Flavors: Good Eats in Billings for under $10

Jan 17, 2018

King's Hat located on 1st Avenue South in Billings.
Credit Stella Fong

A Flying Burger. A Bayou Wrap. Chicken Fried Steak. These good eats can be found in Billings for under $10. At King’s Hat, Muzzle Loader Café, and Rockets Gourmet Wraps and Sodas, food can be had for less than one Hamilton bill or ten Washingtons.  Like these recognizable and time-honored leaders on the face of our dollar bills, the three eateries are dining establishments in Montana’s Trailhead’s foodscape.  King’s Hat has been in the Billings for over 70 years while the Muzzle Loader Cafe for more than 60, and Rockets Gourmet Wraps and Sodas for close to two decades.

Since 1949 King’s Hat drive-in has been located on 1st Avenue South nestled below towering grain silos as landmarks. Jim and Vicki Hodgson bought King’s Hat in 2010 when it came up for sale. Even having grown up in Billings, Jim admitted to not having frequented this eatery when he was kid. In fact, his 93-year-old father who had lived in Billings all his life did not know of the drive-in’s existence. A former landscape company owner with an office down the way, Hodgson always noticed cars lining up on 1st Avenue South at lunch time.

Jim Hodgson cooks up all beef patties on the flat grill.
Credit Stella Fong

“I used to do landscaping and it’s a lot of hard work,” Jim said, “You got to go chase your work and do a lot of sales.” He concluded it would be more convenient if the customers came to him and ended up purchasing King’s Hat.

Their daughter had just graduated from high school, and the time was right to make a change Vicki shared, “I was looking for a full-time job” when Jim suggested buying the business. “Why do you want to work for someone else? Let’s work for ourselves. So I thought it was awesome,” Vicki admitted.

King’s Hat was originally named Big Boy drive-in, evolving to Jim’s South Side Drive-in the 60s, and in the 70s a new owner gave the drive-in the King’s Hat moniker. To this day, the signature burger is the Flying Burger – a saucer shaped all-beef patty sandwiched between two pieces of toasted white bread. The cast iron press that creates the flying style sandwich is much like a waffle iron but with two concave plates that come together.

The sandwich begins with a beef patty cooked on the flat top for three minutes. Sauce is added along with the usual condiments of mustard and ketchup.  The most popular is the Loaded Sauce, a combination of mustard, ketchup, pickles and onion all chopped up and mixed together. A slice of white bread goes on the iron, followed by the patty topped with another slice of bread.  When the top of the iron comes down it trims off the crust creating a round sandwich. The Flying Burger cooks in the iron for 20 seconds. The result is a sandwich recalling the Wonderbread of childhood. The grilling gives the outside a bit of toasty crispiness. The machines look ancient, and Jim is not sure how old they actually are.

Two slices of white bread with a beef patty in the middle on flying iron.
Credit Stella Fong
Two just cooked Flying Burgers.
Credit Stella Fong

He described the sauce “is a little different. It’s tangy. People who try it for the first time are taken aback but pretty soon they are smacking their lips.” These days the cost of a Flying Burger is $1.95 compared to 1949 when Andy, Paul and John Slovak owned the joint, and a flyer went for 30 cents.

Jim said any item on the menu can be made Flying except the Footlong Hot Dog. Popular accompaniments include fries which Vicki shared were homemade from potatoes every day. Gems or tater tots and mushrooms, which are breaded and fried are popular accompaniments.

For the sweet tooth, milkshakes can take on single flavors or combined in classic flavors of chocolate, vanilla and strawberry. But more unusual combinations such as a Cherry Marshmallow or Banana Caramel Pineapple can be made. Other popular drinks include the Bee Bop with rum flavoring, Hot-n-Tot spiced with cinnamon, and Slushes in orange, grape, lime, blue raspberry, cherry and strawberry flavors.

Vicki Hodgson serves up a lunch order.
Credit Stella Fong

Jim offered a hint for those who wanted to shorten their wait. He suggested taking a menu home and then calling in an order. Jim would love for people to come and visit this “four to five generation building. It’s got a lot of history.”

