HILL CITY, S.D. — Travelers to the Black Hills won’t fatigue from wild animal sightings: bison, prairie dogs, pheasants, even occasional shake of a rattlesnake’s tail. And while not all safaris end with feasts, if eating the thing that hours earlier you pointed to from the back of the 1880 Train isn’t unnerving, there are a number of places across the wooded mountains, open prairies and badlands vacationland to try local game (and other favorites) for dinner.

Try rattlesnake, at least one

A rattlesnake-and-rabbit sausage is a popular menu item at the Blue Bell Lodge in the Black Hills of South Dakota. A patio overlooks French Creek, as seen on Wednesday, May 19, 2021. (Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service)
A rattlesnake-and-rabbit sausage is a popular menu item at the Blue Bell Lodge in the Black Hills of South Dakota. A patio overlooks French Creek, as seen on Wednesday, May 19, 2021. (Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service)

At the Blue Bell Lodge, a hotel and restaurant secluded along remote French Creek in Custer State Park in the Southern Hills, a rattlesnake-and-rabbit (“the R&R”) sausage is a menu prize.

Staffer Nate Cortney says the supplier comes from “down in Nebraska,” but the spicy sausage surprises diners, some who come back years later for a sequel.

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“We have people come four years later and say I tried this and want it again,” Cortney said.

Bison sighted … on menus

A bison enjoys a grass dinner in western South Dakota in the early spring of 2021. (Matt Gade / Mitchell Republic)
A bison enjoys a grass dinner in western South Dakota in the early spring of 2021. (Matt Gade / Mitchell Republic)

The marquee attraction for a western South Dakota trip — and officially the national mammal, by an act of Congress in 2016 — the American Bison has a storied culinary history in the region, from Tanka Bar, produced on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, to dining room’s stews, burgers, meatloaves, and raviolis.

While locals rarely venture into Keystone, S.D., in the shadow of Mount Rushmore, the Ruby House — a turn-of-the-century-style parlor — is a popular (and well-reviewed) spot for a bison ribeye steak. Ask the server for the bourbon glaze.

Elk flavors the bold

The elk ravioli at Dakotah Steakhouse in Rapid City (and all food items) can be ordered to-go for diners who'd rather eat outdoors, especially during the still-lingering COVID-19 pandemic, such as this Forum News Service reporter on Tuesday, May 25. (Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service)
The elk ravioli at Dakotah Steakhouse in Rapid City (and all food items) can be ordered to-go for diners who'd rather eat outdoors, especially during the still-lingering COVID-19 pandemic, such as this Forum News Service reporter on Tuesday, May 25. (Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service)

State officials earlier this year estimated 7,000 elk populate the Black Hills, with some apparently roaming onto menus, too, from the Lawrence Elk wine at Prairie Berry Winery outside Hill City to various steakhouses in the form of a burger.

But for a novel dish, there’s the elk ravioli (dressed in a cream sauce) at Dakotah Steakhouse on the eastern edge of Rapid City. “People ask us all the timed for the best steak, and we usually pointed to that place out on the interstate,” a former director of a state’s stock grower’s association told Forum News Service.

Finding pheasant

A pheasant special at the Powder House Lodge in Keystone, South Dakota, on Tuesday, May 18, 2021. (Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service)
A pheasant special at the Powder House Lodge in Keystone, South Dakota, on Tuesday, May 18, 2021. (Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service)

While not a native species to South Dakota, the Chinese ringneck pheasant — with its speckled back and emerald head — is a year-round roadside ambassador in the state’s tall grasses, especially during the fall when trucks (and planes) of hunters arrive.

Finding pheasant recipes in cookbooks isn’t hard (a state centennial cookbook lists casseroles, a hot dish and a Kiev), but locating the bird on a public-facing restaurant can be trickier, especially out west.

For the best, though, try the Powder House (up the road from the Ruby House in Keystone), where the roasted bird occasionally appears as the special. And keep eyes peeled on the drive back, with birds sometimes known to spring from grassy lairs and blow right past your windshield to awake groggy motorists.

Indian tacos in the Badlands

The so-called "Indian Tacos," layered fixings atop indigenous fry bread, are served up in to-go containers during the pandemic at Cedar Pass Lodge in Badlands National Park. (Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service)
The so-called "Indian Tacos," layered fixings atop indigenous fry bread, are served up in to-go containers during the pandemic at Cedar Pass Lodge in Badlands National Park. (Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service)

Indigenous fry bread, with colonialist roots, has gone through a culinary reassessment in recent years, the Miss Navajo competition dropping its preparation in 2017.

But at the Cedar Pass Lodge, a privately owned business just west of the Ben Reifel Visitor Center in Badlands National Park, that otherwise ordinary cafeteria in the back of the gift shop, a masked woman with an iPad is ready to take down your name for a to-go box, and order the Indian Taco, a thick fry bread topped with ground beef (even bison), tomatoes, olives, cheese, and accompanied by a packet of cream cheese.

It’s not technically game, but Forum News Service thought no movable feast across the Black Hills region would be complete without a trip to Cedar Pass.

The Cedar Pass Lodge -- prior to the start of tourism season -- in Badlands National Park in western South Dakota. (Matt Gade / Mitchell Republic)
The Cedar Pass Lodge -- prior to the start of tourism season -- in Badlands National Park in western South Dakota. (Matt Gade / Mitchell Republic)

Other adventurous fare

Rocky Mountain Oysters at the SteerFish steakhouse in Spearfish, the bison burger at the Deadwood Social Club, where one can eat under the watchful gaze of Calamity Jane hoisting a rifle, or fairly ordinary burgers at the decidedly extraordinary Moonshine Gulch Saloon, if you can find it.