Oxford Saloon & Cafe in Missoula
Last August, Don and I were driving through Western Montana, when we decided it was lunchtime.
We drove into downtown Missoula and before I could search the internet, we spotted this neon sign. Oxford! It sounded like a classy place!
The old building on the corner of Higgins & Pine, looked classic. The flowers were pretty, the awnings looked nice and the artwork in the windows seemed... more curious than classy. There was a parking space, so we went for it.
As we approached, we noticed a few men sitting on the sidewalk, in the shadows. Hmm? There was also a neon "24 Hours ATM" sign in the window. Hmmm? We paused briefly, but headed in.
More Bar Than Cafe
We could tell right away that this place catered to more drinkers than diners, even at noon. There were actually 2 at the bar when we entered. I snapped this pic later.
As we stepped inside we were greeted right away. Not by the guy behind the bar in the leather vest, but by a woman sitting on a stool in front of a gaming machine.
No Turning Back
It suddenly felt rude to change our minds. We had been welcomed in, by a smiling woman who looked like she'd been "gaming" for hours.
Besides, we were intrigued by the all the stuff in the long narrow room!
On the Floor and On the Wall
There was a line up of gaming machines, but there were also great vintage photos on the wall.
There were images of loggers and miners and other working men. Men who might have come to the Oxford 100+ years ago. Evidently The Oxford moved to this location in the 1950's.
There were other glowing things, besides electronic gaming machines. There was an old pinball machine and a jukebox.
There was also a stuffed bison staring down. He actually needed a glowing spotlight. It was dim in the saloon.
This nice guy behind the bar eventually greeted us.
He said it was fine to take his photo. However, the guy sitting at the bar swiftly moved out of the way. "I'm supposed t be at work!"
The old saloon seemed to have a little of everything. Above our fellow with mustache and vest, there was a case filled with old Remington and Winchester rifles.
I know little about guns or gambling, but I do know about diners. We walked past the bar and found ourselves at a totally different kind of counter.
There was no wall dividing the large space.
The drinking bar, just seemed to turn into an eating counter.
There were just about as many stools at the dining counter as there were at the bar.
The classic diner stools were lined up on a little platform. As Don got ready to sit down, he got a compliment on his "Death Valley Park" t-shirt.
We had fun studying the menu. Since The Ox, is open 24 hours, the menu offered everything from scrambled eggs to ribeye steaks.
Too bad we couldn't order from the "Old Menu". We could have ordered Brains & Eggs or Sardines or Beef Liver Sandwich! Actually the names of the foods were even better. "Yodeling T-Bone" and "Chippee in the Mud".
Watching the Cook
Watching your food being cooked can be fun, or just plain awkward, Nothing uncomfortable here. We had the best time watching Dang cook our food on the grill.
atI complimented Dang on her shirt (with ox!) and we 3 were soon gabbing. Turns out Dang is from Thailand. She had to write her name on her order pad, before I could get it right. I showed her pictures of our son and DIL's Thai wedding. We told her they were in Thailand at the moment. Dang told us where she was from... I should have had her write it on the pad.
Breakfast & Lunch
Don ordered corned beef hash and fried eggs. The hash came from a can, but it was still pretty tasty. Dang told us she usually works behind the bar or in the office. The cook was sick, but she did a good job!
I really wanted just a good old grilled cheese, but I felt like a Cheapo, ordering a meal for $5.50. I upped my order by adding ham. Why do I over think things? A half sandwich ended up being the right amount.
When we first stepped into The Ox, I felt a little hesitant. But by the time we were at the dining counter, we were relaxed and happy. Our chat with Dang made all the difference in the world.
Dang seemed more proud than stressed, when she told us she works 6 days a week. I didn't ask how many hours. Hopefully not in the wee hours of the 24-hour business. I read later that there are no keys to the doors, because they never close. I wish I'd heard that earlier, so I could have asked about that.
Dang said her husband had worked at the Ox for 40 years. She gestured to the bar and said he was the owner.
I hope I got that bit of info right. Our communication was a little choppy. I could be totally wrong on this.
All our chatting slowed down our eating. I asked for a box and loaded in a half sandwich, an egg and half off the hash. Even though we were traveling. Then I asked if I could take Dang's photo. She smiled agreed and told us she was 56. I gasped and refused to believe. "35 maybe!"
