We took a walk by the chain restaurant trifecta that recently opened at the Riverside Square mall.
There's a Maggioni's or something like that, whose awning claims "PRIME STEAKS." Plural, as far as I can tell. I took a look at their menu, and only one steak is "prime", and it's not even suggesting that it's USDA Prime (it also claims "aged", which I assume means that it was sitting in a Cryovac wrapper for a while. Yay). I guess what they meant by "PRIME STEAKS" is that they have several of those steaks.
There's also PF Chang's. I couldn't get past those enormous concrete horses. I'm sure I'm missing some sort of cultural significance, once again illustrating the depth and breadth of my ignorance. Seriously, they're kidding, right?...
...and then there's Rosa Mexicano.
It's probably a bit unfair to call Rosa Mexicano a "chain restaurant." To my mind it is, at least. To me, Rosa Mexicano is still that little place on 1st and 58th, where we went countless times in the 90's, enjoying frozen pomegranate margaritas before people even knew that pomegranate gives you superpowers, or whatever it is that Pom Wonderful does for you. It's still that place where you can get upscale-ish Mexican food, when hardly another place was serving it in all of Manhattan (we love you too, Zarela, and your margaritas for sure, and we know you were doing the same). It's still that little known gem where we'd bring friends and clients, who would say "how did you find this place?"
But alas, they decided to branch out, introducing waterfall walls and somewhat dumbed down food and service all along the way. First at Lincoln Center, where after my first and only meal I vowed to never return, and was about 1 heartbeat away from laying out the obnoxious and useless manager (this was years ago). And then it was on to other states. And then Union Square. And now, Hackensack, NJ.
Trepidations aside, we decided to stop in one afternoon before furtniture shopping, because shopping with a little buzz is always preferable. I scanned the margarita menu, and saw various concoctions. The closest I found to what I would consider to be a proper margarita contained Milagro silver tequila (100% agave), fresh lime juice, and agave nectar. The "La Clasica", on the menu. Their standard margarita ("La Tradicional"), I should note, does not use a tequila that is 100% agave. I just can't get behind this decision one bit. Since I had little hope for the La Clasica, I convinced the missus to order it, and I got one of those frozen jobs. A decision, which if broadcast over the internet, would surely be grounds to have my margarita snob card taken away from me by the authorities immediately. Shhhh, it's our secret.
The frozen marg was just like I remembered it, but didn't seem as strong. Back in the day on 1st Ave, 2 of those would send you to another place altogether. That didn't seem to be the case with these. Or maybe that's because I'm 30 pounds heavier than I was on 1st Ave. The "La Clasica", to my surprise, was quite decent. A nice acidic bite. I'm not sure you could taste the tequila, but it certainly wasn't a horrible margarita, the sickly sweet types you find at most places. But that changed on the second visit.
Maybe it's a training or consistency issue, but the margarita during our next visit was way way too sweet. They must have gone heavy on the agave nectar (which I'm not convinced is very good. I need to read the ingredients). No acidic bite. Certainly no trace of tequila flavor. A real disappointment. I should also point what I feel is a fundamental deficiency in their approach to maragarita making: they re-use the shaker ice by seriving it in the cocktail. I'm very particular (but not nearly as much as people who are really into cocktails) about using fresh ice in a glass, rather than using the ice from the shaker. The shaker ice has been warmed up and has given all that it's got. Throw it out and put fresh ice in the glass.
Hey whaddayaknow, I think we even ate some food.
The guac. I remember back on 1st Ave, they'd roll that little guac cart up to your table, and ask you how spicy you wanted it, and you'd sit there and watch the guac show, telling the nice fella to add more jalapeno, or less cilantro. Good fun. And good guac. In Hackensack, the guac cart seems to be sequestered to a spot by the bar. No fun. Unless that was just the bar guac guy, and there's another, roving guac cart, and the bar doesn't get the roving cart. I didn't go into the dining room to make this determination one way or the other. (Update: The Bergen Record review confirms there's a roving cart for you dining room diners).
Our guac arrived with unripe tomatoes (I don't recall tomatoes in the guac at 1st Ave, but I could be wrong). They did nothing for the guac. They have no real flavor. They're just introducing water, and an unattractive pale red color. The guac was also grossly under salted. After some thought, I realized that the chips were incredibly salty. If you take food and put it on a salty chip, the food is going to taste under salted, and that's what happens here. If you load up the guac with more salt, you're probably going to end up a with a salty mess. So, bring your own chips.
The Alambere a la Mexicano was just as good as I remembered it from 1st Ave. Grilled beef tenderloin, grilled chirzo, grilled serrano, rice, and a red and green sauce. Still an awesome dish. Simple. Effective.
The menu also included some suburb-friendly items like beef/chicken enchilada and tacos. The tacos were actually quite decent. They're small so you can get a bunch of them. Pork, chicken, and beef, on a soft torilla. Each dressed a bit differently. Squeeze the lime on 'em, drop some sauce on, and down the hopper they go. I'll order these every time, just because I can.
The place looks very festive, as these places tend to look. That color scheme really gets you in a party mood. Bar dining is relatively comfortable, and the bartenders are well equipped to handle your and your meal. And they have hooks under the bar for you purse. This, I'm told, is a very good thing.
If you order right (small plates, tacos, tamales, a single entree for two), you can get out of there for not a lot of money, and have some pretty darned good food. I was actually shocked when I saw the bill. Very reasonable, given the quality of the food, the atmosphere, and the tastiness of those frozen margaritas.
I'm sure with some arm-turning, guidance, and subtle coercion, you can get a proper margarita on the rocks as well. I'll definitely go back to find out and let you know how that goes over.