I ate at The Pickle Barrel, one of Montana's only regional fast-food chains, and even that felt like a one-of-a-kind local spot

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  • Montana doesn't have a lot of regional fast-food chains, but after talking to a bunch of locals, I settled on a mini-chain called The Pickle Barrel as a local favorite.
  • The sub shop claims to have "The best sandwich in the West."
  • The Cheesesteak and South of the Border sandwiches (a cheesesteak variety) were recommended to me, so I ordered a half-size South of the Border for $8.50.
  • It was enormous and very good. I would go back for another.
  • This story is part of our Next Stop series, in which Insider visits the 10 hottest US destinations for 2020. Click here to read more and see all the places we're exploring.
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When you think of Montana, you think Great Plains and Rocky Mountains. It's not nicknamed Big Sky Country for nothing: Montana is synonymous with the outdoors — it's snow-capped peaks and alpine lakes, it's skiing, hiking, fishing, and rafting.

When it comes to food though, Montana is a lot more ambiguous.

When I asked a few local Montanans — from a colleague to people who worked for Bozeman's visitor's center to people I met there — about Montana's iconic local dish, everyone grappled with an answer, though I narrowed it down to huckleberries and bison meat.

The same went for local fast-food spots, though I ultimately, with locals' approval, settled on The Pickle Barrel.

The sub spot is as folksy as its name implies, and the outpost I went to felt so cute and homey I struggled to believe this was a chain, and not a one-of-a-kind local spot.

Keep scrolling to see what Montanans consider fast food.

The Pickle Barrel was started by a couple in Bozeman, Montana, in 1975. To date, it has only four locations — one of which is in South Dakota. The other three are in Montana.

It claims on its website to be "The best sandwich in the West for 30 years," and that it was "voted best sandwich in Bozeman for seven years running."

The Bozeman location — the original location — is a small, free-standing structure near the Montana State University campus.

When I walked in, the door opened on its own: a giant man with a long bushy beard that looked like a Hells Angel had opened it for me, as he was pressed to the side of the wall. The place was tiny, and the small bench was occupied by two similarly wild-looking men waiting for their sandwiches.

When they heard that this was my first time at a Pickle Barrel, they got positively giddy. "You're in the right place!" one of them exclaimed, saying it had the very best sandwiches, and recommending the Cheesesteak and South of the Border.

The location was rustic and homey and filled with knick-knacks and signs …

… and, yes, a self-serve pickle barrel.

While a sign shows three sizes: the 10.5-inch Jimmy Johns, the 12-inch Subway, and the 17.5-inch Pickle Barrel, you can order either a half or full. The massive guy who held open the door for me said he can barely finish a full-sized sub here.

I ordered the recommended South of the Border: chopped beef, onions, salsa, and Monterey jack cheese, topped with lettuce and tomatoes.

It was made to order.

I was shocked by how massive it was — I had ordered a half! Despite having carried it to my hotel room to eat (there was nowhere to sit at the Pickle Barrel) it was still warm when I finally got to unwrap it.

The salsa was delicious: spicy and tangy, but also somehow mildly acidic. The chopped beef was thinly sliced and tender, the cheese perfectly oozy.

The bread was chewy and soft, and while I usually prefer crispy bread that flakes with every bite, it was the perfect vessel for the enormous amount of fixin's inside.

I usually love pickles, but this one was not for me. While it was nice and crunchy (I hate chewy pickles) it was overwhelmingly herby, and tasted weirdly minty.

All in all, this was an excellent sandwich that I would absolutely get again.


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