This story was originally published at EatABQ, the city's food, restaurant and drinks guide. EatABQ is a publication of The Paper, ABQ's new alternative, independent weekly.
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Monte Carlo Steak House and Liquors, 3916 Central Ave. SW, (505) 836-9886, $$, Open 11am to 10pm Mon. to Sat., closed Sun.
With COVID rates on a steady decrease in Bernalillo County, restaurants across Albuquerque are cautiously opening back up to indoor dining, albeit at 25 percent seating capacity. So—overcoming some mild ethical trepidation—I agreed to write up a sit-down meal review. But I had conditions. It had to be a spot that I’d hate to see bite the dust. A local institution that has struggled through the pandemic and is, at least on some levels, worth the risk posed. There were a few contenders, but Monte Carlo was the only one, so far, open to limited indoor dining. After all, according to the CDC, even at reduced capacity indoor dining is a “higher-risk scenario.” But for char-broiled steaks, our first in over a year and comped by The Paper., my girlfriend Ray Kim and I were willing to abandon our generally austere pandemic lifestyle for a night.
Monte Carlo Steakhouse, located on the SE corner of West Central and Atrisco, is a true Rt. 66 classic, and not in some gimmicky sort of way. My big question, as we pulled up to the parking lot out front of the attached package liquor, was “has it changed?” I am damn pleased to report that it hasn’t. Like, at all. Fifty-three years into its existence and Monte Carlo still has this heavy early-’70s vibe that I—and from what I could see, everyone else seated—find comforting. That said, it is still 2021, and the pandemic was very much on my mind. But after being seated in a deep, old-school red vinyl booth, I started to let the stress wash away. We were here, so we ought to enjoy the moment. To imagine we’re on a date in 2019. Or 2022, for that matter.
Above us, behind a glass display case, ranged dozens of Elvises from different eras of the King’s reign. In front were framed photos of the Acropolis and other Greek attractions, both ancient and modern. More versions of Elvis stretched out in all directions. There was even a vintage poster of Willie Mays. And at least one taxidermied steer. Like I said, classic. The air held a very faint scent of cigarette smoke, though if it was truly ingrained from decades back or had just drifted in from outside, I could not say with confidence. I asked our charming and attentive server, Shelby, if the couple who started the place were Greek-American or immigrants to the states. She responded that they were “Greek-Greek,” but that the restaurant was now being run by the second generation. With the restaurant at reduced capacity, our waiter seemed to have a moment, so I got to ask what I had long wondered: Has the spot been used in any films? I mean, the interior is just too perfect. Shelby said that a scene in “Better Call Saul” had been shot there, and that Guy Fieri had actually filmed here as well … more than once.
I am a true believer that red meat should be cooked on the bone whenever possible to achieve maximum richness, and was therefore a tad disappointed that the only bone-in steak on offer was Monte Carlo’s giant 20 oz. Porterhouse ($38.95). I went with the 10 oz. Boneless Rib Eye ($17.95). Ray ordered the 14 oz. Boneless New York Strip ($21.95). I added on an order of the dolmas and a side of chopped green chile, because I craved some spice but didn’t want to resort to Tabasco sauce. Waiting for our food at a table in a restaurant was newly fascinating. We people-watched. A single older gentleman asked for Worcestershire sauce and was brought the whole kitchen-use, wine-sized bottle. That sparked a rather lively convo with Ray on what, if any, sauce is acceptable to use on quality, well-prepared steak. I argued that they should generally be avoided, hence my green chile move. I can confidently report that this is not the kind of place where you will be judged for asking your waiter for steak sauce. Or even for ketchup.
Salads, included with the meals, came out first. Aside from a pickled banana pepper, it was a very standard affair, but fresh and crisp, and I enjoyed that red wine vinegar and oil were brought out to employ, or not, at our discretion. And then the steaks. They came out sizzling. A gas charbroil technique left perfect cross-hatch marks on both orders. Minimally salted and peppered, this steak was a perfect medium-rare. It had no smoke on it, allowing for a pure representation of the beef. And the fries on my plate were great, some crispy, other less so, but all a perfect match for the steak. Ray went at her baked potato with gusto. I had ordered the dolmas, rice wrapped in grape leaves and well-soaked in olive oil, because this was a Greek joint after all, and I figured it would help balance the impact of so much steak on my insides. They were far superior to the canned version, slightly bitter and not too heavy while still being drenched in olive oil. I forgot all about the chopped green chile until the very end. It was not necessary, at all, but it did add a pleasant kick to my last few bites. I washed it all down with a cold Bohemia pilsener in chelada form. The Bohemia was good, but something about the place made me rethink my order. I was craving a Bud Heavy. Luckily, you can exit this fine establishment through the attached package liquor store!
Toward the end of our meal, the owner stopped by to ask us how everything was. He caught me with a mouthful, so all I could do was smile appreciatively. He seemed genuinely pleased and kept it moving, focusing his time on the old regulars, as it should be.
We thanked our server profusely for the feast and headed into the separate but attached liquor store so I could get that extra birronga for home. The clerk, with little prompting, told us all about their challenges through the last year. They had closed down not only the restaurant but the package booze too. For the better part of a year, they had been relying only on takeout. He seemed thrilled that they were back up and running, even at limited capacity. During this exchange a regular walked in for some malt liquor and was nicely, but firmly, reminded to put his mask on. While I may not return until I can do so guilt-free, it was a good night. I will be fantasizing about Monte Carlo’s charbroiled steaks, drinks and timeless Rt. 66 atmosphere in the meantime.
Monte Carlo Steak House and Liquors, 3916 Central SW, (505) 836-9886, $$, Open 11am to 10pm Mon. to Sat., closed Sun.