Roberto brings back a special blend of mole whenever he goes home to Puebla, a city renowned for its magic mixture of dried ground peppers, raisins, and cacao beans; and he hauls back as many bottles of tequila as he can carry. He swears they too taste unlike anything I'll ever get my mitts on here. I believe him; Roberto is so food-forward, he knows every Mexican café between Boynton Beach and North Palm Beach he frequents each for a single dish. One has great barbecued goat tacos and another a fantastic chile relleño. A third is the only place he'll eat the tripe and hominy soup called menudo (a famous Mexican cure for hangovers).
It's a problem, isn't it? Mexican restaurants in Florida don't always dish up the food you remember from your forays through San Miguel or Colima. For me, it all comes down to the tortilla; I almost never find one here that tastes anything like the Mexican version, and honestly, it's no wonder. Who wants to go to the trouble anymore the boiling with limestone, the grinding and pounding by hand, the cooking over an open flame?
Still, there's a renaissance in Mexican cooking going on now that extends far beyond tortillas. Sometimes called nueva cocina Mexicana, it took off in Mexico City a decade ago (in many cases under the impetus of female cooks and chefs), spread to New York, and is these days freshening up even our own brackish backwaters. The big names in the business include Richard Sandoval, who owns a string of restaurants around the United States and Mexico; cookbook author and consultant Patricia Quintana; former Mexican Culinary Association President and Chef Alicia D'Angeli; and restaurateur Roberto Santibáñez. Santibáñez ran an acclaimed upscale Mexican restaurant in Austin; in 2002, he was hired as culinary director of the Rosa Mexicano empire. The original Rosa, opened in New York in 1986 by late Chef Josephina Howard and two partners, Dan Hickey and Doug Griebel, was widely considered the first gourmet Mexican restaurant in Manhattan.
Now Rosa, under the aegis of Santibáñez, has opened in Palm Beach Gardens, the northern tip of the county (one is scheduled for Miami as well). Which gives us rather more than our fair share of interesting Mexican chefs. There's Anthony Brodziak at Silvana in Boca Raton (he worked as a sous chef in several of Sandoval's New York enterprises and was a student of D'Angeli's in Mexico City). There's Eduardo Pria a Mexico City native trained in French and Spanish kitchens at Eduardo de San Angel, a restaurant many Lauderdalians consider the gold standard of Mexican cuisine. Sandoval's Tamayo had a brief, shining moment at CityPlace but has since closed. All of them draw on traditional Mexican foodways and ingredients chilies, squash blossoms, chocolate, chrysanthemums, tomatoes, posole, and huitlacoche, a corn fungus some stretching back to the Aztecs (the Four Seasons in Mexico City has served fried grasshoppers). Rosa Mexicano, opened a couple of months ago, offers the huitlacoche (on a wild mushroom quesadilla) but not the bugs.
Well, there is one bug. You still can't get in on weekend nights at least not without scheming. If you want dinner, go midweek and make your reservation a couple of days in advance. Or have lunch; the food is exactly the same but a couple of bucks cheaper. There's no wait and no need for reservations. A couple of Mondays ago around noon, the place was positively serene in comparison to the impossible scene on the previous Thursday night. A third of the lunch tables were filled with tourists, another third with what looked like Mexican couples and families, most of them drinking margaritas and ordering bowls of guacamole, which indicates anyway that the place has found favor with persnickety expats.
That guacamole ($10 at lunch, $12 at dinner, serves two) is, I'm sorry to say, the best I've ever tasted. It trumps even my own recipe; the guacamole guy (or, sometimes, gal) has a steadier, quicker hand than I do, which means the result is pristine, glistening, and very green. They mash chopped onion, salt, and jalapeños into a paste inside a big lava stone mortar, or molcajete, tableside. Next, in an instant, a couple of ripe Hass avocados are sliced and diced, then given a few turns with more chopped onion, tomato, lime, and cilantro. With these unctuous chunks of perfectly seasoned silk, you get fresh corn chips, soft tortillas, and two kinds of sauces a salsa verde cruda made with green tomatillos and a brick-colored salsa molcajete of smoky peppers. We ordered the guacamole on Thursday night and kept the bowl on our table right through dessert we couldn't stand to forgo even one last swipe with an index finger after we'd polished off our cheesecake and double espressos.
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.