Rosa Mexicano: refined fare on Lincoln Road

Smoked chicken tortilla pie
Courtesy of Rosa Mexicano

The original Rosa Mexicano caused a sensation in 1984 when it opened in Manhattan. Regional chilies and other ingredients had hardly been seen in the Northeast, and though liberties were taken in translating traditional Mexican fare, the foods were steeped in honest-to-goodness south-of-the-border flavors. The place successfully parlayed tacos and enchiladas into a modestly upscale dining experience.

Soon Rosa Mexicano Hospitality Group expanded to two more New York locales as well as venues in California, Georgia, New Jersey, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. It arrived in Miami in 2008 with a Mary Brickell Village location. But the crossover toward refined cuisine became fuzzier. The food still satisfied in a distinctive fashion, but it resembled something one might find at a Mexican Houston's. So when the latest branch premiered across from Regal Cinemas on Lincoln Road in late February, expectations were muted.

Surprise, surprise: The cuisine boasts clean, strong, sharply defined flavors; the service staff works with relay-team efficiency; and a festive ambiance prevails. As for a michelada of beer and beet juice — well, no one is saying the place is perfect.

Most diners start with the signature guacamole. The lack of complimentary salsa and chips encourages that trend, as does the tableside preparation; it has been shown in restaurant studies that people are more apt to order foods that get wheeled around the dining room. Truth is, a waiter mashing a couple of Hass avocados in a lava molcajete with sundry additions (onions, tomatoes, cilantro, jalapeño) doesn't make for spellbinding entertainment, but it does result in a mighty tasty, fresh, bright-green guacamole. The $14 order is served with chips and corn tortillas as well as salsas of spicy, smoky pasilla de Oaxaca and tomatillo-habanero. The homemade tortillas are terrific: coarse, rough-edged, with pronounced notes of corn and slaked lime.

Starters on the compact menu comprise mostly contemporary takes on traditional taqueria snacks. Red snapper tostadas featured a pair of fried corn tortillas topped with fresh, Serrano pepper-spiked (watch the kick!), lime-macerated cubes of fish sprinkled with baby arugula leaves, queso fresco, truffle oil, and bacon crisps. It was lip-smackingly delectable, as was zarape de pollo: moist, sassily smoked-and-seasoned morsels of chicken sandwiched with tomatoes and chipotle peppers between two corn tortillas — and bathed in a zesty yellow-pepper-habanero sauce.

Quesadilla spread with huitlacoche brought a crisply griddled half-moon of flour tortilla filled with the namesake black corn fungus, corn kernels, poblano chilies, and a small amount of Chihuahua cheese. Salsa verde cruda (made with tomatillos) and crema were served on the side. The huitlacoche was subdued in flavor but nonetheless much more gratifying than the typically queasy "cheesy-dilla."

A basket of corn tortillas came alongside the carne asada taco — juicy strips of grilled skirt steak bolstered by marination in guajillo and hot pasilla chilies. The beef was presented in a mini-cast-iron skillet with melted Chihuahua cheese around it and two grilled scallions laced across the top. Side cups of red-bean-chorizo chili, chile de árbol salsa, and corn esquites (kernels sweetly milked with crema and epazote) shared the plate.

Vegetarians can build their own tacos from a skillet of mixed vegetables (including asparagus, Swiss chard, and beets), red beans, and flax-seed tortillas.

Rosa's mellow mole Veracruz is one of the better restaurant versions you'll find in this city. The chili peppers (ancho, pasilla), aromatic spices, raisins, plantains, and nuts (hazelnuts, pine nuts) melded seamlessly into a piquant, slightly sweet sauce bathing two chipotle-enhanced shredded beef enchiladas. Sole gripe: It was served less than lukewarm.

A more unusual treat presented two roasted ancho chiles rellenos swelled with shredded lamb shoulder and cabbage. The rellenos were pooled in pipián sauce: a purée of toasted pumpkin seeds (pepitas) perked with garlic, onion, and cilantro — an ideal foil for the assertively flavored meat.

Pescado pibil likewise hit the spot. The fresh, whole butterflied snapper came smeared with a Yucatán-inspired paste of achiote, orange, and garlic; pink onions pickled with habanero crowned the fish, and tomatillo salsa (mashed in the molcajete) was plated alongside.

Other main plates ($15 to $27) include short ribs, pork shank, and steak and shrimp stew. All are accompanied by family-style portions of smoothly refried black beans and garlic-flecked short-grain yellow rice (on one visit served lukewarm).

Too many cooks might spoil the broth, but apparently this adage doesn't hold true for chefs: Regional executive chef David Sloane, Miami-based corporate chef Christian Plotczyk, and executive chef James Cawley all have a hand in presenting Rosa's rewarding cuisine.

Desserts ($7.50 to $8.50) are prepared in-house by pastry chef Jai Kendall. A trio of churros en bolsa was fried until crunchy on the outside; the cinnamon-and-sugar-dusted sticks were injected with caramel and raspberry sauces and supplemented with a chocolate dip. A more outrageous bang came via banana chocolate-chip cake funneled with peanut butter mousse and topped with chocolate syrup and cinnamon-swirled banana ice cream (a bit overwrought perhaps, but just say yes). Three ice creams/sorbets we selected from a list of eight fetching flavors were prickly pear/blueberry sorbet (crumbly, tart, not so great); chocolate mole sorbet (smooth, sweet, luscious); and creamy, sea-salt-speckled cajeta (dulce de leche) ice cream. We'll have to go back for the tres leches glazed with blackberry-hibiscus and bronzed with toasted meringue.

Rosa's 3,500-square-foot space beckons with bold colors (pink, orange, purple) and dramatic lighting that can be seen from the street through floor-to-ceiling windows. The visual highlights are many, from blue-mirror-tiled columns that stretch toward a soaring ceiling, to a textured stone water wall that also screens artsy projections such as patterns of fluttering butterflies. An elongated, backlit onyx bar running along the right side of the room is nearly equaled in length by the cocktail list. An awful lot of Mexican beers and signature pomegranate margaritas get poured here.

Room acoustics aren't great, but the decibel level only contributes to an already high-energy scene. There's a steady stream of staff surging up and down the aisles to accommodate the demands of some 200 hungry diners (108 seats inside and 92 outdoors in the pebbled Herzog & de Meuron Plaza).

The waiters were knowledgeable concerning the menu and, notwithstanding occasional delays, formed a strong team. Management has evidently trained them to be hospitable too: When someone at our table expressed a lack of enthusiasm over a michelada of beer and sangrita (composed here of tomato juice, lime, Worcestershire, soy sauce, etc.), our waiter offered a substitute drink without hesitation. It's that accommodating spirit, along with very tasty fare, that makes Rosa Mexicano an unexpected Mexican treat.

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Rosa Mexicano

1111 Lincoln Road
Miami Beach, FL 33139


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