Count on the Monte Cristo
I could pen a best-selling novel about some of the weird, inane or just plain ridiculous things I’ve heard people ask for when ordering food at a restaurant. My top three picks from when I used to wait tables (I was young and needed the money): No. 3: “Can I get a hamburger with cheese?” (“You mean a cheeseburger?” I asked. “No, just a hamburger with cheese.”) No. 2: “Can I get a glass of the pink wine?” And my No. 1 most irritating question, “My croutons are stale, can I get some new ones?”
Putting up with these kinds of mind-numbing queries every day would try the patience of a saint, so when I dine out and get a great server, I feel privileged. My lunch trip to Starky’s ABQ (formerly Assets Grille) produced just such a server--the perky, knowledgeable and just plain amusing Andrea. She had an upbeat attitude, a shoot-from-the-hip sense of humor and lots of nice things to say about her workplace, owners and all.
Now, I was not a fan of Assets. I intensely disliked the crappy pizzas, the second-rate seafood dishes and the drunken frat-boy atmosphere. And I saw none of these things at Starky’s. Instead, I relaxed in a comfortable booth amid polished wood furniture with brass and copper accents, Tiffany glass-style lighting, white linens and very festive holiday decorations. The old patio area was closed off—permanently, said Andrea, because owners Carl and Archie want to attract a “wine crowd" rather than a beer-slamming bunch.
The lunch menu did have a distinctive sports bar feel to it, with Reuben, French dip and steak sandwiches and burgers, but as long as they don’t come with Cowboys fans getting trashed and yelling at the TV, I can get behind a good hot sandwich and some fries. I ordered the Monte Cristo sandwich with a side Caesar salad ($8.95), and chatted with Andrea.
She told me the owners named Starky's after Stark Street, a main drag in their hometown of Portland, Ore. Assets closed in August of 2005; Starky’s was in and running by November. Apparently, no grass grows under Carl and Archie’s feet—it’s a superhuman feat to open a new restaurant that quickly.
My food arrived in excellent time, crowned with what I affectionately refer to as the “Monte Crisco.” I’ve been confronted with many pan-fried sandwiches which either hold enough oil to reduce our dependence on the Middle East, or have an overabundance of bacon, which, when refried, tastes a lot like licking a nickel off the sidewalk. I like Monte Cristos in theory--a cheesy, hammy sammy dipped in beaten egg and toasted in butter. But after years of disappointment eating them at other restaurants, I've become gun shy.
I was truly, madly, deeply in love with my sandwich after one bite. Chef Tony Pirozzi created a good thing here with a fat ham and Swiss sandwich on sourdough bread, lightly battered with egg, and fried to a golden crisp. I didn’t even use the side of raspberry jam, it was so good. I was also falling for the homemade Caesar dressing, but disenchanted by the amount on my salad. Caesar dressing, when made from scratch, should be treated like crack. You wanna give people a taste to keep them coming back, but not so much that they overdose. I got way too much dressing up front.
Regardless, Starky’s is a good, solid place to get lunch, and I’d like to go back and have dinner. Dishes like Stefano’s chicken (lemon-rosemary with pine nuts, sun-dried tomatoes, butter and white wine) and steak Diane prepared tableside, coupled with a decent wine list, seem well worth the trip.
As Andrea settled up my bill at the register, I got to thinking about why I quit waiting tables in the first place. After a few years of cleaning up noodles off the tile, yelling at the cooks to give me extra sauce and being verbally abused by middle school kids, I had to admit that I had gotten much too cynical to be friendly; and people eating supper deserve somebody like Andrea to bring cheer.