Finding your way into the Monte Carlo Steak House can be tricky since there is no obvious entrance. The place started out as a package liquor store with a drive-through window and a small bar in the back. The liquor store is still thriving, but the canopy is all that remains of the drive-up liquor window. There are two unmarked doors on the side of the beige building—the southernmost door will get you the entrance of the bar and steakhouse.
When I wrote about this place in my recently published restaurant guide, New Mexico Chow: Restaurants for the Rest of Us (The Intrepid Traveler, 2004), I made specific mention of the bar. “Yes, there is a full bar, filled with smoke, the tinkle of ice and (maybe) the laughter of naughty women. Imagine, a place where you can sit and smoke and drink and reminisce about the time you used to be able to sit and smoke and drink at a bar.” Albuquerque's new smoking ban makes all that witty prose a figment of the smoldering past. The bar is now smoke-free. Manager George Katsaros told me they were still considering expanding the bar, which would allow them to add smoking; unless, of course, the law changes again.
The place is a throwback to a bygone era. It reminds me exactly of the Capri Steak House of my youth in New York's Hudson Valley. The same booths are back (or maybe they never left in the first place)—red and black, tufted and tough looking. There's lots of Budweiser memorabilia everywhere and Clydesdales (plump, beer-wagon-pulling horses) in etched mirrors and statuary. “The King of Beers” appears on neon wall signs and menu board displays. Never underestimate the power of suggestion; there were more Budweiser long necks per table than I can remember seeing anywhere else. You won't find pilsner glasses here; somehow they don't fit the profile. This place is decidedly not an upscale kind of steakhouse, so bottled beer it is. You can catch sports on any one of three television sets while the music is turned up. There is a collection of model cars, and even a portrait of “The King” (as in Elvis) on black velvet. The crowning touch (and what makes it just like the Capri) is the revolving pastry case.
The menu pretty much stays the same all day except for the homemade soup ($2.75) (which is usually sold out by dinner), and a lunch special ($6.95), Monday through Friday from 11 to 3 p.m. The special changes daily and might include roast chicken, meatloaf or enchiladas. On the lighter side, you might choose from an unusual Greek salad with salami, ham and cheese, several sandwiches or their signature chile-cheeseburger. The burger is a half-pound of ground sirloin with delicious shards of burnished, roasted green chile and cheddar cheese. The burger is more round than thick, is seated on a giant bun and covered with fantastic skin-on French fries.
The appetizers seem like pretty standard fare—fried zucchini, mushrooms and mozzarella, etc., so I passed them up to focus on the steak. There are four sizes and styles to choose from, with the 14 oz. rib eye ($18.95) being the most popular. I've always favored the New York strip. For the life of me, I can't figure where it got its name. Could it be that it's shaped like Long Island? But I digress. The aforementioned steak is two bucks cheaper Monday through Wednesday evenings. I enjoyed one perfectly cooked to red (as in rare); a feat that seems to elude many local grill stations. A salad, a starch and Texas toast come with the steaks. You won't find even the tiniest micro baby green hiding in this basic salad. It's not quite lettuce alone, but it's pretty close. When it comes to choosing a dressing, go for the tangy Greek, with pieces of feta cheese. The baked potato was well cooked and served piping hot. I passed on the Texas toast—why would I want a thicker version of bad bread, even when it's browned on the grill?
Really good prime rib ($16.95) is offered only on Thursday, Friday or Saturday evenings after 5 p.m. Get there early, because this three-quarter pound slab of premium beef is very popular and sells out quickly. Seafood choices are limited to a flavorful broiled, marinated salmon ($13.95) served with drawn butter, a breaded cod filet ($9.95) or jumbo fried shrimp ($16.95). When it comes to desserts the choices are few. Homemade baklava ($3.75) is nutty and sweet. Their apple pie was absent on both our visits.
The wine list is pretty standard with a few surprises from down under. However, manager George Katsaros was quick to point out that guests are welcome to choose another wine from the package store up front for consumption at the restaurant at a reasonable markup. In fact, he tries to stock often-requested wines.
Servers are generally fast and familiar but on a recent visit we felt abandoned most of the evening.
Just take a hop, skip and a jump west from the Rio Grande and you can enjoy quality meats at affordable prices, in a truly retro atmosphere.
Monte Carlo Steak House; 3916 Central SW; 831-2444; Hours: Mon-Thu 11 a.m-10 p.m. Fri & Sat 11 a.m-11 p.m.; Price Range: Inexpensive to Moderate; Major credit cards accepted.