Monte Carlo Steakhouse – Albuquerque, New Mexico
My propeller-headed, Jedi-worshiping, 40-something Luke Skywalker wannabe colleagues would probably utter something like “come out of the light and into the darkness, Luke” when they step into the Monte Carlo Steakhouse from a bright, sunlit Duke City afternoon. It takes a few seconds for your eyes to adjust to the dimly lit beef and beer palace by the Rio Grande–and when they do adjust, you’ll wonder if you stepped out of a portal into the 1960s. The Monte Carlo Steakhouse is an anachronism, a bona fide throwback to a bygone era–and indeed, the restaurant has been in business since 1970.
Kitschy mirrors emblazoned with the logos of beer distributors, anthropomorphic alcohol decanters, faux wood walls, garish neon signs, Velvet Elvis and stereotypical “leatherette” booths were signs of the times then and the restaurant’s management has seen no reason to change. Why should they? This is one of the most comfortable and welcoming restaurants in the city. To those in the know, it’s also one of Albuquerque’s very best steak houses.
“Those in the know” now include a nation-wide audience who watched the Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives episode called “Where the Locals Go” in which “local hot spots” got the inimitable Guy Fieri treatment. Contrary to the episode’s title, not all locals go to the Monte Carlo. In fact, many people outside the vicinity of Route 66 had probably never heard of it until the Food Network introduced it to them.
As Fieri did, you can enter the steak house through a bustling package liquor store. You can also enter directly through an entrance on the restaurant’s west side. One of the first things you’ll notice is a full-service bar which probably can’t concoct the libation of your choice, but can dispense long-neck Budweiser, Schlitz and Pabst like there’s no tomorrow. The volume is turned way down on the restaurant’s televisions, but then you probably couldn’t hear them amidst the din of an eclectic crowd.
There are no distinctions between the lunch and the dinner menu and even though the menu stipulates that baked potatoes and rice pilaf are available only after 5PM, you can generally have either with your lunch. Lunch specials are available Monday through Friday while a prime rib–regarded by many as among the city’s very best–is the evening special Thursday through Friday. Aside from the aforementioned baked potato (perfectly done) or rice pilaf, each dinner also includes one slice of Texas toast.
The parking lot is generally crowded with mechanical conveyances of every type, size and description and waiting lists tend to be long, especially on weekends. Despite daunting patronage, the wait staff is among the most accommodating and friendly in the city. Many regulars opt for the bounteous Greek appetizer plate in lieu of the standard fried appetizers (zucchini, onion rings, mushrooms and mozzarella cheese sticks) and are rewarded with a platter of salami strips, Greek olives, Pepperoncini, tomatoes and one solitary dolma (stuffed grape leaf) all drizzled with Kalamata olive oil. Sadly, this otherwise outstanding precursor does not include pita bread.
Steak dinners are accompanied by your choice of soup or a fresh dinner salad (perfunctory iceberg lettuce only, not the fancy designer lettuces upscale steak houses proffer) made with shredded red cabbage, tomato, carrot slivers and your choice of dressing. For a full Greek experience, a good bet is the zesty Greek dressing which is liberally sprinkled with bits of fetid Feta cheese. Among the restaurant’s most popular soups is the creamy green chile chicken soup, a swimming pool-sized bowl of soul-warming soup served hot. Thickened heavily (probably with corn starch), it is replete with chicken pieces. The green chile lacks piquancy but has a nice flavor. Soup and salad not withstanding, this is a meat and potatoes establishment in the anachronistic traditions of the 70s. Observing the offerings–burgers, steaks, ribs and even a cheesesteak, Fieri noted “you don’t come to this joint for a tomato and avocado on whole wheat.
The menu defines the degree of doneness for each charbroiled steak–from the “cold center” of a rare steak to the “cooked throughout” description of a well done steak–and includes a disclaimer that the restaurant is not responsible or meat ordered well done. The chef is truly master of his broiler domain, typically achieving the exacting specifications requested by discerning diners who would think nothing of sending back a steak not prepared the way they asked for it.
We can’t imagine ever sending the steak back. The bone-in 20-ounce Porterhouse steak is charbroiled to perfection with just enough marbling for flavor. Unless otherwise requested, each steak is prepared with Seasonall, an all-purpose seasoning (no MSG) used liberally. An excellent alternative is asking for salt, pepper and garlic on each side of your steak. While on the grill, the chef will also brush on some melted butter.
