The best thing I tried at Steves Cafe recently was a cup of Montana chili: savory, thick with ground beef and hunks of tri-tip sirloin, more meat than kidney beans, glistening with orange fat.
This comes with shredded cheddar and diced white onion, like youd eat at home. It is down-homey in every good way, as though cooked by someone who cared about you when they made it.
Steves Cafe is the sister store of the original Steves in Helena, Montana. More aptly, it is the son; Meridian franchise owner Steven A. Vincelli is the son of founder Steven R. The Idaho location at 2483 E. Fairview Ave. is suburban in both appearance and energy, which is to say that it is pleasantly neutral, if light on character, decorated out of a standard restaurant supply showroom.
You are likely to walk right under the most interesting piece of artwork without seeing it, a large western mural under the skylight. Booths line the front windows and surround the sunny room, the walls textured and topped with a flowery border. On the back wall, behind the counter, is a display of kitschy country-kitchen bric-a-brac. The restaurant is not loud, edgy, hip. It is very clean.
I am a believer in true indulgence when the calories, salt, sugar and fat are real, and the housemade items at Steves feel as though they belong to times past better times, frankly, when people were less afraid of food. I am also completely willing to pay more for real food for the higher quality ingredients it takes, and for the labor to make it and the prices at Steves reflect these costs. Dining solo on two visits, full breakfast (with upcharges to get the specialty items) with coffee and a tip edged just shy of $20.
But because Steves offers an everything-under-the-sun menu, a line is straddled: Not all is made in-house, and while an effort is made to use higher-end pre-made items like French fries and hash browns, I am less inclined to indulge unless it is truly special. My vote is almost always to shrink the menu to what you can always make exceptional.
One example: the Huckleberry Stuffed French Toast ($9, a la carte; $10.75 with two eggs; $11.75 with breakfast meat; $12.75 with eggs and meat). First, admirably, this is not merely some topping sandwiched between two slices of bread, but ricotta, cream cheese, and Montana huckleberries actually stuffed in a slit in the toast. And it comes with a side of bright, tart, housemade huckleberry syrup. But the best French toast has a griddle-crisp exterior and insides like custard, and because the bread used here is a commercial Texas toast, underdone, the dish literally does not come together warm bluish filling slips right out from the too-soft bread.
The outstanding from-scratch Italian sausage, a family recipe packed with garlic and fennel seed and salt, is featured in three breakfast entrees and as a sandwich at lunch. I had the Italian sausage and two eggs (served with two sides for $9.50), which made for a herculean meal, as the sausage must weigh half a pound. I preferred the accompanying from-scratch pancakes (for $3 more you can upgrade to huckleberry, which I did) to the French toast, but the hash browns and eggs paled to ordinary by comparison. (Steves also makes Mexican chipotle and chicken-apple sausages.)
At lunch, the Reuben ($9.75) was superb, chopped corned beef on ethereally light, crispy marble rye, with standard-issue sauerkraut, Thousand Island dressing and Swiss. Once more, the homemade part was so good, it propelled the whole meal forward. But each ingredient is an opportunity, especially on a diner classic like a Reuben. My wifes club wrap ($9.95) was exactly what it said it would be turkey, lettuce, bacon, cheddar, avocado, and sun-dried tomato mayo on a tortilla and almost everything in that list could be improved, be it higher quality, fresher, local, more seasonal or homemade ingredients.
Service at Steves is out-of-the-way friendly. Sitting at the bar, four different people came by to ask how I liked everything, including Steve himself. Business so far has gained a following by word of mouth, which gives Steves a small-town feel. Servers remember faces, learn names, hug the elderly. Steve later told me he wants the restaurant to feel like home, and it was clear he understood that the way to do that was not just with food, but through the morale of his staff. It is easy to root for Steves when that care seems so genuine.