Years ago, sitting at Behrs’ truck stop in Belgrade, my brother-in-law told me that the best steak in the Gallatin Valley was at the Mint Bar in Belgrade. I asked him why we were eating at Behrs’ instead of the Mint Bar if the steaks were so much better. He pointed his thumb at his wife and said, “I don’t think she’d put up with it.”
I am currently in Bozeman on business and since neither my brother-in-law’s wife (who would be my sister-in-law) nor her sister (who would be my wife) were here, I decided to slum it tonight and try a steak at the Mint Bar, per the recommendation.
Actually, that’s not quite the whole story. The motel I’m staying at includes the Mint Bar and Café as one of the possible local dining options. It noted that Sunset Magazine said they had one of the best steaks in the western United States. It was the advert in the motel’s information directory that reminded me of my brother-in-law’s recommendation a couple of decades ago.
When I walked into the Mint it seemed a bit upscale for my brother-in-law, and I wondered if I might be in the wrong place. I sat down anyway and while I was waiting to place my order, I read the history of the Mint Bar. According to the back of the menu, the Mint has been in continuous business, and a local institution since 1904. During that long and storied history it was a road house, a bar, a bowling alley (the bowling alley portion having burned down). In another iteration, the vacant lot where the bowling alley used to be was used as a volley ball court. And then in 1995 (my brother-in-law, recommended this place in the very early 90s by the way) new owners bought the place, built a dining room on the vacant lot, and voila, we have the Mint Bar and Café as it exists today.
This was trouble. Far from being the sort of place my brother-in-law would frequent, it had been transformed into the sort of place my sister-in-law (the other sister-in-law, who plays in the symphony, has friends who drive Volvos, and drinks latte’s) would like. Intrepid food explorer that I am, I chose to take one for the team and try the steaks anyway. How bad can a yuppie steak be, after all?
The first thing that caught my attention was the rib eye steak. There was only one size option available, called the “Monster Rib Eye,” it weighed in at 32 oz. and cost $35. They did have a two person option, where you get the same steak, but with two baked potatoes and two salads for $52, but the rib eye itself was still the 32 oz. monster. (One measly baked potato: $8.50. One iceberg lettuce salad with radish slices, carrot slivers, and croutons as hard and old as a rock: $8.50. The opportunity to share an obscenely large steak with your significant other? Priceless!)
The strip steak (my preferred cut) weighed in at 20 oz. I forget what the Porterhouse weighed, but it was even more obscene than the rib eye. I decided to opt for the 10 oz. flank steak.
This was a risk. Flank (in spite of the name) should never be cooked as a steak. It’s the sort of cut that should be seared, then cooked in the oven all afternoon at very low heat, or better yet, barbecued, at a smoky 200 degrees all day. Flank is full of gristle and tendons and requires low heat to soften up the connective tissue. Flank steak cooked as a steak? This would be the ultimate test of just how good this steak joint really was.
Turns out it was fabulous. I’m sure I’ve had steaks as good as that one, but I don’t remember them at the moment. It was a truly fabulous meal. The meat was melt-in-your mouth tender, which was a good thing, because the meat tended to melt off from around the connective tissue, which was a gristly as ever, but easy to swallow because the meat had melted off from around it, making the connective tissue manageable. And, of course, flank is one of the most flavorful cuts of beef there is, and this was hormone free, Angus beef, which took it up yet another notch.
Along with the food they had fabulous portraits of ranchers (and prize winning bulls) lining the walls of the dining room. While I was waiting for my bill (which came with a mint – Mint Bar / mint on the bill, how utterly clever these new owners are!), I walked over to examine the portraits a bit more closely. All of them had the names of the ranchers and the name of the photographer. When I examined the fourth one I got quite a start. I could have sworn that the couple in the portrait was sitting two tables down from me. I examined the portrait, and then unobtrusively as possible, examined the couple sitting a few yards away. The portrait had been taken several years earlier, but I was still convinced the couple was in the same room.
When the waitress picked up my bill I asked her if the photos were of local ranchers. She said, “Yep. Some of them are kind of shy about it when they come into the restaurant, but others point at their picture and tell everyone, ‘That’s me over there.'”
The subjects of the portraits right here at the table in the dining room …
… Come to think of it, that flank looked awfully familiar too. It made me wonder if I was maybe eating one of the bulls hanging up on the wall.