One of the things that makes a Monte Carlo steak stand out is the fact that the restaurant still cuts its own steaks fresh daily, a practice begun by founder Michael Katsaros when the restaurant launched nearly thirty years ago. The Katsaros family still runs the restaurant. After his first bite of a ribeye, Guy Fieri’s uttered then reiterated the statement “that’s just great.” You’re probably thinking “he’s the host of the show and is supposed to be enthusiastic about the restaurants featured,” but his sentiment pretty much echoes that of most people who discover the Monte Carlo Steakhouse.
Fieri also pointed out that “it ain’t just killer steaks that get hand-cut here.” The souvlaki, “made with mama’s classic Greek recipe with a family twist” is made from pork tenderloin cut at the restaurant. Each souvlaki portion is 12 to 14 ounces of some of the most tender and delicious, albeit non-traditional, skewered meat you’ll ever have. The souvlaki is allowed to age for five to six days in a marinade of lemon juice, white wine, salt, pepper, garlic salt, oregano and vinegar before it hits the grill. After it’s done on the grill, it’s brushed on with a mix of olive oil, oregano, salt, pepper and lemon juice. Watching this inspired creation, Fieri exclaimed “I hear the national anthem of flavor town going off right about now.” In between utteranes of “wow” and “this is monster flavor, he called the flavor “so deep and so rich” and after a few forkfuls, he proclaimed “I’m moving in.”
The charbroiled green chile cheeseburger is a role-model for how this New Mexico staple should be served. While the chile isn’t particularly piquant, it does have an excellent flavor. What sets this cheeseburger apart is the freshness and moistness of the beef patty which is essentially ground steak. Wholly unlike the desiccated Frisbees served at other burger establishments, these meaty orbs are oh so wonderfully juicy. The Monte Carlo’s green chile cheeseburger was selected for inclusion on both the 2009 and 2011 editions of the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail. It’s one of the favorite green chile cheeseburgers of Cheryl Jamison, the New Mexico Tourism Department’s culinary liaison and architect of the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger initiative.
Another “not to miss” entree is the Greek style chicken. The loquacious Fieri admitted to “not having talked much or taken a breath” while sampling this perfectly prepared poultry which he described as “killer,” one of the adjectives he uses effusively when he really likes something. He also noted that “it’s about as basic as you can make it” and “as tender and juicy as you can get it.” The key is getting it. If you haven’t visited the Monte Carlo Steakhouse, it’s worth the drive from anywhere in the Duke City area just for this chicken.
If you have to work overtime to make up for an extended lunch hour to drive across town for a lunch special, it’s worth it, especially if the lunch special is the hamburger steak with grilled onions. My friend and frequent dining companion Bill Resnik describes it as “75-percent as good as its counterpart at San Antonio’s fabled Owl Cafe.” Bill, who matriculated at New Mexico Tech loves the Owl’s hamburger steak almost as much as he loves his car. To compare the Monte Carlo’s rendition is a high compliment indeed. Another old-fashioned lunch special made in the style of 1960s cafes is the meatloaf, served with mashed potatoes and green beans. The meatloaf is served hot enough to burn your tongue and it’s heavily seasoned with pepper, garlic and onion, but it’s a memorable meatloaf.
The spaghetti’s golf ball sized meatballs have a little flavor “je ne sais quoi” that most diners try to figure out. The secret is a bit of Greek mint which just seems to invigorate the meatballs with flavor. Fieri called it a “money meatball.”
The meats are so well flavored, the service so accommodating and the ambiance so 60s, you’ll wonder why anyone would visit an inferior chain restaurant for a lesser steak or spend nearly $100 for a steak dinner at one of those hoidy toidy, fancy schmanzy restaurants. Fieri called the Monte Carlo “just an average off-the-hook steakhouse with homemade Greek.” Everyone else calls it special.
Monte Carlo Steak House
3916 Central, S.W.
LATEST VISIT: 27 May 2011
# OF VISITS: 5
BEST BET: Greek salad; Greek Appetizer Plate; Porterhouse Steak; Green Chile Cheeseburger