monterey cookhouse

Barbecue, Wood-fired Pizzas and American Classics Highlight Newcomer's Menu

By Mike Hale and Melissa Snyder

Linda Cantrell

Chef Hugo Barragan heads the kitchen at Monterey Cookhouse. Just six weeks into her restaurant career, Linda Cantrell has trained her ear to recognize one particularsound — a grating noise to the intolerant, yet pleasing to someone so eager to please. The enthusiasti scraping brought by fork on plate appeals to Cantrell, who loves the idea that a diner would work so ardently to reap every drop of sauce, or drizzle of gravy, or squiggle of chocolate.

"I love that sound," said Cantrell, early in another 16-hour day at her new labor of love, Monterey Cookhouse on Fremont Street. "I have the best job in the whole world. My feet hurt at the end of the day, but my heart is happy."Cantrell is a restaurant newbie, and opening one during a dismal economic climate, in a building that saw two previous eateries fail, might cause one to question the sanity of this self-described
"menopausal mama."

"I would think, yes, I'm certifiable, but I have a lot of faith," she said. Her faith was solidified when she ran into chef Hugo Barragan one day at Starbucks, a place Cantrell normally never patronizes. Barragan had just been laid off from Gardiner's Tennis Ranch in Carmel Valley and was looking for work. Cantrell, a foodie and fledgling businesswoman given her stake in three local gas stations, immediately hatched a plan with Barragan to open the cookhouse (she hired other Gardiner's unemployed staff as well). Her philosophy? Serve home-cooked comfort food at a reasonable price, and make customers feel genuinely happy.

The daughter of a man with a Ph.D. in chemistry, Cantrell is a health nut. Against the idea of "factory farming," she always avoids chemicals in her own food. The meats at Monterey Cookhouse are natural, hormone and antibiotic free (she sources her beef from SK Cattle in Arroyo Seco), and she espouses the tenets of sustainability. Chef Barragan eschews cans and jars, making everything in house, including desserts. A "green" pellet-heated Traeger smoker churns out barbecue (ribs, brisket, chicken, etc.), and the menu is rounded out by pastas, wood-fired pizza, burgers, steaks and a variety of side dishes.

SHE SAID

Monterey Cookhouse inherited its pretty space from the upscale Point Joe's, and it's a very pleasant place to spend a couple of hours. Soft lighting from frosted glass torchieres and orangey-yellow-washed walls make for a serene setting. Food wise, I like it that you're not obligated to barbecue, with fish and chips, pasta, pizza and fried chicken on the menu.

We were immediately impressed with the wine list, a very nice assortment of local labels at excellent prices. Our college-student server was very polite and friendly throughout our meal, making enthusiastic ecommendations based on his own experiences here. Cantrell is concentrating on making the menu affordable, he says, and after only six weeks, locals are already making reappearances. He's a little reticent about making wine suggestions, and isn't as informed about the menu as he should be.

Cream of smoked turkey and wild rice soup is rich and original. I appreciate the thinner cream base, versus a sloppy preparation. Tasty cubed turkey breast meat is accompanied by sliced carrots and lots of wild rice, which lends a terrific, toothsome texture. It's nicely seasoned, too, and served steaming hot in a nice, big bowl ($6.95).

"Wood-fired" brings pizza instantly to mind, and someone really knows how to work the pizza oven here. I make myself step away from "the Carbonara" (bacon and cream sauce!) and opt for the grilled chicken and salsa pizza — a large 10-inch pie with a wonderful, thin, crackery crust. House made salsa functions as pizza sauce, topped by cheddar and jack cheese, lots of grilled chicken breast and a sprinkling of fresh cilantro after baking. It has a strong, surprising personality, and it's absolutely worth taking the rest home in a takeout box for lunch tomorrow ($11.95).

With time, Cantrell can help her already friendly staff come up to speed on menu and wine details — the kind of attention that turns good service into great service. So far, so good, though in six short weeks. I'm planning a return for wine and. . .the Carbonara

HE SAID

Barbecue is tough to pull off, given the high cost of meat, the myriad styles (Texas, Carolina, Tennessee, etc.) and the crucial element of timing involved in the kitchen. How do you smoke 12-hour brisket and have it hot and ready for each customer?

Barragan smokes in two-day increments, and reheats product to order in a steam bath, ensuring moistness. It's not a particularly bad setup, and my two forays into his smoked meat yielded better-than-average results. First, the baby back ribs. I came away disappointed only in the portion; six relatively skimpy ribs, un sauced (thankfully; I want to taste the meat and add sauce if needed), smoked perfectly (a light, pink ring tinged the meatwithout that tell-tale sawdust flavor), lightly charred and delicious (a value, it turns out, at $14.95; includes seasonal vegetables and one side dish).

The smoked half chicken isn't as good a value ($12.95; think Costco full bird at $4.99), and the skin lacks that crunch factor so coveted; in fact, the skin is quite flabby and quickly moved aside. The meat is moist and the flavor is there, and I love the crisp-tender and slender green beans, although a side of cole slaw is too cloyingly sweet for my taste.

I thought the appetizers had a been-there-done-that quality, save for the grilled oysters and the brisket dip ($7.95), something I immediately set out to replicate for my next Super Bowl party. Leftover tiny bites of brisket play nice with some sautéed onions and house barbecue sauce, topped with a genius mixture of cream cheese, mozzarella and ranch dressing that's melted until brown and bubbly.

The service here is friendly and well-meaning, but training is needed to develop cohesiveness. The menu lacks smart annotation. When asked where the salmon is sourced, our server has no clue. He quickly checks with the chef and comes up with the answer "the ocean." Ha, ha. (We find out later it's wild-caught in Alaska.)

I'd also like to see two or three varieties of barbecue sauce at the diner's sticky fingertips. And a kids' menu would be nice. All this will come, I know, because Cantrell's passion shines through at every turn. It will be interesting to watch this place grow.


The Monterey Cookhouse features California cuisine, a delicious fusion of cooking styles and ingredients from around the world. We are well-known for our wood-fired cuisine. Our house specialties include delicious flame broiled steaks,
lightly smoked and barbecued ribs and briskets, and fresh seafood.
Traeger Smoker - Oak-fired Grill - Wood-fired Pizza Oven - Family friendly
Barbecued ribs, brisket, & pulled pork. Oak-grilled steaks. Smoked prime rib. Fresh seafood. Wood-fired pizza.