Rosa Mexicana brings a taste of Italy to Downriver

The chicken mole plate.
The chicken mole plate. Photo by Serena Maria Daniels and Andrew Laurila.

Rosa Mexicana

1436 Fort St., Lincoln Park 313-724-6434 7 a.m.-10 p.m. daily $3.95-$27.95 Wheelchair accessible

Increasingly, Lincoln Park has become known as Mexicantown 2.0. With the many Latinos who have migrated from Detroit to the suburb, so too are a number of mercados, taquerias, and panaderias — all catering to folks looking for a little more sabor on the menu.

So it shouldn't come as any surprise that the region's many Latino chefs would also make their way out of the city, trading in coveted supporting roles in popular Detroit eateries to venture out on their own and introduce Downriver to some of the culinary delights usually associated with the big city.

That's the story behind chef Neftali Ayala, proprietor of Rosa Mexicana, which features a Mexican and Italian menu. Formerly a longtime chef at La Dolce Vita in Detroit, Ayala (who is of Mexican and Italian background) was self-taught in the techniques of Italian cuisine. When he opened his new restaurant in January, he wanted to bring those two cultures together — much in the same way that Southwest Detroit's Norberto Garita of El Barzon had done previously.

What we get is a menu that demonstrates both gourmet Italian techniques and several Mexican staples — all beautifully plated, solid in execution, and easy on the pocketbook.

The interior is balanced with inviting yellow and brick walls and gorgeous tile floors, with booths and four-tops throughout, with each appropriately adorned with a vase full of red roses. This is a family-run affair, and the staff will treat you as one of your own — with a smile, plenty of recommendations, and prompt service.

If we're drawing comparisons between Rosa Mexicana and El Barzon, whereas El Barzon features a more or less 50-50 ratio between the two cuisines, Rosa leans more heavily on the Italian — with 20 such entrees to choose from, compared to just nine on the Mexican side. Eleven of those Italian dishes are made up of pasta, with the rest being a mix of seafood, meat, and chicken. As for the Mexican selections, you won't find the burritos or flautas that saturate many of the menus in Detroit. Nor will you find the variety of marinated meats found at the many taquerias or food trucks. Instead, there are a number of enchilada combinations, chili rellenos (stuffed peppers), and house-made mole.

We invited a few hungry friends and ordered a bunch of entrees from both sides of the menu, taking care to nibble off each other's plates and compare notes. If there's one negative thing we can say about the offerings, it's that several menu items were out of stock. We would have liked to have tried the escargot on the appetizer section, for example — something you just don't see on many menus around here. It's served with spinach and white wine garlic butter sauce in a golden puff pastry. Instead, we opted for the chevre eggplant, which was breaded and crispy, yet not greasy, so as to taste the freshness of the fruit.

For dinner, we ordered the ravioli d' aragosta alli zafferano — ravioli made with saffron and stuffed with lobster — served over palomino sauce. The sauce was nicely balanced: not too creamy as to overtake the subtle flavor of the lobster, and not too acidic from the tomato base.

One of our dining partners went for the chicken mole. As his eyes lit up in delight, we all sampled some and were equally pleased. Mole comes in a myriad of variations and involves sometimes dozens of ingredients. Some are dark, almost black, and very bitter to the taste, some more tomatoey or spicy and red, while others are very sweet and chocolate-y. This one hit both the sweet and picante notes and, when coupled with succulent boneless chicken breast, was quite satisfying.

Another dining guest tried the chili relleno plate. He told us that he had been on a stuffed pepper kick lately, but that these were his favorite so far. We also took a few bites and were again impressed by the fact that the battered exterior did not take away from the zest of the poblano peppers.

A fourth eating partner ordered a penne pasta dish, with chicken breast, artichokes, bell peppers, and spinach in a light Parmesan cream sauce, making for a perhaps more healthful option.

As for dessert, we couldn't get enough of the decadent panacotta, topped with apple and raspberry drizzle.

We were intrigued by a number of other dishes, including a sizzling fajita entree, ordered by a couple nearby, as well as the lasagna béchamel, which boasts being "the best lasagna you will ever taste." We also keep hearing about Rosa Mexicana's brunch. It's become an instant hit, and we will definitely want to visit during the day to check it out. The only thing missing is a liquor license, which we're told is in the works.

In all, we couldn't be helped but be charmed by this inviting, family-owned space, and think it's just the right addition for Lincoln Park.

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