Motor Over to Monterey

Monterey Court has brought deliciousyet inexpensive dining to Miracle Mile

Growing up in Tucson, I knew that Miracle Mile was not exactly a desirable place to hang out; after all, stories of crime, prostitution and other undesirable activities were common. So when I found out that Miracle Mile's Monterey Court Café was next on my list of places to review, I was a bit wary.

My wariness was completely unfounded. In many cities across the country, neighborhoods with checkered pasts are being reimagined, and the Miracle Mile strip is no exception. Historic buildings and neon signs are being restored to their original state, and the glitz and glam of the '30s and '40s is slowly coming back.

Monterey Court, a motor inn built in 1938, has been turned into a marketplace for artisans and artists, with galleries, clothing shops, live music and plenty of mini-festivals and activities. The café, the only restaurant in Monterey Court, is at once affordable and elegant, with delicious food.

The café has a dozen or so tables inside, and a large outdoor bar and dining area. The décor is modern and sleek, maintaining a sense of openness in the small space. On both of our visits, the service was quick and friendly, both indoors and on the patio. The only thing that seemed to be missing was patrons.

The café serves brunch and dinner. It has an array of local and seasonal brews on tap, as well as a small but well-selected and affordable variety of West Coast wines. In fact, everything on the menu is extremely affordable, especially considering the portion sizes. The most-expensive entrée was the pasta, at $14.50.

On our first visit, Ted and I decided to enjoy a cool weeknight evening on the patio. We were the only customers, but I've heard from friends that the nights with live music draw a better crowd. (An events calendar is on the Monterey Court website.)

We started off with beers from Lumberyard Brewing Co. in Flagstaff and Tucson's Dragoon Brewing ($4 per pint), bruschetta ($6.50) and crab cakes ($7.95). The appetizers came out lightning-fast and were fantastic. The bruschetta, served in a deconstructed fashion, featured house-stretched mozzarella, thick slices of ripe tomatoes, a generous chiffonade of basil, and a sweet but tangy balsamic vinaigrette. It disappeared quickly. The crab cakes were meaty, moist and sumptuous, served over a puddle of green-goddess dressing. The two cakes were pan-seared to a nice crispness, and the inside was heated through without being dry.

Entrées were equally, if not more, delicious. Ted decided on the Asian salmon ($12.95), while I went for the roasted chicken ($11.95). The salmon was a nice-sized pan-seared filet served atop a bowl of Asian noodles, which were chock-full of goodies like whole garlic cloves, large mushrooms, bok choy, snow peas and tons of spicy ginger sauce. Our server warned Ted to keep mixing the ingredients together as he ate, lest all the ginger sauce collect at the bottom and make the last bites unpalatably spicy. Ted enjoyed it thoroughly, saying that it was one of the best salmon dishes he's had in quite some time.

My roasted chicken was excellent; the half-chicken was quartered, and the pieces were well-seasoned and moist—even the white meat. The pieces were served atop a potato rosti (akin to a large hash brown), which could have used more cooking time. The outside wasn't very crispy, and the middle was a bit raw. The chicken was also served with roasted root veggies—which on that day were parsnips and turnips, and they were roasted to crispy perfection.

On our second visit, we tried to make it to brunch, which the menu and website say ends at noon. But when we arrived a little past 11 a.m., the café had already switched to the lunch/dinner menu. We decided on the guacamole ($8.50) and a farm salad ($8.75) for starters. For an entrée, I opted for the chicken and brie melt ($8.95), while Ted went for the barbecue pork sandwich ($7.50).

Everything was fantastic, but the guacamole really stood out. Two whole, smashed avocados with red onion, tomato, lime and cilantro were mixed with a generous handful of bay shrimp and topped with a sprinkling of feta-cheese crumbles. The shrimp and feta added an unusual and amazing flavor to the guacamole; I wished only that the remaining half of an avocado in our dish had been ripe. The salad was fresh and tasty, with blue cheese, walnuts, spinach and orange segments. Everything was beautifully presented.

The sandwiches weren't gigantic, but they were served with a hefty portion of "flash-baked" small potato halves, making them filling entrées. My chicken and brie had a generous amount of melted cheese over the moist grilled chicken breast and sweet caramelized onion, but the combination of sun-dried tomato paste and kalamata-olive bread was a bit overwhelming. Ted's sandwich was definitely the better of the two, with a nice heap of shredded pork on a ciabatta roll with pepper slaw and cilantro-lime dressing.

Overall, the artful presentation of the food, the glamour and chicness of the setting, and the tasty, down-to-earth menu make Monterey Court Café a great place to get delicious, well-prepared food for a reasonable price.

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