Hilltop Station sits isolated atop a windswept hill above Lucky Peak State Park, just beyond the sign for Highland Valley Summit, elevation 3,782 feet.
There’s been a restaurant at this lofty locale along Idaho 21 since 1952, back when the place was called Sportsman Cafe.
Over the years, the solitary spot has assuredly been a welcome sight for those looking for a burger and a cold brew after frolicking at Lucky Peak or coming back from a day trip to Idaho City.
That’s exactly what brothers Tate and Eric McCullough thought when they purchased the building in 2012 (not long after Kodiak Grill closed) and renovated the longtime cafe, renaming it Hilltop Station. They even put in a convenience store next to the restaurant and bar.
You’re probably tired of hearing about another place that serves pub fare with a twist, but Hilltop Station has strived to do just that since opening last year. The small menu focuses on beer-friendly appetizers, pizza, burgers and sandwiches. There’s also a salad bar.
Eric handles the cooking responsibilities, while Tate takes care of the front of the house, and that means making sure they have plenty of Boise craft beer on tap and other local libations.
The bar area and connected dining room, dominated by an existing river-rock fireplace, boasts wood-and-stone accents, reminding diners that they are in the mountains. A huge pair of antique bellows (once used in a blacksmith shop) hangs on the wall across from the salad bar.
A short list of appetizers starts people off with dishes like Korean street tacos ($8.99) and a grilled quesadilla ($7.99) that oozes a velvety, beer-spiked cheese sauce, smoky bacon bits, chicken and diced red onion.
The tacos are similar to the ones dished up at food trucks up and down the West Coast. Four lightly grilled white corn tortillas swaddle shreds of smoked pulled pork, tangy slaw, cilantro sprigs and toasted sesame seeds. A drizzle of chili-ginger sauce adds some serious spice.
Mom’s crab and jalapeno dip ($7.99) is a popular family recipe around the McCullough house. It will remind diners of crab and artichoke dip, only this version is much spicier. The creamy dip, golden brown on top and pocked with pieces of sweet crab, diced jalapeno, water chestnuts and scallion, gets served with tortilla chips in a trio of colors.
These spicy starters play well with a surprisingly tart and cloudy Vanilla Honey hard cider ($10/22-ounce bottle) from Longdrop Cider Company in Eagle.
For the most part, the appetizers seem to be a success, especially in concert with the local brews, but it appears the pizza is still a work in progress.
I liked the name of the Clucky Peak pizza ($18.99/large) more than I liked the pizza itself. Pizza dough can be a tricky thing, and the dough on this pizza was extremely hard (probably due to over-kneading it) and burnt at the edges. But the amalgam of toppings — sweet barbecue sauce, chicken, bacon, Canadian bacon, artichoke hearts and red onion — came together in an explosion of flavors.
The Hilltop burger ($8.99) is a safe bet, especially when paired with a glass of slightly skunky Lucky Peak Pilsner ($4) from Sockeye Brewing.
A buttered and grilled Kaiser-like bun (smeared with garlicky aioli) got layered with a hand-formed burger patty, house-smoked blue cheese (add $1) and crispy bacon (add $1.50), next to a stack of lettuce, onion, tomato and dill pickle slices.
With the add-ons, the price skyrocketed, but it’s a good burger.
Instead of the free side (potato chips or hot soup on an incredibly hot day), I opted for a trip through the salad bar for $4.99.
The salad bar may be small, but it’s maintained well and stocked with crisp romaine, spinach, macaroni salad, veggies galore, assorted salad dressings and crunchy stuff like wasabi peas, wonton ribbons and toasted sunflower seeds.
I would’ve liked the pulled pork sandwich ($8.99) better if the goopy slaw on top of the saucy pork hadn’t turned the bun into a soggy mess in seconds. You might want to eat this sandwich quickly.
Everyone at the table made short work of a piece of house-made mud pie ($5.99), a large brick of vanilla ice cream coated with pulverized Oreo cookies and syrupy chocolate sauce.
The beverage program at Hilltop Station will surely keep locavores happy, and all critique aside, it’s safe to say the food is above average at this roadside watering hole and eatery.
Statesman reviewers pay for their meals and attempt to dine anonymously. Email James Patrick Kelly: firstname.lastname@example.org.