They labor in obscurity while cooking the food we love to eat, construct seasonal menus that dazzle our taste buds and leave us in awe of their culinary mastery.
The Flathead Valley hosts an impressive tribe of gourmands with a diverse array of unique talents, and apart from the culinary epicenters of Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington, this corner of Montana stands out in the Northwest for its high-quality restaurants.
But where do the top chefs go to eat when they want to take their appetite off-campus, and what do they nosh on?
The Beacon spoke with some of the most renowned chefs in the valley and compiled a list of their favorite meals from neighborhood eateries, high-end restaurants, off-the-beaten-path bistros, and other hidden gems.
Andy Blanton: Owner and executive chef, Café Kandahar, Whitefish
Top Pick: Pho Ly, Evergreen
Runner-up: Wrap and Roll, Whitefish
The award-winning chef at Café Kandahar on Big Mountain has been churning out quality work that is recognized on an annual basis by the James Beard Foundation, whose accolades are regarded as the Oscars of the culinary world.
But when he’s in the mood for a good meal, he likes authentic offerings from an exotic Evergreen staple.
“Pho Ly, hands down. It is just such an authentic representation of the style of Vietnamese cuisine and it’s unique to have that in the valley. Personally, I think the way they do the lemon grass chicken and any of the noodle dishes is phenomenal. It’s super simple and just really great. It’s a matter of finding something that fits your budget, is satisfying, as well as the quality and authenticity of their offering.”
“Wrap and Roll is such a staple in the valley and it’s always been around in some iteration. Again, it’s affordable and consistently good. It’s real food.”
Fabrizio Moroldo: Owner and executive chef, Moroldo’s Fine Italian Restaurant, Bigfork
Top Pick: The Back Room, Columbia Falls
Runner-up: Hop’s, Kalispell (or, for breakfast, the eggs benedict at Loula’s in Whitefish)
Helming the finest Italian restaurant in Montana while raising two children with his wife Laura doesn’t leave Fabrizio Moroldo with a lot of free time, but when he does find a spare moment to dine out he seeks out something simple and genuine.
To that end, he enjoys the slow-smoked barbecue fare offered at The Back Room restaurant in Columbia Falls.
“My kids and I love the ribs. That’s a good place and it’s an easy place to go. It’s not a fancy restaurant, but they know what they are doing. You don’t go to the Back Room to eat caviar; you go there because they have the best smoked pork ribs.”
Chris DiMaio: Executive chef, Three Forks Grille, Columbia Falls
Top Pick: Saketome Sushi, Bigfork
Best known for his seasonal offerings at Three Forks Grille in Columbia Falls and his flair for curing meats, Chris DiMaio goes straight for the jugular when picking his favorite meal in the valley — Hamachi Kama, the fatty collar of meat from a yellowtail tuna.
“The Hamachi Kama at Saketome is one of my favorite dishes in the valley, and you don’t see it anywhere else. They serve it whole with a marinade, or they pick all the meat off and present it sushi style. It’s delicious, and having the whole grilled collar of a yellowtail tuna is pretty special.”
Dave Sheeran: Owner, Mama Blanca’s and Second Street Pizza, Whitefish
Top Pick: Tupelo, Whitefish
Runner-up: Pig and Olive, Whitefish
Dave Sheeran has had a lot on his plate over the past couple of years.
In addition to opening a Second Street Pizza location in Kalispell while the pie shop in Whitefish continues to hop, Sheeran opened Mama Blanca’s, a Latin-fusion restaurant in Whitefish, and bought the adjacent Remington Bar, completely remodeling the interior.
The frenetic schedule hasn’t left him with a lot of free time to dine out, but Sheeran doesn’t mince words when describing some of his favorite meals.
“When I’m alone and I go out to dinner and I’m hungry and sick of tacos, I go to Tupelo and order a Sazerac cocktail and their bomb baked mac and cheese with the truffle oil,” Sheeran said.
“Otherwise I’ll go to Pig and Olive and get their Philly Cheese Steak.”
Drake Doepke: Owner and executive chef, Saketome Sushi, Bigfork
Top Pick: Café Kandahar, Whitefish (tied with Pho Ly in Evergreen)
Runner-up: Stillwater Fish House, Whitefish
Drake Doepke spent his early 20s traveling around Asia, studying the cuisine and culture of other countries. That experience influenced the menu at his well-established Saketome Sushi restaurant, which is thriving in downtown Bigfork, and he is poised to open two new restaurants in Missoula.
When he’s on the hunt for a good meal, Doepke heads to Café Kandahar for a fine-dining experience, Pho Ly for bone broth or Stillwater Fish House for oysters.
“I mean, Café Kandahar is probably the nicest restaurant in the valley, so I’ll go there and treat myself if I’m celebrating a special occasion, but sometimes I just want to drink champagne and eat oysters, so I’ll go to Stillwater,” Doepke said.
“If I’m in Kalispell, I eat at Pho Ly. I love bone marrow broth soups and I love Vietnamese food in general, and the fact that they actually have decent pho is impressive.”
Steve Nogal: Owner and executive chef, McGarry’s Roadhouse, Whitefish
Top Pick: Three Forks Grille, Columbia Falls
Runner-up: Whitefish Stage Gardens
Steve and Sandy Nogal have been showcasing an impressive menu at their eclectic eatery in Whitefish for 14 years, but when they celebrate a special occasion, they head to Three Forks Grille in Columbia Falls.
“When Sandy and I go out for our anniversary, we go to Three Forks Grille. The food is creative and I like the seasonality of what they do. They offer the valley a tremendous service. It’s a great value and a great resource both for visitors and for Columbia Falls.”
“Restaurants in the valley are at the mercy of a lot of challenging supplier issues, so watching the valley develop its own resources is great. George at Whitefish Stage Gardens grows these phenomenal heirloom tomatoes, and I make a BLT using my bacon and his heirloom tomatoes. It is absolute bliss.”
Doug Day: Owner and executive chef, Hop’s, downtown Kalispell
Top pick: Latitude 48, Whitefish
Bonus pick: Breakfast at Montana Coffee Traders in Kalispell
On a recent Friday afternoon, the voice message recording on Doug Day’s cell phone reported that he couldn’t answer because he was filleting a sturgeon.
When he was finished with the task, Day called back and described some of his favorite meals in the valley.
“We like to eat out a lot. When we’re in Whitefish, we like to go to Latitude 48 for the fire-roasted pizza. I get the fig prosciutto pizza, a Caesar salad and a beer. In Bigfork, I go to Moroldo’s. We went there over the holidays with some friends from Australia and they loved it, and they eat all over the world. And here in town, I go to the Kalispell Coffee Traders for breakfast.”