Talking to Marty Montano about his namesake restaurant on Franklin Road can offer a lot of insights into the nature of trying to run a long-lived and innovative business in a mid-sized city during a recession. But get him talking about the restaurant’s origins, and it’s like a slideshow of more than 40 years of Roanoke’s social history, told in bread, noodles and spices.
Marty’s father Phil was living in Roanoke in the late ‘60s, a transplant from Newark, N.J. Whenever he was back home for a visit, he would always stock up on plenty of good things to eat that weren’t available herein those days. Crusty Italian bread, Italian sausage and so on. Before long, friends and neighbors were asking him to pick them up things as well, and soon his return trips would be laden with more than 20 bags of bread, prosciutto and sausage, which he’d divvy up.
By 1969, Marty says, Phil was running Chef ’s International Gourmet, the first such store in the area. From a high-end deli, the business evolved into more of a restaurant, and by the early ‘90s had moved to its current location in Townside Festival Mall.
At the same time, the Montanos were shifting their offerings to service the various diasporas that were making Roanoke their homes. In the early 70s, immigration from Southeast Asia to the valley began to rise, and Montano’s became a resource for foods from Vietnam, the Philippines and other countries in the region. Later, when immigrants from Jamaica and other West Indies nations began to arrive in Roanoke, Montano’s again adapted to service their needs, importing authentic foods from their island homes.
Marty Montano points to this flexibility as one of the keys to his restaurant’s staying power and popularity. Asked why Montano’s has retained this “Chefs Without Borders” approach instead of settling on one cuisine and making it a specialty, he replies directly: “The more hooks you have in the water, the more fish you catch.”
One of the greatest pleasures of Montano’s is the effort they take with their beer list. They have what might be the most impressive selection of beers in Roanoke, featuring them on their own separate menu. Craft beers come to Montano’s from across the U.S., as well as varieties from brewing destinations like Germany, the U.K. and Belgium. Asia, South America, the Caribbean, and a number of other regions also weigh in.
The menu represents a gourmand’s bucket list of travel destinations. The international theme is prevalent, with each item tagged with the flag of the nation that inspired it: Italy, France, Brazil, Greece, Japan.
I started off close to home with the buffalo wings, and was shocked by the size of them. Spicy and huge, they were almost too big, and we were left with a third of what we started with. Lucky for me, they were still in the ‘fridge the next day at lunchtime.
Montano’s keeps eight soups on the daily menu, including the rich and tangy potato feta soup, which was such a popular special that it was given a permanent place. My wife’s seafood gumbo was a peppery tomato-based stew with plenty of shrimp and scallops, okra, and other vegetables.
For a main course, my wife was drawn to the feijoada, a savory black bean stew prepared with sausage and other meats and served over rice which was billed as the “national dish of Brazil.” This was a good match with the sautéed collard greens and oranges it was plated with; the whole arrangement had a nice down-to-earth tropical flavor: hearty and spicy with a touch of sweet.
Not speaking Portuguese, I opted for Montano’s Cuban sandwich, which had peppers and onions instead of the traditional pickles and yellow mustard, and was served on a ciabatta loaf with a side of fried bananas. Stuff ed with pork, ham and cheese, this was a tasty and filling take on the classic Cuban.
All too soon, it was time to start the homeward leg of our trip. We hadn’t stamped nearly enough of the countries on the menu (or the beer list) into our passports. But considering Montano’s longevity, we’ll have plenty of chances to set sail again, and considering the variety of good food and drink, we’ll never lack for incentive.