WEST GLACIER – The secrets of traditional southern cooking were born in unlikely, far-flung kitchens, so it’s fitting that an outdoor café nestled in the lush timber a mile from Glacier National Park is unlocking the culinary arcana with gusto.
At the Backwoods Bistro, Heather Mah and her staff are paying homage to that cryptic Cajun flair with a unique brunch-and-dinner menu influenced by some of the finest gourmet south of the Mason-Dixon Line. They dish up made-from-scratch platters of biscuits and gravy, breakfast tacos, chicken and waffles, shrimp and grits, jambalaya, fried catfish, bacon mac-and-cheese, and hushpuppies, as well as bison burgers, open-pit barbecue and homemade desserts like bourbon bread pudding.
Mah opened the seasonal café in 2011 after noticing a dearth of breakfast fare in West Glacier, where she was living for the season while bartending at Frida’s West Glacier Bar. The kitchen at Glacier Campground had been offering pit-style barbecue in the evenings but wasn’t open for breakfast, prompting Mah – a self-taught brunch cordon bleu – to approach the campground owners about introducing a morning menu.
“As soon as I mentioned it they loved the idea,” she said. “They were extremely gracious.”
When creating the menu, Mah drew inspiration from Cajun Mary’s Café, whose colorful, Louisiana-born proprietor had helmed the Glacier Campground kitchen during previous summers.
“She was just full of character and made really, really good southern food,” Mah said. “I love southern food because so much of it is comfort food, and so I sort of drifted back to what Cajun Mary was doing.”
Mah approached friend and perennial West Glacier resident Jess Carey about helping out in the kitchen, and also hired her son, Hunter, who was 11 years old at the time and busing tables at the campground on barbecue nights.
“After his first day he was running circles around the cook,” Mah said. “He’s been back every summer.”
The bistro was an immediate summertime hit, catering to local raft and fishing guides, seasonal park employees as well as the tourist set.
“It’s about half-and-half. We have seen a big jump in the local scene since our first summer as the word gets out but we also have a strong tourist contingent,” she said
Mah has since added a dinner menu to her culinary repertoire, which has been widely popular.
Although the café is situated off the highway and is surrounded by the Flathead National Forest, Mah isn’t having any trouble attracting customers. Instead, she’s found that the biggest challenge is keeping ingredients in stock.
On a recent weekend Mah sold out of nearly everything on the menu, serving more than 112 meals on Saturday and 96 Sunday brunches.
Every week she hits the Whitefish Farmers Market to restock on local produce and other ingredients, and an herb garden outside the kitchen teems with chives, dill, sage, cilantro, basil and lavender. She also offers a variety of fresh, healthful juices, but said the chicken-and-waffles platter has been the most popular.
“We started doing fried chicken and waffles this summer, which just isn’t the type of thing you typically find in Montana,” she said. “We’ve had lots of people say our fried chicken is the best they’ve ever had.”
The Backwoods Bistro is located at the Glacier Campground at 12070 Hwy 2 West. It’s open for breakfast Wednesday through Saturday from 8 a.m.-noon, and Sunday from 8 a.m.-1p.m. Dinner is served 5 p.m. – 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
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