[from May 2004 issue]
Setting aside the question, "Is it for real?," you have got to admit that Rosa Mexicano in MCI Land is about as lively a DC scene as you’ll find. Doubt it? Just try to find a seat, any seat, when mealtimes are in full swing. Unless you have a reservation. And good luck getting one.
With a chip on my shoulder--just who is this Mexicano interloper?--I stopped in very, very early on a Saturday evening, beating out the dinner crowds by at least an hour. Brilliant, even garish, neon-bright colors wash over everything, setting the stage for what must seem like a Hollywood production. Wheeled carts are at the ready, poised for use in the Great Guacamole Extravaganza. Waiters in blue tops huddle, talk, carry trays, pour water. A faux waterfall trickles down the rear, lapis-blue tiled wall, which is aflutter with pink butterflies. And the menu--it reads a little like pages ripped from my very old, well-used Diana Kennedy Mexican cookbook.
Indeed, if you are primed to face the typical list of Tex-Mex dishes--from fajitas to bulging burritos--you are in for a shock. True, the kitchen tosses in such oddities as a jumbo lump crab cake under the moniker "tortita de jaiba," and at lunch that ubiquitous, tired-out, overworked, wish-it-would-go-away dish, the Caesar salad, called here the Ensalada Cesar, makes its appearance. But for the most part, the food looks and tastes like the chef has done his homework.
But first things first. If you’ve got the money, invest in the guacamole show ($10 per order, a bit steep for an appetizer), an at-the-table display of putting the avocado in its place: a chunky salad that is assembled just before your eyes. The waiter rolls up the cart, selects the proper avocado, readies his mortar and pestle, and voila: after several flourishes and plenty of additions of this and that--chopped chiles, tomatoes, and fresh cilantro--you and friends have a well-seasoned guacamole with a basket of chips.
Chips? Unlike every other Mexican or Tex-Mex restaurant in town, Rosa Mexicano does not automatically serve you the standard complement of nibbles with drinks; the chips are reserved for those ordering guacamole, a distinction that does seem a bit petty. But never mind. Once you order, you’ll overeat anyway, so missing out on these few extra calories is no burden.
Check out the specials first, though I can tell you one dish to avoid: the chorizo-filled quesadillas appetizer. Expecting a large flour tortilla folded neatly over a spicy sausage filling, I was startled to receive instead three miniature corn tortillas wrapped over an oily, orange-tinted crumbling of meat that had little flavor. The flavor of the dish came instead from the accompanying delicate, chili-based sauce to the side, which was a little like eating whipped chipotle butter.
While these quesadillas were unexceptional, getting the main course was like striking pure gold: The Budín Azteca, a layered tortilla "cake" with shredded chicken and chihuahua cheese between each tortilla. The stack sits in a pool of poblano chile sauce, and the whole and its parts add up to an extraordinary entrée. After this, I decided, the restaurant, the big-ticket food, the chef, the waitstaff and the reception committee could do no wrong. Even if every meal thereafter were a take-out event, this tortilla cake would make up for it all.
Wimping out before dessert, and carrying home half the entrée, I vowed to return, trying lunchtime instead. If that’s your designated time of day, make sure you get here before the noon hour, and have a reservation. Several crowds turned away rather than wait, though you can beat the system by heading to the bar and ordering take-out. That’s fast, easy, and you can get a bird’s-eye view of the inner workings of the place just by hanging out.
My reward? The Panuchos de Cochinita, which are soft corn tortillas wrapped around grilled pork and served with refried black beans and red marinated onions. If that weren’t enough--it is only the appetizer--I tried out the Torta de Pollo con Mole, or pressed chicken sandwich seasoned with mole and served with sweet potato fries, DC’s newest designer food. And for dessert? No doubts here: the Tres Leches Cake, a confection constructed from sponge cake that soaks in sweetened milk. This version is topped with whipped cream and chopped fresh fruit--what a delight!
Note about seating: Should you get one, and obviously people do, try to avoid the window seats. These are not great, because you are only inches from pedestrians who can easily peer in to watch you bathe yourself in tequila.
Rosa Mexicano, 575 7th St., NW; 783-5522. Open every day: Lunch, 11:30am-3pm; Dinner, 5-10:30pm (bar opens at 4pm). Entrée prices: $16-$25. All major credit cards. target=_top>http://www.rosamexicano.com.
*Alexandra Greeley is a food writer, editor and restaurant reviewer. She has authored books published by Simon & Schuster, Doubleday, and Macmillan. Other credits include food editor of Vegetarian Times, restaurant reviews and food articles for The Washington Post and The Washington Times, as well as former food editor/writer for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong.
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