It’s 9 a.m. on a Friday, and Willie Steele lifts the metal door to the massive Traeger grill parked beside the Desoto Grill in downtown Kalispell.
The smile on his face says he’s excited to see the end result of the wood-pellet grill’s work.
“Cookies!” he says to a visitor, showing off a few pans of the scratch-made chocolate chip desserts.
Willie and his wife Shawnna Steele have a knack for the unexpected, which has served them well in their new venture as barbecue restaurateurs at The Forge, an historic building in Kalispell’s downtown that has seen many iterations of businesses in its lifetime.
For the Steeles, who moved back to the Flathead Valley after 17 years in Portland, Oregon, The Forge is exactly where they wanted to build the foundations for their brand of easygoing, rockabilly barbecue.
“It’s beautiful,” Willie said of the building. “This has our heart. It screams downtown Kalispell.”
Inside, the music is grooving, dirty blues and deep-rooted rock and roll serenading the staff as they get to work creating the building blocks of that day’s menu. Brisket, smoked for 14 hours, needs slicing, cheese needs grating, and, of course, cookies need baking.
“Not all of our cookies are baked in the Traeger,” Shawnna said. “But the cornbread is always made on it.”
A veteran of the restaurant and catering industry for 22 years, Shawnna knew it was time to open her own place when she saw a beer and wine license for sale in Kalispell. She and Willie had been thinking of coming back, having paid their big-city dues.
Willie grew up here, and Shawnna in Rudyard, along the Hi-Line. Married for 20 years, the couple wanted to get back to where the people are nice and the skiing is great. Once she found out The Forge was up for lease, that sealed it.
“We knew if we could take this beer and wine license and the Traeger in The Forge, we’d be successful,” Shawnna said.
Open for lunch for a scant two weeks, the response has been “great,” they said, and once the beer and wine license comes through, the Desoto Grill will be open for dinner. They expect to start serving dinners by Sept. 4.
The menu has barbecue joint staples, such as the tender brisket and flavorful pulled pork, as well as other “twisted” items, as Shawnna calls them. These creations include barbecue nachos, stuffed baked potatoes – full of sour cream, butter, cheddar cheese, scallions, bacon, roasted corn, brisket, pulled pork, and Shawnna’s “Q” sauce – and Frito pie.
The brunch menu, available on weekends, includes breakfast mac and cheese, which is filled with jalapenos, bacon, eggs, and topped with an egg. Cornbread is also included.
“We didn’t want to do what everybody else was doing,” Shawnna said of the menu.
However, one characteristic of their business that they don’t mind having in common with others is the dedication to using as much local food as possible. Their meat comes from Lower Valley Processing, and their milk from Kalispell Kreamery. Their eggs are local as well.
The affable couple has deep roots in Kalispell. Willie’s grandfather worked at a garage near The Forge in the 1920s as a Studebaker mechanic, starting what has become a DNA-level love for automotive mechanics that has been passed down to Willie.
The 1954 Desoto Powermaster parked in front of the grill is its namesake, and was Willie’s grandfather’s car. It started out as a four-door, Willie said, but he started working on revamping it in Portland after Shawnna made their garage capable of supporting a 220-volt welder for Willie’s 40th birthday.
“It looks like it’s going fast just sitting there,” Willie said.
Even with the restaurant, the Steeles continue to cater events. When one of Willie’s childhood friends, Scott Sederstrom, died in a climbing accident earlier this year, he and Shawnna hauled the Traeger to Kalispell to feed the memorial attendees. That event solidified for them their love of sharing their food with others, especially here in the Flathead.
The Desoto Grill has a personality already, an amalgam of down-home Montana and a bit of that Portland edginess to keep it interesting; soon, the stage will host live music for diners, for example. But overall, the Steeles want to make their restaurant a place people want to visit.
“We wanted to bring some of that fun,” Shawnna said.
For more information on the Desoto Grill, visit its Facebook page at www.facebook.com/thedesotogrilll.