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Drive from Missoula to Flathead Lake and about a half-hour into your journey you’ll see The Huckleberry Patch in Arlee. When you’re hungry or just curious, pull off and visit — you’ll find budget-conscious food and an immersion in the possibilities of one tiny, tart, blueish purple-red berry.

The Patch opened three years ago and is part gift shop, part eatery. The shop is stocked with fun and kitschy wares; most is not Montana-made, but Montana-inspired, with bear-wolf-moose-wildflower-mountain-outdoor themes. You’re likely to find something that intrigues, whether for you or someone you know.

The shop also has shelves and shelves of Montana huckleberry products, most made at the Patch’s big-sister flagship store, The Huckleberry Patch in Hungry Horse. That older store and restaurant — it opened in 1949 under a different name — also has a cannery and production center, where dozens of huckleberry-based products are produced.

Arlee’s restaurant is grill-casual. Napkins are ripped from paper towel holders on the table; burgers and sandwiches come in pie tins lined with checkered paper; silverware, coffee and water are grab-it-yourself commodities.

Breakfast is served just one day a week — on Sundays from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. The menu is simple: eggs, ham, bacon, sausage and various stacks of huckleberry pancakes or a special favorite, the huckleberry cream cheese French toast. Biscuits and house-made sausage gravy are popular, too, according to manager Windy Windy Boy.

Breakfast might break a diet, but not the wallet: A single pancake is just $3.95, biscuits and gravy $4.95, while full breakfasts — the portions are very generous — are just $7.95.

Lunches and dinners are served every day — 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. One-third-pound Angus burgers, crinkle fries, onion rings, a buffalo burger, an elk burger, a triple decker turkey-bacon sandwich are all offered; the burgers are thick and juicy, with tasty buns.

There’s a well-stocked condiment bar in the dining area so you can dress your burger or sandwich just as you please with tomatoes, onions, pickles and other add-ons.

Special huckleberry-inspired dishes include:

• The Huck Patch Wrap, with turkey and huckleberry cream cheese ($8.50).

• The Pistol Creek, slow-roasted pork topped with Huck Patch huckleberry barbecue sauce ($8.50).

• Patch’s Special, a burger with huckleberry barbecue sauce and cheddar cheese ($8.50).

One much-ordered dish is the Grey Wolf Dip sandwich: sliced rib-eye steak, bacon, Swiss cheese and an onion ring on a Wheat Montana Parmesan roll, au jus on the side. It’s $9.50.

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“It’s just so good, and people love it,” Windy Boy said. “It’s got a lot more to it than people realize.”

Huckleberry ice cream, huckleberry milkshakes, huckleberry pie, huckleberry iced tea or lemonade, PB&Js for kids with (you guessed it) huckleberry jam — it’s huckleberry mania in Arlee.

Ladd Lincoln of Missoula and his sister and brother-in-law, Maureen and Gary Bullock, are owners — alone or together — of six Montana gift stores, including the Huckleberry Patches in Arlee and Hungry Horse, and one in Idaho. Ladd and Maureen are third-generation gift-and-eatery owners: Their grandparents opened the 50,000 Silver Dollar Bar (and gift store) in Haugen, Montana, still owned by relatives in the extended family, Ladd Lincoln said.

Shelves in the Arlee shop are filled with Huckleberry Patch-branded products, made in Hungry Horse: jellies and jams; pie filling; BBQ sauce; mixes for muffins, scones, waffles, pancakes and brownies; candies and nougats; even chai tea and daiquiri mixes, to name just a few. Chokecherries and Flathead cherries are featured in some products too.

Lincoln said the central kitchen makes 7,000 from-scratch huckleberry pies each year for their eateries. They’ve shipped a pie to all 50 states, Lincoln said.

Arlee is just 30ish miles from Missoula, which makes for an easy trip for a meal — or even a good place to stop on your way someplace else. Here are some tips for the newbie diner:

• Order and pay at the front counter. A big overhead arrow and sign tells you that, but eyes distracted by the gift store might miss it.

• Menus are stacked at the front counter. If you want, grab one and find a seat first, then order. The menus aren’t long but take time to digest. Pressure builds when a line of hungry diners forms behind you.

• Ordering pancakes? One may be enough for small-to-medium appetites. These pancakes are the size of a dinner plate.

• Specials and not-on-the-menu items (including a soup of the day) are listed on the wall behind the cash register.

• The lunch/dinner menu has six different Angus burgers. But a marinated chicken breast can be subbed for any.

Finally, after a meal, make non-shoppers go outside. Touring the gift shop takes time. You don’t want someone impatiently tapping their feet while you look.

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Mea Andrews was a reporter and editor at the Missoulian for 27 years before leaving to become a medical writer. She is now retired and trying to downsize, but still likes to look at stuff in stores — and visit Montana eateries too.

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