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If you've ever toured the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland, you'll feel right at home at Monti's La Casa Vieja in Tempe. Picture hunkering wooden walls, patch-painted but inescapably old. Imagine yawning galleries hung with portraits of ancient, macabre and deceased former residents. Visualize mismatched furniture, creaking doors, alarming discrepancies in floor levels and sour yellow light bulbs flickering from the ceiling.
This is Monti's; Disney's Haunted Mansion is almost as scary.
Monti's even employs the torturous efficiency of space that Walt Disney perfected: Guests wander through an endless labyrinth at the entry, thinking that they're mere steps from their table/ride. But there's always another turn, another alley, yet another snaking impasse just around the bend. I've seen mazes that are easier to navigate than this restaurant's added-on-through-the-years floor plan.
100 S. Mill Ave.
Tempe, AZ 85281
Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to midnight.
Breaded zucchini $5.95
Sautéed mushrooms $2.95
Filet mignon, 10 oz. $13.95
Baked chicken $9.95
Orange roughy $12.95
Fudge brownie chocolate cake $3.95
The mental playground gives my dining companion and me a few fleeting seconds of joy. We're lounging in a red vinyl banquette, cooling our brains in the welcome darkness of this landmark restaurant, quite happy to hide from the searing sunlight outdoors. It's quiet, sleepy-still; lunch is over and we're stuffed to the gills with beef. If this were Disneyland, our booth would swivel just then, stopping with a jolt in front of a mirror to frighten us with the hologram of a long-since-departed soul nestled between us.
As it is, though, we're just at Monti's, the "old house" of Tempe. If there is any ghost sitting between my companion and me, it might be the spirit of former Arizona senator Carl Hayden, who was born in the historic home turned restaurant, and must now be greatly puzzled as to how a giant lake suddenly appeared just outside his desert abode.
More likely, though, it would be the restless spirits of food haunting us -- cows, pigs, poultry and sea life angrily rattling their chains at being sacrificed for such an unholy mess as the meals served at Monti's. It's almost impossible for a restaurant to do everything wrong, but Monti's succeeds, bringing me only two dishes (and sides, at that) that I eat without wincing.
Indeed, the most frightening thing about Monti's haunted mansion is its menu.
I'm nearly an Arizona native, so I realize that criticizing Monti's is akin to kicking a grandparent. The place has been an icon of Valley dining for longer than I've been alive, and remains highly popular with a specific dining crowd. Yet that demographic is fading fast -- today's culinary core is younger, smarter about eating, and probably drinks a whole lot less than their fore-diners. The way food tastes actually matters now, and if Monti's doesn't get in the game soon, it's going to be gone.
Besides, Monti's asked for it. I'd be happy to leave this culinary catacomb alone, except for the restaurant's constant reminders that it's "Famous for Steaks the World Over, From Tombstone to Timbuktu." And that it touts "a memorable experience in dining, meriting perennial ranking in the top 100 independent restaurants in the United States" -- although not in any listing I can find. And worse, that it promotes its "superb" menu as offering "thick, tender steaks, choice Prime Rib and savory seafood . . . perfect for special occasions."
If Disney's Mickey Mouse were really a rat, wouldn't you want to know before shelling out your valuable time and money?
Consider yourself warned. Low prices have always been a hallmark of Monti's, but I'm not impressed with a hugely substandard 11-ounce prime rib for $16, even as some regulars gush that the price includes soup or salad, and potatoes, fries, rice or spaghetti. The go-withs are miserly -- diners can "upgrade" their salad to a caesar for $1.49, or have Roquefort dressing for $1.10.
And the meat at Monti's is truly bleary. Monti's is the only restaurant I've ever seen publish a disclaimer on its menu denying responsibility for "taste or texture" on well-done steaks. Please. A good piece of meat, while certainly not at its best when cooked well-done, can still hold its own -- it's the cheap cuts that unavoidably turn to shoe leather. I'd complain more, but my mouth is full; I'm still chewing a piece of filet from my first visit several weeks ago.
I want off this ride as soon as it starts. I'd enjoy taking a tour of Monti's kitchen, to see the stacks of boxes, bags, cans and freezer shelves stocked with prefab appetizers -- the containers might be tastier than the food. Take our sampler platter (please): Mozzarella cheese sticks are little more than tepid logs; pasty breaded mushrooms release foul oil slicks when bitten; and onion rings lie flabby and useless on the plate. Breaded zucchini and runny jalapeño poppers have been cooked in old oil, limping in with blackened crusts and thoroughly exhausted insides.
The only edible appetizers happen to be a recent arrival to the menu, fried calamari, and an old standby, chicken noodle soup. More like bracelets than dainty rings, the squid circles are tender, just chewy enough and fine tasting when dipped in a harmless cocktail sauce -- but overpriced at $6.95. Soup is more realistically tagged at 95 cents for a generous cup of blistering hot starchy broth, padded with spongy broad noodles, mushy chicken bits and typical carrot and celery. The concoction is so familiar that it's oddly satisfying.