Monica Greene apologizes for her Deep Ellum loft. It has become a bit untidy in her absence, she explains. Remnants of housesitters, of being elsewhere, of returning. After three years away, the city’s iconic restaurateur is back. And she is busy. Very busy.
“I come hungry, hungry with ideas, and full of passion,” Greene says, striding across the building’s parking lot to go to work. “I hated to think that people might not miss me. But I couldn’t live without them, without Dallas.”
In 2007, Greene, owner of the almost 19-year-old Monica’s Aca y Alla, left Main Street for Aspen, Colorado. Her intention was to stay for a few months, to recuperate, following the embezzlement of significant funds by a relative.
“I had to sell a building. I lost the restaurant in Addison. It was family, so I didn’t press charges. It cost me dearly.” Greene had taken out a loan to open the restaurant, a second Monica’s, and thought that she was way ahead on her payments. Business was good. But three months in, a bank officer called, saying that he hadn’t received a single check. “I was running for City Council at the time and needed to trust people. Where I’m from, trust is paramount. I guess I took my eye off the ball,” she says.
Concurrently, property owners of her third venture, the prized Ciudad, did not renew the lease, as renovations on the Oak Lawn shopping center where it was located were about to begin. No renovations began. The site remains empty today. She lost the election, but not by much. So when a friend mentioned that she needed help opening a little vegetarian place upstairs from a bookshop in Aspen, Greene saw a reprieve. She put her daughter at the helm at Aca y Alla—meaning, uncannily, “here and there”—and packed a bag.
“I remember hiking up a mountain when I first arrived. It was snowing. I could not keep up. I was puffing and huffing. I had gained weight. I was not fit,” she says. “I told myself, ‘You need to do something.’ ”
Greene started running and riding a bike. She ate organic sustainable foods. She never drove a car. She lost 30 pounds. “I ate vegetarian, preached vegetarian. I walked a mile to and from work each day. Now I can hike 3,000 feet up without a problem. I run 3 to 4 miles a day. I’m good.”
Better than good, some would insist. Greene returned not only with renewed physical vigor, but also with a palpable creative charge. She is due to launch the first in a string of casual, authentic Mexican (not Tex-Mex) enchiladerias. Her word.
“Six months ago, she called from Aspen and said, ‘I’m coming back home,’ which I was ecstatic to hear,” says transactional attorney K. Steven Roberts, her friend and business partner. “Simultaneously, she said, ‘I want to start something new, and I want to build a future.’ She described the concept, and I was on board immediately.”
“Some places make burritos. There are too many taquerias. No one has an enchiladeria,” Greene says, at home in the corner booth at Monica’s. “You come in and say you want chicken, which happens to be free range, then you select the tortilla, the sauce, and the greens, which happen to be wonderful, fresh, and organic. I’m calling it B.E.E. Best Enchiladas Ever.”
Ciudad, which won many dining awards for its true Mexican cuisine, garnered a following for its enchiladas, as well as for Greene. “She worked the room like a genius,” says Joanne Bondy, who was the restaurant’s chef and partner during its seven-year run and is now executive chef at the Old Hickory Steakhouse at the Gaylord Texan. “I never saw anyone run a restaurant the way I saw her run a restaurant. I know that when this little bird opens, it will be more than what she’s planning now. We are inundated with Tex-Mex tones. No one knows the difference, except for Monica.”
Greene arrived in Dallas from Mexico City in 1974. She arrived as Eduardo, a 17-year-old man. Twenty years later, after a marriage, two children, and a glorious career in Dallas’ burgeoning restaurant industry, Eduardo underwent a sex change operation. “I took a risk of losing what was perceived as successful. Are people conservative here? Yes. Are we liberal? Yes. Can we understand each other? Yes,” she says. “Dallas helped me to become fearless, and I believe that the city deserves all the credit for my success.”
Greene intended to study at SMU when she landed at Love Field 36 years ago. She was raised in a privileged family with eight children, and her father expected that she’d pursue a college education. Instead, Greene went to work at the Statler Hilton on Commerce Street. She spoke very little English. “They asked for sour cream, for the baked potato, and I brought them cream for their coffee,” she remembers. “They asked for A1 sauce, and I told the kitchen they wanted 81 of something. Finally, the butter, bacon, and chives that I was carrying on a tray that I had never in my life carried slid on a gentleman. He looked like a baked potato. They let me go before the end of the night.”
But Greene was hooked. A week later, she received a check for $34 and never applied to SMU. “I was born to serve,” she says.
Since that night, Greene has charted a prestigious course, working her way from busboy to server to manager at some of the city’s toniest spots. At 19, while a waiter at The Bagatelle, the owner asked if Greene wanted to help at the door. She was making $20,000 as a server, and would take an $8,000 pay cut, but she took the job. “I got a suit.”
Greene ultimately became the face at the door, the master of the house at so many around town. From each experience, and each restaurateur, she catalogued something that would serve her later. “From Shannon Wynne I learned to be creative and to promote oneself. From Alberto Lombardi I was taught how to treat people, and from Mariano Martinez I learned how to be passionate.” When she opened Monica’s, only three restaurants and a few bars existed in Deep Ellum. Before long, she had pioneered a scene. Everyone was mad for Monica.
Being the doyenne of downtown Dallas was hardly the predicted future for Greene. Her mother died when she was just 3, leaving her in the care of nannies, laundresses, and housekeepers who would take her to the market, sit her at the butcher block in the center of the kitchen. They’d cut and chop—watermelons, cantaloupes, meats—and wait for her father to arrive for the day’s big meal at 2.
“Food is everywhere in Mexico,” she says. “You’d go into the street and hear a cluck-cluck, and 30 turkeys would be running loose. A guy with a whip would grab one and tie it up in your yard for you to fatten up. Then another man would whistle, and he’d have roasted chestnuts or baked bananas. There was a guy with fava beans, another one with paletas. Everyone had his own whistle,” Greene says. “How I grew up, I understand food.”
And so much more. These days, Greene donates time and money to a slew of charities supporting human, animal, and citizen’s rights. She remains an advocate for Deep Ellum and downtown. Back for just a few weeks, she commands Main Street with the same art and love that she always has, poised to make her next contribution, take on her latest challenge.
“This city gave me the opportunity to be myself in a way that is rewarding every day. I feel that a lot of people root for me. It hasn’t been easy, but it is a pleasure to be who I am and do what I do. I can walk to every table,” she says, casting her arm to the air in her namesake restaurant. “Look, they’re here.”
Write to [email protected]