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PETE TITTL: Monte Carlo a safe bet for good time

Every city needs dive bars, and The Old River Monte Carlo Saloon on Taft Highway was once one of our most prominent. My old TV news buddy Jim Huntington and I whiled away a few Saturday afternoons here back in the 1980s when his high school buddies from Pacific Palisades would drive up just for the insanely cheap beer and the thrill of seeing Jim squander $40 on lottery ticket scratchers and win $4.

I'm not sure the place has retained its dive bar status today, however, after an extensive remodel and some work in the kitchen that led an acquaintance to insist that I must try the pizza here. Pizza in a bar that's any good? Seems unlikely. After all, alcohol simultaneously dulls the taste buds and inspires the appetite to the point that shoe leather with tomato sauce and string cheese on it would get an enthusiastic thumbs-up.

So, we had to check it out and I must say my memories have been disrupted. I'm glad Jim is now working at a San Francisco TV station. This place looks great. The old place was the kind where you'd check your shoes and the seat of your pants after leaving to make sure you weren't bringing any foreign materials home.

This isn't exactly romantic date night material, but their bar and floor and stools are now clean and comfortable, there's a stage in the back where bands play on weekends, two pool tables, three electronic dart machines and the six draft beer taps include the usual suspects plus 805 and a craft beer.

On the first visit, I sampled a small meat lovers pizza ($9.99) and, while I wouldn't rank it as the best in town, it truly did surprise with a crispy, thick crust, decent sauce, copious amounts of cheese and a fascinating topping system for the meats. There were four quadrants, and each had a slice of Canadian-style bacon topped with a slice of salami and a slice of pepperoni, with bits of linguica and Italian sausage found here and there. It looked like something assembled by a person with OCD, so precise was the placement of the toppings.

The available toppings include grilled chicken and marinated artichoke hearts. What bars offer that?

And it must be said that though it was a late Saturday afternoon, there were only about a dozen customers in the place at the time and they were a friendly, mellow crowd. I enjoyed the eavesdropping about Wasco, Shafter, sheriff's deputies and various misadventures while country songs with lyrics like "God is great, beer is good, and people are crazy" played in the background.

I did notice a TV with views of 16 security cameras visible, which I think is a good idea in today's world. Gotta keep the electronic eyes peeled at all times.

On a return visit, my companion ordered the "breaded Espanol raviolis" ($6.99), which our server assured us were stuffed with cheese and vegetables, off the appetizer list. I ordered Buffalo chicken wings ($6.99) and a cheeseburger ($5.99).

The wings had a flour coating, not the naked style so popular nowadays, but they were crispy and not tossed with the sauce, which was on the side. The shoestring fries and panko-crusted onion rings, which come with every appetizer, were decent if unexceptional.

We weren't really thrilled by the raviolis, which sounded like an ambitious idea, but it seemed like a soft white cheese with chopped chives inside, no veggies, and dull though deep fried and crispy. That was the only thing we wouldn't order again.

The burger had the standard sesame seed bun, a hand-shaped patty that was twice as thick on one side as the other but was not undercooked anywhere, and there was a thick slice of raw purple onion right below that was just perfect.

You can see why people on the road would be enamored of the place that seems out in the middle of nowhere on the road from Bakersfield to Taft, especially if you're coming from out of town where a glass of chardonnay for $5 (which is what we paid) was something from, say, the '80s.

Alert the usual suspects in the Palisades.

Pete Tittl's Dining Out column appears in The Californian on Sundays. Email him at pftittl@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter at @pftittl.

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