The year was 1971. Albuquerque’s population had reached a quarter of a million. The San Juan-Chama project, a system of diversion structures and tunnels for trans-mountain movement of water from the San Juan River Basin to the Rio Grande Basin, was completed. The area’s three military installations: Kirtland, Manzano and Sandia Bases merged under Air Force jurisdiction. Civil unrest was in the air in pastoral Roosevelt Park where a riot ensued that saw more than 130 arrested and more than 2,000 armed men called in to quell the situation. Albuquerque ballooning pioneer Sid Cutter took his first balloon flight. Paul’s Monterey Inn opened on Juan Tabo.
Four decades later Paul’s Monterey Inn continues to serve the Duke city with a menu that hasn’t changed much, if at all, in lo these many years. While the menu may not have changed, times have. In the 70s, longer cooking times to avert potential diseases resulted in the the most popular degree of preparation for steak being anywhere from medium to well-done. Today, aficionados of steak prefer shorter cooking times so that their favorite slabs of beef retain more juice and flavor.
In the 1970s, thick, hazy clouds of cigarette smoke permeated virtually every corner of almost every restaurant–despite perfunctory efforts to segregate smokers from non-smokers. In 2004, the city of Albuquerque followed the national trend and implemented an Indoor Clean Air Ordinance which prohibited lighting up in restaurants, unenclosed restaurant bars, coffee shops and cafeterias. For Paul’s Monterey Inn, the smoking ban resulted in a twenty percent drop in customer traffic, mostly on Friday and Saturday nights.
Paul’s Monterey Inn has survived for decades, not necessarily because it has constantly changed or adapted, but because it has and continues to provide an excellent product at great value in a relaxing milieu. It’s a formula that has seen the restaurant survive the onslaught of the nutrition police who came along and declared meat protein non-grata. It’s why Paul’s survived the mad cow disease scare.
In many ways, one of Albuquerque’s longest surviving steakhouses hasn’t changed at all. Paul’s Monterey Inn is an anachronism–a throw-back to a bygone era in which the template for steakhouses meant a dimly lit, smoky ambience with rich leatherette seating which swallowed up diners; an era in which menus were dominated by thick slabs of hand-cut beef and fried seafood entrees. It’s the template followed by steakhouses in New York City and Las Vegas, Nevada back in the day. It’s the template that made steakhouses the haven of Frank Sinatra and other luminaries of the period.
Paul’s remains a dimly lit restaurant with gold glass fixtures and low-watt wall sconces illuminating barely enough for the menu to be read. It takes a few seconds for your eyes to adjust to the dimly lit beef and cocktail palace in the far Northeast Heights–and when they do adjust, you’ll wonder if you stepped out of a portal into the 1960s. You’ll also wonder where the rest of the world went. Paul’s gives one the impression that the rest of the world (and time itself) has been shuttered behind its dark-paneled walls.
Thankfully the darkness of the restaurant is no longer exacerbated by the choking blue haze. Thanks to the city’s clean air ordinances, Paul’s is now a breath of fresh air (literally). What a wonderful treat it now is to walk into Paul’s and not inhale the ghosts of cigarettes past which once lingered stagnantly and dulled the taste buds. It’s also a treat to be escorted to your table or booth by a hostess who asks if you want to sit side-by-side or facing one another, a quip so long-practiced that it’s probably used accidentally on single diners.
Mostly it’s a treat to be able to peruse a menu that some might consider a veritable museum piece, a menu that–save for price increases–hasn’t changed in four decades. It’s a menu that still features hand-cut, char broiled hunks of beef prepared to your exacting specifications. It’s a menu in which seafood is still breaded, fried and served with both cocktail sauce and tartar sauce. It’s a menu that shirks the avant garde designer appetizers of today’s trendy restaurants and serves the standards of the 70s steakhouse: jumbo shrimp cocktail, deep-fried onion rings and fresh mushrooms sauteed in wine.
Paul’s still offers a soup of the day, made from scratch and served fresh daily in a bowl or cup. On Tuesdays, that means green chile chicken soup, the restaurant’s comfort food favorite. The recipe hasn’t changed much over the past 40 years, that consistency perhaps the reason the restaurant serves up as much as fifteen gallons of the stuff every time it’s offered. One steakhouse standard which goes well with soup is salad and Paul’s sticks to tradition here, too with an old-fashioned Cobb salad. Its version of a designer salad is an “epicurean salad” whose chief components are Alaskan king crab and Gulf shrimp with tomato wedges, ripe olives, egg slices, lemon wedges and avocado wedges on a bed of mixed greens.
Entrees are accompanied by an old-fashioned dinner salad: iceberg lettuce, sliced cucumbers, plum tomatoes and bread croutons with your choice of dressing. Though the plates aren’t chilled, the salad ingredients and dressing seem to be. Chilled is the way iceberg-based salads should be served. You won’t find the designer du jour salad dressings on the menu. It’s the old standards: Thousand Island, Blue Cheese, Ranch and so forth. The Blue Cheese is thick and gloppy with nary a hint of actual blue cheese or the fetid qualities aficionados love about it.
Perhaps the starter most often served at Paul’s are the deep-fried onion rings, large ringlets of sweet battered onions. Years of practice has resulted in onion rings that retain juiciness when you bite into them, onions you can actually taste and a complementary batter that doesn’t dominate the flavor profile or leave your hands a greasy mess. These are onion rings the way they should be made.
