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.
Rocco's Tacos and Tequila Bar
Rocco's Tacos and Tequila Bar, 224 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Open for lunch and dinner Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. till 11 p.m., Friday 11 a.m. till midnight, and dinner Saturday and Sunday from 5 till midnight. Call 561-650-1001.
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.
Tacos are classic bar food. They're cheap, self-contained, and designed to deliver a balanced payload of fat and protein that cuts right through a belly full of alcohol. The key word here is balance. Animal fat has a strong flavor, so the other ingredients in a taco need to complement it well. That's why the best authentic tacos come dressed simply, with pungent diced onions, floral wisps of cilantro, spicy red or green salsa, and a squirt of lime for a tart, acidic kick. The meat can be anything from beef cheeks to pork tongue as long as that easy formula is followed.
At Rocco's, each of the eight varieties of tacos ($2.95 to $3.95) is woefully unbalanced. Cochinitas achiote — slow-roasted pork — is well-seasoned, livened with cumin, ancho chili powder, and cinnamony sweetness. Unfortunately, it's both dry and mired by a layer of grease. This still wouldn't be as much of a problem if the other flavors asserted themselves. Instead, each taco is served open-faced; topped with a haystack of pallid lettuce, tomatoes, and cilantro (practically a single, shredded leaf); and drizzled with an ineffectual Pollock-ing of crema, which seemingly is provided just to dress the presentation, because it's exceedingly bland. Nothing save the pickled, red onion escabeche — the mere two slivers of it that come on the taco — is even close to memorable.
The servers go out of their way to remind you not only that the soft corn tortilla is homemade but that you can choose a hard shell or a flour tortilla instead. The homemade tortillas are merely OK — they're too dense and would benefit from a quick turn on the griddle — but the hard shells are stale and store-bought; why even offer them?
Aside from the pork, there's also ground beef (greasy), shredded chicken (mushy and greasy), mushrooms, cactus paddle, and blackened fish (rubbery, bitter, mushy). We didn't brave the shrimp or the steak; we were just too tired of the all-consuming flavor of rancid lipids and stale tortillas. If these are the best tacos that Rocco's Tacos and Tequila Bar can manage, the place may want to shorten its name.
Most of all, Rocco's food is too confused to succeed. It's neither satisfying in that gooey, cheesy, beany way that American-Mexican tends to be, nor is it made with enough care or attention to be authentic. I could tell you that the roasted chicken doused in mole poblano ($17) or the chilaquiles ($16), a self-described "Mexican lasagna" with cheese, poblanos, and chicken or eggs, were both OK, but that would be missing the point. Fashionable club-hoppers looking for the gustatory equivalent of Dr. Feelgood's may pack the joint as long as they can get drunk on tequila in the presence of the beautiful elite, but a bit more care with their namesake dish would ensure that Rocco's stays around after the trendy move on. Meanwhile, you'll get a better taco at just about any Mex restaurant; Pompano's Doña Raquel or La Fondita are infinitely better and half the price. And I'll restrict my experiences on Clematis to the same way I ended my night: with a trip to Respectables, a joint that's never felt confused and never will.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to South Florida dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.