I love the feel of Don Henley’s song “Sunset Grill.” It takes me away to a fictional place, with hidden corners to watch people from, whips of cool neon light catching the corner of your eye, breezy evenings stretching effortlessly past midnight.
I thought of Henley’s song (the lyrics of which are actually kind of depressing) when I walked up to The Monterey. The warmth of orange-red neon crowning the entrance was just right. The casual, outdoor dining area, fenced off from the street, has a kind of Austin-by-way-of-California feel going for it. On a clear, cool night our corner was first rate for watching the action; the waiter brought me a serape to warm up in and a glass of sparkling rosé. Just right.
The restaurant opened late last year in Southtown to a lot of hoo-rah, but our first glimpses didn’t bear out other reviewers’ descriptions of the place as “important” or especially fabulous. We decided to give it time – and aren’t we glad we did and that they’re still there.
The Monterey is a young person’s place, and yet manages to feel ageless. On every visit the music has been solid, from alternative to hip-hop to vintage Stones.
The clientele does lean to metro-professionals, along with the occasional young family or two, dating couples or neighborhood folks who just stray in. Older folks don’t stay away. I saw two people even older than I am diving into monster grilled cheese sandwiches and tossing back cold beers.
The place bills itself as a gastropub. Pubs serve comfort food, but gastropubs like to go up the culinary ladder a rung or two.Here’s the drill: The food comes out when it’s ready rather than following any particular plan. Our french fries, for instance, came out first one afternoon. They were gone before the other food came and, dammit, we had to buy a second order.
It’s not just that we are greedy for fries — oh, yes, we are — but the french fries at The Monterey might be the best I’ve ever had. Forget those pale little sticks at McDonald’s or the over-browned-but-still-limp natural fries some places insist on serving. Here they are spectacular – long, meaty, crunchy, greasy, big, take-no-prisoners fries that demand to be dipped into the little cup of green garlic sauce (like an aioli) on the side.
I’ve described the Grilled Cheese Sandwich before on SavorSA, as an “adult” sandwich. If you were the kind of little kid who only ordered a grilled cheese sandwich at restaurants because you were afraid the cook would screw up anything else, it’s time to re-experience that sandwich. The Monterey’s version is big and oozy, with thick grilled bread and more than a sufficiency of melting fontina and Irish cheddar cheeses.
A Redfish, Pimento Cheese and Jowl Bacon Po’ Boy on a grilled bun came at you with fistful of flavor that somehow reinvented this quintessential Louisiana sandwich. Still with that crunch, but then the recognition of another certified Southern flavor, the pimento cheese, rich as could be. Topped with, well, bacon, which makes everything better. Good thing we had a bowl of homemade pickles, made with everything from from black radish to watermelon rind, to distract us, and a cooling watermelon, tomato and feta salad on the side.
I’m not sure how often the menu rotates items, but on one night we were surprised by an entrée that demanded being ordered. The dish of curry-scented pork sausages with pickled tomatoes and preserved lemon on the side ended up interfering with our conversation, as we just stopped talking to polish it off. Another set of flavors came at dessert, as we lightened up with chunks of perfectly ripe strawberry and local ricotta drizzled with honey and garnished with fennel.
A beer and wine list was not long, but complete enough to satisfy those who wanted bubbly by the glass to those who wanted imported beer. Segura Viudas, not just because it’s inexpensive, is always welcome on the wine menu, as is the beer. Any beer on a hot night, but these are good beers. Even the ones in the can.
If you go to The Monterey, remember it isn’t open for lunch. (A changing schedule kept us from getting at least three times in its early days, but we forgive them. Because we can.) It opens late afternoons but stays open until midnight. There is a Sunday brunch, however. We hope they keep the good stuff coming, because it definitely goes on our “must go back” list. Take your friends, too. Tasting is believing.
1127 S. Saint Mary’s St.
Dinner Wednesday-Saturday; brunch Sunday
Photographs by Bonnie Walker and John Griffin