It is difficult to define authentic Mexican food. The conversation always comes down to personal interpretation. The problem seems to be that just as many of our ancestors tweaked their identities when they passed through Ellis Island, so too did Mexican cuisine when it crossed the border. What many Americans consider “authentic Mexican food” is really, some argue, authentic “Americanized” Mexican food.
This seems to be the case at Rojo Mexican Grill in the West End Shopping Center in St. Louis Park. Which is fitting. After all, co-owner Michael McDermott’s parents founded the Chi-Chi’s chain. That being said, however, Rojo is not a rehash of Chi-Chi’s recipes, except for the fried ice cream, which sports an update. Yet what Rojo does, it does well.
Rojo lacks a canned “Mexican” atmosphere. There aren’t any oversized sombreros hanging from the wall. Mariachi music isn’t blaring from the speakers and margaritas don’t arrive in barware shaped like a cactus.
Instead, the ambiance is warm, open and modern. The dark floors flow with the rich, wood accents. The high ceiling is crisscrossed with thick beams. Hacienda-style, wrought iron chandeliers hang throughout the space. Diners have an open view of the dining room. This invites people watching. Diners can also see into the kitchen. Glass-fronted refrigerators display all of the freshly chopped ingredients. Customers watch as the staff makes tortillas, wraps enchiladas and boxes leftovers.
Tequila aficionados will be impressed by Rojo’s extensive tequila menu, which boasts nearly a hundred different distillations. Because we prefer to temper our tequila, we focused on the margarita list. Co-owner Jason Merritt recommended the Rojo Margarita, a classic take on the classic drink. We, however, had our sights set on something new. The Strawberry Jalapeño Margarita is a sweet drink with floating slices of muddled jalapeño. The jalapeño adds depth to the concoction but doesn’t overpower. The Prickly Pear Margarita is also yummy. It disappeared before its Strawberry Jalapeño counterpart.
Drinks come with chips and salsa. The standard red salsa is mild, but a spicier green, tomatillo salsa is available if you ask. Its kick is quite a bit hotter, so keep your drink nearby. We recommend you spring for the guacamole as well. It was chunky and fresh and oh-so-good.
We were disappointed not to find a traditional, Mexican mole on the menu. On the other hand, plenty of our friends wouldn’t recognize a mole sauce if they saw one, throwing us back into the debate about what constitutes authentic Mexican cuisine. But anyway…
Our server recommended the Chicken Enchilada, calling it a “crowd pleaser.” It pleased both of us. The two enchiladas came doused in a smoky, red sauce that was rich and satisfying.
She also recommended an entrée called Machaca, describing it as a sort of Mexican pot roast. Fall-apart pieces of slow-roasted beef were served in a stew of green peppers, onions and tomatoes. Tortillas came with the meal. Some of the beef we shredded and ate like tacos, but the meat was so flavorful that we ate several bites straight from the plate.
Both entrées came with three sides-a bowl of black beans stewed with bacon, a sweet, sticky-rice mixed with corn and a refreshing slaw mixed in a caraway-seed vinaigrette that was unusual and delicious.
We ordered one of everything on the dessert menu. A neighboring table had ordered the Churros. When the server brought out their heaping platter of deep-fried dough sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar, a scent reminiscent of fresh mini-donuts got us salivating. Our own churro platter came with a bowl of bittersweet chocolate sauce and a bowl of whipped cream for dipping.
In homage to Chi-Chi’s, we ordered the Fried Ice-Cream. Rojo’s version sports chocolate chip ice cream inside. It was good enough that we both went back for several bites, but it was the Tres Leches Cake that we liked most. Topped with pineapple and whipped cream, it was light and fruity.
Rojo is perfect for the dinner segment of your dinner-and–movie date, especially if your movie is at the Showplace cinema across the street. If your co-workers are clamoring for a happy hour, Rojo’s cocktails, tequila flights, wine list and well-rounded beer menu ensure there’ll be something for everyone.
Kelly Westhoff is a writer, traveler and haiku fanatic who obsesses over all of her fortune cookie fortunes. See more of her work at www.KellyWesthoff.com.