Wednesday, May 19, 2004

DINING: Rosa Rocks? Or Does She Just Suck?

A friend of mine who's a New York commercial real estate consultant calls the whole Gallery Place/Chinatown/Penn Quarter mess "MCI-ville." I think it fits quite well. Ever since the MCI Center went in, the Seventh Street corridor has been transformed. Dining-wise, the immediate area around the intersection of Seventh and H streets is the nexus of all dining franchises on the East Coast. Fuddruckers, Legal Seafoods, Hooters, Chipotle, et al. The area services the arena crowd looking for decent food in a "vibrant" urban setting.

But MCI-ville offers upscale franchises as well. Over on Sixth Street is D.C.'s contemptible Coyote Ugly outpost, which tries to pass itself off as a upscale Hooter's, attracting the "Fairfax cul-du-sac crowd" as one friend puts it.

Then over on Fun Street, err ... F Street ... (The F Street/"Fun Street" marketing campaign is probably the most ridiculous in recent memory) is Rosa Mexicano's outpost in MCI-ville. For those who don't know, Rosa Mexicano is New York's popular and swanky Mexican restaurant with locations on the Upper West Side and on First Avenue. (Atlanta is set to get a Rosa franchise as well.) Among the general population, the food is held in relative high regard. The interior is just a feast for the eyes as the tableside guacamole and the pomegranate margaritas are for the taste buds.

Or so says the conventional thinking.

But don't say you love Rosa Mexicano to most posters on eGullet. They seem to hate it. The following posting from DonRocks back in January is still making people laugh this May:
On the menu at Rosa Mexicano, there are two items listed by themselves on the top, clearly intended as grabbers: the pomegranate margarita, and the guacamole.

The pomegranate margarita is dispensed soft-serve style out of the wall behind the bar. Almost magically, it seems to keep flowing and flowing, seemingly at the rate of ten gallons per second.

Question: where do you think it comes from?

Do you think the conscientious Tequila-master is sitting there behind the wall, thoughtfully mixing crystal shot glasses full of Patron Anejo into the swirling machine?

Think the pomegranate juice is from the farmers market?

At least Fat Tuesday's has more than one flavor.

The guacamole is fabulous, wonderful and a bargain at ten dollars. It's a cleverly crafted strategy, having this as the signature dish. Are you going to go to Rosa Mexicano, next to the MCI Center with $15 valet parking, and order a guacamole with a glass of ice water? If you do, your food will be a terrific value. If you don't ...…

Washington DC is the third outlet for this chain restaurant. Atlanta, Georgia is soon to be the fourth. Any guesses for number five? Six? Seven? Get the picture?

Let's call a spade a spade: this factory serves processed-tasting food intended for the masses who naively think they're getting something more meaningful than they would at Cheesecake Factory. Even the tortilla chips taste like they came from the bulk food section at Shoppers Food Warehouse (as opposed to Rio Grande and Cactus Cantina, two high-volume operations that get the chips right).

Rosa Mexicano sucks. It sucks! How much does it suck? It sucks, that's how much it sucks. It sucks ducks, bucks, monster trucks, hockey pucks, guys named Chuck, migrant workers that shuck, lightning bolts that struck, sewage workers wallowing in muck, rear-wheel drive cars that are stuck, vagrants who are down on their luck, babys who taste spinach for the first time and say yuck, and don't think for a moment I've forgotten about the word fuck. There!

I have never been to Rosa so I cannot give my own testimonial. I'm sure the guacamole is good, I'm sure the design is stunning and the food is decent, though probably overpriced. But I really don't want to go there for one reason: geography.

Since it is in MCI-ville, the choice of their location says one thing to me: they want to make lots of money. Rosa doesn't seem to care about her food, only about attracting the masses in with a stunning interior and buzzworthy margaritas. Plain and simple, that is why I stay away from Seventh Street dining.

But if you think that I'm unfairly judging Rosa on account of its geographic mass marketing, then read on.

A reader e-mailed me her experiences with Rosa Mexicano's unscupulous waitstaff:
While I did not have the "ventworm nut" they speak so fondly of on, my friends and I did order a round of margaritas to kick off the night. My friend, the evening's birthday girl as we informed our waiter, ordered a 'Tradicional' margarita. The waiter asked if she liked Grand Marnier.
Friend: Oh, yes.
Waiter: I'll make you a special margarita with Grand Marnier, I'll call it La Uniqa.
Friend: (flattered) OK, sounds good.
Me: I'd like a Tradicional also.
Waiter: Do you want me to make it like hers...special.
Me: Sure, why not? Thanks.
The dinner progresses in all its lackluster glory, but the margaritas were strong and we were having fun. The budin Azteca was merely mediocre (melted cheese with some tortillas and shredded chicken) and none of my friends were impressed.

Bill time rolls around...
Me: (glancing over the bill) Those margaritas were $10!?!
Friend: (after consuming three) What!? I thought they were $7.
I was extremely bothered by the fact that our sly waiter had upcharged us without even so much as a mention or hint that his "special" margarita was three smackers more than the Tradicional that we both plainly asked for. So I decided I couldn't leave without mentioning to our waiter that I didn't appreciate his slyness.
Me: Those "unicas" were uniqely expensive.
Waiter: Yes, $10.
Me: I gotta give you credit for upselling us, but we thought we ordered $7 drinks.
Waiter: (silence with an innocent stare)
Me: was tricky of you.
Waiter: I just let you know they were available.

Whatever dude!! I backed down, being not as aggressive as I wish I could be.
And we left -- having paid more than $50 for 5 margaritas -- with a bad taste in our mouths.

Yes, I could've insisted he charge us $7 and raised a big stink, but I don't go out to eat looking for a fight. But it's those kinds of sleazy upselling practices that make me feel like I'm in an Applebee's. Come to think of it, they probably have a policy on NOT misleading unsuspecting customers. So a $10 margarita. Was it worth it? No. I can make a better one at home.

The Washington Post's Tom Sietsema gave Rosa Mexicano a tepid, if less-than-favorable review:
Right now, Rosa Mexicano is the city's most glamorous source for chips and dip. I'll remember it when I want a sassy drink, a comforting plate of melting beef, or a tasty quesadilla or two. Meanwhile, I'll keep my fingers crossed, and hope this newcomer's substance soon catches up to its style.

Sietsema's review brought this reaction on's Rosa page:
Rosa "Rocks"
Posted by anonymous on Feb 21, 2004

I think the food writer needs a reality check. there is no Mexican like this in DC and it's great. slurpee or not the margaritas are awesome and the food is really tasty. Maybe he should try and enjoy the whole restaurant instead of picking aaprt the food. The design is really cool and there are lot's af great people at the bar. Thanks Rosa Keep bringing it!!!

Rosa's place on Fun Street has been creating much buzz around town. Out and about, I've heard groups of people ... OK, it was all women in their 20s, including one gaggle from a Democratic Senator's office at a recent Capitol Hill happy hour ... rave about it without necessarily supporting their claims with much more that it was "so" good. At that happy hour, I heard this questioned posed about Rosa: "Are avocados low carb? I could eat Rosa's guacamole fo 'eva. No, really! Fo 'eva!"

You get the point.


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