- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Perhaps it should be called Azul Mexicano rather than Rosa Mexicano, for the assertive Mexican pink of New York’s Rosa Mexicano has given way to beautiful blues in the Washington version.

The new Rosa Mexicano, instantly hot, hot, hot thanks to its New York reputation, is a large, beautiful restaurant at Seventh and F streets NW in a corner of the old Hecht’s department store. Jewelry and scarves once were displayed where the avocado now reigns.

The stunning luminescent blue glass-tile wall of water, with hundreds of colorful paper monarch butterflies attached by rods, catches the eyes of diners entering the spacious dining room. Lucite room dividers; lucite hanging lamp covers encasing rose petals; a blue tile center table with water shimmering on top and slipping down the sides; bright carpeting in part of the dining room; comfortable chairs; and plates with Mexican-inspired motifs create an atmosphere of contemporary south-of-the-border style.

A tequila bar serves three dozen tequilas. Mexican beer and an interesting international wine list, mainly Spanish, of wines under $25 per bottle are on the menu, too.

Pedestrians outside can watch the hip young crowd inside watching the scene outside through enormous windows of the art-deco building, just across the street from the comings and goings at the MCI Center.

Rosa Mexicano is very good. Service is smooth and efficient — your waiter will immediately suggest that you try the “famous signature” frozen pomegranate margarita and the guacamole, prepared table-side and served in a traditional black lava stone molcajete (mortar). The margarita is cool and sweet; the guacamole is a terrific combination of ripe avocados, tomatoes, chilies and onions, and it can be ordered mild, medium or spicy.

The guacamole cart (shades of classic French flaming crepes suzette preparations in elegant restaurants of long ago) with its large basket of ripe, dark green avocados is a pretty sight as it is moved from table to table. The guacamole is served with house-made tortilla chips and warm little corn tortillas. (Rosa Mexicano imported its tortilla machine from Mexico.)

The menu is divided into soups and street snacks; sandwiches and quesadillas (at lunch); tacos; enchiladas; appetizers; and main courses.

On the whole, the kitchen, under the aegis of culinary director Roberto Santibanez, does a fine job; the food is fresh and well-prepared. As is the case in traditional Mexican cuisine, dishes tend to be mild, the heat hidden in accompanying sauces.

Spices are used with subtlety, but heat can be added with some of the salsas that accompany the dishes. My favorite is a delicious, peppy, bright green cilantro salsa accompanying three small quesadillas filled with a savory mixture of mushrooms, cheese and huitlacoche (a corn fungus used in several classic Mexican dishes), then lightly grilled and served warm. It’s a delicious appetizer.

Flautas de pollo, crisp, thin tortilla rolls filled with chicken and topped with medium (green) and hot (red) salsas and a dollop of sour cream make a winning appetizer. Baby shrimp (camarones) and a mix of wild mushrooms in a fragrant garlicky sauce is equally delicious, the portion large enough to share.

Mexico’s classic tortilla soup, a rich pasilla chili soup poured over a mound of grilled chicken, avocado and tortilla strips, can be ordered as an appetizer or as a main course.

An outstanding dish is the chili ancho relleno, two beautiful black chilies stuffed with chicken picadillo, a mix of minced chicken, raisins and nuts. The chilies float on a creamy cilantro sauce. This is a marvelous combination of flavors, ranging from the sweet peppers to the slight zing of the sauce. Don’t miss it.

Pulled barbecued pork, similar to Southern barbecue, appears as a taco al asador, served in a square little cast-iron skillet with charro beans, smoky and redolent with a bit of bacon, tortillas and red and green salsas. The pork, which also appears in an enchilada, is tender and deliciously reminiscent of the barbecue at HB’s in Little Rock, Ark., or Corky’s in Memphis, Tenn., especially when rolled in a tortilla with a bit of salsa and some of the beans.

Main-course dishes are accompanied by excellent refried black beans, almost a puree, and wonderful buttery, garlicky rice flecked with parsley.

The only dish that did not measure up to par was a tostada, a crisp round tortilla, with crabmeat and shredded cabbage. The crab was virtually invisible, and the dish was lackluster — but even at Rosa Mexicano, everything can’t be perfect.

The flan, which slides down the throat like a whispered promise, is close to perfection. A rich, creamy custard with a suggestion of coconut, it’s topped with a crust of burnt, hard sugar and a dice of roasted pineapple. It’s simple and wonderful.

If the menu is confusing, the waiters explain dishes and ingredients with knowledge and patience. Be prepared, though; the restaurant is always full and always noisy. Nevertheless, it’s nice to know there’s a place for a quick meal before an event across the street (or around town) or a snack afterward.

RESTAURANT: Rosa Mexicano, 575 Seventh St. NW; 202/783-5522

HOURS: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner 5 to 11 p.m. daily; beginning this week, lunch also served on Saturday and Sunday

PRICES: Appetizers (about $1 less at lunch), $7.50 to $12; salads, sandwiches and quesadillas, $8.50 to $14.50; main courses, $13 to $17.50 (lunch) and $16 to $24 (dinner); desserts, $6.50

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Street parking; dinner valet parking $10; $15 Friday, Saturday and Sunday

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

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