Then Dang insisted we get a photo of the 3 of us, together. She flagged down the woman who had greeted us earlier from the gaming machine. Then Don and I tried to say thank you in Thai. "Sawadee Khan?" we struggled a little and Dang laughed and correct us. There was a bit of bowing thrown in. We loved our time with Dang!
We headed off with our leftovers. Not knowing what we'd do with them.
We said good bye to Dang's hubby, near the door. Never got his name. What a fun stop!
We stepped out into the bright daylight and noticed 2 men sitting against the wall, near the side entrance to The Ox.
Without knowing their situation, Don chose to at least offer them our leftovers. Luckily they looked pretty appetizing in the box.
I headed for the car and Don returned, empty handed. At first the old and young man (father & son?) looked confused.
Don tried to explain diplomatically, that we just couldn't finish our lunch and they were welcome to have it. He popped the lid and the young guy suddenly seemed pleased. "I'll try it!" They both thanked Don and the young guy complimented Don's Death Valley shirt. 2 compliments in a day!
We headed back on the road feeling pretty wonderful. We had a couple of good people encounters and we didn't have to waste any food. Everyone we met, gave us a little something to smile about!
Pekin Noodle Parlors in Butte, MT
On a Friday night last September, Don and I left our hotel in Uptown Butte in search of food.
We passed an upscale restaurant on Broadway, then headed past a noisy group of bikers holding beers. Then on a quieter corner, we spotted a welcoming neon sign with the words, Chop Suey!
Brick, Neon and Mountains
Actually, this is the neon image that first lured us to the corner.
We were headed literally down Main Street, just after the sun had set. There was a glow behind the mountains and a glow on the red brick building from the neon.
"What a sign!" was my first reaction.
It wasn't until we crossed the street that we could see the words "Noodle Parlors" glowing above the door. What does that even mean... parlors, as in more than one parlor?
We peered in and saw a staircase heading upward. It seemed lit up and open, but it still felt a bit daring. Then a young couple suddenly appeared. They headed in and confidently walked up. We waited a few minutes and then followed.
Up We Go
My camera flash made the stairway look a little brighter than it was. We headed up, kind of chuckling about our bravery.
We turned left into the doorway and found a decorated cashier's cage, with no one attending. Towards the front was an empty room, with community tables. Towards the rear, there was a long and curious hall.
We could hear diners behind the curtains and voices coming from the kitchen at the end of the hall. We had a few moments by ourselves, to absorb this mysterious sight.
There were Chinese lanterns and salmon-pink, bead board walls. There were curtains, that made me think of dressing rooms... and one, lone metal cart.
Our Cozy Booth
A woman with blond hair and glasses emerged from the end of the hall. She rolled the metal cart back into the kitchen, then ushered us to booth #8.
We sat at our cozy table in two wobbly soda fountain chairs, while she left us to fetch menus and tea. We sat there grinning, with raised eyebrows. "She didn't close our curtain. Are we supposed to?" It was like being in a foreign country, unsure of ourselves.
Retro Chinese Menu
The menu was hoot. There were serious reminders, written in red on the cover.
Inside the menu we found a stunning selection. There were 32 different kinds of Chop Suey and Chow Mein. We started with egg drop soup.
As we sat behind our closed curtain, I kept getting the giggles. Having our vision limited, made the nearby voices and sounds extra comical.
We could hear a family with a restless baby... clinking toasts of a romantic couple... a jabbering man monopolizing the conversation across the hall...... and every now and then the sound of a cart, rattling at great speeds down the hall... fluttering our curtain each time.
There was so darn much of it. We had Chicken Chop Suey with Noodles and Pork Choy Mein with Egg Fu Yong. This was food you can't find easily anymore, even if you live in Houston, with the largest "Asia-Town" in the States.
As for the flavors and textures and seasoning? It wasn't packed with any of that, but that's okay. It took me back to my earliest memory of Chinese food. I was 6 in 1963 when I remember eating food just like this in NYC's Chinatown. Ahhh. Simple is nice.
Since we had pulled our curtain closed, I did what I generally consider rude and grabbed my cell phone and googled the restaurant. I was stunned to learn we were in a restaurant that had been run by the same family since 1909. I was even more surprised to learn that the owner Danny Wong, (I believe his great uncle started the business) was 80 and still cooked six days a week. I was like a giddy groupie. I used the excuse of hunting down the restroom, to sneak a peek in the kitchen.
