Chip-otle off the old block: Is Rosa Mexicano destined to be just another stale tourist trap?

El Mezcalito at Rosa Mexicano

It's a sad, sad, thing when waves of tourists looking for a night of Boston cuisine, totter out of the Seaport Hotel, bedecked in pastel pants and wedges, then descend upon the restaurants directly adjacent to their lodgings. How very adventurous.

While I do understand the desire for ease, and agree that a bumpy cab ride into an unfamiliar city always seems a bit risky and exhausting, it was with a heavy heart that I watched endless variations on the same tanned, blond, bright-eyed tourist theme walk through the revolving doors of Rosa Mexicano last Friday night.

The chain gets rave reviews for its New York City location, and even Zagat has called it "the ‘gold standard' in ‘upscale' modern Mexican cuisine." Who the hell am I to argue with Zagat, right? But the Seaport location, which opened last month, is getting absolutely no love from Boston Yelpers.

Part of the problem may be that the location is ill-suited to the chain's aesthetic--a clubby, den-like riff on luxury dining--and in a neighborhood frequented by less-than-discerning tourists looking for a glamorous night out, service and quality are thrown under the bus for glitz and show. The room felt wrong, tense. The chairs have no arms, which shouldn't be a noticeable loss, but was, for some reason.

I want to preface this review by saying that, as a food writer, I try extremely hard to like a place before I pass any judgment, as tempting as taking every word on Yelp as gospel is. I'm not sure who this "innocent until proven guilty" credo really benefits, but out of deference to the service industry family, it's always been my default setting. I have been that server who gets flat-sat, just as the computer goes down. I've let loose a long stream of profanities after a dismal tip. I love chefs, and I love the crazy love and dedication that is often necessary to keep a place afloat. I am literally the exact person you want sitting at your table if you're having a bad night, because I will probably forgive you.

Unless, of course, I just can't.

I will say this: the cocktails were good. Yes, they were a bit low on alcohol (we were all fully-functioning well past the third cocktail, unfortunately), but the options were pretty admirable. It's a solid tequila list, and the "Sandia" ($11), a mix of fresh watermelon, El Jimador silver tequila, rosemary, and fresh lemon was the best of the mixed cocktails we tried. The "Mezcalito" ($11) wasn't half bad either--strawberry, Tanteo Jalapeño-infused silver tequila, Del Maguey-Vida mezcal, fresh lemon, and organic agave struck that nice smoky-sweet balance.

Our server was quick to throw out the Rosa Mexicano golden child--Guacamole en Molcajete ($14 for 2-3 people, $22 for 4-6)--as a must-try, which is basically the Mexican food incarnation of the cheesy tableside Caesar salads that were a luxury mainstay throughout the 90s. I'm not sure there's a guacamole on this earth that is worth $22. If there is, fuck that, I can make you a fantastic one for under $10. What we had was definitely not it. While the presentation is charming (and I know there were other ingredients besides avocado, since I witnessed them with my own eyes!), the end result was a bland shadow of true guacamole. Where was the zip? The poetry? No cool touch of herbs or fiery peppers woven through the creamy avocado, no bright citrus notes in the background. Even a touch of salt would have helped.

20 minutes after the guacamole hits the table, our other two appetizers show up: "Flautas de Pollo" ($10), rolled crispy chicken tacos coated with salsa pasilla de Oaxaca on one half, and salsa verde on the other, and "Tacos de Hamachi" ($13.50), three miniscule tacos filled with raw diced yellowtail, bacon, serrano chile, arugula and truffle oil. The truffle oil struck me as strange choice, and I watched my dining companion's face closely. A lover of raw fish in its many forms, her nose wrinkled after one bite.

"It's kind of...fishy. In a bad way," she says, sniffing the rest of the taco in her hand dubiously. The tacos had a gray, withered look on the plate, and no one touched them the rest of the evening. They remained at the table, wilting, since no one bothered to come by and check on the progress. The flautas were drenched--with a distinct heat-lamp look to them--in the Oaxacan salsa that seemed to be in every item on the menu. Chipotle is a very sexy thing, and when used correctly, can transform a dish into something smoky and sensual. It can also be overwhelming and tired, and it was all we tasted from plate to plate.

By this time, around 7pm, the place is getting pretty busy, and we've noticed the long absences of our server. After the pink, plastic lid of the tortilla container at the table next to ours hits the ground for the third time, and a plate crashes down somewhere nearby, all three of us are mildly stressed.

The manager swings by out of nowhere, interrupting our conversation, and begins to awkwardly plug restaurant promotions and menu items. There are strained silences and we all burn holes in our menus, unsure of what she wants to hear. Feeling pressured, we order two taco plates.

Priced outrageously at $16.50 for three mini-tacos, we go for the "Pollo Yucateco," a blend of spiced chicken, plantains, sweet peppers, and chili de árbol crema. I order them because I'm a sucker for plantains, but, they arrive, and damn it, there's the hint of chipotle again, and I can't taste a lick of plantain. The "Pescado de Baja" sounds like a classic take on a crispy fish taco, with a jalapeño tartar sauce. Against my will, the first thing that pops into my head after I take a bite is "Van de Kamps." The jalapeño tartar sauce seems more like a slaw, and is good, but reminds me so much of malt vinegar that I can't get past it.

My other tablemate places an order for a cocktail when we put in the tacos, and by the time we've worked through the plates, it's still nowhere to be seen. We try to wrangle our server for around 10 minutes, while she remains just out of reach. He finally ask her what happened to the drink.

"You didn't get it?" she asks, her voice going up a few octaves. My ears perk up. My serving voice did that sometimes, whenever my brain had just slammed on the brakes and just realized, with a loud and screeching, "OH SHIT," that I had forgotten to punch something in. "That's so weird, because the ticket was definitely stabbed at the bar."

The three of us stare at her. Clearly, the drink is not, and has not been, here. I see that she's now just thinking aloud, but she's still standing there, blinking at us. My companion gestures to the table, and assures her that no, it hasn't shown up. She apologizes and books it to the bar, out of sight. She returns five minutes later to ask him what he ordered.

At this point, all staff seems to sense that things are not going well at our table, and we are completely marooned. We sit, sipping on our cocktails and munching on cold chips, while the empty plates that we've pushed to the edges of the table and signaled with silverware smoke-signals, crowd around us. Once the lost cocktail makes an appearance, our server disappears again. One by one, every few minutes, the plates are cleared away.

When we manage to lock down some dessert menus, I'm not feeling optimistic. There are three different kinds of cake, and a flan, plus churros ($7.50), which we settle on in the end. We all giggle a little, relieved, since churros are standard, light dessert-fare that are fan-fucking-tastic at literally any state fair in the entire country. Even when our server swings by and warns us that the pastry kitchen is a little slammed at the moment, we nod, unfazed. Yes, fried dough (with chocolate, caramel and raspberry guajillo for dipping) would certainly do.

They arrive in a pink paper bag, which the food runner shakes a bit, coating the bits with cinnamon sugar. They pile onto the plate, and I'm feeling a bit better as they sit there, glistening and hot from the fryer. We all take one and break them in half.

They are entirely raw, the steamy batter dripping onto our fingers.

Way, way, over-priced check, please.

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