How the Quest for the Best Burger Menu Led to Authentic Connection

In the backcountry hunting the best burger menu in Southeast Montana, I couldn’t have imagined what was about to unravel. A Southeast Montana Burger Trail map, which included a list of hamburger menus as long as my arm, was part of the provisions for the expedition. After an active day of swimming and boating on the vast Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, my stomach growled as we parked in front of the restaurant. I was just plain hungry; I wasn’t looking for a story.

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Pinterest graphic with cessna plane and buger reading "How the quest for the best burger menu led to authentic connection"
red cliffs rise above blue waters rippled by a gliding boat
After a full day on the water at Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, i was hungry!

The map with its best burger menu had piloted me to Hardin, Montana, one hour southeast of Billings. Under the marquee of 3 Brothers Bistro, a guy in a cowboy hat, pressed shirt and tight jeans opened the door for his wife and held it a moment longer for me. When my eyes adjusted from the bright prairie sun, I saw locals filling the tables along the walls. Old West memorabilia interspersed with classic movie art decorated the walls. I’d soon be surprised by the story behind one of the artifacts that hung there and how it intersected with my own history.

Although my mind was set on the trail’s best burger menu feature—The Big Horn Burger smothered in smoked pulled pork—I was anxious to see other offerings at this hideaway restaurant lauded by the locals. But, of course, that would be easy to do since I was joining other travel writers, who were sure to order a variety of items from the extensive menu. Sure enough, once seated, the others started discussing the choices.

Best burger menu and then some

“The chicken, bacon mac & cheese looks enticing,” said Brenda.

“I’m looking at the smoked salmon melt,” announced Roxie. Our server Sean had explained that all the smoking was done in-house.

“Who wants to split the Burger Trail specialty?” I asked. “I’ve heard these Montana burgers are monstrous, and I’m not sure I want to tackle it alone.” Unfortunately, I didn’t get any takers as my colleagues landed on other mesmerizing menu items.

I continued to peruse the best burger menu I’d seen in a while.

CHECK OUT: Southeast Montana Burger Trail

Finally, Eric relented, “I’ll order the Greek Salad but will split the burger with you. Just be sure to get an extra plate.” When Sean took his order, Eric grabbed the suggestion of topping his salad with grilled chicken breast, and my heart fell a little. Did he still want to split the half-pound burger? I shot Eric an inquisitive look across the table.

“Don’t forget the extra plate,” he reminded while answering the unspoken question. After our orders were in, we sat back to enjoy adult beverages and study the restaurant’s walls. Because restaurateurs Greg and Kerri Smith also own the historic movie theatre next door, they display a lot of Hollywood memorabilia. However, what caught Eric’s eye was the bent propeller hanging on the back wall.

“How did that propeller get one blade bent and not the other?” Eric wondered aloud. 

I looked at it and said matter-of-factly, “The pilot was landing and dipped his nose down too low.” I’d heard the story repeatedly over the years of how my dad did that very same thing on his first solo flight from Minneapolis to Cokato, Minnesota.

Thanks to  Roxie Yonkey of Roxie on the Road for the photo.

“But why is only one propeller blade bent and not the other?”

“The plane was probably slowing for the approach, so when the first blade hit, it stopped the rotation. I figure the plane got hit by a side wind.” I’d listened intently over the years to my dad retelling one of his most embarrassing moments. Eric waved off my suggestion with the back of his hand.

About then, the food started arriving, and like all reasonable travel and food writers, we started taking photos of the plated delicacies.

“Send me that photo of your mac & cheese,” I said to Brenda. “Tomorrow is National Mac & Cheese Day, so I want to post it on Facebook.”

Bent propeller at 3 Brothers in Hardin, MT | photo by Roxie Yonkey of Roxie on the Road
deep white ceramic bowl of crusty mac-n-cheese with handles sits on top of square white ceramic dish with fork and hand that hold it
There's more than the best burger menu at 3 Brothers Bistro: Chicken, Bacon Mac & Cheese | Visit Southeast Montana photo

I could tell everyone was enjoying their meals from the silence that followed. When I cut my burger in half, juices oozed out—good thing I had the extra plate Sean brought at no additional charge. I wistfully passed half of my Big Horn Burger over to Eric.

RELATED: 5 Places to Find the Authentic Wild West in Southeast Montana

Big Horn Burger on the Southeast Montana Burger Trail

Huge burger lays on white square plate with top bun raised to see the sauteed mushrooms, onions and BBQ beef topping it, making it one of the best burger menus in SE Montana
Best burger menu: Big Horn Burger on the Southeast Montana Burger Trail

The Big Horn Burger was all that was promised on the hamburger menu: half-pound of Montana beef, done just the way I ordered it and topped with sauteed onions, mushroom, pulled pork and cheese.

