ranch Bottoms (HRB) is the product of fusing a dive bar with a barbecue shack, a KOA campground, and a western tchotchke shop. This isn’t foodie hype dude, it is the very rare exception to the rule that you can’t get world class Q at an establishment that also serves beer, much less a full bar. This is destination dining in the North American Redoubt, so you obviously have to earn it big time. HRB is located off the grid 40 miles up an intermittently paved but otherwise dirt road just across the North Fork of the Flathead River from Glacier National Park.
Mago Tip: You could well regret not availing yourself of ten ply all-weather tires and a four wheel drive means of conveyance if you wish to dine at HRB, despite the fact that the establishment is only open from late spring to early fall. Also drive slow and give the wild life and locals a break.
HRB’s interior is dominated by one of the best bars in Flathead County. What would be referred to on the grid as a curated trio of taps dispenses some killer local microbrews. Team Mago’s current faves are Great Northern’s Going to the Sun IPA and Big Sky’s Moose Drool brown ale — both are delicious and within shouting distance of being sessionable. Whether you drink craft brew from the tap or pounders from the fridge at HRB, it is guaranteed to be the coldest beer on the North Fork, each served in a chilled glass regardless of pedigree.
Co-owner Shawn Agnew is a worthy bartender, but at HRB cocktail components are usually specified by the clientele and if Shawn has the ingredients, by God he makes it. The “wine list” would please even the grouciest Roman bubero: white or red, either of which is always decent plonk, especially if washed down with BBQ. You can buy beer or wine to go, and Shawn has been very receptive concerning future growlers for purchase and refill in recent discussions with Team Mago.
Shawn has protein and dessert duties in addition to the beverage account at HRB. It is hardly surprising that the core of a Texas pitmaster’s cuisine is barbecue, but Shawn’s Q is the real deal. Even if you prefer some other regional barbecue style to that of the Lone Star State, your palate will respect his culinary art. This is softwood country, which has few culinary uses, so Shawn imports all of his wood — mainly mesquite and hickory. He employs old school grills and smokers blackened and pitted with use and environmental abuse (get’s freakin’ cold and snows a shit load in the winter, brah). On a hot July day, just off the trail or out of the river, the smoke rolling into the bare dirt parking/camping area in front of HRB is intoxicating, one toke of pig or brisket fragrance and you know you are going to eat well. Oh, and Shawn makes a delicious huckleberry pie, specimens of which are proudly displayed and cut to order on the bar.
Shawn’s co-owner and wife Angie keeps everything running, including Shawn, at HRB. Angie runs the line in the kitchen AND expedites AND breaks into a tournant two-step when things get slammed, which is sort of a way of life at HRB. Angie is southwest sweet, but squiffy customers seeking to jump the queue at the bar should be prepared to be told “Kiss my ass, Big Dog, you get served when it’s your turn!” Angie’s skill and grace under pressure is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that staff recruit themselves, bombarding her with resumes through the winter in hopes of working at the last best barbecue place.
The kids that work for Angie and Shawn are always friendly, eager, and professional (at least by the end of the season). The Agnews encourage them to spend their days off hiking the Whitefish Divide in the Flathead National Forrest, floating the North Fork, or even hangin’ at the rival Northern Lights Saloon just up the road in Polebridge.
Seating options include
a) the handsome custom log bar where locals regale flatlanders from all over with tales that were probably true, once, long ago, sort of,
b) high and low tables adjacent the bar,
c) a covered outdoor deck, and
d) a changing amalgam of outdoor four tops and picnic tables scattered like flotsam and jetsam around the deck.
Patrons are treated to weekly (or more frequent) live music throughout the summer — the dominant genre is red neck with an admixture of dead head.
Mago Tip: Things get crowded on music, steak, and taco nights. BBQ is made in batches and there are occasional shortages when demand outstrips supply (Angie and Shwan have to sleep, at least a little). It is best to go early or call ahead if you have your mouth set on any particular menu item to insure that it is still around when you get there.
