In 1984, Josefina Howard, Spanish by birth but a longtime resident of Mexico, opened Rosa Mexicano on First Avenue near 58th Street in New York. Mrs. Howard's knowledge of regional Mexican cuisine and her dedication to providing genuine flavors and tastes quickly made the restaurant a destination for lovers of Mexican cooking. For me, a trip to New York wasn't complete without guacamole, pomegranate margaritas, and the specials of the day at Rosa Mexicano.
I often wondered, while eating in the restaurant's shocking-pink dining room, why the place was named "Rosa Mexicano" rather than "Rosa Mexicana." The answer, I've discovered, is that the restaurant is named not for a flower but for the color of the dining room, and colors in Spanish are masculine.
Josefina died last year. Her business partners have continued to run the restaurant, adding a second New York location near Lincoln Center and now a Rosa Mexicano in Washington across from the MCI Center in a corner of the old Hecht's department-store building.
Like the Lincoln Center location, the DC Rosa Mexicano has a stunning interior by David Rockwell. One wall is a blue-tiled waterfall, glistening behind dozens of jewellike butterflies. The light fixtures and room dividers are made of Lucite-embedded rose petals. But just as the significance of the restaurant's name has been lost in the splendor of the decor, the spirit of Rosa Mexicano's cooking seems endangered by the pressures of corporate ownership.
One of Josefina Howard's signature dishes at the original Rosa Mexicano was guacamole freshly made at tableside in a volcanic stone molcajete, the rustic mortar and pestle of the Mexican kitchen. The guacamole at Rosa Mexicano is still hard to beat–a ripe avocado combined with onion, chilies (you can order it mild, medium, or hot), cilantro, and salt–pure flavors and a sensuous texture. It's served both with tortilla chips and with small, soft corn tortillas, a perfect appetizer to accompany Rosa Mexicano's frozen pomegranate margarita.
After the margaritas and guacamole, the food at Rosa Mexicano is less dependable. Appetizers include addictively crisp chicken flautas; quesadillas filled with a mixture of the delicious corn fungus huitlacoche and cheese; a pallid ceviche; and a richly flavorful pozole. Neither of the two most expensive appetizers, an overseasoned crabcake and lobster tacos filled with dried-out lobster and corn, is worth the $12 price tag.
Main courses–accompanied by wonderful rice and beans– are similarly inconsistent. Two of the best are Tablones, grilled beef short ribs with a zippy tomatillo-chipotle sauce, and a Chile Ancho Relleno, subtly sweet ancho chilies filled with minced chicken and served with a cilantro-spiked cream sauce. Enchiladas Suizas, filled with chicken and served in a creamy tomatillo sauce, are satisfying but bland, and other dishes in which you would expect the flavorful warmth of chilies–the pork tacos with a sauce of chile de arbol–are similarly bland. One gets the sense that seasonings have been reduced to a level that will offend the fewest people.
One of the strangest dishes is a lamb shank, marinated in chilis and tequila and cooked in parchment paper. Instead of the moist, tender meat you would expect, what emerges is hard, with confusing flavors. A filet of red snapper stuffed with crabmeat was also overcooked and oddly flavored.
A person of normal appetite may not want dessert after these hearty portions, but the tres leches cake is very good, as is the flan. Even though beer and margaritas are the best accompaniment for this food, the wine list at Rosa Mexicano is well selected and well priced–a bottle of Edna Valley Syrah for $24 is a better value than two servings of the oversweet sangria for $14.
Josefina Howard wrote in Rosa Mexicano: A Culinary Autobiography: "In Mexico I've found pure, unique, and extraordinary flavors that represent, for me, the last frontier of the palate: a cuisine full of possibilities and surprises that has inspired in me an undying passion." In spite of it's timidity, its good to have Rosa Mexicano in Washington. What I miss is Josefina Howard's sense of possibilities and passion.
On that subject, several formidable women writers and chefs are responsible for introducing Americans to authentic regional Mexican cookery. Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz's The Complete Book of Mexican Cooking appeared in 1967. The uncompromising Diana Kennedy began her series of Mexican cookbooks with The Cuisines of Mexico in 1972; and her latest, From My Mexican Kitchen: Techniques and Ingredients, which appeared last year, is a wonderful read for anyone interested in the food of Mexico.
575 Seventh St., NW; 202-783-5522. Open for lunch and dinner daily.
ATMOSPHERE: Stunningly attractive modern design. Casual and lively crowd.
FOOD: Regional Mexican cooking for popular taste. Great guacamole and margaritas; otherwise some hits and some misses.
SERVICE: A little awkward in first weeks.
PRICE: Main courses at dinner, $16 to $26. Dinner for two: about $80.
WINE LIST: Well chosen and inexpensive.
BOTTOM LINE: Not the Mexican restaurant one dreams about, but an appealing place with some very good dishes.