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It's Friday night on Clematis Street, and the line for drinks at Rocco's Tacos and Tequila Bar is four deep. I'm checking the wall of patrons for chinks so my buddies and I can nab a shot of El Jimador while we wait for a table.
Suddenly, someone says, "I have fantastic boobs."
The wolf in front of me snaps his head around fast. "Oh, yeah? Let's see 'em!" He leaves his spot at the bar to investigate, giving me an opening to squeeze in and secure a seat. Score.
224 Clematis St.
West Palm Beach, FL 33401
Region: West Palm Beach
5250 Town Center Circle
Boca Raton, FL 33486
Region: Boca Raton
This joint has a rock 'n' roll buzz that hasn't been seen on Clematis in years, not since the harder, better, faster, stronger CityPlace went in just down the street. Lately, the talk around town is that Clematis is poised for a comeback, and Rocco's, an upscale Mexican-themed bar and eatery, is at ground zero, directly across the street from the much-hyped rock bar Dr. Feelgood's.
I was skeptical about Clematis' new hot spots, even though every news outlet from the Palm Beach Post to local television station WPBT-TV Channel 5 to this very newspaper had jumped on the Feelgood's bandwagon. This isn't the first time we've been promised a revival. A year ago, when I was New Times' clubs editor, news releases streamed across my desk promising that Clematis was back, with sleek, new clubs and upscale eateries in the vanguard of the resurgence. Soon, lipsticked starlets in expensive shoes and gold-chain-wearing studs sporting fat wallets would flock to the scene, practically giving away their cash. It would be a righteous triumph of community and a helluva good time.
But Clematis' new clubs and restaurants drew no crowds. Unless partygoers were hiding in a Monkey Club booth, like a disco clown car, the revival never came. After a couple of nights on the deserted downtown strip, I felt like a war veteran who could mouth only one mantra: Never again.
I learned to keep my interactions with Clematis strictly utilitarian: A good pop show at Respectables followed by drinks at the Lounge. That philosophy had served me well, but now, in the lusty glow of Rocco's, I felt damned near miserly. Perhaps I just needed to wake up and swig the tequila-laced Kool-Aid? Dr. Feelgood's and its co-owner, Mötley Crüe's Vince Neil, had arrived to save the day. Never mind the dozens of failed clubs and restaurants whose ashes still lie warm on the street. All is forgiven; all is forgotten.
Neil may be the Pied Piper, but it's Big Time Restaurant Group — owners of seven SoFla restaurants, including City Oyster, City Cellar, and Big City Tavern — that's sunk some hefty coin into the area's future. Hoping to emulate Neil's celebrity draw, Big Time has tapped a local personality, Jason "Rocco" Mangel, for its latest venture. Something about Mangel sticks with people. Maybe it's that he spins records at Nobles in addition to managing restaurants or that his name evokes celebrity chef Rocco DiSpirito. Much in the way DiSpirito was touted as a whiz with Italian-American cuisine, Big Time has pumped Mangel as the bare-pated golden boy of Mexican-American dining.
Mangel's new restaurant isn't an entirely original concept, though. Taking a page from Boca Raton's MoQuila, where he was a manager, Mangel keeps his bar stocked with an enviable selection of silver, reposado, and anejo tequilas, poured into sexy, short-stemmed blue tumblers by handsome waitrons. His design decisions reflect a marriage of savvy, contemporary décor with Southwestern flourishes like pinpricked naugahyde and coffee-colored wooden paneling. His customers too are beautiful and hip and are most certainly on the make. They seem so comfortable in his place, a realm where bar-crawling culture and upscale tastes meet halfway. If only the food were as effective as the ambiance.
At my finagled bar seat, at least, everything was as smooth as aged mezcal. The tequila menu is extensive and reasonably priced, with most of the selections around $10 per shot. The barkeeps are exceptionally skilled at making you comfortable in such a tight crowd, even if they don't know much about the flavor profiles of the tequilas. You also might not mind having to pay for a Mexican staple like totopos (chips and salsa, $3), because those at Rocco's are so good — light, crispy chips doused with a playful blend of spicy-sweet chili powder. They're perfect for dunking in their rustic tomato salsa. For $12, you can upgrade to tableside guacamole: two avocados mashed with onion, garlic, cilantro, tomatoes, and lime in a lava stone molcajete. If you want a spicier dip, the mortar man will slip a handful of poblanos and jalapeños into the mix, but either way, it's as good as guac gets (and at $12 a pop, it better be). You might also try a skillet of queso fundido con chorizo ($10), but this is spottier territory, as the broiled cheese, spicy Mexican sausage, and sauté of peppers and onions seizes up quickly.
My advice: End your meal at this point, while the hum of the crowd and the thumping music still resonate with your tequila- and salsa-fueled soul. Should you stick around, be prepared to lower your expectations, because the entrées at Rocco's — particularly the tacos, interestingly enough — are not its strong point.