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Rosa Mexicano leaves a lot to be desired

Rosa offers occasional charms, like the fun and flashy Guacamole en Molcajete. Take the tour.
Rosa offers occasional charms, like the fun and flashy Guacamole en Molcajete. Take the tour.
E. Katie Holm

Flattery, it is true, goes a long way. And it's definitely flattering that an upscale dining chain with well-known outposts in New York City, Los Angeles, and Miami has chosen Minneapolis as its first non-coastal location.

Rosa Mexicano got a lot of attention in 1984 when it debuted Mexican fine dining in its first New York City location. This was Mexican fare on the good china: steaks and chops and fancy drinks, white-tablecloth service (at white-tablecloth prices) in an elegant setting. It was not, even then, the European-influenced fine dining one might find in Mexico City, but folks who had grown up with Old El Paso taco night were pleasantly surprised. Reviewers liked to use the word "refined."

That was 1984, and the dining world has come a long way. Rosa Mexicano has, at least, traveled a long way: There are now four New York-area locations, two in California, two in Florida, one each in D.C., Baltimore, and Atlanta. And now here, in our very own City Center. The various restaurants still fill up with large parties of happy margarita drinkers, but the reviewers have grown a little cool; Rosa's refinement hasn't quite kept up with the times.

Still, it feels good—right?—to have such distinguished lineage hop right over Chicago, skip Boston, ignore the Bay Area, and say, "You! You guys in Minnesota look like you would like to know refined Mexican food. You'd appreciate it." We get a little preeny and say, "Why, yes. Well, of course."

But flattery will only get you so far. The initial titillation disappears—poof!—the moment the tacos arrive on the table. Overcooked, flavorless chicken breast in a puddle of congealed cheese. "This? This is what you really think of us?" The rest of the meal—while not so condescending—is tinged with lingering indignation.

Remember that Rosa Mexicano made its name on refined, but not necessarily innovative, Mexican food. There seem to be few updates from that 1980s mindset. The main dishes are meat-heavy, big, burdensome steakhouse plates: Flintstones-sized skewers of steak on a serving platter, a tortilla pie big enough for a family of four, stuffed peppers bigger than a goalie's fist—two of them on the plate. It's enough to make even the most avowed carnivore cry out for a vegetable. (So, definitely order the market salad, unremarkable as it is, to start.)

Overall the flavors on those plates are flaccid, undistinguished, and one indistinguishable from the other. This is Mexican food! The flavors should be vibrant, deep, earthy, complex, and layered. Take those chicken tacos. The menu promised "ancho chiles, garlic, cumin, cloves, and cinnamon"; the dish delivered none of that. Tasting a platter of Enchiladas Mole Xico next to the Chile Ancho Relleno in black bean sauce revealed pretty much the same tangy-sweet flavor profile in the two sauces. (Both these dishes are marked "hot" on the menu; neither is especially spicy at all.)

Despite their flaws, both the enchiladas and the chile relleno have their charms. An ancho chile is a dried poblano. Stuffing a dried and reconstituted chile is a brave and slightly unexpected choice. The smokiness comes through (and some of the toughness of a dried chile remains). The pork stuffing in the pepper is tender, though quite sweet. While a Veracruz mole (sweetened with raisins and enriched with nuts) is traditionally served with turkey, it works with the beef.

On the grill, the results are similarly mixed. The Pescado Pibil, a butterflied whole snapper, came to the table overcooked and underseasoned. The beef on the Alambre a la Mexicana, a massive skewer of beef and chorizo, was tender. This dish is also designated "hot" on the menu; it is not in the least, unless you pop a whole grilled Serrano pepper in your mouth.

There is little on the appetizer menu worth going out of your way for: crab empanadas without enough crab, tuna tartar (again marked "hot" on the menu) without enough seasoning, muddy tortilla soup without enough acid (and with a blob of cheese at the bottom), Queso Fundido (melted cheese) with Garlic Shrimp and Chile without enough chile.

Tableside guacamole, ground in a stone molcajete, is fun and flashy, but no longer particularly innovative. Why no lime in Rosa Mexicano's version? Nobody could tell us. (If you've got kids with you, they get to grind the guacamole themselves, a sure way to the heart of even the grumpiest critic.)

The pork belly and scallop tacos should be the marker on the end of the road for the pork belly trend: floppy and flavorless pork, cut too large to bite comfortably in the tortilla wrapping, brushed with an indifferent sauce. The large, tender scallops, however, are worth rescuing from their companions and eating on their own.

The Flautas de Pollo are definitely the best of the bunch, striped prettily with Rosa Mexicano's two house sauces, a kicky salsa verde and a smoky salsa pasilla de Oaxaca, and drizzled with crema, although the insides were a bit dry.

In the midst of all this crankiness, there are some shining bright spots on the menu. Come at lunchtime. Have a torta. These layered sandwiches somehow manage to offer the richer, more complex flavors the main dishes can't muster. And they come with heaping mounds of hot sweet potato fries. No complaints there at all.

You can't really make a meal out of sides, but having tasted the fried plantains—almost candied, with a great texture, just soft enough—you might try to. And the short-grained brown rice that comes with every main is buttery, very faintly tangy with mustard, and pleasantly chewy. The refried beans are rich and creamy, just like they are supposed to be. And the corn tortillas are clearly made fresh in the kitchen, from good masa.

Then, on the dessert menu, out of nowhere comes Rosa Mexicano's secret weapon, a dish that must have been designed to make you forget all that came before. The Flan de Rosa is over-the-top in a way that suits the pink decor, with a thin layer of rich brownie on the bottom and an espresso flavor infused all the way through. It felt almost dirty, like hush money pressed into your palm after you witnessed some unseemly behavior, but so good you're tempted to accept.

The other desserts don't reach these heights, but none are really bad. Skip the chocolate flautas; they might as well have come frozen out of a box. The tres leches cake, robed in chilled fruit, doesn't have that smooth texture and fine crumb I associate with the classic dessert. The churros are delightfully cinnamony, but almost raw in the center. You will be willing to overlook this, however, once you taste the goat's milk caramel dipping sauce. This should come with a spoon.

It should be said that all of this, even those sad pork belly tacos, is served in a beautiful space. Rosa Mexicano seats over 300 people, but the individual dining rooms are laid out in a way that makes each of them feel intimate and small. Wide aisles, generous booths, individual lighting, and some great sound design make each table feel separate and private. Big round booths accommodate parties of eight or ten in a way that few restaurants in downtown Minneapolis can. The pink interior steers just shy of bad '80s mauve. And a mesmerizing water fixture in the center of the room takes up real estate that could have been used to cram in more tables.

These details, like flattery, go a long way. I can imagine a large celebratory group, all craving margaritas and guacamole and steak, who will be very glad to take up a big, round booth for the evening. But flattery isn't enough. We deserve better than gloppy cheese and flavorless chicken, and we know it.

E. Katie Holm
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Rosa Mexicano

609 Hennepin Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55402

612-656-7144

www.rosamexicano.com


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