Personality and charm. Bozeman has it in spades. Each neighborhood you cruise through and each street you walk down possesses its own sense of place. The Willson Avenue area is steeped in history and gorgeous, old architecture. The North Broadway neighborhood has an eclectic fusion of modern and cozy homes, bustling warehouses, and small startup companies. West Bozeman is a neighborhood bubbling with life and families and new construction. It’s no surprise then that the University and its surrounding neighborhoods are just as unique and original. Thanks to the ever-moving droves of college kids from all over the country and the world, MSU’s neighborhoods are a veritable melting pot of innovation and culture. And the restaurants and shops in that area are no exception.
Enter Taco Montes. A charming, unique, quick-serve, warm, little restaurant that offers up food that tantalizes the taste buds. Based on the classic street taco that’s a staple on any daring foodie’s must-eat list, Taco Montes puts a whole new spin on things. You start with the tortillas, choose your meat, and then choose your style of flavor and ingredients. Want barbeque tacos? They’ve got that. How about Thai style? They’ve got that, too. They even do some unique variations for the hearty eaters of Montana, like the Bobcat (your choice of meat + caramelized onion, sauteed mushroom and peppers, cheddar cheese, avacado ranch). There’s nothing else quite like it in town, which is why it fits so well in the diversified feel of the university area. Combine that with the fact they are open until 3 AM on the weekends, and it’s a college kid’s and food lover’s dream.
On a chilly, quiet afternoon, I cruised into Taco Montes to have a chat with Hal Pedersen, chef extraordinaire at the joint, to talk the unique vibes of Bozeman and, of course, tacos.
CM: What made you want to get into the restaurant business?
HP: Well, I started out way back as this little punk rocker. I was in a band and I was going to make it big. That didn’t quite pan out as I had planned. I had been working in restaurants in Livingston forever. I spent a lot of time working at the Pop Stand, back when it was called the Pop Stand. I came to realize I was pretty good at multitasking. I could also put out good, quality food; it sort of came natural to me. It also came to me that I had a natural talent for this. I realized that I had a following, which was cool. But, it wasn’t until after I got married that I went to culinary school. I attended the Oregon Culinary Institute in downtown Portland. When I came back to Montana, I interned at Ale Works for about nine months. From there, I was over here when it was still the College Street Café. Taco Montes is still under the same owners as the College Street Café. But, we decided that we wanted to switch directions, change things up a bit. So, we brought in a new menu and rethought the restaurant. It’s actually been about four years now. We made the switch around September 2013, I believe.
CM: Wow! It’s been four years already. Well, what’s so great about being part of Bozeman and the food scene here?
HP: Bozeman’s food scene is really changing. People are more into food and trying new things than ever before. It’s not just steak and potatoes anymore, you know? People go out to eat and have really unique tastes. They are comfortable with being exposed to new things. We wanted to be a part of that, to get people to try new things, but in more of a familiar way. Just in general, the people here are wonderful. They have to be wonderful. It takes a special kind of person to survive the winter here! But overall, people are just genuinely friendly. We can have arguments and disagreements, but no one takes it too seriously. Specifically being down here near the college, the diversity is great. It has a real urban feel to it. You get a unique kind of attitude and atmosphere. It’s really a diverse crowd and we really love being near that, being a part of it.
CM: What makes Taco Montes unique?
HP: I’m not sure many people realize that we literally make everything from scratch. Every morning, the first thing people do when they get here is start tortilla dough. We press them and we cook them. We try to have fresh tortillas in a five minute turn-around. It’s a constant process. We shave our own meat, too. It comes in and we take care of it. Even the corn comes in on the cob. We shave it off. So sure, everything is pretty labor intensive, but we hope that we are able to produce better food at a lower cost in the long run. It all starts with raw ingredients.
CM: Wow! I actually didn’t know that at all. Well then, what is it that you want people to experience when they come here?
HP: Above all, we want them to feel comfortable. We want them to enjoy the atmosphere and our customers tell us they love it. They come in here, they love all the signs on the wall. It kind of has that fun, dive bar feel that resonates with people. I always want my staff to be happy working here but at the same time entertaining for customers. I want them to be attractive to people when they first step in here. I won’t hire anyone that doesn’t entertain me when I interview them. I want to feel that connection and that personability with them right away. Also for customers, we want there to be virtually no wait time between when they order and when they get their food. Fast and fresh. We also want to be constantly evolving. We’re always trying to streamline our processes and make them better, get people their food faster. And we want to be consistent, but we also want to tweak the experience each time someone comes in. Every time we want it to be good, of course, but we want people to experience something just slightly different. We don’t want to be putting out food like an assembly line. We want to help them develop a palate. Actually, up until about six months ago, we didn’t even have recipes written down. We just worked through the menu through extensive training and practice, so we could really highlight those differences for people. It’s all about seasoning. We prepare the taste, and it’s just slightly unique each time.
CM: Any upcoming deals or specials that people should know about? What do you think is the most popular item ordered here?
HP: By and large, people will orders their tacos Sante Fe style and the rest kind of fall fairly evenly.
CM: Really? Why is that?
HP: I don’t know, I guess. I think it’s the first way they try them when they first come here. It’s kind of safe and familiar so it is a good place to start. Then when they come back, they kind of just stick with what they know. That’s actually why we started the Taco Tour punch card.
CM: Tell me more about that.
HP: So we have a punch card where you have to try all the styles before you get rewarded. And you know, we’ve never had anyone complain about that. They are pretty willing to try new things. They are never disappointed. We were closed for Spring break in March, doing some renovations, knocking down a few walls, and making the place look fresh. Hopefully we’ll have some sort of grand re-opening when it’s all said and done.
Speaking from experience, Taco Montes is a fun adventure for the taste buds. That’s what I love about them. They are definitely unique to Bozeman. With the classic vehicle of tacos, I can actually get a world of different flavors each time I venture in there. My favorite, if you’re feeling really adventurous, is the Korean style with pickled veggies, kimchi, sriracha aioli, cilantro, toasted sesame seeds, and a bugogli-style sauce. Of course, you can’t go wrong with a classic street or Baja style. The thing is, you’re going to get a burst of flavor regardless of what you order. While you might love the personality of your own little niche in Bozeman, stepping out and trying something new should definitely be a must-do at Taco Montes.