Story by Wayne Stewart
For years The Monterey House, a chain of Mexican restaurants in the Houston area, proved itself a family favorite.
Its traditional Tex-Mex offerings reminded diners of Texas’ Spanish origins and its authentic flavors brought Texas’ unique culture to life. Back then, what’s become known as Mexican Food, was a local phenomena. Outside of Texas the cuisine had yet to storm the nation’s taste buds. Places like Monterey House were true family restaurants.
Inside the restaurants booths, situated in faux adobe walls, gave the diner a true southwest experience, and not something just thrown together. Eating there provided an experience; it gave children something to talk about, and it kept Mom out of the kitchen for a special after-church meal.
For all those who ever ate at Monterey House, the best part came at the bottom of the chip basket. That’s right, those little pieces of heaven – that sweet candy that awaited a satisfied diner.
Sadly, Monterey House closed its doors in the late 1980s as the chain went out of business. Gone were those family experiences, gone were the restaurant booths inside the adobe walls. Gone was the great Tex-Mex food; gone… Or so we thought.
Pardon me as I break with journalistic tradition and begin writing in first person, when it comes to The Monterey House, I lose all objectivity as it was one of my favorites as a child. The Monterey House in the Woodlands was a family spot, and I always enjoyed getting the tamale plate, I would drink milk, and they brought it by the quart; and the candy at the bottom of the bowl – I have since learned is called “Leche Quemada,” which I think roughly translates food from heaven, with milk mixed with it.
I was on a search for a recipe for this candy a few years ago when I found a secret. Yes, I found the recipe, but the best part; my search found out the restaurant isn’t completely gone.
I filed the information away, hoping to make it there someday; well, it took me five years, but I did finally make it.
Located along 11th Street, just a couple of blocks from the Beaumont Medical district, the last surviving Monterey House still churns out delicious food on a daily basis, using the same recipes – with a few new ones thrown in.
Driving along 11th street, the GPS said we were just 0.3 miles away, and Christina said, “I don’t see it, I should be seeing it.” She didn’t know what to look for, but I did.
The familiar sign I had not seen in 35 years – The Monterey House written in script; and below it, the patented sign of a man wearing a sombrero, driving a donkey-drawn cart – appeared, and the memories began to build.
My kids couldn’t understand the excitement, and neither could Christina, but in this post-modern world that has eschewed all tradition, that sign was like a beacon in the night. We pulled into the parking lot, got out of our Suburban, walked inside and it was like stepping back in time. Though I had never been in that particular restaurant, it felt just like the one I frequented as a young child.
A sign said, seat yourself. We did, and within seconds Sandra appeared, spreading sunshine on a cloudy day.
It turns out, Sandra has been working at The Monterey House for 40 years.
“Monterey House has been here since 1963, and we still do everything the same way,” she assured me.
Christina ordered Brisket Nachos, something added to the menus since the Houston area restaurants closed their doors in the 1980s. They features smoked brisket, layered over flat chips, covered with cheese. The cooks there found a great way of combining two of Texas’ favorite foods – Barbecue and Tex-Mex.
Claire had a quesadilla, another new offering, they offer it as crispy or soft – she decided to have a bit of each. I decided to go traditional and opted for the Regular Dinner. Rice, beans, cheese enchilada and a tamale covered with chili – and yes, goodness never changes.
The only thing that has changed, is the candy does not appear at the bottom of the chip bowl, but everything else has the same flair as it did nearly 40 years ago. The service is fast and attentive.
“That’s the way we do it at Monterey House,” Sandra assured us, as we barely got the food ordered before it was brought to our table; and this occurring during the lunch rush hour with people filing in and out. “We are here to make our customers happy.”
The Monterey House is Beaumont area’s oldest family-owned Mexican restaurant. It has been owned and operated by the LeJeune family since 1963, and they still show up every day to help prepare the food using fresh and local Texas food.
If you are looking to rekindle some childhood memories, then make the trip to Beaumont, it’s not too far away for great food; The Monterey House is located at 1090 S. 11th St. in Beaumont.