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I don’t know about you, but when I grab the menu at a beer garden and cafe, the last thing I expect to find on it are dishes like octopus with white curry, smoked fish with sriracha mayo, and chocolate pudding with lime curd and caramel popcorn. But at the Monterey, a breezy retro diner that blew into San Antonio’s Southtown neighborhood ten months ago, that’s exactly what I had for dinner. And over the course of two more happy visits to the offbeat venue, it became clear that its imagination and intent are as serious as those at places with much higher prices and far fancier zip codes. If white-tablecloth dining is indeed dead, as has been widely proclaimed, the Monterey is dancing a jig on its grave.
Though the restaurant had a bit of a ragged start on the way to its present success, the ratio of hits to misses these days is gratifyingly high. To guarantee a good first impression, start with the roasted corn, a Mexican street-fair favorite reinterpreted by chef Quealy Watson and sous chef Robert Cain. Juicy, sweet, and brown-edged from the grill, the golden kernels are scooped into a bowl and dolled up with lime-tinged yogurt, snowy drifts of cotija cheese, and popcorn. I’m warning you now: If there are more than three people in your party, you’ll need two orders—or a referee.
Speaking of lime yogurt, sybaritic sauces are a hallmark of Watson’s, so you might as well sit back and enjoy them. A dazzling Kaffir-lime white curry—I would have called it a foam, or a light cream—elevated an order of grilled octopus from good to terrific. True, the critter had a few rubbery tentacles, but most of it was tender and delicious, and the Kaffir lime gave the medley a beguiling Thai lift.
Rounding out the saucy theme, sriracha mayo was the tie that bound together the strangest ensemble of our first visit: pink-fleshed smoked arctic char, sheets of crisp chicharrones, and basil. After debating whether to even give the bizarre combination a try, our threesome ended up astounded at how beautifully the disparate flavors went together. The chicharrones, in particular, were so freshly fried that they snapped, crackled, and popped, prompting one melodramatic friend to whisper loudly, “They’re alive! They’re aliiive!!” to the infinite amusement of the next table.
If the main courses are entertaining, the desserts are downright fun. We tried three (including an unfortunate mound of bricklike goat’s-milk-ricotta ice cream), but our hands-down favorite was a silky chocolate pudding topped with whipped lime curd (echoing the sunny flavors of Key lime pie) and garnished with caramel popcorn. As I sat there having “just one more bite” after another, it occurred to me that this was what the Monterey is all about: clever, skillful, horizon-expanding food, stripped of the hushed reverence and high prices that so often go along with it. Welcome, my friends, to no-tablecloth dining. Beer & wine. 1127 S. St. Mary’s (210-745-2581). Open Wed–Sat 5–midnight, Sun 9–2. Closed Mon & Tue. $$–$$$ +