Sure, I wouldn’t mind putting up a barrier between myself and the culinary infiltration of canned refried beans and stale tortilla chips that masquerades as Mexican food in so many local establishments. But the ubiquitous splat-Mex—various permutations of numbered combos smothered in cheese—is not what’s on the menu at Rosario’s, the anchor tenant in the up-and-coming Edgehill Village retail-and-residential complex.
Instead, Daniel Barragan—a native of Mexico City—and Robert Shelton deliver a menu based largely on Barragan’s mother’s home cooking. While the names may look familiar—enchiladas, burritos and quesadillas are all present and accounted for—the flavors, freshness and presentation set Rosario’s apart from the rest of her Mexican-restaurant compadres.
For starters, there’s the building. The eye-catching patio at the rounded corner of the converted White Way dry-cleaning plant begs for happy hours with margaritas and chips, and promises to draw the Music Row crowd as soon as the temperature drops to a civilized level. Inside, Rosario’s forgoes the faux-hacienda trimmings, instead blending industrial-chic exposed brick with pale, sleek wood and a dramatic central staircase leading to a mezzanine.
The drunken shrimp martini appetizer says as much about Rosario’s as anything. Available with either four or eight shrimp, the appetizer arrives in a whimsically bent martini glass with robust shrimp—marinated in beer and lightly grilled—perched around the rim. In the bottom of the glass is a creative and refreshing mix of avocado and chopped mango with a slaw of cabbage, carrots, tomato and jicama.
Even mundane rice and beans take on a new appeal at Rosario’s. Tiny bits of carrot punctuate the soft rice, and the beans are stewed from scratch. The smooth blend of pintos, onions, garlic and an ingredient that Barragan isn’t divulging results in a side dish that complements the meal, rather than an obligatory garnish along the lines of coleslaw in a fried fish restaurant.
But it is the mole that steals the show at Rosario’s. Ladled over fluffy tamales that burst with pulled chicken or beef, the rich brown mole negro hints at chocolate, peanuts and ground chilies—a combination as intriguing to gringo tastes as the appearance of grilled cactus salsa on the stuffed portobello mushroom.
While Tex-Mex fans will recognize the chile relleno, deep-fried in a light batter, they might not expect the stuffing of white queso fresco, a cheese with a consistency similar to tofu, in lieu of the more American accessory, jack cheese.
The size of the crowd and the conversational buzz in the dining rooms and dramatic bar nestled in the back suggest there’s plenty of local demand for Rosario’s authentic sauces and moles. But one aspect of Rosario’s service quickly fell flat—charging for chips and salsa. In our first few visits, we remarked on the menu listing of $2.99 for the appetizer combo that has become a diner’s entitlement. But on our most recent visit, a server greeted us with a basket of crisp, warm chips and two bowls (hot and mild) of the smoky ancho chili-infused salsa as soon as we took our seats. It was a simple gesture, but the change reflects a commitment to customer service that rings sincere in any conversation with Barragan and Shelton, who almost always can be found manning the floor.
In fact, the restaurant’s opening was delayed two months as the owners struggled to train servers and find a chef who could execute the vision they both effusively describe. Now with chef Byron Bernal—an alumnus of Caffe Nonna—in the kitchen, and a friendly, if slightly awkward, crew of servers in place, Rosario’s conveys an unusually personal vibe, accentuated by live music every now and then. Not surprisingly, prices are higher than your typical Nolensville Road taqueria, though still in line with more suburban Mexican restaurants.
During our visits, there were still service hiccups. Once we got a large bowl of guacamole and once we got a tiny bowl. On one visit, all our appetizers and entrées arrived at the same time, on another we got someone else’s order. But the staff was so gracious that it was easy to overlook these shortcomings.
There were also a few holes in the food. The desserts we tried—chocolate cake and tres leches cake made by an outside provider—were unremarkable. The grilled shrimp burrito squandered the freshness of the drunken shrimp by smothering them in a soggy mash of beans and tortilla. The flauta was dry.
But the biggest disappointment was the margarita, served in a glass still hot from the dishwasher and—worse—made with a neon-green mix. Given that Rosario’s serves an exhaustive menu of tequilas, there’s no reason the restaurant shouldn’t serve the best margarita, made with fresh, pulpy limes. Barragan and Shelton seem pretty attuned to their customers, so it’s likely they’ll figure it out soon. When they do, that round patio will become a salt-rimmed local landmark.
Rosario’s is open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
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