Hog Heaven

Paula and Charlie Ballard are in “Hog Heaven,” serving Southern cuisine from their big red food truck in Choteau.

If you’re hankering for home-cooked Southern cuisine in Choteau, head on down to the vacant lot just south of the Stage Stop Inn and place an order with Hog Heaven — Charles and Paula Ballard’s new food truck that promises “Southern cooking at its best!”

The Ballards, who have made Choteau their home for the past five years, recently opened their mobile food truck business, serving a daily menu that includes hamburgers, cheeseburgers, fresh-cut french fries, Southern sausage on a stick or in a flour tortilla with cheese, hot dogs and a variety of pop beverages.

Their menu also includes a bacon burger or a bacon cheeseburger that is made with the bacon infused into the ground beef for a big bacon taste.

In addition to the regular menu, the Ballards are also offering a daily special that harkens back to their roots in Texas and Arkansas. Some of their daily specials recently have included: jambalaya with Southern sausage, pork and chicken served with cornbread; chicken-fried steak fingers, white country gravy, mashed “tators” and sweet peas; pork chops, Southern-loaded mashed “tators,” green beans with bacon; chicken-fried chicken, white country gravy, mashed “tators” and corn; fiesta chicken, with chips or tortillas; hamburger steak with brown mushroom gravy, fried “tators” and stir-fry vegetables; tacos with salsa and chips; and authentic fajita quesadilla, beef or chicken, served with Mexican rice and refried beans; and pulled pork sandwich, baked beans and coleslaw.

The hours and days that the Hog Heaven food truck is open are variable, but are mainly Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and then 4:30 to 8:30 p.m. The Ballards are posting their weekly hours and weekly menus on their Hog Heaven Facebook page. Anyone wanting to check out the restaurant on wheels can go online first to find the hours and daily specials. Also, people can call in orders at 750-4546.

Charles and Paula grew up in the South. Charles was born in Pasadena, California, but at age 3 moved with his family to Pasadena, Texas, where he grew up. Paula was born and raised in Arkansas. The couple has been married since 1999 and they have several children, the youngest of whom, Bryan, is a junior at Choteau High School.

They moved to Choteau from Houston, Texas, in 2012, when Charles’s employer, the Lauren Co. opened a fabrication yard to build oil field equipment on property just south of Bynum along U.S. Highway 89. Charles worked as the senior safety manager for the fabrication yard until a down-turn in the oil industry prompted Lauren to close the facility.

Charles said Lauren gave him the choice to move back to Houston and travel for work to different Lauren sites or to stay in Choteau and travel to work to different sites.

“There was no question,” he said. “We fell in love with Choteau.”

Charles said they started discussing the possibility of launching a food truck business about two years ago, and last year, he purchased a one-ton mechanical service truck that he gutted and rebuilt as a fully licensed commercial kitchen on wheels.

Charles had been on the road for Lauren for the past three years, and with Bryan playing sports for CHS, they were looking for ways to stay closer to town. When Lauren furloughed him, he and Paula decided to use the food truck as a way of allowing him to stay in Choteau and spend more time with his family.

Paula said that in Texas, she did some food preparation and catering as a small business and has always enjoyed working in food service. “It’s something that I always thought would be fun, to have a little concessions truck,” she said.

Charles says they have both always enjoyed cooking, especially for their families and special events. Through the years, he said, people who enjoy their cooking have encouraged them to go into the food service business.

Charles said he remodeled the mechanics truck into a kitchen that is capable of serving in all kinds of weather, including Montana’s cold winters. He said he looked at purchasing an already-designed food truck, but none of the ones he looked at seemed capable of withstanding a Montana winter.

The Hog Heaven truck that he built has fire-proof insulation in the floors and walls. Instead of using plastic wall materials, he said, he used stainless steel for the walls and ceiling, and used aluminum for the floor. A gasoline generator keeps electricity flowing to the truck, and the kitchen includes a 36-inch griddle, two full-sized baker’s ovens, a refrigerator/freezer, a microwave and four sinks along with storage for foodstuffs and cooking implements.

The couple said they have experimented with different food providers and have found several that are now providing them with the raw products they need to make their signature dishes.

They are introducing diners here to “boudin” — a Cajun-style sausage made from pork rice dressing. It’s flavorful and “out of this world,” Charles says, adding that this is his favorite staple on the menu. He said they purchase the boudin, pre-made, up from a company in Louisiana that they love.

Paula said one of the big differences in the Southern food they prepare compared to Montana cuisine is the use of spices. Southern foods, she said, “have more flavor, more seasoning, more taste. We like spicy. That’s a big thing in the South — all the spiciness. We just wanted to bring something different to the North and hopefully everyone is enjoying it.”

So far, she said, the daily specials and the fresh-cut (never froze) french fries seem to be people’s favorites — those and the bacon-infused burgers and cheeseburgers.

Charles added, “People come back every day for our fries.”

One of the most popular daily specials has been the jambalaya, that they prepare with pork, chicken and sausage cooked with vegetables in a spicy rice mix, Paula added.

Charles said the chicken and beef they use for their quesadillas is marinated and seasoned before it’s cooked and the spices are what give the entree its extra kick.

So far the business has been going well, they said. They had a compressor go out of their refrigerator, but local contractor Lucas Gunderson was able to fix the part, which was under warranty. Their bright red food truck is now decorated with decals that they purchased from Black Sheep Sports.

Paula says they both enjoy hearing positive feedback on their meals. “We just want to bring good food at a good price. So far it seems to be going really good,” she said.

Last Thursday, they sold 62 pork chop dinners, and Charles posted on the Hog Heaven Facebook page: “Thank you Choteau! We brought you 62 pork chop dinners. As of now we have two left! Thank you for letting me and my wife bring you a taste of our home cooking. We will continue to strive to bring you the best quality food at as fair a price as possible.”

Charles said his favorite part of the business right now is getting to spend time working with Paula and being here for Bryan. “I love the people too,” he said. “I’m a people person. I’m not really meant for this traveling stuff.”

Paula said, “For me, it’s all of it — the cooking, enjoying seeing everyone enjoying it, hearing the feedback on it. Being able to stick with him all day, every day.”

She encouraged anyone who hasn’t tried their cuisine to “come out and try it out.”

Their patrons are also encouraged to go to the Hog Heaven Facebook page and hit the “use app” button to take the company’s “daily special” poll to let them know what the favorites are.

Acantha editor