Rosa Mexicano Bringing High-End Mexican Downtown

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The bar. Photo: Dana Massey-Todd. © tablehopper.com.

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The water wall, with cliff divers. Photo: Dana Massey-Todd. © tablehopper.com.

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That tableside guacamole, with tortillas and salsa. Photo: Dana Massey-Todd. © tablehopper.com.

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There’s that guacamole cart. Photo: Dana Massey-Todd. © tablehopper.com.

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The pork belly and scallop taco. Photo: Dana Massey-Todd. © tablehopper.com.

A report by Dana Massey-Todd. Here’s some downtown news for ya: ~ROSA MEXICANO~ opened today in a spot on Mission at Embarcadero. The chain made a big splash when it first opened in New York in 1984, and now has locations all over the country, including Los Angeles, Miami, and Atlanta. Of course, a lot has been made of the fact that opening a high-end, authentic Mexican restaurant in California is a whole different ball game than opening one in New York. Jonathan Gold of LA Weekly went so far as to call the whole Los Angeles project “an insult to L.A.,” so that should give you a hint as to the sort of criticism they’ve fielded here on the Best Coast. After all, what Californian in their right mind would take Mexican food advice from a New Yorker? That’s like me telling a Philly native they’ve got their cheesesteak all wrong.

That said, though, the team behind Rosa Mexicano is definitely making an effort to take notes from San Francisco, not the other way around. Management is working hard to demonstrate their commitment to seasonal and local ingredients. Their location around the corner from the Ferry Building helps; executive chef David Suarez says he visits the farmers’ markets every week for inspiration and products. On my recent press tour, I was told many times that if I wanted to know the provenance of any ingredient, all I had to do was ask. Further, according to Suarez, about 35 percent of the opening menu is unique to the San Francisco location, and their hope is that this location will serve as an incubator for their other locations, thereby informing their style as they expand. Jonathan Waxman (Barbuto, New York), who is also a Chez Panisse alum and luminary of California cooking, is at the helm as “Culinary Advisor”, too, and his influence should further this goal.

This isn’t a taqueria-style spot, but rather a full-service, sit-down restaurant with a full bar. The dining room seats 170 people, and 60 more can fit at the bar. On nice days, there are an additional 60 seats outside. Large groups will be right at home here. The decor is certainly tasteful and festive, if a little generic. There are playful touches, like the flashes of neon pink throughout the space, which is the restaurant’s signature color, and one whole wall is a fountain with sculptures designed to mimic the cliff divers of Acapulco. Roof tiles from Mexico were used to build the coat closet, and a vibrant mosaic fronts the bar, which along with string lights give off a festive vibe. The bar is big and has a television for sporting events; there’s also a lounge area if you’d rather avoid the screen.

The food I tried was pretty good, and the tequila selection is well curated. There is a broad range of taco offerings, from a seasonal vegetarian option that currently features mint-cashew spread with roasted mushrooms and sliced figs, to a pork belly and scallop take on surf and turf. The guacamole is, indeed, prepared tableside, which would be unbearably gimmicky if it wasn’t so damn delicious. Each order includes plenty of ripe avocado, onion, cilantro, tomato and jalepeño mixed in a pig-snouted molcajete.

Rosa Mexicano has a lot to live up to here in San Francisco, but they seem to be approaching it with the right balance of humility and confidence. And points for the oh-so-adorable pink tortilla warmers. They’re open for dinner now, Sun-Thu 5:30pm-10pm and Fri-Sat 5:30pm-11pm. As of Monday October 29th, they’ll be open for lunch and happy hour, too. Lunch is daily 11:30am-2:30pm, and happy hour is Mon-Fri 4pm-7pm. Note that they will be closed Sunday October 28th. 30 Mission St. at Steuart, 415-874-4300.