From Fried Chicken to Bibimbap, Chef Bill Baskin took me to two of his favorite eateries in Bozeman, Montana. He knows food after working at restaurants as The Fat Duck in London and Alinea in Chicago, and then heading kitchens at Lone Mountain Ranch in Big Sky and Open Range in Bozeman. These days he is director of the culinary arts program at Gallatin College, a part of Montana State University.
He met up with me at Roost Fried Chicken located in a small enclave on West Main across the street from a strip mall and shopping center. So why these two places? Baskin said, “They are places I like to eat with or without my family on my own. I find myself going back to these places again and again probably more often than the fine dining options that we have.” He believed both Roost Fried Chicken and Whistle Pig Korean focus on doing a small number of items well. For Roost, it’s the fried chicken and Whistle Pig, the bibimbap.
In choosing Roost Fried Chicken with a storefront that looked like someone’s home, Baskin blamed his Texas roots that drew him to this eatery. Upon stepping through the red glass paneled door under the ROOST neon side outside, the diner is a place with a playful edge. The menu on the right wall by the counter is large with black and red print. The images of chickens are quirky with reference to the rotisserie chicken named as “Spun Chicken” and an image of a chicken with orbiting lines around its head. “Fried Chicken on a Stick” is a black chicken image on a stick held by a gloved hand of a cartoon character. All around there are a few kitschy chicken figures. But perhaps the most telling of the restaurant’s history is the framed print with the statement: “SOUTHERN BY BIRTH. IN BOZEMAN FOR THE FLY FISHING.”
Co-owner Michael Buck who likes to be referred to as “Buck” confessed that it indeed was a fly fishing vacation that introduced him to Bozeman. He and his partner Joe Darr opened Roost Fried chicken five years ago.
Those southern roots are also the reason why Baskin has chosen this place as one of his go to eateries. He admitted proudly, “I am from Texas. Fried chicken is near and dear to my heart. I have seen a lot of places do a good job with it.”
Cooking chicken is difficult. Too much cooking dries the chicken out and undercooking is a major faux pas in the food industry. Roost’s fried chicken is tender in the middle with a crispy outside. So what is Roost’s secret?
Buck shared that the use of never frozen natural chicken pressured fried at a lower temperature creates chicken that is moist. The cooking process “keeps moisture in and grease out” resulting in a healthier piece of chicken.
On the topic of health, Buck shared that his menu does offer good salad selections and rotisserie chicken. Though the more popular items according to general manager, Kari Martin, are their half fried chicken and chicken and waffles. “The chicken sandwich is right up there as well, Martin said along with the mac and cheese, and mashed potatoes.
Baskin’s favorite item to order here was the Nashville chicken sandwich. The cayenne based hot sauce fried chicken provided just enough spice and warmth without buzz dozing the taste buds. Be forewarned that the comeback sauce on the toasted bun with chopped lettuce does ooze out. I found myself licking my fingers after a puddle of sauce dropped on my lap. I wore the mayonnaise-pickle based sauce proudly.
After devouring an order of fried chicken and waffles, chicken fingers and French fries, we moved on to Korean food.
Whistle Pig Korean is found just off of the main drag in downtown Bozeman. Owned by Emma Woods and Ross Franklin, the wife husband team opened up in the old Chickpea Cafe location. Woods, who worked as the manager at the cafe, was offered the restaurant - to take over the lease and to purchase the equipment by the owner who was relocating. Wood said, “It was a lucky coincidence that it happened at that time.” With no real cooking experience other than making Korean meals for her husband, the pair took on the challenge.
The restaurant is in an old brick building that was once the sales space for automobiles. The dining area looks into an open kitchen. Upon entering a blackboard on the sidewall guides the customer on how to order a bibimbap with other options on a printed menu.
Woods was adopted at 3 ½ years old from Korea. She grew up on the East Coast in Nantucket, on Cape Cod. During her childhood, her parents hosted Korean Culture Camps where counselors taught Woods about the food of her heritage. “I was slightly older when I was adopted that I constantly wanted kimchi and it was one of those flavors that had already been introduced to me,” Woods shared.
Woods and Franklin met in Korea when they were teaching English. As a native of Colorado, Franklin brought the pair back to Denver. After attending a wedding in Bozeman, they decided to relocate. As a bribe to finish up a hike for Woods who admitted to not being the outdoor type, Franklin told Woods there were marmots at the end of the trail. The name of the restaurant came from her adoration of these furry animals in the groundhog genre with alternative names of woodchuck, land beaver or whistle pig.
“There was constant experimentation when I was little,” Woods said of her wanting to create the food of her birthplace. Then when traveling she always sought out Korean restaurants to taste what others were making. She then tried to recreate the dishes at home.
The restaurant is centered on the dish bibimbap, which Woods said literally translates to “mixed rice.” Woods and Franklin try to make the dish easy for customers, allowing them to mix and match any additions. Rice is the base of the dish. Protein of marinated beef - bulgogi, spicy pork, chicken or tofu is added next to be finished with spinach, mung bean sprouts and other vegetables topped off with a fried over-easy egg. Gochujang, a fermented red chili sauce comes served on the side. The bright red sauce adds just enough spice to provide an additional sensation. The combo can be served in a stainless steel bowl with chilled vegetables or in a stone bowl or dolsot that is heated over flames. This dish is the ultimate comfort food for a cold day as the rice forms a crunchy layer on the bottom and the vegetables cook. The egg yolk when released from the egg white casing infuses richness onto the rice. There is a smoothness and thickness that is introduced when the runny yolk cascades over the dish.
Korean food can be overlooked and misunderstood by many diners. Woods explained that Korean food is not “ridiculously” hot. The food is a combination of savory with sweet and spice. Chef Baskin uses the word “umami” to describe the ground savory, meaty sense that anchors Korean food. On the level of heat, Woods believed it is on par with jalapenos. The Gochujang “adds a beautiful vibrant red color,” Woods added, “I like to explain to people it is going to wake up the taste buds but it will not overpower you.”
Chef Bill Baskin provided a tour of Bozeman for eats under $15 that woke my taste buds up nicely. Flavors abounded with multi dimensional textures and temperature levels from the fried chicken at Roost Fried Chicken and bibimbap at Whistle Pig Korean.