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  11 December 2017  |  Vol: 4 facebooktwitterrss  
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Beverly Ridge: Open Wheels in West Yellowstone

Entrance to La Palmas in West Yellowstone, alternative newspaper bozeman magpie

It’s hard to spin a lap through the channels today without finding a show on gourmet food trucks. Celebrity chefs are hanging their hat on the rear-view, websites spurt options to city visitors from Portland to Philly, and every cultural magazine has featured the next Wolfgang Puck of the parking lot. But, like everything except winter in the Last Best Place, we had to wait a little longer to get our own.

Los Angeles was among the first to embrace mobile, high quality cuisine at truck stop prices, and many of their trailblazers pushed Mexican fare. When it comes to cutting edge eateries, the Big Sky state gets small in a hurry, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that this region’s first notable entry stuck to the Tex-Mex traffic lane.

I kept catching tempting snippets about the “taco bus” in West Yellowstone, and when I learned that the owner’s cousin had started up in Ennis and another is running open wheels in Dillon, I knew it was time to visit the mother ship.

If you’ve ever been to “West,” you’d know we didn’t struggle to find the place. The town is a couple dozen square blocks, most of which bilk the tourists who stray outside Yellowstone National Park. Ask after the taco bus at any hotel front desk, town pump, or trinket store, and you’ll get pointed in the right direction. Parked halfway down the busiest block in town, La Palmas (the official restaurant name, meaning “The Palms”) is painted with beach scenes on the white canvas of a Bluebird school bus.

Menu at La Palmas in West Yellowstone, alternative newspaper Bozeman MagpieBut we didn’t drive 90 miles for whitewash. We were actually on a road trip south to wring a few more days out of late summer. With 40 different Mexican classics–each photographed and lacquered on a large plywood menu–La Palmas easily represents the most agreeable option on West Yellowstone’s pit row (especially if you’re racing against the Montana calendar and a midget bank account).

Color me overwhelmed as I stood at the register, making like Danica Patrick around and around the menu. Finally, I pointed at the taco plate and tried to warm up the hostess with my microwaved spanglish. Swooping in after an all-points-review of the speedwagon, the navigator took one look and decisively ordered the Burrito Colorado. Bus fare for two, including imported Jarritos soft drinks and a nice tip, came in a few pesos under $20.

We sat in the front half of the bus. They’ve removed the old benches from junior high school nightmares and installed continuous wooden bleachers and counters along the windows. The result is so ultra low-key that it’s quite endearing, though the 40” flatscreen by the windshield likely overpowers on game nights. Daniel, the owner, and his wife cook in the back of the bus, now a converted kitchen that Airstream should analyze. The two make an efficient team; their moves are all well practiced and built for the redline. The only sounds come from the grill and a one-speaker radio, as the two keep the customers breezing through La Palmas.

A word about the radio: it may not offer iPod glam, but it was streaming heart-bleeding Mexican boleros as authentic as the food on our plates. Homemade tortillas, fresh salsa, ripe avocados and tomatoes with refried beans viscous enough to mend the emptiest belly, we hummed right through the food. The unforgettable tacos could give Alba and La Tinga a run for the money, and the servings were generous. The navigator parsed out a small bite of his burrito, but it took more batted eyelashes than an Idaho state trooper. The tangy, shredded pork made it worth every one.

Taco plate at La Palmas in West Yellowstone, alternative newspaper Bozeman Magpie

With the dramatic hair-flip of a soap opera senorita, I resisted scraping the last black beans from the paper plate. I reached instead for my orange soda bottle and noted that the mild tunes carried over the customers, too. This particular Bluebird had successfully eviscerated its pre-Ritalin echoes, and all I could hear was a faint din of the food devoted.

Before clocking half an hour on the stopwatch, we were back on Highway 191, southbound and satiated. While I will confess that the lunchtime experience stayed with us longer than most, the only regret I have now that I’m back home in Bozeman is the long drive to visit La Palmas again. -BM

Contributor photo of Beverly Ridge, food critic for The Bozeman Magpie alternative newspaperBeverly Ridge is the area's first regularly featured restaurant reviewer.  A native of the valley and a veteran of the food service industry, she's a virtuoso on all things epicurean.  She's also made it a personal mission to protect Montana diners from the fleecing imposters, the lazy sourpusses, and the just plain rotten.  For more of her reviews, click here.

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