Restaurants are constantly coming and going in Missoula, and a few fairly new culinary joints are starting to establish a following as others shut down.
A Vietnamese street food kitchen called Pho & Roll opened a few months ago in the Palmer Plaza. An '80s cult classic film-themed breakfast burrito shop called The Breakfast Club opened this past spring at the Russell Square Shopping Center. And a new gourmet cookie purveyor called Mary’s Mountain Cookies opened in downtown Missoula in the last few weeks.
Steve Vu is the owner of Pho & Roll. His family is originally from Vietnam, but he moved to Missoula from California four years ago. He decided to open a restaurant because he saw a demand for “authentic” Vietnamese food, which he learned how to cook from his aunt and other family members.
The fast-casual café, located at 2685 ½ Palmer Street, specializes in pho, a rice-noodle soup in a savory broth with meats, veggies and topped with bean sprouts, scallions and Thai basil. The broth is slowly simmered with beef or chicken bones, charred onion, ginger and spices like cloves, cinnamon, coriander seeds, fennel seeds and star anise.
“I simmer the broth for eight hours,” Vu said.
They also serve banh mi, a Vietnamese sandwich on a baguette, spring rolls, egg rolls and rice plates like barbecued short ribs and lemongrass grilled chicken. Vu also invested in a special tea machine that’s so complex he had to travel to California to take a class on how to use it. They serve a wide assortment of bubble teas, Vietnamese teas, sea salt cream teas, Vietnamese milk iced coffee, black coffee and café with condensed milk.
“The tea machine was very expensive,” he said. “But I wanted to make an investment because there isn’t anything like it in Missoula.”
Vu is aware that the location has seen a lot of other restaurants come and go, like the ill-fated Kadena’s, but he’s confident he can build a word-of-mouth following. The restaurant is open for lunch Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. and then for dinner from 5 to 8 p.m., and on Saturdays from 10:30 a.m. until 5 p.m.
Justin Crippen opened The Breakfast Club, a fast-casual burrito restaurant at 1132 S.W. Higgins, this past April. He’s the owner of the Staggering Ox sandwich shop nearby, but decided he wanted to start a breakfast joint.
“Breakfast is the most profitable meal of the day,” he said. “The margins are a lot better. And just the fact that I don’t want to be at work after 3 o’clock.”
He and his partners were trying to decide what to call it, and he threw out the name Breakfast Club without even thinking about the famous 1985 film.
“So then we just decided to name all the burritos after the characters, so we have The Athlete, The Princess, The Brain, The Janitor, The Basket Case, all the good characters.”
The Basket Case, for example, has spinach, tomatoes, bacon, eggs, cheese, salsa and sour cream. Crippen recommends getting the green chili sauce and chipotle sour cream.
“Our steak is prime rib that’s diced and marinated overnight,” he said.
Crippen said he wants people to get their food fast, so the burritos are made as people stand in line and order toppings. They also serve lattes, energy drinks and juice. The restaurant is open from 6 a.m. until 2 p.m. on weekdays and is open from 7 a.m. until 2 p.m. on weekends.
Kara McCracken and her husband Shelby opened Mary’s Mountain Cookies at 101 S. Higgins in the historic Hammond building this month. They make the dough in-house and bake the cookies fresh every day.
“We specialize in gourmet cookies,” she said. The franchise originated in Fort Collins, Colorado, and there are about half a dozen of them scattered around the country.
“We have known about this for years,” she said of the franchise. “My husband and I grew up in western Nebraska. We stumbled across it years and years ago. We always loved it and wanted to have a better future for our family, so we took the risk.”
The store features quarter-pound cookies and two-ounce cookies. Their most popular flavor is s’mores, followed by snickerdoodles, dipped peanut butter, almond-glazed and classic chocolate chip.
They also make ice-cream-filled cookie sandwiches with 18 different varieties.
McCracken said she’s excited to be in downtown Missoula, where a new five-story hotel is being built across the street along with a 488-bed student housing complex nearby.
“We are an outdoors family and we love to be downtown with our boys,” she said. “When the location turned up, we couldn’t pass on it.”
Missoula also has lost several restaurants and food-related businesses in the past few months. Native Grill and Wings on North Reserve Street, which opened early in 2016, closed this fall, as did India Grill & Curry House, located at 400 E. Broadway. Taste Buds Kitchen, which opened in the summer of 2015 at 131 E. Main St. as a culinary entertainment teaching kitchen, also closed this fall.