By David Minsky
By Nicole Danna
By Sara Ventiera
By Candace West
By Emily Dabau
By Doug Fairall
By Candace West
By Laine Doss
Anyway, about those peppers I planted. A couple of months ago, I realized, to my utter astonishment, that Mexicans have a gazillion kinds of chilies, a range so vast that you could cook for years and hardly find uses for all of them. They are purple-yellow, red-orange, and pine-green, slender as lizard tails or round as moons, thick-skinned or delicate, incendiary or mild, and full of the taste of wood smoke, of chocolate and sun-warmed leather, of cold water pumped from underground on a hot day. Even more astonishing, you can find most of them fresh and dried at local Latin markets.
Partly, my two trips to Rosa were a quest for the chili. And I scored big. I started with pasilla chili soup ($6 lunch, $7 dinner), presented beautifully. Chunks of marinated chicken, cheese, and thin, curling strips of tortilla are mounded in the center of a white bowl; then pasilla broth is poured steaming over it at table. At first, the broth seemed too bland and salty. Once the ingredients and textures started to meld and play off one another, though, there were many wonderful mouthfuls, with pitch-perfect balance, as subtle as an Asian soup. The pasilla flavor a dark, complicated bass note wove together slippery cilantro leaves, tortilla, piquant chicken, and soothing, salty cheese. Lovely.
More peppers. Grilled white fish ceviche appetizer ($10) came tossed in a carrot-habanero-lime marinade, simultaneously cool (the carrots) and hot (the habaneros), slightly fruity, refreshing. Zarape de pato ($9) stuffed pulled barbecued duck, a note of sweetness, between tortillas and then set them adrift in a creamy yellow pepper-habanero sea. This is a heavy, satisfying dish for an appetizer and could easily work as a main course. Mulatos, anchos, and pasillas find a way into a chicken mole de Xica enchilada ($12.50 at lunch, a ridiculous bargain). I don't know what my friend Roberto would have had to say about this mole, but it sure worked for me. Mole is sometimes an acquired obsession; I've definitely acquired it. Because the sauce is so complex, it doesn't even taste like food. Rosa's incorporates raisins, plantains, hazelnuts, pine nuts, chilies, and... presumably chocolate or cocoa, although the menu doesn't mention this last, integral ingredient. You can't pick out any of these individually they're skillfully woven into a dense, deep-brown potion calculated to raise your heart rate and accelerate your breathing.
A swirl of red and yellow slow-cooked rajas and onions topped off a plate of grilled boneless beef short ribs (tablones, $21 at lunch, $23 at dinner), the Mexican version of pot roast. The earth-colored sauce on this gigantic, fork-tender plate of beef is made with tomatillo, tomatoes, and chipotles. And there were presumably peppers too in a delightful dish of tender baby goat tacos ($18), which emanated an entirely different kind of heat in an altogether different register.
There were even peppers in the dessert: a chocolate and passion fruit soufflé cake ($6.95) came with an odd, sweet-hot green tomatillo sauce on the side. But the best finale for this meal was a bitter little cup of espresso, served with a couple of butter-laden, perfectly spherical cookies.
Whether they like to admit it, Rosa is a chain now, opening outposts around the country. The place does feel, and occasionally taste, corporate. The staff is unevenly trained. The food veers toward heavy and filling (no one leaves hungry), is sometimes oversalted, and has lost some delicacy and subtlety in translation. The special pomegranate margarita looks and tastes like a slurpy. And the location, at Downtown at the Gardens ("A Shopper's Paradise Awakens" arggghhh! ), is a sickening 180 degrees from the heart and soul of Mexico. But even with these minor reservations, there are plenty of reasons (and peppers) here at decent prices to keep us happily driving north until our next trip south.