Clockwise: The War Streets Wedge Salad, Guinness Nachos and Salmon Boxty. (Photo / Matt Kovacik)
Walking along Monterey Street on the Northside you would never guess that one address blending in with the row of Victorian houses actually is a “Gastropub.” An Irish flag and hunter green color distinctively identifies the pub. For regulars and people living on the Northside, a visit to the pub is described as their “extended living room,” however, for people who are visiting for the first time it may seem more like a trip to Ireland.
I visited the Monterey Pub on a cold and wintry night, and approaching the door amidst the constant drift of falling snow I noticed a warm glow coming from within. Although the pub was packed and not a seat was to be had, I didn’t mind taking my position alongside a few others who were waiting and it wasn’t long before they welcomed me into their random conversation of weather and the anticipation of great food.
Just then a wonderful aroma of spice filled the air as a serving of wings was delivered to a nearby table, and as I inquired I learned that they had been coated in the “house seasoning.” I was encouraged because Lawry’s seasoning salt is the lazy chef’s answer to a signature seasoning, and judging by the aroma I knew there was more happening here than a tub of Lawry’s.
As I discovered, whether a regular patron or a first time visitor, everyone is treated with the same hospitality. I’m sure that’s why the Monterey Pub recently received the friendliest bartender award in a readers’ poll by the Pittsburgh CityPaper.
I met with Michael, a regular patron before joining the Pub as a chef. As I sampled Michael’s suggestions from the menu (Salmon Boxty, The War Streets Wedge Salad and Guinness Nachos), he told me about the Southwest Bistro he had once owned in the cultural district. This gave him the opportunity to showcase his Texas roots and experience in the multi-use of peppers.
But Michael credits the creative influence behind the menu to Chef Olga Watkins, a Pittsburgh native.
While Michael was describing the pub’s mission and history, I sampled the Salmon Boxty. It is simple and delicious with crispy potato pancakes layered with smoked salmon and red onion caper crème fraiche.
The creamy sauce plays as a great accompaniment to both the potato and smoked salmon, creating harmonious flavors that are light and flavorful. My photographer, who makes no claim to having a refined palate, inhaled this dish after taking one bite.
I then moved onto the wedge salad: a great salad of cool and crisp hearts of romaine leaves, topped with tomato, bacon and very chunky blue cheese dressing. What makes this salad stand out from its cousins is the vibrant colors, the perfectly hand-placed leaves of romaine and the waft of freshly cooked bacon. There is nothing more pleasant to a salad lover than being served with bacon that was made to order! I had to interrupt Michael and give him kudos on that note.
The Guinness Nachos live up to their name: shredded beef that is marinated in nearly 100 percent Guinness, along with a pinch of this and a dash of that. I found the beef to be fork tender and packed with a whole lot of flavor as it was tucked under a nice layer of melted cheddar, green onions and tomato. The nachos are also served with sides of sour cream, salsa and guacamole. I love it when guacamole is “not an additional charge,” as I was pleased to find at the pub.
The Monterey Pub opened about six years ago after a run of unsuccessful businesses had occupied the property. The owners, fellow Northsiders, felt that every neighborhood needs a place where people can gather for good food, drinks and a friendly atmosphere.
Michael says that some days it’s hard to tell the guest from the employee from the owner. And although many of the regulars are on a first name basis with each other, there is still enough high traffic times when all the faces are new, providing the kind of social opportunity that the Monterey Pub thrives on.
The pub also serves weekly specials with wings on Tuesday nights, mussels on Thursday, and steak on Saturday. You may find inspired creations such as red curry mussels with coconut and cilantro, or NY strip steak with roasted poblano hollandaise.
After sampling some terrific dishes, I decided to stick around and sit at the bar. I was amazed to see the extremely large glasses for tap beer and martinis. Conversing with others seated next to me, I felt as if I had been welcomed into their living room to quench my thirst; as the night ended they wished me well as I tossed on my cap and overcoat to brave the elements.
The Monterey Pub menu is well-balanced and offers a little something for everyone. I regard this property as a gastropub because any regular will tell you, drinking happens while enjoying a creative and tasty gastronomique menu.
Steven Hughes is a graduate of Pittsburgh Le Cordon Bleu. He has worked under Chef Koughenhour of the Duquesne Club and has studied various cuisines in chef positions across the country. Hughes hopes to one day produce a food television show in Pittsburgh.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that Chef Olga Watkins is self-taught. In fact, Watkins attended the culinary program at West Virginia Northern Community College, studied under chefs in Pittsburgh, Wheeling and Chicago and continues her culinary education through online courses offered by the CIA in Hyde Park.