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Rosa-Colored Dining

[whitespace] Rosa's Rosticeria
Robert Scheer

Spitting Image: Rosa's owners Lee Rhau (left) and David Gutierrez fire up a sublime array of grilled delights like prawns and tuna, as well as their delectable chickens and ribs.

Yacht harbor rosticceria with a reputation for quick, colorful fiesta foods earns new laurels for its sensational seafood

By Christina Waters

FROM THE MINUTE it opened a few years back, Rosa's was a raging success. Small wonder. Poultry turned on spits, a huge stable of salsas and festive versions of everything from giant turkey burritos to red-hot fried potatoes charmed the socks off everyone who set foot in the upstairs eatery. OK, so it was a low-overhead operation, with no table service, a high noise level and meals served at the kitchen window on cafeteria-style trays.

Still there was something fun about all that plastic furniture, and families gave thanks for a place where kids could eat healthy food inexpensively.

Dinner last week at Rosa's with Eduardo--a longtime aficionado of this place--proved that the "open-minded" (Ed's term) Mexican restaurant is something over and above a great place to swill salsa and a tamarindo margarita. After my recent encounter, I'd stake Rosa's against any other restaurant in the area as a serious seafood venue.

How serious? Well, the day-boat scallops burrito ($8.95) featured enormous East Coast shellfish that had just been flown in that morning. The yellowtail jack was a Monterey Bay offering coaxed into one of the most sensational dinner platters ($14.95) I've had in town. And the Dungeness crab enchilada ($6.95) proved almost celestial in delicacy and sweet freshness.

We also sampled the La Barequeña--a gargantuan open-face burrito overflowing with sirloin steak, portabello mushrooms and gravy ($8.95).

After placing our orders--munching the whole while on those addictive sweet potato chips and complex sweet-and-sour chutney dips--we headed over to the salsa station to choose a few favorites. I love the chipotle and salsa fresca, while Eduardo dove into some of the fiery chile de arbol. I nursed a fruit and tamarindo Margarita ($4), while Ed was impressed that Rosa's carries the Holy Grail of non-alcoholic beers, Haacke ($2.25).

To begin with, the extraordinary crab enchilada arrived in a fiery Caribbean-style sauce laced with baby spinach and tomatoes, accompanied by a crunchy nest of flash-fried onion and an exceptional coleslaw. The crab expressed itself clearly, even with the kick of chiles, sweet spices and a whisper of coconut tagging along as enhancements.

The burrito--the size of a Toltec pyramid--was positively bulging with fist-sized scallops. Tender, quickly grilled and moist, these luxuries were attended by asparagus, crunchy pea pods and sensuous potatoes. God, it was great.

But the absolute star of the evening was the dinner plate of grilled, blackened yellowtail--a rich, moist fish--that was accompanied by a flotilla of knock-out Oaxaqueña flavors. Long, fat spears of grilled asparagus lay on top of a jam of onions spiced by a molé thick with raisins and cinnamon. Perched on an ungodly rich pre-Columbian corn and masa pudding, the fish also was flanked by a pool of vinegary-tart barbecued black beans topped with the tender, crunchy pea pods. Each item on the plate had been sauced differently. Each dish had a kick--and every kick was different. What an amazing performance by this vivacious kitchen.

Only the order of dry-aged sirloin in a tortilla "boat" underwhelmed us. Compared to the brilliantly sauced seafoods, it pretty much sat there, a brown goo of tasteless gravy with some nice mushrooms and rather bland beef.

At Rosa's, seafoods receive creative, world-beat attention--and the results are memorable.

Rosa's Rosticeria
Address: 493B Lake Ave., Santa Cruz at the Yacht Harbor
Phone: 479-3536 Hours: Daily 11:30am-8pm (till 9pm Fri.-Sat.)
Entrees: $4-$14, no credit cards accepted
Head Chef: Lee von Rhau
Cuisine: *** Outrageously flavorful, top-quality rotisserie and slow-simmered combinations that stress Mexican heritage and the spice of Creole attitude
Ambiance: * The exhibition kitchen is great to watch, and it's all easy access, but the cafeteria feel takes some of the fun away
Overall: For over four years, Rosa's has proved itself an innovative, upbeat dining establishment--a true local treasure.

****Great, ***Excellent, **Good, *Okay

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From the February 26-March 4, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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