Venue Review: Rocco's Tacos
Rocco's Tacos is so cool, it's hot.
Go just about any time of the day, and the Clematis Street eatery will be packed with customers.
Inside, the space, formerly home to Big City Tavern and L'Opera, still has the tin ceilings and elaborately carved oak bar straight out of the early 20th century. But now the ceiling is dotted with pinpoints of light from star-shaped, punched-metal lantern chandeliers. Posters from old films line the walls. And the place reverberates with sounds from around the Latin world.
The food catches that groove. But it's not Mexican in the South-of-the-Border sense. Rather, it evokes Mexico.
Take the tortilla chips. The translucent flakes of fried corn batter are lighter than any I've seen in Mexico or border towns. They're topped with a tangy variety of seasonings, too — we tasted cumin, a touch of cinnamon and cayenne. Perfect for dipping with guacamole ($12). Like Rosa Mexicano and Cantina Laredo, Rocco's makes its avocado dip to order. We could have made a meal of thick, creamy guacamole. We ordered ours with a medium heat, so it was still mild enough to play off the spices on the chips.
Wash it down with the red sangria ($18 for a pitcher). The sangria was sweeter than we were used to, but not cloying. And the Cadillac Margarita ($27 for a pitcher) was bracingly sour.
Another good starter: The tortilla soup ($5) is packed with pulled, roasted chicken, pieces of charred tomato, the right amount of cilantro and tortillas in a slightly smoky chipotle broth.
During a dinner visit, we tried the Pollo Al Carbon ($16), or grilled chicken. It consisted of two breast halves seasoned with garlic, cilantro and lime, then cooked until tender. It was served with red rice and black beans, which smoldered with a hint of chipotle.
At lunch, the chili relleno ($11) was a streamlined take on the fried poblano chili. The chili relleno can be a fatty, bready affair elsewhere, but the pepper starred in Rocco's version, which had minimal breading. It was filled with Chihuahua cheese and topped with a red sauce and that wonderful, slightly salty crumbled cotija cheese. It was served with more of those heavenly black beans.
Also at lunch: The chicken quesadilla ($10) gave us an opportunity to sample a sandwich without resorting to a burger or wrap. The shredded chicken was topped with roasted red peppers and three cheeses, and served in a grilled tortilla. The small mixed-greens salad was topped with a lime-chipotle dressing that offered the right zip.
Rocco's namesake tacos also satisfied us at lunch. There was plenty of the roasted shredded chicken ($2.95 each or $10 for a platter with two tacos, a small salad and rice), topped with lettuce, tomato, a bit of cilantro, avocado cream and pickled red onions. And the beef taco platter ($10) also had plenty of tender, shredded meat but seemed a little heavy on the cilantro.
Service varied widely among visits — from disorganized on our first visit, excellent on a second visit, benign neglect on a third and, finally, excellent.
Servers need to know their food and its ingredients. And they need management to back them up when the place is slammed and they fall behind in taking orders, clearing plates and delivering the check.
Hopefully, Rocco's, part of the Big Time Restaurant Group that includes City Cellar, City Kitchen and City Oyster, can make its service as consistently good as the food. Now that sounds appetizing.