monterey county herald

Monterey Cookhouse Smokin' Hot

Mike Hale, FoodBites - Herald Food Writer - July 21, 2010

The road to restaurant success is littered with the ravaged carcasses of once-idealistic owners who thought it would be a kick to quit their 9-to-5 job and open a little bistro somewhere. A kick? Yeah, right in the teeth. The hours are brutal, the competition fierce, the overhead high, the margin thin and the success rate especially for first-time owners is slim, at best. The exception could be Linda Cantrell, the bright-eyed owner of Monterey Cookhouse on Fremont Street, a growing local hot-spot that is approaching its first-year anniversary on Aug. 3.

This success story seems, at first glance, a head-scratcher. Cantrell didn't even have her first job until she was in her 40s. Her qualifications to run a restaurant? She owned a stable of gas stations, and loved to cook and entertain with friends. But she had certain intangibles. She's in love with her chosen field, has boundless energy, doesn't carry around a huge ego, sincerely cares about her customers and most important she's surrounded herself with experts in the business. "The only thing I really do well is making people feel comfortable," said Cantrell. "I have the most incredible people working for me, and they deserve all the credit. They work so hard."

She opened last summer with the help of longtime chef Hugo Barragan, who ran the kitchen for years at John Gardiner's Tennis Ranch. Barragan has since moved on, but wearing the chef's coat now is German Perez, who cut his teeth at the Tap Room in Pebble Beach. Helping run just about everything else is longtime friend Bill Susalla, who once owned Deli Treasures in Carmel Valley and who Cantrell calls "the backbone" of the Cookhouse.

After a shaky start, Monterey Cookhouse is now a must-visit, especially for carnivores. The brisket is insanely good, the pulled pork the best on the Peninsula, and the budding bar program is a hot spot waiting to happen (try the organic margarita, straight up), or a three-buck happy hour draft from Carmel Valley Brewing.

The service is friendly and warm without being phony. Cantrell is known to uncannily anticipate receptive huggers among her customers, embracing them when they leave "I appreciate everyone who walks in the door," she said. "I'm big on hugs, I've always been that way. If someone is open to a hug, I will grab them!" They are also flexible. When a couple couldn't decide what to order he wanted pulled pork sliders, she wanted Margherita pizza the husband suggested to Cantrell that the cook just put the pork on the pizza and call it good. She did, and now the pulled pork pizza is the most requested item on the menu. (This creative menu item is outrageously delicious and addictive).

It's just the sort of item that would tickle the fancy of Guy Fieri, host of the Food Network's "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives." Cantrell met Fieri after helping him with a charity fundraiser and the bleached-blond chef promised her he'd arrange a visit to taste such creations (the Cookhouse also serves a pulled pork eggs Benedict, with chipotle hollandaise). Everything here is housemade, except the bread, fries and pasta. Chef Perez makes his own pizza dough, sauces, demi-glace, desserts, ice cream, sorbet. Even the jalapeño poppers are made with whole green peppers stuffed with cheese and wrapped in bacon. "That's the Cookhouse way," Cantrell said. "There’s no cookie-cutter approach. We take everything to the next level."
Monterey Cookhouse is open daily for dinner (from 4:30 p.m.; happy hour 4-6 p.m.), lunch Thursday through Sunday (1:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.) and breakfast on weekends beginning at 9:30 a.m. Tonight is a Graff Family Vineyards three-course wine tasting & dinner event. Cost: $55. Call 642-9900.

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.