It’s lunchtime, mid-week, and Eating Companion (EC) and I are meeting a friend at the Monterey Grill, an incarnation of what was once the Monterey Pub and Deli, which opened in 1992 on Main Street and for a brief time served as many a scenester’s favorite haunt and one of the best places to catch live music.
Many moons ago, while standing out front of the original location between bands, some friends and I were given citations for blocking pedestrian traffic by a particularly motivated policeman on a mountain bike. That was a good night.
The new space is located on the northern side of the Crossroads Shopping Center. It’s open and spacious, bright and clean, a far cry from the original Main Street location. Strangely we notice immediately the very loud hum of (presumably) the refrigerators, which almost drowns out the music quietly being piped in.
The menu is an homage to some of the better cuisine you might find in California, the name an homage to the land of Steinbeck and Kerouac’s Big Sur.
We order some iced teas and take a look at the lunch offerings. They do rice bowls – Spicy tuna (Saku ahi w/ green onion avocado, pickled ginger and wasabi); Hawaiian (wild-caught Mahi, pineapple, snap peas, cashews, and broccoli slaw); and others – a half-dozen or so salads, quesadillas, and some really tasty-sounding sandwiches named for some of the most ruggedly beautiful stretches of coastline forest in the world. There’s a Salinas (a BLT with avocado, lettuce, and tomato with a house mustard sauce), Presidio (Genoa salami, provolone, pepperoncini, onion, tomato, and lettuce on a baguette or rosemary Panini) and a few more, along with a handful of burgers and grilled sandwiches.
Most options clock in around $7-$10, with some of the rice bowls priced upwards of $13 or $14. There is also a great selection of bottled domestic and import craft beers.
We order a couple sandwiches, the Big Sur (their “signature sandwich since 1992” – turkey, ham, Swiss, cucumber, tomato and the house mustard sauce, $7.99) on marble rye, and a Salinas on sourdough ($7.99). The sandwiches come with options of sides – we go for fries and slaw. We decide on the Jamaican rice bowl (another Monterey signature with jerked chicken, red beans cooked with cilantro, onion, brown rice and fried plantains, $9.99), as well as a BLT Chicken Gorgonzola salad (applewood smoked bacon, hardboiled egg, tomato, cucumber, carrots, onion and olives, $11.99).
Our waiter informs us that they are out of regular iced tea, but they have a strawberry-kiwi unsweetened black tea. It turns out to be a superior option, light and sweet. The food takes a bit, considering the restaurant’s light traffic.
The salad is massive, totally sharable, with a solid hunk of chicken breast, big globs of Gorgonzola, a confetti of chopped bacon, onions, and olives. We keep the dressings on the side, the table split between a raspberry-honey and a standard balsamic vinaigrette. The raspberry-honey is vaguely syrupy with a nice tartness; it goes well with the bitter, bold cheese.
The Jamaican bowl is a little underwhelming, the jerk flavor dull and smokey. We ask for some hot sauce, perhaps some rSiracha, or “something Jamaican,” EC says. We get a tiny thimble of Sriracha instead of a bottle, but we’re not interested in the bowl enough to even ask for more.
The Big Sur is a nice, light sandwich, the meat thin-sliced and generously portioned, though the mustard sauce is kind of boring. The marble rye is soft and earthy, really delicious. It’s a good sandwich, but again not the most exciting thing to claim as your signature sammy. The fries are seriously great, thick spears of golden, crispy heaven.
The BLT is a treat, the sourdough fluffy and fresh, the bacon center- and thick-cut, cooked perfectly, with generous amounts of avocado. It’s really balanced, just rich and heavy enough to seem like a full meal.
All in all Monterey is a great little lunch spot if you’re in the area, a bit steep, but the ingredients are fresh and top quality, the space is clean and bright, and the service is lovely.