At This Montana BBQ Spot, the Potato Salad Almost Steals the Show—While Honoring a Lost Family Member’s Legacy

At This Montana BBQ Spot, the Potato Salad Almost Steals the Show—While Honoring a Lost Family Member’s Legacy
The creamy, protein-heavy potato salad at Jesse Pepper's Smoke Shack in White Sulphur Springs, Mont., almost outshines the brisket. (Courtesy of Mel Redding)

Potato salad isn’t supposed to be a main event. Its humble job is to support other dishes as a kind of chunky mayonnaise, a creamy and tangy mortar between the important dishes. But the other day while I was enjoying some BBQ, the potato salad next to my epic piece of brisket almost stole the show.

At first, those creamy bites were a refuge—light as the breeze compared to the rich and heavy glory of the succulent meat I was there for. The potato salad was like another flavor of BBQ sauce, as the dill, onion, and pickles gave tangy and aromatic balance to the brisket. When I finally ran out of potato salad, I decided to stop eating and take the meat home.

This was at Jesse Pepper’s Smoke Shack, a restaurant in White Sulphur Springs, a small town in the middle of Montana. The potato salad, according to owner Mel Redding, is a collaboration among three generations of her family, combining elements of her mom’s potato salad with some tricks from her son’s recipe, along with her own.

Many families have a special potato salad recipe, but when each family member has their own specific potato salad recipe, we know we’re dealing with a serious crew of baller chefs. But tragically, this team is like the 1992/93 Chicago Bulls, which remained dominant even after losing Michael Jordan. Jesse Pepper’s the restaurant exists, Mel explained, because of her son, chef Jesse Pepper, who died in a car crash nearly two years ago.

“The last time I saw him, he came to visit me,” Mel told me. “He said it’s time that we started a family restaurant. I was going through a divorce. The boys were sick of working for other people. We all kind of needed a change. He made me promise that we would do it.”

After Jesse died, he left a larger-than-life hole. The family left Vermont, bought an old restaurant in White Sulphur Springs, and set to work bringing his idea to life. In the process, the restaurant has turned this tiny town near the continental divide into a culinary destination.

Jesse was an exuberant man with a big laugh, and he is still very much present in the kitchen, where his urn and knives have a special shelf. Every afternoon, his brothers play dubstep music in his honor. Jesse was the one member of the family to graduate from culinary school, and the knowledge he gathered is all over the menu. And although the story of the restaurant isn’t posted, the locals are learning why Jesse Pepper’s is here. “I make sure to tell his story to at least two customers every day,” Mel told me.

A Recipe to Be Shared

White Sulphur Springs sits on a high plateau on the divide between the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers. In this last refuge of winter, still snowing as of mid-June, residents have embraced this hive of gastronomic innovation. The story of Jesse Pepper’s is still beginning, and Mel and Travis generously shared the recipe for their potato salad with us so we could write another chapter.

Part of what makes this potato salad so satisfying is its protein content. It’s got large pieces of hard-boiled eggs and crumbled bacon. On some days at the restaurant, they make it with leftover BBQ, such as brisket burnt ends. It’s also wonderful with browned burger meat. Whatever meat you use will get lathered in the creamy sauce to the point where you can lose track of its identity, but you always know it’s there. Unless you don’t want meat, of course. The dish can be as vegetarian or vegan as you want it to be.

The recipe calls for blending pickles with mayo and sour cream, but the first time I made it, I forgot to buy pickles. Instead, I used some homemade pickled cherry bomb peppers and a jar of relish. It wasn’t the same, but when you make small tweaks to an amazing recipe, you sometimes achieve dazzling results. I enjoyed the heat of the pickled peppers, and the coupling of “relish” and “peppers” in the same sentence seemed appropriate.

Jesse Pepper’s Potato Salad

Serve this alongside rich and delicious main dishes. And if you have no main dish, add more meat.
Makes a whole picnic-load
  • 12 large russet potatoes
  • 6 cups water
  • 1/2 cup vinegar
  • 12 eggs
  • 1 large white onion
  • 1 large red onion
  • 2 cups celery
  • 3 large dill pickles
  • 3 cups mayo (they use Best Foods, aka Hellmans, with which one can’t go wrong)
  • 3 cups sour cream (use normal, not cultured sour cream, which is too thick)
  • 1/2 cup mustard
  • 1/4 cup minced fresh dill (not to be a troublemaker here, but I use a lot more)
  • 2 cups chopped pork belly, bacon, burnt ends, or other succulent meat
  • 2 tablespoons salt
  • 2 tablespoons black pepper
Peel the potatoes and cut them small—3/8 by 3/8-inch, ideally—and put them in a large pot. Add water to cover the potatoes and cook on high heat until they’re tender but not mushy. There’s nothing mushy about this recipe. Strain and set aside.

In a small pot, bring the water and vinegar to a boil. Add the eggs, return to a boil, and boil for 10 minutes, then move the pot to the sink with the cold water on. Pour out the hot water and flush with cold water. Then add ice and let them cool.

Start chopping all the other vegetables into medium dice, by which point your eggs will be ready to be peeled and cut into 8 pieces each. Store these in the fridge until the end. Wash off your eggy knife and cutting board.

Add the mayo, sour cream, and pickles to a food processor or blender, and whizz for about 90 seconds, until the pickles are atomized.

Add the onion, celery, mustard, dill, meat, salt, and pepper to a large mixing bowl and thoroughly combine. Add the pickle mayo and mix again. Add the potatoes, and gently mix, lifting from the bottom and carefully folding it over, so nothing gets mushed.