Mixin’ it up, Montana-style: Starting from scratch at Dirty Oscar’s Annex

December 10, 2016 GMT

On a sparse 70-mph stretch of US 87, in an otherwise cookie-cutter burger-and-Budweiser log saloon 16 miles south of the gritty coal community of Roundup, an unlikely troupe of Tacoma, Wash., transplants is scheming and dreaming.

Bartender Colin Smith, a towering behind-the-bar presence whose name bubbles to the surface on any list of top Tacoma ’tenders, schemes of an infinite array of custom-infused spirits, house-made syrups, juices, sodas and tinctures featuring his own deft touches while honoring traditional classics as a nod to “the Godfather of classic cocktails,” Jerry Thomas. Tattoo-sleeved Aaron Grissom, who became a chef at age 19, dreams of a frontier-urban food menu with appetizers and entrees like those that landed him on the Bravo program “Top Chef”; his tasso tacos and made-from-scratch parmesan tater tots drew Guy Fieri’s attention and a spot on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”

“It’s going to be consistent with what’s happening in the bar – classic cuisine, 100 percent from scratch,” Grissom explains.

From behind the L-shaped mahogany bar, where he lights a “shock-and-awe” fire atop an orange-tinted amaretto sour, Smith adds, “I want to reintroduce this area to the evolution of cocktails.”

At the root of all this libation and culinary ambition are Jake and Rachael Barth, who stumbled upon Roundup during a homecoming snowstorm four Octobers ago while driving home to the Puget Sound from property holdings in the Bakken oilfields of North Dakota.

“I instantly fell in love with it,” recalls Rachael Barth, who describes Roundup as a community that “wraps its arms around me and my children” during Jake’s frequent road trips.

The Barths moved to Roundup soon after and two years later bought the perpetually for-sale Branding Iron Saloon. They renamed it Dirty Oscar’s Annex for the popular Tacoma watering hole where Jake Barth was co-owner, Grissom served as executive chef and Smith worked his mixology magic.

Undaunted by Roundup’s proximity to the geographic center of nowhere and the town’s anxiety over the future of its coal-driven economy, the immigrant owners envision a gravel parking lot full of Montana license plates from near and far. The clientele will be drawn to this arid pine and scrub outpost by the frontier-urban, always-changing, everything-homemade – yes, everything, right down to the salt, ketchup, seasonings, rubs, pasta and hand-carved ice -- drink and food menus resulting from the synergistic creativity of Smith and Grissom.

The Barths began renovations immediately and provided glimpses of the future with cleverly named spirits and an equally creative menu that brought flair to meat-and-potato saloon fare. For two years they operated under an interim manager, bartender and chef, until Smith and Grissom arrived in late October.

With the Barths’ blessings, the duo is going full throttle on a complete food-and-drink renaissance they plan to unveil to the public in early 2017, so don’t bother memorizing either menu. They’re keeping their future plans close to the vest, but acknowledge a commitment to sourcing their meats, produce, breads and cheese regionally, and eventually building a greenhouse for year-round herbs and greens destined to go on the plate or into the glass.

And of the front man for it all is Smith, who “thoroughly enjoys when a person smiles (after that first sip).” Oh, and to allay customer worries about hitting the road after an evening of imbibing, Dirty Oscar’s offers free meals to designated drivers.

“It’s all been theory and concept until about a week ago,” Grissom said. “The whole idea is to bring farm to table to life. It’s up to us as cooks and bartenders to bring it to the public. We don’t expect it to happen overnight.”

After years amid the bright lights, sights and sounds of the Puget Sound, these unlikely transplants realize the challenges of setting up shop where a half-dozen owners tried and gave up. But the team is undeterred. Their scheming and dreaming brought them to this place, and they’re confident they’ve found a new home for the long haul.

“We’re just kind of getting back to our roots,” Grissom said. “We think this couldn’t be a better platform.”