Flavor // Ole, Rosa!

When doing the ironing back in the day, my mom used to hum a song that started, “Mexicali Rose, I love you. …” While a great provider of meat and potatoes, when it came to ethnic foods, mom faltered and turned to canned goods: Franco-American Spaghetti, Chun King Chow Mein. So, would the singer of “Mexicali Rose” love Rosa Mexicano?

Probably not. Because this upscale newcomer to downtown Minneapolis — the largest in its 14-member national chain — considers fresh, flavorful and inventive salsas its forte, ranging far beyond the options of your local taqueria. In fact, the resemblance to Taco Bell is, oh, about zero. And that’s just what we need — food as entertaining as the entertainment district it anchors.

As the culinary black sheep of a family that viewed cilantro with the horror otherwise reserved for eating worms, I love Rosa. And its upmarket décor of soaring ceiling, polished wood, and vast, uncluttered walls tinted avocado and magenta, with nary a guitar or serape in sight — simply an origami-like waterfall of tiny, white Acapulco divers.

Rosa’s repertoire of salsas goes well beyond culinary kindergarten, starting with the pair that accompany the guacamole ($14, serves 2-3) made tableside in a traditional molcajete: one of pasilla peppers from Oaxaca, the dining mecca of Mexico, another fierier version melding tangy tomatillos and habanero peppers. The guac itself features lumps as large as marbles, abetted by the usual suspects, but not, I whimper, with a livening squirt of lime. House-made chips and warm corn tortillas are at the ready.

Those toasty tortillas serve as base for another fabulous app ($8-14): tacos loaded with pork belly and sea scallops — and not just any old ordinary hog, mind you, but one of heritage breed, accompanied (natch) by scallops harvested by actual, live divers. (By the way, is there a single trendy restaurant sans a pork belly-scallop combo on its foodie-forward menu?) Gilding this particular lily is a zingy mango-habanero sauce.

Great dish! So are the crab-stuffed empanadas, each with a lode of sweet and juicy meat within gently-crisped corn shells, just begging for a double dip in a fruity pico de gallo and tarter avocado-tomatillo salsa.

My companion’s salmon (dinner entrees $21-28) also hit the mark — moist and ultra-fresh, piled upon black beans with zucchini and roasted corn. (Entrees also come with refried black beans — unremarkable — and rice boasting a gorgeously muscular texture.) Abetting the fillet, a mole of smoky ancho chilies flavored a dip of diced tropical fruit.

Me, I went with my all-time favorite Mexican breakfast, enchiladas suizas — here, a pair of soft corn tortillas wrapping pulled roast chicken topped with a tomatillo cream and mild Chihuahua cheese. The usual rendition — sort of a Mexican hot dish — uses up last night’s leftover tortilla chips mixed with chicken, lots more, tarter, tomatillos, and a generous swag of crema — which, slob that I am, I prefer.

Dessert? You bet! The creamy cajeta ice cream, for example, rich with the flavor of carmelized milk and a pinch of sea salt. And the bunelos, those sugary doughnut fingers just begging to be dipped in thick, nonsweet chocolate. Rosa knows the drill.  She also knows how to mix a standout margarita.

Rosa Mexicano
609 Hennepin Ave.