Flavors: MontAsia - A New Chapter of Flavor for Fishtail
In Fishtail, MontAsia is moving aside the traditional cowboy eats for more global flavors.
Right at the bend of Nye Road leading into town, inspirations from Montana and Malaysia are being served up by Chef Lee Johnson, who everyone calls "chef," including his wife and daughter.
Last summer, Johnson and his wife, Yokie, opened their business in the building that once housed the iconic Cowboy Bar and Supper Club. The town and its businesses, Potter’s Rock Shop and Coffee House, and the Fishtail General Store were founded in the 1900s.
Out front, the sign with the image of a cowboy riding a mule has been taken down and the half round backdrop has been painted red. The marquee has been replaced with a sign carrying the caricature of a bison reigning in the clouds shining in the rays of the sun. The wood-paneled long and rectangular building with brands on the wall and the long wood bar still exist, but the animal trophies have been taken down and replaced with whimsical Lion King paper sculptures.
“We’ve only been able to open half of the restaurant,” Chef Johnson said. They have toned down the “rowdy bar atmosphere.” With the help of a good friend, Johnson is bringing “the building up to code and we’ve fixed the bones of this building.”
“One of the best pieces of advice I ever got about running a restaurant was to serve the food you want to eat and be who you are," Johnson said.
That food is the combination of fare from Montana and Asia. Offerings include pork and cabbage potstickers, kung pao chicken with a house made sauce, chicken curry made with hand-picked curry leaves, bone broth and coconut milk gravy; and whiskey beef noodles with beef from Miller Ranch, marinated in Early Times Kentucky whiskey.
Their most unique and signature dish is Teri YAKI, with the key ingredient in the dish sourced from Painted KC Ranch’s Montana-raised and processed yak. The meat, lower in fat than beef and similar to venison but with less gamey flavors, is stewed with caramelized onions, rock sugar, mushroom soy sauce, ginger and roasted pineapple. The flavors meld together with long cooking, while the meat becomes tender and explodes in taste.
More traditional American-inspired dishes include the ribeye, top sirloin and smash burger served with iceberg lettuce, crispy fried onions and American cheese.
"Then I got accepted into the engineering department," Yokie said. "I finished my degree at MSU, my degree in chemical engineering in 2000. After I finished my undergrad, I got accepted to work for Conoco for one year. After that I came back to MSU to my masters.”
Lee was working as a sous chef for the catering department while Yokie when came in to clean the area late at night.
“We were often the two last people in the building at night, and that’s how I met her, that was in the late '90s," he said. "We’ve been married 20 years now.”
The couple learned about Malaysian food together. When visiting Yokie’s family, Lee was in the kitchen with her mother and grandmother. Although they did not speak each other’s language, “they loved being in the kitchen making noises," Yokie said. "With Lee having really amazing knife skills, he did all the cutting and all the women were just amazed because a man can cook."
She say it was her dream to have a restaurant in Montana since she came here in 1997.
"We wanted to bring big flavors, and most people are familiar with Thai food, not many people know what Malaysian food is," she said
Chef Johnson calls Malaysian food "the underrated superstar of the global food scene.
"Malaysia is a diaspora. It’s a country that is 60, 70% Muslim, those are Malays, Americans think of them as very similar to the people you might find in Indonesia. There’s 20-ish percentage Chinese. Most Chinese are Hakka and Cantonese. They’re fishermen that come from the poor, southern region of China.
“Then there’s 10% Hindu and Tamil people from India, from Sri Lanka, and they bring the spices,” Johnson said. “It’s also been colonized by every country that figured out how to sail. The Portuguese had extensive presence there.”
Food is important in this culture. “Sudhkah anda makan," translated to “have you eaten yet," is how friends and family greet each other.
“And the answer better be affirmative because if not, you’re going to eat," Johnson said.
Their love of eating inspired them to invent “another meal called supper," he explained.
MontAsia began four years ago in Cooke City.
“It was an eventful four years," Johnson said. "Two of them were very much flavored by the pandemic, and that was the unique experience in all the gateway communities.
"It was a boom time for restaurants that were able to keep the doors open.”
Though it was the best of times for the couple's business, it was not the best of times for the Johnsons personally.
“We opened the restaurant when my wife got her first cancer diagnosis,” Johnson said.
She needed to travel to Billings for doctors’ visits and treatment. During the season, the Johnsons stayed in Cooke City, 36 miles from their home in Fishtail. In front of the small building, a large kiosk that they served their food from was a white van with the MontAsia logo.
“A lot of people thought we had a food truck, but it’s not a food truck," Chef Johnson said. "We bought it for employee housing, and for two years in Cooke City, it was the four of us sleeping there at night, me, my wife, my daughter and our poodle. So we needed something closer to home.”
The couple had considered purchasing the Regis Café in Red Lodge and had kept an eye on The Cowboy Bar. With number penciling out and Johnson’s father advising his son to buy a business near his home, the Johnsons purchased the restaurant and bar.
Johnson says of his food at MontAsia,
"We have now become unabashedly a fusion restaurant," he said. He brings together the skills he learned at Johnson and Wales and the Culinary Institute of America with skills he acquired from work at Lone Mountain Ranch and Walker’s Grill. He brings to the table his background as a fifth generation Montanan.
Since Yokie loves spicy food, Chef Johnson has created his own sauce for his Kung Pao dish. During the pandemic, when items such as Hong Kong vinegar were hard to get, he replaced it with “pickled juice, pickled vinegar.” Refried beans substituted for the fermented black beans, and he uses nutritional brewer’s yeast for the MSG and for thickening the sauce.
To properly execute the dishes on his menu, he owns many cleaver-like knives, favoring the Dalstrong hybrid cleaver and chef’s knife. To get the proper heat for cooking his stir-fries, Chef Johnson has welded a turkey fryer fired with butane to a metal table. When he does not have enough, he lights up butane torches and directs the flames to his meat and vegetables.
The Johnsons' daughter, Rose, favors the potstickers and believes the curry with fries may be her favorite dish, although she loves all of her father’s cooking.
Although Chef Johnson realizes not everyone likes the changes he has made, “it’s the sign of the times to change the name and it’s who we are.
"We’re half Montana, half Malaysia, and we’re comfort food from our family to yours.”