Mill Rut

Monti's La Casa Vieja

That's where the fun ends, folks. Even though green salad is free with dinner entrees, Monti's version would be better tossed -- right into the garbage. These sad leaves obviously have been sitting out for a long time, topped with stale crouton bits and further humiliated under gloppings of nondescript dressing. Monti's "famous" Roman bread is dull, too, much more so than I remember from my childhood visits.

And I know we're in deep trouble when my companion and I find ourselves telling each other, hopefully, I bet my meal isn't as bad as yours. It's a lame competition, but also the only thing that keeps us lifting fork to mouth for bites of boot-tough filet mignon, top sirloin, T-bone and New York strip steak. We plug away, our eyes meeting in that swimming unfocus that ingesting too much butter, fat and grease causes, wondering which of us will fall first.

My prime rib is the most passable protein here, a bewildering bargain at seven ounces for $7.69 (lunch). I'm okay with the soft meat -- it's cooked medium rare as requested, and offers some taste when dunked in au jus. Yet the beef is wearing a too-wide cummerbund of fat, and accompanying creamy horseradish is more like yogurt doctored with ammonia.

Meat your maker: Monti's appeal hasn't survived the times.
Leah Fasten
Meat your maker: Monti's appeal hasn't survived the times.

Location Info

Map

Monti's La Casa Vieja

100 S. Mill Ave.
Tempe, AZ 85281

Category: Restaurant > Steak House

Region: Tempe

Details

480-967-7594

Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to midnight.

Appetizers:
Breaded zucchini $5.95
Sautéed mushrooms $2.95

Entrees:
Filet mignon, 10 oz. $13.95
Baked chicken $9.95
Orange roughy $12.95

Dessert:
Fudge brownie chocolate cake $3.95

1 West Rio Salado Parkway, Tempe

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I actually feel pity for Monti's baked chicken -- served wet and squishy, a skin-on half bird slathered with salty barbecue goop. I'm sure it had much better plans for its life. There's none of the crisp skin that baking imparts; I'd guess the poultry was poorly pre-broiled, left to soak in its grease and warmed in a hot oven.

What the kitchen did to my orange roughy, though, I can't imagine. Microwave? The heat cycle of a dishwasher? Nothing else could reduce this firm little fish to such a rubbery disgrace. And flavor? The seafood tastes like it crawled up the dry Salt River bed on its knees. A weak, relish-heavy tartar sauce has aged enough to take on pudding skin. The only sympathy I feel here is for me.

Even barbecued baby back pork ribs, items that don't suffer from standing after cooking, are inept. A half rack is largely bone, gristle and fat, the meager meat harshly porky. My companion thinks I'm copping out by ordering a ground sirloin steak sandwich (many culinary evils can be hidden between buns), but I'm not so lucky. The burger is ridiculously dry, and completely lost under cloying, damp cheese toast. No one should be allowed to do this to food.

I attempt triage by focusing on side dishes, chosen from baked potato, French fries, rice or spaghetti. Survival tip: Go for the potato, even if the geriatric sour cream served with it has turned to soup. The potato is more consistent, at least, than French fries -- sometimes the spuds arrive hot and salty, but more often limp and dry. Rice is good only if minutes fresh, and a scoop of spaghetti has been crop-dusted with way, way too much commercial dry Parmesan.

As I write this, I get tired just remembering Monti's meals. While I'm sure it's time-consuming to wreak this much damage to food, couldn't somebody in the kitchen find a few minutes to clean the grill? It would make all the difference in my side order of sautéed mushrooms. The fungi look good, they smell good, they even taste pretty good -- until I bite into the petrified charcoal remains of some leftover creature scraped up with the mushrooms. Burned bits are everywhere, ruining the buttery dish.

It comes to this: Struggling for stimulation of any kind, my companion and I find ourselves doing an ingredient-by-ingredient comparison of Monti's "special blend" steak sauce versus A.1. Did you know that steak sauces have raisin or prune paste in them? You do now. And actually, Monti's sauce is pretty good, slightly thicker and more vinegary than A.1. and best -- adept at hiding any traces of the meat's flavor.

For a fleeting moment, I consider putting the sauce on our desserts -- these obviously manufactured sweets couldn't be any worse. At four dollars plus, desserts are the most expensive (per item) things on Monti's menu. But they're modest portions, and thankfully so, I comment, after digging into my lukewarm apple pie. My companion's fudge brownie chocolate cake is nothing of the kind, more like a towering layer of frosting served on a cupcake base.

To Monti's credit, it does employ friendly servers -- on one visit, our waiter, seeing my companion's dissatisfaction with her cake, takes the charge off our bill. The personal touches are the only respite from this culinary dungeon.

Monti's was never a leader in fine dining, but it has gotten worse over the years. It's sad to see the restaurant crumble -- as Tempe's first building, it deserves some respect for simply holding on through the city's recent renovations. But unless Monti's can rid itself of its kitchen poltergeists, this eatery is no E-ticket ride.

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