Six years go my wife and I debated where to go for lunch in Paris. That morning I had noted a restaurant curiously titled "Indiana Tex Mex." The name grabbed my attention, fascinated me and caused an obsession that I had to find out why a Tex Mex restaurant in Paris would be named after the state of Indiana.
The answer is that Parisians thought Indiana was a state that Tex Mex was very big in. The food in Indiana Tex Mex reflected this belief, consistently representing a middle of the road homogonized taste that could have as easily come from Old El Paso as it could have from the seventh or eighth arrondisement. After all, what could the French really know about great Tex Mex?
I could not escape this thought tonight at Rosa Mexicano: what could New Yorkers know about great Mexican? Pastrami, corned beef, bagels, Porterhouse steak, but Mexican? Guacamole is prepared tableside at most every better Southwestern restaurant in Albuquerque or Santa Fe. Even Gargiulo's which has an outlet in the Albuquerque airport makes great guacamole. On the Riverwalk in San Antonio Boudro's makes a great Prickly Pear Margarita; so does most every better southwestern restaurant that I've ever walked into in San Antonio. I've had tortilla soup in Phoenix and El Paso, mole in Salt Lake City (Red Iguana), tequila shrimp in Juarez (Chihuaha Charlie's) to die for. But never in all my ruminations and fantasies about belly busting, moan inducing, salivating delicious Mexican have I ever thought about New York.
After tonight, I know that I was right: New York is Mecca for deli, even French, pizza and perhaps Afghan, but not Mexican. Certainly not Rosa Mexicano. Like Paris and the reaction of eating Tex Mex in Paris from my wife, after our experience tonight on Seventh Street, she feels that there are definite similarities. And I agree.
The meal started poorly. Two thirds of the tables had white tablecloths. Ours' did not. I was also the only man in a restaurant of 140 that had a tie on. Admittedly an oversight on my part, but one that I thought on New Year's Eve would be appropriate, especially with $25 entrees and $10+ appetizers. In fact this is a very casual dining room that at 7:30PM had at least six or seven children and felt very much like the kind of experience that I would find at Austin Grill. Except for the $25 entrees. True, there was an interesting "wall of water" but overall the ambience was decidedly casual perhaps mor ein the spirit of a casual Coco Loco, if you will.
Chips and flour tortillas tasted for all of the world like they were commercially produced. The restaurant swore they were made in house. I will argue long into the night that Costco tortilla chips, made locally in Manassas are superior. Flour tortillas at Baja Fresh are better. Warmer, too.
The guacamole was very good. But very good here depends on what one's reference point is. If you've had really good house made guacamole in southern California, Texas, Arizona, etc. in season this was decent. No better. If you haven't then you'll love it. All $10.00 and eight or ten chips dipped with it. It is not a large portion that is served.
Similarly the margueritas (nowhere near as good as Guajillo) are not what I would call "manly" portions: eight ounces at best. My first Unico was ordered without salt and extra salt showed up on the lip of the glass. The house specialty is similar to what is called "prickly pear" in much of the Southwest. It is good. For those who think it is real good they should have one on the Riverwalk in San Antonio at Boudro's. THAT is real good, this is mediocre! Boudro's Prickly Pear Margaritas are $6.00 but there are not eight ounces. Rather, twelve might be more appropriate.
Two salsas are served with the guacamole: a smoky salsa that is excellent by any definition and a more assertive "hot sauce" that is actually less flavorful.
Tortilla soup was thin but flavorful. Seriously, thin, almost a broth but quite a bit of flavor. Nowhere near as good as the tortilla soup at any of a half dozen other D. C. area places including Rio Grande (Uncle Julio's in Dallas). Still, a nice presentation with the soup being poured from a flask at the table.
The crab cake appetizer was an insult. Following my Costco theme introduced earlier I swear these were frozen crabcakes. Except Costco's are from the mediocre Phillips and can be somewhat redeemed by broiling as opposed to deep fat frying which these were. Simply they tasted frozen.
Snapper Verz Cruz topped with crabmeat is the house signature entree. Similarly the Snapper Vera Cruz is one of the signature entrees at Ceiba. I should also mention that I make snapper Vera Cruz.
Mine is better. Much better. I use a recipe from Bon Appetit which I have actually linked on here. At Rosa Mexicano the snapper Vera Cruz is presented in sort of a foam of tomato with few olives and capers in evidence. Several teaspoons of lump crab meat are dumped on top and the thin snapper filet is presented with the pinkish foam layered on top. I suppose that kalamata olives or any olives are expensive as are capers since so few are present. This is just a pretty good dish; not a really good dish. Certainly not worth $25.00.
And that is the point of Rosa Mexicano: this is a fairly good Tex/Mex/Southwestern restaurant with pretentions to more. If the price point of entrees was in the mid teens I would have liked it. But with price points in the low to mid 20's and most appetizers in the 10+ there is a different standard associated with this than with, say, Rio Grande. Or Pappasito's if I was in Houston.
Pappasito's is better. So is Rio Grande/Uncle Julio's. And, both of these are Texas based restaurants unlike the New York based Rosa Mexicano. There are also very serious restaurants in Santa Fe, San Antonio, Phoenix and throughout the Southwest. I am fortunate to have been to many of them because my business has carried me there. Rosa Mexicano has little in common with them.
If you go just adjust your expectations. To New York Tex Mex.