I nervously snapped a blurry photo, hoping no one would notice. I wish I had been brave enough to photograph the bathroom. There were two little saloon style doors (same salmon color) and another tiny door to the toilet. I grinned as I took a look. Then I washed my hands at a shared sink in the hallway .
When, we finished the feast our server Arlene, seemed surprised to know this was our first visit. (We must have hidden our confused expressions. ) She genuinely apologized, since she hadn't encouraged us to order their specialties.
Then she disappeared and returned with some samples of sweet and sour chicken and some kind of stuffed wontons. We nibbled the "just sweet enough" specialties, and learned more about Arlene and her work at Pekin. She was hired in 1979, back when the waitresses carried huge heavy trays in and out of those tiny rooms. After many years, they were finally allowed to use the rolling carts. "Oh Butte was different then." Arlene smiled. "It was pretty rough and tumble. Back then, we stayed open till 3 am. The bars closed at 2, so everyone headed here. It got pretty wild."
History of the Building
Arlene told us the building (which we viewed again in the morning) had been in the original Chinese District. The 2-block area was bustling during Butte's heyday in the late 1800's. The 2-story building was constructed in 1909. That year, Hum Yow and his wife Bessie Wong moved their noodle house and family to the upper level. The street level and basement housed a Chinese apothecary, a sign maker's shop and gambling casino.
Because the building was so near Butte's red-light district, there have been lots of rumors about those little curtained rooms where diners eat noodles, today. Arlene didn't say anything about the restaurant being a brothel, but she did say Chinese miners rented those tiny booths as sleeping quarters at one time. I'm sure Arlene could tell a lot of stories from her 36 years of work at The Pekin. I asked her if she'd noticed a lot of changes during that time. Arlene didn't really need to ponder that. "No. Not really.
Julie in the Lounge
After dinner, Don and I wandered towards the front of the building where we could see the neon, glowing through the window. We noticed a lounge off to the left.
We peeked in and ended up chatting with bartender, Julie. She had her own stories about the Noodle House. She talked about growing up in Butte (which she never fully respected until she moved away for a short while.) She had nothing but rave reviews of her boss, Mr. Wong. "He cooks 6 days a week!" Julie gushed. She said he was 80 years old and had enough money to retire and live comfortably anywhere, but he was so dedicated to the place.
Mr. Wong Himself
We'd been chatting with Julie for quite a while, when Mr. Wong himself strolled into the lounge in his white apron and tidy white hair.
I was star struck. He teased Julie a bit and seemed delighted that we had enjoyed our first visit to Pekin Noodle House. He was more than happy to pose for photos before heading back to the kitchen. Such a treat! What a sweet man and what a welcoming staff.
Good-Byes and Thanks
We headed out later that night. Two months later, I'm still pondering the visit. The history of Butte's Chinese community is fascinating. The fact that Danny Wong's family has run this business since 1909, says much about the Wongs.
At one time 400 to 600 Chinese rail workers, miners and later, service oriented business owners filled the 2-block Chinese community. For many complicated reasons, most of the Chinese businesses disappeared and yet this one still exists. I keep trying to learn more, but my Googling brings up conflicting stories and lots of odd food reviews. I may never know the full story of Pekin Noodle House and how it fit into this Montana world. But, I'm glad I experienced a piece of it!
It wasn't time for a meal when we drove into Butte last fall. But we'd read about this curious place.
As a kid, Evel Knievel ate at Matt's frequently, when he lived nearby. If it was good enough for him, it was worth a visit!
The only thing better than a roadside diner is a roadside house with dining options. This diner was just a home on the highway, before Matt Korn began serving food in 1930.
Customers used to drive up along the tall fat bumper curb and order through the windows. I hear they still will bring food out to your car, but we wanted to sit at the old counter! We said hello the the man in the white apron leaning against the stucco and headed on inside.
My eyes were drawn behind the counter where I spotted shiny milkshake and malt equipment, plus an old cash register.
All that chrome seemed to be surrounded by words. Coca-Cola, Sandwiches, Gift Certificates, Yes! We're Open, Sugar Cones, and SORRY... with a list of this and that and a THX at the end.
