The chef whose Bubba Burger brought national acclaim to Eureka eight years ago is getting ready for the spotlight again. And this time he’s added a new artisan burger that’s topped with a dollop of huckleberry ice cream.
James Monroe, who along with his wife, Andi, own the Front Porch Grill House in Eureka, got a call out of the blue recently with a request that he serve his famous burgers in Washington, D.C. for the reception following the lighting of the Capitol Christmas tree in early December.
The tree is a roughly 70-foot-tall spruce that will be cut in the Kootenai National Forest on Nov. 8. It will be hauled through the country, with stops in Eureka, Whitefish, Libby, Troy, Trout Creek, Thompson Falls and other Montana cities during the more than 3,000-mile journey.
The first whistlestop on the cross-country tour will be at 11 a.m. Monday, Nov. 13 at the Eureka Town Hall. The tree heads to Whitefish later that day and will be at Don K Whitefish at 2:30 p.m. This is the second U.S. Capitol tree to come from the Kootenai National Forest, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
Organizers of the Capital Christmas tree project typically like to pair culinary treats from the area that produces the annual Christmas tree for the U.S. Capitol.
“They remembered the Bubba Burger,” James Monroe said with a broad smile.
In 2009 his Cajun-inspired burger was voted the best burger in the Ultimate Hometown Grill Off sponsored by the television show “Live! with Regis and Kelly.”
The Monroes will be serving their burgers to a crowd of about 300 during a Congressional reception hosted by U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., which follows the tree-lighting on the west lawn of the Capitol.
“In addition to representing the forest, the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree represents the people, culture and communities of the state that it comes from,” said Sandi Mason, project leader for the Kootenai National Forest Capitol Christmas Tree. “We are grateful to the Monroes for sharing their time and talent to bring a hometown Montana story to life in Washington, D.C.”
The Eureka Bubba Burger is a hand-pressed patty topped with spicy Cajun sausage, jumbo shrimp, chipotle sauce and cheddar cheese, served on a homemade bun.
The secret is in the sauce,” James assures.
His Montana Huckleberry Burger also will be featured during the reception. That burger offers huckleberry ice cream, cheddar cheese, jalapenos, huckleberry jam and bacon.
It’s a recent addition to the Front Porch Grill House menu, but “it’s quickly rising to the top,” Andi Monroe said.
She was just the slightest bit hesitant to try the ice-cream topped burger at first, but had to admit after tasting the unusual combination that it was “surprisingly good.”
The Montana Huckleberry Burger was an immediate conversation piece at the downtown eatery. When asked about the ice cream-topped burger, waitresses present it this way: “Think burger and milkshake together.”
James said he was inspired to pair huckleberries and burger after a customer from Denver said she’d tasted a delicious burger that featured blackberry jam.
“I challenge you to come up with a burger like that,” she told him.
Then it was game-on.
“I tried it several different ways, with and without the jam ... I cut them into quarters and gave them to people in the restaurant” for feedback, he said.
A few were skittish, but others warmed up to the unusual combo, so he kept it on the menu as a special until he got enough comments to warrant adding it as a bona fide menu item.
The year after all the fanfare of the Bubba Burger, Monroe and his then-wife Marsha closed their restaurant, The Cutting Board. They moved to the South, got divorced and in 2013 he met Andi, a beauty college manager from the Joplin, Missouri, area. They were married four years ago.
They were in the Eureka area visiting family last year when James learned his old restaurant building was vacant. The solid wood tables he’d built for his former restaurant were still there, and he felt compelled to jump back into the restaurant business.
“The community response has been great,” he said.
The Bubba Burger was immediately back on the menu by popular request
But James’ culinary savvy goes well beyond burgers. He has three culinary degrees, including one from Johnson & Wales University. He worked abroad and earned “chef de partie” status at Trianon Palace in Versailles, France.
This time around he’s building his menu based exclusively on input from his customers.
“We’re wanting to give the community what it wants,” he said.
When a woman who’s a vegetarian came in and didn’t see anything to her liking on the menu and declared, “you don’t have anything I can eat,” James whipped up a beet sandwich, “and she loved it.” It’s now on the menu.
The Monroes take pride in providing part-time jobs to many high-school students who are looking for their first job. They offer a variety of community events such as a caramel apple dipping party and a cookie decorating session during the holiday season. They also donate cakes featuring his mother’s recipe to various benefit auctions.
“We try to give back as much as we can,” James said.
Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or firstname.lastname@example.org.