There are several reasons why Rojo Mexican Grill is worth a visit. I'm sorry to say that eating isn't near the top of the list.
Let's review the pluses, shall we? They start at the bar, which stocks the kind of impressive tequila inventory normally associated with hot spots bearing downtown addresses. More than 75 labels are sold in both single pours and three-shot flights as well as stirred into a bevy of cocktails, including margaritas. Make that jumbo margaritas. They're 16-ounce Big Gulp-ers, and they more than hit the spot.
The youthful service staff is another asset. They've got hustle, they know how to slap a smile on their face and they've obviously been trained. On one visit I found myself on the receiving end of an enthusiastic, if skin-deep, tequila tutorial, and darned if I wasn't upsold -- happily, I might add -- into a premium añejo.
Then there's the setting, a prime people-watching platform. With its timbered rafters and wide-open floor plan, it looks like a cross between a honky-tonk and the kind of barn that spunky thespians once regularly enlisted when spontaneously staging a show.
An especially cool touch are the hollow wire-mesh columns filled with rocks. They're a total ripoff of the famous Dominus Winery in Yountville, Calif. -- designed by Herzog & de Meuron, the Swiss firm behind the Walker Art Center's 2005 addition -- but, hey, if you're going to copy (the space is designed by Phoenix-based Fitch), it's best to do it from the best.
Oh, and prices don't break the bank. Very few dishes tiptoe north of $12.50, and portions are uniformly huge.
So far, so good. Which is why it's such a letdown when the vast majority of the food is so indifferent, so inert, so dated. What it reminded me of is Chi-Chi's, which makes sense, as Rojo co-owner Michael McDermott is the son of Chi-Chi's founder Marno McDermott.
To everything a season
OK, before I'm knee-deep in hate mail, let me say this: If you were a Chi-Chi's fan, good for you. Have at it. I was all over it in the late 1970s, too. Who wasn't?
But in the intervening decades, Minnesota's south-of-the-border tastes have evolved beyond the mystery meat chimichanga, and Rojo doesn't seem to have followed suit. The menu is a pastiche of what most Americans, pre-Rick Bayless, used to think of as Mexican but in reality is more mainstream Tex-Mex and Southwestern.
And so predictable. Consider the tacos, which inspire nothing but questions.
Namely, where is the flavor? Garnishes include the dreaded shredded iceberg lettuce and cottony, lifeless tomatoes; surely the kitchen can do better than this.
Where is the nuance? Rojo seems distressingly unfamiliar with herbs, citrus and other small-fix/big-impact staples, whose use is not exactly cutting-edge cooking. And where is the imagination?
Not to keep driving the whole we've-come-a-long-way-baby thing, but the menu's six taco options, mirroring the rest of the menu, look -- and taste -- as if the past 30 years in culinary and cultural advancements never happened.
Even the tacos' chief ingredients don't always receive the attention they require. Chicken was dry and flavorless, and if the greasy slow-roasted pork had been seasoned with more than salt, I couldn't taste it. Don't get me started on the ground beef taco, which bore a striking resemblance to the version served by the cook at my fraternity. As for the red snapper, it's not bad. Neither is the nicely marinated and grilled skirt steak.
Another staple, guacamole, also was a letdown. On more than one occasion it had a strange afterburn, as if it had been fermenting for hours, yet simultaneously devoid of the brightness that comes with salt, onions, cilantro and lime.
A green chile stew blared a single flavor note: hot. Tortillas serve as a foundation for a kind of Mexican pizza, and while a shrimp-corn combination sounded pleasant enough (although sweet corn, in Minnesota, in January, seriously?), it had so little flavor that, had I been blindfolded, I couldn't have discerned what I was eating. How about grilling those shrimp, or marinating them, or something?
Nachos, enchiladas, quesadillas, all had a rote quality -- and none of the joy and the endless variety that is contemporary Mexican cuisine. My boredom seemed to be summed up in a single dish, the meatloaf. (I know, meatloaf.)
Anyway, when it was placed in front of me, the adage "We eat with our eyes" immediately popped into my brain, and not in a good way. A semi-spicy hunk of ground beef and ground chorizo, it was swimming in a viscous gravy that was already half-congealed in the few moments it took to travel from kitchen to table, as well as swathed in a pasty cream sauce. Not good.
A few winners
It's not all negative. The tortilla soup had punch, color and plenty of tender chicken. When I wasn't avoiding the yellowed cores of a lettuce head, I enjoyed a salad brimming with snappy, plus-sized shrimp. The requisite tortilla chips were warm, crispy and generously salted, although the accompanying salsa was peppery but watery; better to ask for the far livelier salsa verde, which improves everything it touches.
A crunchy coleslaw -- a side to an otherwise unimpressive platter of baby back ribs (yes, baby back ribs) -- proves that the kitchen is not unfamiliar with fresh, flavorful ingredients.
Oh, and there's a decent burger, juicy on the inside, tantalizingly charred on the outside, topped with slices of fresh avocado and a swipe of chipotle-accent mayonnaise and paired with a pile of crisp, golden fries.
But what does it say about a Mexican restaurant when the menu's most consistently winning item is a burger and fries? (And what does it say about a restaurant when its laminated plastic menus are so smudged that each time I came in contact with one I instinctively reached for the Purell?)
When it comes to dessert, the most constructive advice I can offer is to skip it, and stick with the sticky rice instead. It's served with most dishes, and it's fortified by honey, cream, green onions and more of that seasonally challenged sweet corn. Like much of the food at Rojo, I found it curiously sweet.
Oy. Let's see. ... I mentioned the rockin' staff, the sharp setting, the well-stocked bar and the reasonable prices, right?
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757