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.
Monti's La Casa Vieja
1 West Rio Salado Parkway, Tempe
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
Sauted 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.
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.
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.
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SHOW ME HOW
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.