The Blue Moon, a Flathead Valley institution best known for its drinks, dancing and country music has added another key element to its offerings: barbecue. Ken Lyons, former head chef of the restaurant at the Iron Horse clubhouse in Whitefish, took over the Blue Moon Grill at the end of 2008, and has transformed it into the Cowboy Grill and BBQ. And while the landmark country bar just west of Columbia Falls is a decidedly different scene from an exclusive golf community in Whitefish, Lyons is embracing the change with gusto.
Let’s be clear: The menu at the Cowboy Grill and BBQ is no timid foray into the regionally varied and fiercely competitive world of smoked meat. With menu items called “Pig Candy,” “Joe Mamma,” and “Fat Slob,” among others, Lyons puts his chicken, beef brisket, chopped pork, St. Louis-style ribs and tri-tip up against any other. The meat is hickory-smoked, dried not sauced, with Lyons’ signature rub. The result, he said, is “gutsy, honest, straightforward food.”
“There comes a point in your career that ego and trends aren’t as important as the product that you’re serving,” he added. “You really need to embody what you do. Whether it’s a hotdog or whether it’s foie gras, it has to be handled with great care.”
Lyons has been cooking in the valley for 10 years, and was previously working as the executive corporate chef for the Discovery Land Company, which developed Iron Horse, but was looking for a job that required less travel. He realizes that during the dead of winter, and as an economic downturn plagues the valley, this may not be the ideal time to open a new restaurant. But he also believes classic menu items are just what customers are looking for.
“With the market the way it is, this is what people need,” he said. “What it all comes down to is the grassroots and good old comfort food.”
And the opportunity to capitalize on the popularity of the Blue Moon, as well as the roughly 50,000 cars that pass through the intersection of U.S. Highway 2 and Montana Highway 40 on the way to Glacier National Park during the peak of summer, was too good to pass up.
“Getting the exposure from the Blue Moon clientele is tremendous,” Lyons said. “What we’re trying to create is literally an iconic experience here at this corner.”
He is still tweaking parts of the menu and décor of the restaurant, and has done little advertising thus far, relying mainly on word-of-mouth. But Lyons said he had most of the menu worked out in his head within hours of deciding to take this business opportunity. And while meat is the focus, Lyons doesn’t scrimp on sides: everything is prepared fresh, from scratch, every day.
The cowboy beans, simmered with pork belly, are creamy and mellow, served in a mug. The macaroni salad is light and firm. And when it comes to Caesar salad, with fresh, grated Parmesan reggiano cheese and his signature dressing, Lyons is nothing less than fanatical.
“I like educating people on what food should really taste like,” he said. “If you use canned cheese, or processed cheese, dude, it’s not going to be a great salad.”
The “Joe Mamma” sandwich is another example of Lyons’ taking a familiar food and redefining it. It is an $8.75 bologna sandwich, a concept some diners have a hard time wrapping their heads around. But the “Joe Mamma,” described on the menu as “not your mammy’s bologna sammy,” is a half-pound of fried, thinly-sliced, smoked bologna, on Texas toast with melted cheese, and topped with a delicately fried egg, over easy, and the house (molasses-based) barbecue sauce.
Prepared in such a way, the “Joe Mamma” tastes like a specialty sandwich from an east coast delicatessen, with the barbecue sauce adding complements of Western flavor.
“When people think of a bologna sandwich, they’re not thinking about this,” Lyons said. And he is confident the other items on his menu will similarly exceed his customers’ expectations.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better situation to roll into,” Lyons said. “I didn’t invent great food; I just know great food.”
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