Paul’s Monterey Inn goes through about a century mark’s worth of beer-bread loaves a day. This is bread baked in-house in the wee hours of the morning before some people are up. The mini loaves are easily big enough for two to split and are served with scooped shaped balls of butter. Your own personal cutting board, a victim of years of slicing and slashing, and knife are provided, too.
Though “steakhouse” isn’t part of Paul’s marquee, steak is what the restaurant is best known for. Duke City diners have been of the carnivorous persuasion even before the first time they saw the Flintstone’s car get upended by a rack of brontosaurus beef and Paul’s is one of our favorite sources for sizzling steak. Brawny beef is what seems destined for most tables at the restaurant, some of it large enough to give the wait staff a work-out.
Paul’s gourmet-cut 18-ounce roast prime rib of beef, au Jus is among the best in the city, its chief competition for that honor being the prime rib at the Monte Carlo Steakhouse, another anachronism which actually predates Paul’s by one year. This is black angus beef slow-roasted for eight hours. The staff recommends it be served at rare to medium rare though the restaurant will happily incinerate it if that be your choice (real meat-eaters would consider that a desecration). Paul’s serves more than 400 orders of the prime rib every week, making it one of the most popular entrees on the menu.
The prime rib is served with small plastic cups of horseradish. If you like your horseradish powerful enough to make you cough and sputter while tears run down your cheeks, you’re in for a disappointment. This is pretty anemic horseradish, about as weak as horseradish can be and still be called horseradish. The most popular accompaniment for most meat dishes are baked potatoes with heaping portions of sour cream and butter if you ask for them. Paul’s goes through nearly five tons of baked potatoes every week.
Another popular piece of pulchritudinous beef is the T-bone steak, eighteen-ounces of of saw-cut beef from the center of the short loin. With its signature T-shaped bone, this broiled behemoth has about 32 grams of protein per three ounces, making it one of Men’s Fitness magazine’s choices as one of the tastiest and healthiest ways “to enjoy the protein source that just may be the best muscle builder around.” Paul’s T-bone steak is the stuff of legend. Prepared to your exacting specifications every time, it is a sensational steak with good marbling for flavor and juiciness. It’s almost fork-tender.
Plate decoration at Paul’s has remained pretty standard over the years: a sole onion ring centered precisely on your slab of beef, a raw green onion laid out like a divining rod, an orange slice and a knife placed underneath your steak as if buttressing its weight on the plate. It may not be Feng Shui, but it’s something we’ve come to expect at Paul’s and we’re not left disappointed.
Smaller appetites take comfort in Paul’s petit filet, the second most popular item at the venerable restaurant. It’s wrapped in bacon to imbue it with a little smokiness, but the preeminent flavor is that of beauteous, tender beef. Filet is the most tender cut of beef, taken from the tenderloin. Paul’s has perfected this popular ladies’ choice, serving it perfectly every time.
The menu at Paul’s Monterey Inn includes a “turf and surf” entree, the order in which the two are listed depicting the restaurant’s hierarchy–meat first, seafood next. That doesn’t mean seafood is an afterthought. The turf and surf entree is comprised of a juicy sirloin and an eight- to ten-ounce Australian rock lobster tail. Australian rock lobster is a warm-water lobster without claws. At Paul’s, it’s eight- to ten-ounces of the sweetest and most delicious lobster we’ve had in the Land of Enchantment. Seriously, it’s a good lobster!
The seafood menu includes shrimp scampi, filet of king salmon, broiled halibut steak, golden fried scallops, Gulf jumbo shrimp, a combination seafood plate and Alaskan king crab. That’s trawler’s treasure…Poseidon’s bounty, maybe not enough to convince the “glass is half empty” folks that good to excellent seafood can be found in Albuquerque, but enough for those of us who know it can be.
The combination seafood plate includes a deep-fried crab cake, two Gulf jumbo shrimp and five golden fried scallops. There is probably a generation of Americans who have never had fried seafood, the preference currently being for it being broiled. Because you can have it fried makes Paul’s Monterey Inn is a popular venue for forty and fifty year olds who grew up with fried seafood.
The jumbo Gulf shrimp are butterflied and are nearly the size of a small fish filet. The crab cake is rich and moist, made with real crab. The fried scallops are lightly breaded and more moist and juicy than some broiled scallops I’ve had. Breaded and fried certainly doesn’t mean desiccated and flavorless in the hands of an experienced kitchen crew and Paul’s has been making seafood this way for years. This seafood triumvirate is sweet and succulent, a very nice treat.
Paul’s desserts are made in-house. The chocolate cheese pie has been on the menu for more than two decades and is the restaurant’s most popular dessert. Another homemade gem is the chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream. The dominant flavor profile is chocolate–rich and delicious without being cloying. Top it with vanilla ice cream for an even better dessert.
Paul’s Monterey Inn is a timeless classic that hasn’t worn out its welcome in Albuquerque because it remains a welcoming restaurant that hasn’t bowed to the pressures of time and culture. Forty years from now it will probably be serving the same timeless menu. Surviving customers won’t mind that at all.
Paul’s Monterey Inn
1000 Juan Tabo, N.E.
LATEST VISIT: 13 February 2010
# OF VISITS: 6
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Australian Rock Lobster, Prime Rib, T-Bone Steak, Combination Seafood Plate, Chocolate Cake, Chocolate Cheese Pie