Don and I sat down on two of the brown, swivel stools at the 1930's era, U-shaped counter.
We pulled out a menu, showing a tray full of icy cold treats. A very smiley server wearing a snappy little cap, peered over the sweet assortment.
There were no caps worn here, but the two servers who were in the midst of a shift change, did seem to have matching hairdos..
Their hair styles weren't weren't from the 1930's, but not exactly 2015 either.
Coke or Ice Cream?
It wasn't quite 5 pm and Don and I hadn't even checked into our hotel yet.
We thought about just having a Coke, especially if it meant choosing our own frosty bottles from the big red case and popping off the lids... instead of unscrewing!
But the menu was calling me. What I really wanted was the Peanut Burger, served with a mayo sauce made with crushed peanuts. I love getting the local, quirky favorite and maybe I should have.
But we were holding off for dinner later. Instead, I had my peanuts served on top of a chocolate sundae, which was probably just as filling as a burger. It was mighty good, though.
Distracted by a Photo
Don shared a few bites, but he spent most of our visit, chatting with Shawn, a young man sitting at the end of the counter. Shawn noticed Don pointing at a framed photo that was mounted on the knotty pine wall.
Don was pretty sure that was a 1957 Chevy Nomad Station Wagon, just like the one his family owned when he was a kid. Shawn heard that bit of news and lit up. "You had one of those!".
Shawn had a few cars stories himself, since his dad and grandfather were race car drivers. He showed us a photo of the trashed Mustang he and his dad found in an old barn.
He laughed about his first ride in a souped up '57 Chevy, shortly after he was born. His mom had been furious that his dad arrived and drove them home from the hospital in the noisy car that made everyone stare at stoplights.
Chatting with Brandi
Brandi continued to busy herself behind the counter. She chatted with me a bit about her favorite customers... the families that seemed to "grow up" on the diner's food.
She also teased Shawn a few times, especially when he told us he'd just discovered Matt's Place a few weeks earlier, when he started college. "And he's pretty much been here, every day since then!" Brandi laughed. "Don't forget your coat!" She reminded him like a mother when he got up to head out.
Off to Butte
I was sorry we couldn't have experienced a meal or a bigger crowd. But mostly I'm just glad we made the stop. This is one of those places that might not be there "next time".
Matt sold his biz to the Louis & Mae Lawrence in the 1940's. I believe Mae passed away a couple years ago at age 100. As far as I know their daughter is still running things. You never know.
Sparky's Garage in Butte, MT
Service Station Dining
Don and I arrived in Butte just in time for lunch.
How could we resist a dining place with Mobil Oil's pegasus images and green service station doors.
We walked towards the side door from the parking lot. I liked the old brick building itself. The green and red neon sign and old Texaco lamps were an added treat.
We were very hungry and excited to have found a place that looked inviting.
A Truck Inside
On the way to being seated, I couldn't help but notice the green truck and a number of old gas pumps.
Brought me back to playing "Gas Station" with my brother. "Filler up with regular!" I loved to announce from my pretend driver's seat.
The Truck Bed Table
I didn't notice until later that there was a table in the back of the 1949 Chevy pickup. If I'd known, I would have requested that table.
Dining in the bed of a truck is something I've never done.
By the Window
We ended up with a cozy wooden booth and a view of a dining deck, which overlooked lower Butte and distant mountains.
But I didn't look out the window much. There was too much inside.
Lots of Metal
Old metal decor with signs, bicycles and and pedal cars is really nothing new. They've been cluttering up restaurants with old memorabilia for decades now.
But there was something extra fun about the fact it was in a warehouse like building that really housed a service station at one time.
Old, But Clean
I liked the way they refurbished oil and paint cans into lighting fixtures. It's always good to see old junk put to good use. And there was a lot of old stuff in this place.
Oddly enough, everything looked surprisingly clean. When I mentioned this to the hostess, who had worked at Sparky's for a number of years, she laughed. She said her boss often reminded, "Some lean and some clean." They were not allowed to sit around and lean. When there was a lull, they were told to dust and clean.
Time to Eat
Our eating utensils were cleverly wrapped in a red shop cloth. It looked like what a filling station attendant might have used to wipe his hands after checking your oil.
The food was reasonably priced and hit the spot. Don got the lunch special of half price buffalo wings. I had a piping hot onion soup and a crispy salad. The crumbly corn bread and sloppy cheese, made me need about 10 of those red rags!
