Restaurant Review: Monarca | Restaurant Reviews | Salt Lake City Weekly

Restaurant Review: Monarca 

Tacos and mole in the heart of Gallivan Plaza

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ALEX SPRINGER
  • Alex Springer

After visiting Sol Agave a few times, I've found myself wondering more about the state of upscale Mexican food and its representation along the Wasatch Front. It's one of those things that is happening here for sure, but lately I've found myself wanting to take a deeper dive into that world, and see what we've got cooking.

Thinking about enchiladas suizas, zucchini blossoms, fresh guacamole and the tapestry of flavors found in Mexican mole made me think of Alamexo, which unfortunately closed at the end of 2020. It wasn't long before my train of thought took me to the realization that I had yet to visit Monarca (268 S. State Street, Ste. 110, 801-214-0111, monarcaut.com), which now occupies the spot that Alamexo had near Gallivan Plaza. Not only that, but many local foodies have come to see Monarca as the spiritual successor to Alamexo's fresh and feisty take on traditional Mexican food.

Fans of Alamexo will know that you absolutely cannot go wrong with the space Monarca occupies. Located right on the corner of 300 South and State Street, it's well within walking distance of the Broadway Centre Cinemas, and any event that may be happening at Gallivan Plaza. The interior is just as sleek and inviting as it was in the Alamexo days—those towering windows that provide great natural light (and equally great people-watching opportunities) are a fantastic feature.

I took a spot at the bar in the back corner of the restaurant, where the welcoming bar staff was happy to answer any questions I had. The menu at Monarca has a spectrum of traditional dishes like a rotating roster of tacos, smothered enchiladas, quesadillas and other plays from the Mexican food playbook that we know and love. However, once you spend a bit more time perusing things, you'll notice some sneaky steakhouse vibes start to come through.

The king of this court is undoubtedly the tomahawk ($54), which is 16 ounces of rib eye grilled with Monarca's house made guajillo barbecue sauce. If you don't want to roll that high, you can snag the carne asada rib eye ($28) or the Chuleta de Puerco Asada ($24), which is a pork chop served with grilled pineapple and fried plantains.

During my visit, I was feeling more traditional, so I started things off with the empanada sampler ($14) followed up by the Enchiladas Flor de Calabaza ($16). The empanadas are part of Monaraca's appetizer menu, which features several tasty items that can really get a meal started. Next time I'm for sure going for the huitlacoche quesadilla ($14) made with that funky fungus found on corncobs that I hold close to my heart.

The empanada sampler will please any fans of this pasty-like snack. These are of the deep-fried variety, so you get a nice, crisp crust on the exterior. They also come bathed in a liberal dose of herbaceous salsa verde, rich crema and crumbly queso fresco. The sampler nets you shrimp, chicken, cheese and picadillo—a filling made from ground beef and potatoes—all on one plate. I've seen empanadas of all shapes and sizes, and I was happy to see that these were good, sandwich-sized offerings. My favorites were the shrimp and picadillo, but all four were delicious, and would be great to split among two or three people.

When I spotted the Enchiladas Flor de Calabaza, I was immediately enchanted with the words "zucchini blossom pumpkin seed mole" in the dish's description. It's a vibrant dish slathered in rich orange mole and melted cheese before getting sprinkled with pumpkin seeds. The enchiladas themselves are stuffed with slices of grilled poblano peppers, onions and corn. Flavor-wise, this is working with all kinds of autumnal energy. The mole is fantastic—lush and replete with subtle notes that are both nutty and sweet—but I found myself wishing the veggie filling had a bit more kick. I like poblanos, but perhaps they were a bit overdone. All the same, this is an excellent option for anyone looking for a vegetarian option when dining at Monarca.

For those stopping by for something quick, Monarca's taco menu is a great place to hang. The current options on their ever-changing menu include variations with grilled octopus ($16), a mix of carne asada and shrimp ($21), and sweet potato tacos ($14) which can be served either vegetarian or vegan. Monarca does a nice job curating a menu that can be made vegan with a few requests to remove cheese, and the staff is always helpful with these types of recommendations.

In fact, the service in general at Monarca was stellar. Everyone I interacted with was full of menu recommendations that came from a true love of the food, and my orders always arrived at warp speed without any impediment to the food's quality.

Now that I can trace a line between Sol Agave and Monarca, it's making me think that Utah's Mexican food scene continues to be full of tasty surprises. And when those tasty surprises come with house-made margaritas, I'll be more than happy to continue my "research" into the subject.

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