So what about the food? Barbecue is like pizza, everyone has his own Platonic form and is prepared to defend his ideal Q to the last bite or drop of sauce. So here is Team Mago’s take on Shawn’s offerings. The baby back ribs are consistently excellent. The important modifier in that last sentence was consistently. Any place can get their ribs perfect on occasion, but to do it year after year bespeaks true artisanship. I do not know how the piggage manages to cling to the bones between smoker and plate. The flavor is intense and complex, while the texture varies from crusty to meltingly soft in just the right proportions.
Next would be the pulled pork in our humble opinion. Another masterpiece of low and slow, sweeter with slightly more tooth than those estimable ribs. Shawn’s brisket is archetypal of its genre. We have plenty of transplanted Texicans in 59928, and they all swear by his brisket. It’s more of that Platonic form thing for Team Mago, you see Q just ain’t right if it don’t have no pig in it. Finally, Shawn’s take on smoked wings goes oh so well with those cold cold brewskis.
The BBQ sides are what you would expect, but often do not get, with world class Q (I do not consider three slices of Wonder Bread to be a side, no matter how traditional it is). Shawn’s pinto beans are the bomb, soaked over night in a baking soda solution, they are slow cooked with generous chunks of bacon and onion, then served slightly soupy –sooooo good. The baked beans are bespoke as well, but do not quite come up to the pintos in my eyes (Patti would differ). Slaw and tater salad are southern and exemplary. Looking for something green? Angie introduced a salad of apples and mesclun that has become a serious fave amongst those Montucky vegetarians that do not believe bacon is a vegetable (about 42% by MagoGuide’s unofficial count).
Other meatage is on display at Taco Tuesday and Steak Saturday. The tacos are serious Tex Mex double corn tortillas filled with pulled bbq chicken, cabbage, and queso. Six pack condiment caddies are loaded with mild, hot, and very hot sauce allowing you to get medieval with your tacos.
The steaks are thick, enormous, boneless ribeyes that Shawn cooks to order on top of everything else on Saturday night. If you brave the hordes on Saturday be prepared for a wait that can stretch a couple hours. Do not worry about your steaks or other elements of your order, when they do arrive they will be done exactly as you requested. It is wise, however, to get chips and salsa to soak up the beer while you wait, periodically tortured by clouds of pig and beef essence.
Do not be put off by what the white board menu calls “German Sausage.” These are actually delicious bratwurst from that part of Texas settled by Germans sometime in the last century, and the tangy sauerkraut is house made.
My personal favorite is the Big North Forker sandwich (served with the admonition to “get Forked”). That would be pulled pork, brisket, bratwurst, slaw, and cheese on a brioche-type bun. I have to love a place where the most expensive thing on the menu other than steak is a three meat sando.
The beef or elk burgers are a bit of a disappointment when compared to those produced at the Northern Lights, but that is the only thing on the menu that Polebridge does better than HRB. HRB recently introduced hand cut fries into its culinary repertoire. Team Mago was so happy to see a fryolator north of the permanent pavement that it seems ungrateful to suggest that they could be improved by using a two stage blanch and finish process, but this is a review after all and Angie will probably make me run the damn fryolator after she reads it (if I ever want another pitcher of IPA that is).
The heart of the North Fork community is its residents, but a real community must have a pub and some decent food where we can get communal with our neighbors. We also need a place where visitors can camp, shower, get on line, and take nourishment. HRB fulfills these roles in spades. As Shawn says: “Tourists are our bread and butter but the locals are our backbone.”
If you want to visit one of the great eating establishments in the middle of nowhere, drink and eat with the two legged wild life, and see the four legged variety on occasion, then you should head for HRB. Just make sure your spare tire is in good shape, that you have extra cans of truck-sized fix-a-flat goo, and drive the suggested speed limit of 20 mph to lessen the dust and avoid animal strikes. Shawn and Angie will be there waiting for you with warm Texas hospitality and cold Montana beer.
Here are some more photos including ones from the 2017 4th of July Parade in Polebridge where HRB won a prize!