No Time for Casinos
There was no time to hang out in the large bar or the casino towards the front of the building. I did peek into the dimly lit casino and stopped myself from taking a photo.
There was just one customer and she must have been 90 years old. She hunched over a slot machine with her braided white hair pinned up on her head. Her walker was neatly folded beside her. If only I'd spotted her earlier, I might have asked her to join us for lunch. That would have made for a very interesting dining adventure, I'm sure.
Bacchus Pub in Bozeman, MT
Not a Roadside Diner
On our 4-week road trip out west, Don and I had many a meal at cafes and diners, with vinyl booths and tile floors.
I do love small town eating, but I was ready for a new look... like Medieval, maybe!
The Big City!
We spent almost a week in Montana last September and this was our first stop in a city. The Main Street was classic and classy, with retro buildings, cute shops, nice cars and interesting looking people. But my eyes went straight to the Hotel Baxter sign!
We were sad to learn it is no longer a hotel, but they did have two dining options! Ted's Montana Grill had a great buffalo sign, but an expensive menu, so we went for the Bacchus Pub. They had a nice sidewalk cafe, but I was eager to get a look at the inside.
I was drooling over the ornate lobby with grand chandeliers, painted beams and dramatic mezzanine.
Clearly this historic hotel has been brought back to good use in recent years. Ted Turner owns the upscale restaurant and hotel rooms have been renovated into lovely condos. But to a person who adores staying in historic hotels... I was in pain knowing I could never spend a night here.
The whole style was more European than Western ranch, so it made me laugh to see the sweet buffalo staring down.
I felt for a moment like I was back in Texas.
The casual pub was bustling on Labor Day at lunch.
I loved the sort of Gothic feel of the place right away. We rushed to grab the only table that seemed to be left.
The Best Spot
Of course the coziest spot was already taken. Two young sisters were hovering over their coloring books at the table right in front of the fireplace. Actually our seats were more comfortable than the pews that went with their table.
I kept wondering who the girls belonged to. There must have been parents at another table. And then I became intrigued with how well behaved they were. And I loved the fact they were amused with coloring and not their own I-pads.
Other Little Faces
The most memorable thing about our lunch was enjoying all the little hooded faces staring down from the beams! These carved and painted heads are said to be the faces of real monks from a British Monastery.
It's a lucky thing these little guys are still around. The pub transitioned many times since it first opened. It was a Mexican themed cafe/bar at one time. It's lucky they didn't get remove the little monks. Maybe they just covered their caps with tiny sombreros.
Faces and Glass
I'm not totally sure if this British style pub was a part of the hotel when it opened in 1929. But I know the carved monks and the lovely stained glass have been here for a very long time.
I kept wishing there was a little history write up on the back of the menu. The staff looked too young to have much knowledge or interest in the bar history.
Beams and Faces
I obviously liked these characters. Each was different and I wondered if the staff had their favorites or even names for these guys.
I would have asked, but our cheery server was so energetic, she never stopped long enough to ask silly questions like, "Which monk do you like best." Instead, we just named her. Hummer seemed like an appropriate name. She flitted quickly from table to table, as effortlessly as a tiny hummingbird. And her expression almost gave the impression that she was humming as she worked.
On top of all the fun decor, the food was excellent. I could have ordered some real pub fare, but I was hungry for salad. My spinach salad was more hearty than any Shepherd's Pie! Don's Neptune Sandwich with tuna and shrimp salad (and fries) was hefty and yummy as well.
If we hadn't been on the road, we could have indulged more. A glass of wine would have made for an ideal lunch. After all, Bacchus is the God of Wine!
The Dining Blog
This is a blog about Dining Adventures. Sometimes, I talk about food. Below, you can read how this started.
On July 4th 2011, I set a goal to try 50 culturally diverse restaurants in one year! (I knew that was possible, living in the Houston area) I spent the year pulling in friends and family to join me, on some unusual dining adventures. I met some curious people, tried some scary foods and explored places and cultures I never would have otherwise. Even though I met my goal, I learned too much to end my adventures in dining. I have continued blogging about memorable dining adventures of all kinds, near and far... and all the discoveries and funny things I've learned along the way!
Locations and types of dining adventures, are listed further down.