I have been a huge fan of Santo Taco in Rose Park for quite some time. It’s one of the best taco joints around and new Santo Taco locations keep coming, including a downtown SLC taco shop and one in Herriman scheduled to open this winter. In contrast to those funky Santo Taco eateries is the upscale downtown Mexican restaurant Monarca, which is run by the same couple who founded Santo Taco, Alfonso and Claudia Brito.
Previously home to Alamexo, Monarca is upscale in ambiance and cuisine, with menu items such as ceviche, lobster enchiladas, cochinita pibil, halibut en flor de calabaza, and others. The interior is beautiful, with lots of warm wood and vibrant color splashes throughout. Downtown parking is definitely a hassle these days, but there is valet parking available at The Marriott Hotel just across the street from Monarca.
There isn’t much in this world that is free anymore, so enjoy the homemade free chips and salsa while you peruse the extensive Monarca menu. Not so free is the $40 Molcajete, a sharable melange of shrimp, roasted cactus, carne asada, chicken, chorizo, seared jalapeños, grilled onions, salsa verde, and queso fresco served in a stone molcajete with freshly made tortillas.
Fresh guacamole ($14) made at your table is a popular appetizer at Monarca, but we opted for the slightly less pricey Queso Fundido ($12), which was outstanding and much more interesting, I thought, than guacamole. It’s a hot cast iron skillet filled with a molten mixture of melted Mexican cheeses, topped with chorizo or, for an additional charge, carne asada ($4), al pastor ($3), or chapulines ($4) – AKA grasshoppers. The queso fundido comes with homemade flour tortillas for dipping and, while messy, was marvelous.
Another excellent appetizer – and one that is very sharable – is the white shrimp Ceviche ($16), wherein the plentiful shrimp are cured for at least 24 hours with fresh lime juice, served with thinly sliced cucumber, diced serrano peppers, housemade pico de gallo, an avocado fan, and homemade tortilla chips. Other appealing appetizers at Monarca include street-style Elote ($12), hand-rolled taquitos called Tacos Dorados ($12), and deep-fried corn masa Empanadas ($14) with a choice of stuffings: cheese, picadillo or chicken.
If you are a tequila lover, you’re going to enjoy Monarca’s tequila selection. There are at least 20 different tequilas ranging from Corralejo ($9) to Don Julio 1942 ($25), as well as several Mezcals to choose from. There is also a robust cocktail menu, some decent wines, and beers on draft or in bottles.
Enchiladas are a specialty at Monarca and one of my stepsons devoured his hand-rolled Enchiladas de Mole ($16), which was two homemade corn tortillas stuffed with shredded chicken and bathed in a rich, dark chocolate mole with Monterey Jack cheese and fresh crema. Other enchilada choices include Enchiladas Suisa ($16), Enchiladas Flor de Calabaza with zucchini blossom pumpkin seed mole ($16), and Lobster Enchiladas ($28).
My other stepson – the meat-loving one – raved about his Birria Tacos ($15). As mentioned earlier, the owners are well-known for the tacos at Santo Tacos and serve a range of them at Monarca, including octopus, fish, shrimp, carne asada, and others. The trio of birria tacos featured shredded house-made brisket birria served with crispy melted cheese and a side of consomme for dipping.
My wife, by contrast, typically eschews meat and is more of a fish and seafood lover. She enjoyed her Halibut entree ($29), a generous fresh halibut fillet, seared and served with housemade zucchini blossom sauce atop a bed of grilled peppers, potato and onions, and sprinkled with black sesame seeds with a handmade black tortilla alongside. Other enticing fish options include Yucatan-style salmon grilled in a banana leaf ($24) or butterflied snapper with zucchini blossom sauce ($29).
As for me, I rarely can resist pork carnitas and so I ordered the Carnitas Platter ($19), which was a bowl of scrumptious slow-cooked carnitas accompanied by housemade salsa verde, lime wedges, pickled red onions, fresh cilantro, radish, pickled jalapeño and warm corn tortillas. Next visit I’ll likely try the Valentina’s Plate ($29), which is grilled skirt steak served with two hand-rolled enchiladas, black beans, pico de gallo, guacamole, and roasted jalapeño.
Service at Monarca was very friendly and informative, as well as perfectly paced. And, while prices may seem a bit high for Mexican fare, this was south-of-the-border cuisine of exquisite quality with fantastic flavors in an uncommonly appealing ambiance. So if you’re looking for an inexpensive meal, head over to Santo Tacos; for a bit more of a splurge, you won’t be disappointed in Monarca – it’s marvelous.
Photos by Ted Scheffler
Culinary quote of the week: “The country of Mexico has just gotten its first Taco Bell. You’re Welcome. Finally, Mexicans will have access to… Mexican food. Bon appetit. I can’t imagine how confused they will be when they get a taco.” – Jon Stewart
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Originally trained as an anthropologist, Ted Scheffler is a seasoned food, wine & travel writer based in Utah. He loves cooking, skiing, and spends an inordinate amount of time tending to his ever-growing herd of guitars and amplifiers.