Back when most people still knew who Carl Hayden was, this steak house was touted as the 1880s birthplace of the late Arizona senator. Today, Tempe's most famous restaurant is known primarily as that adobe joint at the end of the bridge where you can never get a table during the season. And that goes double when ASU is playing a home game and the line of hungry carnivores snakes halfway down Mill Avenue.
Purchased by the Monti restaurant family in 1956, the Hayden compound was dubbed Monti's La Casa Vieja - or "the old house."
Thanks to various expansions that have occurred over the years, an equally fitting sobriquet might be Monti's El Oscuro Laberinto - "the dark maze." A restaurant reviewer once likened the place to "a Halloween fun house decorated by Wyatt Earp" - and that description of Monti's labyrinthlike layout isn't far off. Some corner booths are wedged into such tight places that they seem to be designed for contortionists. And should you have reason to visit the rest room during dinner, be sure to leave a trail of croutons or you'll never find your way back to the table before dessert.
And you certainly wouldn't want to miss dinner, which will almost certainly include beef, baked potato and iceberg lettuce hidden under a blanket of Roquefort. Dollar for dollar, this boisterous eatery consistently serves up one of the biggest dining bargains in town.
Although not everyone's idea of a good time, the endless lines, the unfathomable floor plan and the high-decibel "hash 'em and cash 'em" ambiance are all part of Monti's "charm."
And love it or leave it, this is one landmark that's anything but run of the Mill.
Michael L. Monti, proprietor of Monti's La Casa Vieja in Tempe, responded with a fabulous local-food historical footnote after we recently printed the recipe for Monti's Roman Bread for the eighth time (at least) in these pages.
"I was especially pleased to see that you correctly identified it as the Valley's forerunner in the focaccia arena," Monti wrote. "The recipe was taught to my mother by my aunt Emilia, who came to the United States as an adolescent. My mother convinced my father to begin serving it at Monti's. The dilemma arose as to what to call the bread.
"In those days, using the word 'focaccia' around these parts might have caused a fistfight. The term 'Roman Bread' was settled upon as a compromise between accuracy and not sounding too foreign for a steakhouse."
Monti said the bread has been on the menu since the early to mid-'70s. His mother used to bring it from home when they would entertain friends at the restaurant. Now, the Roman Bread is such a signature item they spend $100,000 a year on the dough for it. Because it would be difficult to create so much dough in their own kitchen, a local contractor makes and delivers the dough in large sheets, which are oiled, rosemary-ed, salted and stashed in the walk-in refrigerator until time to bake.
The restaurant's long and colorful history is fascinating but a bit long to recount here. However, here's the latest thing they're doing. Internet-surfing Taste Buddies might want to check out Monti's new web site. Monti said he will be adding historical information to the site before long.