What's Jonathan Waxman Up To at Rosa Mexicano?
The multi-credentialed Jonathan Waxman -- whose career extends from Chez Panisse (Berkeley, 1970s) to Michael's (Santa Monica, 1980s) to Jams (New York, 1980s) to Barbuto (New York, 2000s) -- is often credited with introducing California cuisine to New York, and with being perhaps the country's first celebrity chef. Lately, he's become a TV personality as well. But one of the strangest jags his bicoastal career has taken was announced only recently: For the year 2012, he would become a "chef in residence" (whatever that is) at the city's Rosa Mexicano chain.
Now, Rosa Mexicano was hot shit when it opened 28 years ago on the Upper East Side, but careless expansion across the city and to Washington D.C., and a buttoned-down attitude toward the menu, had long since left the food seeming stale and retrograde. While new forms of south-of-the-border cooking appeared at bodegas and bistros on a daily basis, the cooking of this once-great chain remained hidebound. Not for them were colorful moles, obscure antijitos, and newfangled ceviches. Diners in search of such things were well advised to seek out more modern places like Empellón, Mercadito, and Tacos Morelos -- or merely step up to one of the myriad taco trucks blanketing the city.
Thus it was with some excitement that I sat down at Rosa Mexicano's Union Square bar yesterday at lunch, at work on another story. When I scanned the menu, it didn't seem all that different. But then a loose piece of paper slipped out with some totally different stuff on it, headlined "Chef's Menu Additions."
The thing that caught my eye was something called enchiladas de mole blanco ($15). Mole blanco? Never heard of it. I ordered it immediately. It turned out to be two wonderful, flopped-over enchiladas stuffed with savory shredded beef (and lots of it). Colorfully garnished, they sat in a pool of creamy sauce that tasted powerfully of corn, and to a lesser extent of pine nuts. What a wonderful entrée! It came accompanied with generous bowls of cilantro-decorated short-grain brown rice and pureed black beans mantled with cheese.
I was delighted, and look forward to returning for more specials. The same sheet also listed sliders made with Yucatan-style shredded pork and shrimp tostaditas, neither quite as interesting sounding as the enchiladas. A sign outside offered a Mexican Passover dinner -- which may be worth checking out, though I can assure you it's not kosher.
9 East 18th Street
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