After we finished up, Chef Greg Smith came over to get our responses to the meal. Once we bestowed our oohs and aahs, the conversation rolled around to the crushed propeller mounted on the wall.

Chef Greg Smith, creator of the best burger menu, tells his story

Owner-chef Greg Smith engages travel writer Matt from Canada

“How did that propeller get one prop blade bent and not the other?” Eric asked again, this time posing the question to Chef Greg. I had no idea the restaurant owner would know the story so well.

“My mother was flying the plane, and a crosswind shifted her sideways when she came in for the landing. The plane flipped; she survived but was in the hospital for weeks. She was bedridden, and we kids had to care for her. After that, she never piloted a plane again,” explained Chef Greg solemnly.

“Let me show you something,” Chef Greg said, disappearing into the back. Our loud group of writers was suddenly quiet, contemplating the severity of the story. Then, finally, the chef returned with an 18-inch trophy, a thin ledger book and a piece of bent sheet metal. He laid the artifacts on the high-top table for all of us to see.

RELATED: Wild and Wacky SE Montana Family-Friendly Trip will WOW Even the Teens!

Damaged beyond repair

figurs of a skirted woman with hand on hip in gold metallic on top of wooden trophy
First Solo Flight Award reads: "Presented in recognition of today's accomplishment one of the most thrilling experiences of Man"

“This is the trophy my mother earned for her first solo flight,” said Chef Greg. “Here is the flight log of the Cessna she was flying. This is where it logs the crash,” he said, pointing to the last entry of Cessna 172 Skyhawk N5045A. The plane was damaged beyond repair on Diane Smith’s first (and last) solo flight to Bridger, Montana.

He pointed to the date, January 4, 1967. “That’s the last entry on the plane’s log,” he sighed.
The severity of his mother’s crash struck me. I think the others were moved, too. I’d been flip about my hypothesis of how the prop was bent because of my own experience.

My father had damaged half of the propeller of his brand-new Beechcraft Sundowner. But he or the plane suffered no other damage. In fact, no one discovered the bent prop until after he returned to the Minneapolis hanger.

It was interesting to me how the connection brought up so many memories and how the quest for the best burger menu was now simply a means to an end. It was a way to get me onto the road less traveled and to connect me with the authentic people of the Wild West.

I’d been rather flippant about my dad’s near disaster

picture of paper ledger with blue lines and a hunk of bent metal sittiing on top
Flight log of the fated Cessna 172 Skyhawk N5045A

Chef Greg’s story also took me a little deeper, bringing me to the realization that I’d been rather flippant about my dad’s near disaster. The incident had become somewhat of a family joke in our weird Minnesotan-Norwegian sense of humor. The joke starts like this:

Stacey rendezvoused with ex-boyfriend Joe to shoot whitewater one last time in the Grumman canoe they’d purchased together. Her current college boyfriend was oblivious to the tryst. When the first back roller filled the canoe with water, the two-timer was fighting for her life to get ashore. She never saw the canoe again.

Around the same time, sister Dena snuck off in the new Beechcraft Sundowner to fly ex-boyfriend Mike in a clandestine joy ride. After a couple tight banks, Mike was duly affected but so was his stomach. Attempting to land before the upchuck hit Dad’s new upholstery, the sneak overshot the grass runway and skidded through a cornfield. Have you ever seen what corncobs do to the front of airplane wings? Well, Dena’s new beau, George, saw the damage as he owned the flight service where Dad maintained and hangared his Beechcraft.

But even after doing penance and cloaked in regret, the sisters still teased, ‘What was our Dad doing in Cokato?’

The unforeseen story about the mother’s grave injuries brought a flood of mixed memories. The wall-hanger’s backstory also helped me connect to others, including Eric and Chef Greg, whose mother—like my father—had bent props on their first solo flights. Connections I didn’t expect to find while chasing the best burger menu in Southeast Montana.

Books by UNSTOPPABLE Stacey

shape of montana cut out of old barn wood, with these words painted on the wall above: "beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy."
On the wall at 3 Brothers Bistro
woman stands on rooftop with Med sea in background

Hi, I’m Stacey

UNSTOPPABLE Stacey Travel is a travel blog focused on immersive travel that highlights food, wine and the spirituality of place. I also occasionally write about life as a Camino de Santiago pilgrim. I hope you enjoy what I post here. Feel free to leave comments! Read more…

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