Photo by Anne Fishbein"The happiest place on Earth," the bartender burbles when he answers the phone. He sounds as if he means it. And when you are in a particular frame of mind, or a few Buds into the wind, the Venice Room may actually be the happiest place on Earth, a dark, fragrant bar with black-light murals from the brush of some homeboy Canaletto: Venice, as seen from the windows of the Doge's Palace, painted in lurid, glowing tones of blue, orange and pink. Gondolas throb with light; murky medieval canals course across the walls of the main barroom, almost vibrating to the thump of the Pat Benatar (or James Brown, or Tom Jones) that blasts from the big CD jukebox. And the Venice Room's happy hour stretches halfway to infinity.
More to the point, at least for the purposes of this column, is the restaurant in the equally Venice-encrusted rear dining room, a restaurant whose sole offering is a full New York steak dinner for $7.50. The catch is, you have to cook it yourself over a searingly hot commercial gas grill tucked into a corner of the dining room.
To get to the Venice Room, you cruise south from Monterey Park, past the informal demarcation zone separating the city's Chinese neighborhoods from its Latino ones, and into a part of town that feels very much like Greater Montebello, hard by the Pomona Freeway and just a nine iron north of the public golf course. The Venice Room is marked by a swath of bright neon that looks like something from 1950s Chicago; the small parking lot is filled with pickup trucks and carefully tended old cars.
When you order your steak, the waitress brings out a raw New York strip, a good one, decently marbled and rimmed with a full inch of creamy fat, plopped onto a plate with a foil-wrapped baked potato, a length of French bread and a few pats of butter. You are allowed a pass at a flip-up salad station equipped with iceberg lettuce, a couple of different kinds of dressing, and matching heaps of shredded carrots and shredded red cabbage that seem imported from a junior high school cafeteria. The quality of your dinner is essentially up to you.
Seasoned veterans of the Venice Room hover over their steaks, slashing and battering them with knives and long metal prongs, lavishing them with garlic salt, cayenne and bulk-packaged Cajun seasoning, drizzling them with oil, massaging cracked pepper and dehydrated onion flakes into the meat's bruised flanks. The cooking seems almost competitive, as if a gong is going to sound, a wall is going to open, and one of the dudes will be named the new Iron Chef.
Some people subject their steaks to elaborate regimens of higher heat and lower heat, acrobatic flips and precise 90-degree rotations. Others just give their meat a hard, brief steak-house sear -- did I mention the grill was hot? -- and enjoy their meat a perfect, drippy rare. One friend, a restaurant chef out on a busman's holiday, protects her steak like a mother hen, occasionally nourishing it with a twist of the pepper mill or a scattered palmful of salt, snatching it from the flame before the flesh has had a chance to cook through.
French bread crisps on the cooler edge of the grill, and almost everybody seems to improvise some sort of grilled garlic bread with garlic powder and butter. Baked potatoes, already pretty much cooked through, steam in their foil on the edge of the grill, except for the lone, butter-spurting, charred spud that somebody (okay, me) has decided to convert into a mickey.
Kids would love this place, but you have to leave the kids at home. The first time I walked in, I had a sleeping 4-year-old draped over my shoulder, and the waitress couldn't have spoken more harshly if I had walked in carrying a barrelful of sloshing toxic waste. The Venice Room, she insisted, is a bar. And if you are younger than 40 or so, chances are good that you will be carded.
It is hard to imagine a simpler meal than a dinner at the Venice Room, or a meal more satisfying than grilled meat, garlic bread, a baked potato and a pony of bar scotch.
"Do you eat here a lot?" I asked one guy who seemed to know his way around a 2-pound shaker of garlic powder.
"Nah," said the guy, "this is only my second time. But I drink here a lot . . . a lot. A lot."
2428 S. Garfield Ave., Monterey Park; (323) 722-3075. Open Mon.Sat. 9 a.m.2 a.m., Sun. till midnight. Dinner for two, food only, $15. Recommended dish: New York steak dinner. Full bar. Lot parking. AE, MC, V.
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