When you order the $8.75 New York Strip lunch special from the Venice Room in Monterey Park (for reference, the steak lunch special at a nearby Sizzler costs $8.99), you may be in for a surprise. Instead of a hot, seared steak, which you might reasonably be expecting, you're presented with a red, raw piece of meat about six inches long, an inch thick, nicely marbled, and rimmed on one side with a healthy layer of milky-white fat.
"Enjoy!" the waitress says and plops down a plate, which also carries a baked potato wrapped in tin foil, some packets of butter, a small plastic container of sour cream, and a massive white French roll. "Do you need a refill on that iced tea? More butter? A-1 sauce?" She smiles and moves onto her other tables.
No explanation is needed, apparently, because this is not a typical steak lunch, and you're not in a typical steakhouse. You're in the Venice Room (with thanks to Merrill Shindler at the SGV Tribune for the tip), and that massive grill on one side of the dining room? It's not for show: you're the customer, and you're also the grill master.
You're the customer, and you're also the grill master
The environs are a carefully manicured decadence that feels luxurious, somehow, if slightly like a dim showroom at the Venetian in Vegas: Pleather booths, small lamps with red shades adorning each table; faux frescoes of old monuments and crumbling stone walls; lots and lots of paintings of gondolas and canals. The lights are kept very low, like Reptile-House-at-the-zoo low, and eyes will need time to adjust upon entering. When you come in through the front, at least a couple of the eight guys tossing back beers at the bar at 1 in the afternoon will shoot you a pained glance that says, "For the love of God! Close the dang door!"
Back to the steak: it's yours to do with what you wish, and there are plenty of rubs, spices, powders, peppers, salts, ointments, salves, and various sundry condiments to dress your meat however you see fit. The extremely hot gas grill is on one side of the dining room and, above it, a stern warning in all caps: "DO NOT ADJUST FLAME ON GRILL." My first thought: Do people burn themselves doing this? People must burn themselves doing this all the time. I am totally going to the burn ward after lunch. My second thought: So, uh, how long are you supposed to cook a steak for again?
I seem to remember a rule of thumb being roughly four minutes on each side for an inch-thick steak, and that's what I went with. Toss a little garlic salt on there, some parsley flakes; rub it all in. Hell, I've got a bunch of little butter containers, too, why not toss some butter on there? And then the waiting. Time is the enemy of any (wo)man at a grill, at least someone who doesn't spend a lot of time grilling, as that's when the doubts start to voice themselves, and nag: Are you sure it's not done yet? It's probably done. You don't want to overcook it. You can always toss it back on and cook it more, but you can't uncook a steak. You can't uncook it!!!
But I persevered and stuck to my plan, and was rewarded: it was done the way I like, somewhere between medium and medium rare, and with the satisfaction that I did it all myself. That is a big part of the enjoyment of this place, I realized. In addition to most likely saving on a salary or two by having customers cook their own food, the Venice Room also accomplishes something else: by putting eaters' culinary fates in their own hands, as it were, they relinquish quite a bit of responsibility. Happy with your food? Great job! You're amazing. Oh no, is your steak overdone? Sorry, bucko, you've got no one to blame but yourself.
The steak itself was good: not great, but good. Fairly juicy with good marbling and nice texture, and not at all tough. For the money, though, it was fan-freaking-tastic. I challenge readers to find a higher quality steak lunch in the city for this price. The baked potato was very good (hard to screw up a baked potato) but the accompanying French roll was a little tough; maybe 12 to 18 hours on the wrong side of stale.
The Venice Room has been open since 1955 and one of the coolest aspects of it is that the original owner, "Papa" Joe Lombardo, still frequents the place about five nights a week. Well into his 90s, Lombardo occupies the same seat at the bar and holds court, chatting with customers, admirers, and others who wish to pay homage to a man who created this truly venerable institution.
The Venice Room is located at 2428 S Garfield Ave in Monterey Park. It's open Sunday through Wednesday from 8 a.m. until midnight, and Thursday through Saturday from 8 a.m. until 1 a.m.