Bar None, This is Some Tasty Barbeque

Wednesday Nov. 3rd, 2010

At first glance, both Bar 3 restaurants are a tad off-putting. The Bozeman property on 7th seems shabby and tired. Peeling paint and smoky windows don’t exactly shout “come in and sit a spell.” And the Belgrade location! Tucked into the backside of a massive warehouse, it is mere feet from train tracks. Yet in this case neither looks nor location matters. What matters is what’s inside. And what’s inside does not disappoint. As Hunter Lacey, master of this “Q” maintains, barbeque is forgiving–bibs and ribs and buckets and bones go well with a side of shabby chic or the blast of a diesel engine from the 5:45.

Lacey is no ordinary guy with a backyard Smokey Joe who decided to go big. A trained chef with credentials from the New England Culinary Institute, he’s knocked around the restaurant trade since he was thirteen. And this is no ordinary barbeque. It is succulent, meaty, and, well, fun. Add one of Lacey’s house-made sauces (Spicy Mutha and Pig Pucker are two favorites) and dig in to a meat smorgasbord. Though meals at Bar 3 pair well with a cold one, along with the standard selection of pop the house-made iced tea is not cloyingly sweet, but satisfies.

A Texas boy, Lacey comes by the “Bar 3” moniker honestly, since his ancestors used this brand while driving cattle northward. Whether great-great granddaddy dabbled in barbeque or not, barbeque certainly runs in the DNA of every card-carrying Texan. It is also an excellent match for Montana, where carnivores aren’t, um…cowed by the I-don’t-eat-anything-with-a-face crowd.

While barbeque can be dry (read: cardboard), or wet (read: messy and sloppy), Bar 3 has mastered the art of “just right.” Lacey’s (one more time with gusto) house-made dry rub doesn’t cremate or turn meat to jerky, and “messy and sloppy” is left to diner discretion as sauce is administered to hearts’ content. There is no gnawing of bone here, either, where “fall off the bone” tender best describes this grub. Serving sandwich and combo platter, the menu at Bar 3 offers Baby Back as well as St. Louis style ribs, Texas style beef brisket that would send your Jewish grandma into apoplexy, Carolina Style pulled pork that will make your eyelids flutter, double smoked pit ham, smoked turkey and grilled bratwurst. Frankly, this menu would do fine without the turkey and bratwurst. Chicken wings (chipotle, Bar-B-Q, Honey Mustard, Spicy Orange Thai) and smoked chicken round out the list.

Platters come with sides. As with the sauce, all sides are (last time—promise) house-made. (Regarding his determination to cook from scratch daily, a modest comment from Lacey is telling: “Well,” sez he, “not exactly all food is house-made. We do buy ketchup…”) This is not your average Cole slaw scooped from a five-pound bucket in the back room; this is crunchy, fresh, and properly dressed slaw. This is not your ho-hum broccoli-because-I-need-something-green; this is an explosion of layered flavors laced with golden raisins. And boyohboy, these aren’t your mama’s mashed potatoes or mac and cheese or baked beans. One more thing: just as the “Academy” awards supporting actors, an Oscar in this case would definitely go to Bar 3’s green chili-cheese grits with taste and texture that borders on the metaphysical. Do not overlook the grits. Go there for the grits.

And then there is the matter of the heretofore lowly pickle. Whatever Lacey does to bread and butter pickles must have something to do with alchemy. It’s a Houdini kind of thing. Eat just one? Hah!
Though looks and location might distract, old and worn and off-the-beaten-path does not equate with dirty. The places are clean. Counter service is de rigueur and customers usually bus their tables. Platters are wooden cutting boards lined with food-grade paper. Food is stacked, piled, and assembled with properly gloved fingers. And service comes with a smile…a commodity that can be hit or miss in Bozeman-area restaurants. If Hunter Lacey is the boss of the Bar 3, those on his staff are the hands who ride shotgun. These people are genuinely happy to greet you and to meet your every quirk. For instance: loud restaurant music ranking near the top of this reviewer’s “Pet Peeve Hall of Fame,” a single request brought Waylon and Willie down to soothing background serenade.

Yet here is possibly the best news: Bar 3 offers carry-out. Call in, stop in, and grab a bag of hearty fare. This food is certain to evoke “more please” at your next tailgate or in your man cave during the Sunday game. (FYI: Bar 3 is closed on Sunday so stock-up beforehand.) Beside take-out, Bar 3 caters parties, weddings, meetings and celebrations. The chef in Hunter Lacey expresses itself even more with custom dining experiences, often featuring seasonal and local foods.

As they should, prices reflect the time and craft behind good barbeque, which requires smoking and slow-cooking. It is evident, however, that Lacey’s education in restaurant management has benefited Bar 3 as well as its clientele, as cost-efficiency is apparent throughout.

In the end, don’t judge these books by their cover: the Bar 3 brand is a gastronomic find. Bring friends, buy some platters and a bucket of suds, and chow down. Git along, little doggies, yipeekayay…and don’t forget the toothpicks.

Bar 3 Bozeman: 215 N 7th Ave., 587-8789
Bar 3 Belgrade: 100 S Broadway (in the back), 388-9182
Open daily 11 to 8; closed Sunday.

Cynthia Yates cut her teeth in the restaurant business, ran a café in the middle of nowhere, hosted a popular wine group, and was active in the Slow Food movement. An author of several lifestyle books, she has been known to eat on a regular basis.