On the other side of town is Muzzle Loader Cafe owned by Renae and Marlon Engberg. Growing up in the restaurant business, Marlon wanted to purchase the Powderhorn Lounge, which was attached to the  Muzzle Loader Cafe. When it came up for sale 14 years ago as he was considering going into semi-retirement, and now Marlon runs the Lounge and Casino while Renae oversees the operation of the Muzzle Loader.Renae did not have any restaurant experience, but her husband’s time at Lyle’s Western Lounge in Glendive, owned by his father gave him the needed skills. Renae credited her employees for bringing her up to speed. She believed the loyalty and longevity of her employees accounts for the good service, and “It is important for the consistency of the food.”

The Muzzle Loader on Laurel Road.
Credit Stella Fong

After buying the property, the Engbergs expanded the Muzzle Loader from an intimate diner to one that now seats about 120 people. There are crowds, especially on weekend mornings. The Biscuits and Gravy with two buttermilk biscuits smothered in sausage gravy along with the Muzzle Loader’s Famous Chicken Fried Steak keep bringing diners back. Breakfast is served all day with choices of sandwiches, salads and wraps for lunch, and steak, chicken, shrimp and pork entrees for dinner with pudding ending the meal.

Renae estimated that some of her customers were 4th generation Muzzle Loader clients. There have times when every high chair was taken because entire families would come in to eat. For a restaurant that was founded in the mid-1950s, it is still serving up comfort at affordable prices.

Rocket Gourmet Wraps and Sodas has been located on the north side of 1st Avenue North across from the Northern Hotel for nearly 20 years. Recently, Big Dipper Ice Cream and Le Fournil, an artisan French bread bakery have become neighbors.

Owner Renae Engberg has owned Muzzle Loader Cafe for 14 years with her husband Marlon.
Credit Stella Fong

Three years after relocating to Billings, Brian and Gala Thompson opened Rocket Burrito with the name officially changing to Rockets Gourmet Wraps and Sodas a couple of years later. To this day, many still know the restaurant by the former name. The Thompson’s mission was to create a fun and energetic restaurant.

A large blackboard on the wall above the counter describes the offerings with daily specials written on boards on the side. The drill is after you walk in, you line up to the left. You look up on the blackboard and choose from the colorfully written menu. When you get to the counter you then select the flavor of locally made tortilla or choose a salad. (Usually it is Brian taking your order.) Salads can be wrapped up and wraps can be unwrapped. There is usually a choice of white or brown rice when applicable. Every wrap can be made vegetarian except the Bayou wrap which is a Cajun  Andouille sausage, roasted chicken and bell peppers in a spicy red sauce with red beans, rice and topped with sour cream and jack cheese.

Owner Brian Thompson at the counter of Rockets Gourmet Wraps and Sodas who he co-owns with his wife Gala.
Credit Stella Fong

The jambalaya filling is homemade as well as the chicken. Red Bird chicken from Colorado is cooked for the filling. Thai peanut, creamy ginger sauce and green curry that go into the Asian themed wraps are also made in house. For the hot head, add the habanero, Scotch Bonnet, vinegar, pepper flake and cayenne pepper concoction to any order.

Brian jokingly said that his wrapping method should be patented because care was needed to fold the tortilla with the filling around foil. He warned that the eater should never remove the foil for it will be a “Recipe for disaster. You keep it (the wrap) in the foil and pull the foil back bite by bite.” Tortilla chips accompany the wrap along with hummus while the homemade salsa costs an extra 50 cents. Finally, five draft sodas in rotating flavors ranging from root beer to black cherry to grapefruit are also available.

A Bayou Wrap with tortilla chips and a side of salsa.
Credit Stella Fong

“My wife is a fantastic baker and that’s where she can express some of her creativity,” Brian said of her cookies. Her chocolate chip cookies are very popular. “In the summertime, you might see something along the line of key lime pie or a brownie bar or something like that,” Brian added.

At Rockets Gourmet Wraps and Sodas, a wrap along with a cookie and a house made soda can be had for less than $10.

Billings does have an option of places that offer good eats for under $10. At King’s Hat, Muzzle Loader and Rockets Gourmet Wraps and Sodas, the owners were present daily watching over what they sell to customers which may be the major reason why prices have been kept affordable.