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Last exit to Montana 

NLR steakery not worth a detour.

INTERSTATE CUISINE: At Montana.
  • INTERSTATE CUISINE: At Montana.

The McCain Boulevard exit from the Jacksonville freeway in North Little Rock would make a splendid location for a movie about soulless suburbia.

Acres of concrete and asphalt, littered with fungible chain stores and restaurants including a matched set of fake “roadhouses,” it could just as easily be the traffic-choked entrance to Hoboken or Ventura.

Montana Steakhouse, the latest strip-center entry in this highway hell, is appropriate to the setting. If there’s a scrap of Montana in the plain setting — either in decor or menu offerings — we couldn’t detect it. The wooden booths and dangling light fixtures perhaps suggest a barebones bunkhouse modern. And I guess they run some cattle up in Big Sky country.

The beef we ate tasted like it had been run all the way from Montana. Grisly, lean and flavorless, it’s not a reason to detour to Montana. Nor are the prices a particular lure. Steaks run $13 to $22 with sides — affordable, but not family steakhouse cheap, either.

Appetizers to desserts suggest the kitchen is more about heating pre-prepared items than about scratch cooking. There are some decent foods on the inventories of food wholesalers, to be sure, but there’s something in us that likes a pie with a hand-shaped crust and food that doesn’t shout precision portion control.

Things started downhill with a drink order. Why a martini? Why not? It never came and it never came. We’d given up on it and then it appeared, alongside our soup. It was stingy and watery and lukewarm like the soup and we wish they HAD forgotten it.

Soup (an included option with main courses) was billed as steak and wild rice soup and it tasted OK, but it looked to be white rice, not the wild kind, swimming with a couple of chunks of boiled beef in a gravy-like broth. Our pal opened with salad instead, a skimpy scattering of romaine, with a giant chunk of the butt-end of the stalk in the middle of the dish and a cup of bottled dressing on the side.

We ordered the 9-ounce sirloin ($12.99) and the 14-ounce ribeye ($18.99) and then argued back and forth about which was the toughest and which was the least flavorful. These are thin steaks (the ribeye is cut from the big end of the loin so it’s bigger around, but still skinny) and it’s not surprising that the kitchen missed the mark and overcooked them both.

Sides included cold sauteed vegetables, some gummy mashed potatoes flavored with off-tasting garlic and, the hit of the evening, a big, hot baked potato topped with bacon, green onion and cheddar cheese.

The servers were sweet and attentive, but forgetful. Such as: We never got the bread that is supposed to be served with entrees. No matter. On another trip we left mostly untouched the “French” bread dunked in melted “butter.”

We passed on dessert, figuring we just as easily could drop by the grocery for Sara Lee or similar cheesecake, key lime pie, chocolate pecan pie or double chocolate cake and get a whole one, rather than paying from $4.29 to $5.79 for a slice.

There’s a full bar and a short wine list with modestly priced varietals, plus a couple of TVs over the bar to divert your attention from the plate, but we still can’t figure what niche this place is targeting. North Little Rock has plenty of steak joints. Perhaps the idea is simply to be another freeway strip-center restaurant selling human fuel priced to exact a decent profit margin from those trapped in the maw of a dangerous exit. Montana, it should be noted, shares a strip mall with the recently opened Japanese steakhouse and sushi restaurant Kan Pai, which is run by the same ownership.

You can eat cheaply. Beef tips cost $10.99; there’s a hamburger steak for $9.99 with all the sides; grilled salmon runs $14.99 and the sandwich roster — burgers, chicken, Portobello mushroom — runs from $7 to $9 including chips or fries. You can also choose pasta topped with shrimp, chicken or vegetables.

We’d recommend lunch over dinner. The kaiser-style bun overwhelmed the preformed and tasteless burger patty, but the accompanying fries with seasoned salt weren’t bad. And we truly enjoyed the Philly cheese steak sandwich, a fine drippy thing on a spongy hoagie bun with a generous portion of thinly sliced ribeye, plenty of sauteed onions and peppers and white cheese the correct pasteurized-process variety that oozed nicely after heating.

The name still puzzles us. Besides Philly cheese steak, the menu includes several dishes with a Louisiana heritage, including a shrimp and sausage roll, sauteed shrimp, popcorn shrimp and red beans and rice with andouille sausage. Come to think of it, Louisiana isn’t particularly well-known for its beef. Maybe they should have called it Louisiana Steak House.

Montana Steakhouse

4120 E. McCain Blvd.
North Little Rock
955-2244

Quick bite
If you’re drinking, go with draft beer. The baked potato with plenty of toppings and Philly cheesesteak were standouts for us.

Hours
11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mon.-Fri.; 4:30-9:30 p.m. Mon.-Thu.; 4:30-10:30 Fri.; 11-10:30 Sat. and Sun.

Other information
Moderate prices. Credit cards accepted. Full bar.

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