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I was sitting alone in the spanking-new Rosa Mexicano dining room, finishing up my chicken enchiladita appetizer. Actually I was already done eating the two small, soft corn tortillas wrapped around succulent shreds of pulled chicken, chorizo sausage, and meaty red beans, and at the moment, using the tines of my fork, was lifting piddly amounts of the remaining mole de Xico sauce to my mouth. This deep, dark Veracruz specialty — richer, fruitier, smokier than the more common Oaxacan rendition — was riveting, with its roasted ancho, mulato, and pasilla chilies, and intimations of hazelnuts, pine nuts, raisins, plantains, chocolate, and spices. While continuing to work diligently on cleaning all traces of it from my plate, I became aware of an eerily intangible presence. At first I thought it might be the emaciated ghosts of Mexican children urging me, in their name, to finish every last drop. I got goose bumps. Then I turned around and saw a couple of impatient waiters standing by a cart that was stationed behind the table; they were looking at me the way one might stare at a homeless person as he continues to gnaw at a cleanly picked chicken bone. My main course was sitting atop the trolley, so I reluctantly placed the fork down and allowed them to make the switch.
This visit to Rosa Mexicano was spur of the moment, a matter of finding myself hungry, at dinnertime, in the downtown Brickell vicinity. I knew the restaurant had been doing well since opening just weeks earlier, but surely an establishment with a seating capacity nearing 300 would have one empty chair at 7:00 on a Thursday evening. Surely not — the hostess handed me a buzzer/flasher gizmo, wait time estimated at 20 to 30 minutes. I ambled to the action-packed bar, where bottles of spirits glow against an illuminated, rose-pedaled backdrop. There are more than 60 pure agave tequilas offered, but many patrons are partial to the signature frozen pomegranate margarita. A rocks glass of the pleasantly sweet/tart cocktail is $7.75 and packs enough punch that after I drank one, the caterwaul of the crowd crept into a background buzz. And then my buzzer buzzed.
Architect David Rockwell's spicily colored interior features Rosa Mexicano's trademark 15-foot waterfall wall patterned with cliff diver figurines and, on the other side of the room, an open tortilla-making station. It is a stylish and comfortable space (assuming you don't sit under one of the ceiling's tubalike air-conditioning vents) with a capacity of 100 (a private dining area off to the side accommodates another 55, and a pair of indoor/outdoor lounges together seat 140). There is also a formulaic sleekness to the room, a franchised feel that doesn't evoke Mexico any more than P.F. Chang's channels China. But the rapturous flavors and aromas of the food — especially the sauces — are by themselves more than capable of transporting diners south of the border.
The waiters transported my tacos de carne asada from cart to table. The main components, juicy red strips of grilled skirt steak atop melted Chihuahua cheese, came presented in a hot cast-iron skillet with grilled scallions draped across the top. The meat was gutsily seeped in a pungent marinade of garlic, cumin, and guajillo and pasilla chilies; the cheese was mild and cheddarlike. Surrounding the skillet were numerous little dishes, each filled with some tasty treat to mix, match, and roll with the beef into soft corn tortillas: red bean–chorizo chili; creamy corn esquites tossed with scallions, chili de arbol powder, and queso fresco; and a chili de arbol salsa, whose heat barrels down the throat like a freight train. The tacos are likewise accompanied, as are all entrées, by a soup bowl each of smoothly puréed refried black beans capped with queso fresco; flawlessly cooked rice greened with fresh cilantro; sizzling, smoky pasilla de Oaxaca salsa; and green tomatillo salsa heated with herbaceous habanero. Although blessed with a hearty appetite, I didn't come close to polishing off the carne asada — and skipped dessert entirely. The bill for two courses, with tax: $26.75. Olé!
The original Rosa roused New Yorkers when it opened in 1984. The Big Apple had plenty of Mexican and Tex-Mex eateries, but Rosa's distinguished itself with a more upscale décor and much better food. It not only proffered regional specialties heretofore unsampled in the city, but also took traditional Mexican ingredients and tweaked them to accommodate modern American sensibilities (perhaps removing some passion in the process, but retaining the fire). On top of that, Rosa Mexicano was fun — especially for those imbibing the frozen pomegranate margaritas (it's worth noting that Rosa was some two decades ahead of the curve on this faddish fruit).
In recent years, the restaurant has added two more New York locations, along with outlets in Atlanta, D.C., and Palm Beach Gardens. Omar Covarrubias, born in Mexico City, is the executive chef for this latest link in Miami. Covarrubias — who formerly held the same position at the Mexican embassy in Switzerland, and is a spokesperson for Goya foods — collaborated on the menu with Mexican culinary whiz Roberto Santibañez. The selection differs slightly from branch to branch, as does interior design, but to paraphrase Gertrude Stein: A Rosa is a Rosa is a Rosa.
On a return visit, I arrived with an entourage, my plan being to blend in and thus avoid having one of the waiters point me out to the others: "Hey, there's that dork with the fork!" To be fair, I must say the staff here is friendly and functions with an impressive degree of competency.
This time we ordered Rosa's renowned guacamole, and minutes later a cart rolled up bearing a bowl brimming with knobby Hass avocados. The waiter asked our preference of heat and then went about the task of barely mashing the three Aztec elements (avocado, tomato, and chili) with onion, cilantro, and salt in a lava molcajete. Handmade corn tortillas and cleanly fried tortilla chips were served alongside the unctuous green custard. Other starters were equally satisfying, particularly zarape de pato, pulled morsels of roast duck layered between corn tortillas and bathed in a sweet, sultry yellow pepper–habanero sauce.
The Yucatecan specialty cochinita pibil entails marinating pork shoulder in achiote, spices, and bitter orange juice; wrapping it in banana leaf; and roasting it in an underground pit, or pib. There is no pit here, and though the pork was served in a neat banana leaf boat, the meat didn't carry the herby taste of having been cooked in it. Still, the stewed pork was tartly tasty, topped with pickled onions and sided by a circle of grilled green and yellow squash perked with pineapple. No less impressive was a whole deboned roasted red snapper, the fleshy fish butterflied like an open book and piquantly painted with guajillo chili sauce. Tomatillo salsa gets freshly mashed tableside in a molcajete and dolloped atop the snapper.
Nothing beats a beer with dishes such as these; the choices here are exclusively Mexican. A limited wine list leans toward budget choices, including a category of "$25 and under." Food prices are family-friendly, too, most starters going for $7.50 to $8.50, main courses $14 to $22.50. The other Rosa locations charge a few dollars more for everything; the guacamole, for instance, is $10 here, $14 everywhere else. Appreciate it while you can, for this differential is not likely to last long.
Desserts are pretty much the same as those found at other restaurants, except with seemingly makeshift Mex twists. The ubiquitous molten chocolate cake is Hispanicized with sweet tomatillo dipping sauce. Flan is flecked with coconut. The tres Marias sundae brings a scoop each of peanut butter crunch, Mexican chocolate, and raspberry-rose ice creams accessorized with roasted pineapple, plantain, spiced blackberries, chocolate and cajeta (caramel) syrups, and whipped cream. All the ingredients melt and meld into an indistinguishably creamy hodgepodge of sweetness — which, I suppose, is the point of a sundae.
Miami folks in 2007 are in the same place New Yorkers were in '84: hungering for the clean, complex flavors that characterize real Mexican cooking. Just like back then, Rosa Mexicano comes through for its new hometown.