I consider myself a connoisseur of chicken fried steak, always looking for one that rivals my mom’s recipe. I may have found it at the Bank Bar and Vault Restaurant in Wilsall, where my hubby Ed and I stopped for lunch. Their chicken fried steak is served after 5 p.m. as part of their dinner menu, but the cook was happy to fix the entree for me at noon. When the server brought out my entree, I did a double-take, seeing a piece of meat that darn near filled the plate, with a bit of space for the mashed potatoes and cooked carrots. It was only an 8 oz. piece of top round, but pounded down to about a 1/4 inch thickness, then hand-breaded with a combo of buttermilk, flour and panko crumbs before frying. The steak was fork-tender, a luscious shade of golden brown, and finished with a flavorful white gravy. It was scrumptious and definitely gave my mom’s version a run for the money.
Bob and Edie Tomasko purchased the Wilsall Bar & Café in 2007, serving beef raised on their Muddy Creek Ranch located a few miles from town. In 2013, Tomasko’s daughter Karen and her husband David Shockey acquired the ranch, bar and café. The Shockeys then developed the Bank Bar and Vault Restaurant across the street from the old Wilsall Bar. They continue their family’s legacy of using premium grass-fed beef raised on their ranch in the Shields Valley. The bar and restaurant are housed in what was originally the Farmers State Bank. The vault functions as a storage area for bar supplies.
Today, the bar and restaurant serves as the quintessential small town hub for locals, who come in for food, drinks, occasional live music and socializing. You may show up as a stranger, but the welcome mat from the crew at the Bank Bar is always rolled out.
Lunch options include a range of burgers, including the Vault (bacon, blue cheese, and pesto aioli), Thunder Jack (crispy fried onions and jalapenos, pepper jack cheese, and BBQ sauce), and The Rodeo (bacon, cheddar cheese, topped with onion rings and BBQ sauce). The burgers are served with hand-cut fries. Ed opted for the Wilsall Zinger, topped with house-pickled jalapenos, pepper jack cheese, and jalapeno aioli. Ed is big on spicy food and commented that the jalapenos added the right amount of heat for his taste.
Beyond beef, there is an assortment of wraps, quesadillas and tacos. One that caught my eye was the Sweet Chili Chicken Tacos, featuring grilled chicken marinated in sweet chili sauce, served in flour shells, topped with lettuce, tomato and a shredded blend of cheese. Pizza is also on the menu with house-made pizza dough hand-tossed, then baked in a stone oven.
There is a nice assortment of starters. Quinoa shrimp, grilled steak fingers with a horseradish dipping sauce, pork rinds served hot, and mozzarella sticks are options. I caught a glimpse of the breaded cheese raviolis, looking yummy, on their way to a customer. For dinner, of course, there are Muddy Creek Ranch (MCR) steaks (ribeye, sirloin, or New York), a pork flat iron steak, hot roast beef and hot turkey entrees.
Ashley Mugnier, the daughter of Karen and stepdaughter of David, joined us for lunch. She gave us the lowdown on the cattle operations and then invited us out for a short tour of the ranch. Karen and David were on a road trip to Los Angeles, hauling one bull and two heifers destined for a buyer in Hawaii. The cattle are shipped via a climate-controlled cargo plane. Ashley said it was common for the couple to drive all over the U.S. delivering cattle. I later spoke with Karen via phone, who said they had logged 14,000 miles since January delivering cattle as far away as Pennsylvania, Ohio and Tennessee. I think it would be easier to ship the cattle with commercial carriers. Karen responded, “It is part of what we do. This is a family operation. When you buy from us, we follow through and deliver to answer any questions and help the buyer get familiar with their new cows.”
I’m intrigued by the operations at the Muddy Creek Ranch. They run an American Aberdeen/Speckle Park cattle operation. Over the last 15 years, they have developed a breeding program using Angus-based cattle with proven grass genetics to produce superior offspring. American Aberdeen and Speckle Park cattle were added to the mix for their unique ability to produce a quality carcass at a young age. The cattle are taken to the Stillwater Packing Company when 18 months old for processing. The meat is more uniform in size and shape at this age, a desirable trait for the end-user (chefs, restaurants and consumers). Muddy Creek’s cattle are all natural, free of hormones, antibiotics, steroids or chemicals.
The ranch has become well known and respected for its superior breeding program and serves as a clearinghouse of information for ranchers seeking to produce grass-fed beef. Karen keeps a house available for producers who come to learn about the ranch operations. Their beef is featured in local restaurants, including Yellowstone Valley Grill, and in Bozeman at the Hilton Garden Inn, Café Fresco, and Ale Works. I have great admiration for David, Karen and their family for making a positive difference in the beef industry, not only in Montana, but across the U.S. with the sale of their superior seed stock and commercial cows.
Consumers can purchase beef directly from Muddy Creek Ranch through their website. Tenderloin, flat iron, New York strip, ribeye and sirloin cuts are available. In addition to steaks and burgers, shanks, liver, heart, tongu, and oxtail are available for purchase. Consumers can also purchase a 1/2 or 1/4 side of beef. Their website also provides a thorough explanation of the various cuts of meat.
When I’m buying beef at the store, I will admit that I look for what’s on sale, and never consider where it came from or how it was raised and processed. The visit to Muddy Creek Ranch opened my eyes to paying closer attention to what I’m feeding my family. I guess you could say I’ve gotten smarter about beef after seeing what happens at Muddy Creek Ranch, and that’s no bull! We currently have moose, deer and elk meat filling our freezer, but when that meat is used up, we will be reaching out to Muddy Creek for their products.
Donnie Sexton, who retired in 2016 after a long career with the Montana Office of Tourism, currently freelances as a travel writer and photographer, covering destinations around the world.
TheLastBestPlates.com is a digital destination that serves up Montana's tasty food, travel and culture stories … one bite at a time.