From Big Red to bone marrow

by Natalia Ciolko

Article originally published in the San Antonio Current, November 2010

On opening night, the candlelit patio was abuzz with chatter and toasting. Heat lamps stood by as chill-averse Texans swaddled themselves in Mexican blankets found hanging over chair backs. Inside, the retro jewel box of a dining room was glowing as waiters swished in and out, carrying milkshakes and fried chicken.

When imagining San Antonio’s new gastropub, The Monterey, four friends aimed to rectify the sad truth that good drinking spots usually have mediocre food, and good restaurants are rarely fun for drinking. Combining their love of experimental cuisine with a reverence for San Antonio’s ice-house culture, they sought to bring locals an experience on par with America’s other leading cities. “I’d be somewhere like Los Angeles or New York or Chicago, sitting in a noodle bar or pizzeria, and think, ‘This could work in San Antonio,’” said Chad Carey, co-owner of The Monterey. He and his business partners, Erick Schlather and Stacey Hill, are seemingly always at the pub making things tick.

But let’s go back — what is a gastropub? The term gives me visions of bubbling beakers and freeze-dried lemon curd. Thankfully, this is not accurate. A gastropub is a gourmet spin on the classic pub formula — heavy drinking plus comfort food, essentially. But the gastronomy comes from the use of exotic, high-quality ingredients in the creation of this fairly standard fare.

Avant-gardery is not the goal, but the menu is undeniably ambitious for San Antonio’s mostly conservative dining scene. Carey insists that they’re “not concerned with pioneering. We just want to know, is it delicious?” While Carey says people at home “dig in, talk shit, and smoke cigarettes,” the typical restaurant experience deflates the mood with formality. The Monterey aims to do away with all that.

The menu forgoes traditional plate math of a protein and two sides, focusing instead on serving shareable portions that aren’t “entrees” or “appetizers,” just affordable, damn good food served as you would at home: marched out of the kitchen one by one and split among friends.

The fried green tomato sandwich is reminiscent of New Orleans po boys — fluffy white roll, a sheen of mayonnaise — but the hearty green produce is in the driver’s seat. After being scarred by an unfortunate pork belly years ago, I was hesitant to try The Monterey’s rendition. I was thrilled to find the pork substantial yet light, balanced by bite-sized blocks of watermelon and pickled rind. The flavors were as perfectly aligned as a feng shui bedroom.

The menu has overtones of the rich, fatty, and salty — bacon grilled cheese and roasted bone marrow come to mind — but fresh and light dishes balance the load. The roasted squid and mushroom salads don’t overdo decadence, the roasted cauliflower is divine, and the sampler of housemade pickles is as good a bar snack as any.

The wine and beer list are at least as important as the food. There’s a price point for everyone — starting at $2 for a Pearl and $5 for a glass of sparkling wine, rose, or red. The beer list ranges from independent brewery IPAs to Chimay, in addition to a bevy of non-alcoholic sips like Big Red, Topos Sabores, and chocolate milkshakes.

Just a few days into operation, The Monterey is off and running. Comments on the Facebook page range from “Incredibly well-run and delivered for a first night” to “the grilled cheese and bacon sandwich rocked my face off!” High praise indeed.

But perhaps embracing the distinctive menu will be a learning process. Chef Albert Vasquez took to Twitter to announce: “So in the first week of opening I was told by some the menu wasn’t simple enough and the biggest seller is the Grilled Cheese #pincheSA.”

But beyond the food and drink, the most important aspect of The Monterey is that it feels like a place where you want to linger and return to as often as possible. It’s the impeccable details (like the gilded wallpaper ceiling) and hip environs that position The Monterey to become downtown’s neighborhood bar of choice.