In this broad earth of ours / Amid the measureless grossness and the slag / Enclosed and safe within its central heart / Nestles the seed perfection.
In the case of La Rosa, that universal supremacy Walt Whitman pondered feels best realized by the carne adovada, itself a chili-seed-flecked marvel amid a sea of semi-slaggy renditions. The restaurant's New Mexico-style version of the lengthily marinated, slow-roasted pork differs from the typical Mexican version (usually spelled "adobada") in that it's cubed large, rather than pulled fine. It's also dressed up with restrained amounts of garlic, onion, oregano and cumin, and most importantly, constructed with sun-dried Hatch, N.M., chilies — those painstakingly procured directly from a farmer who co-owner Marina La Riva's brother vetted in person.
La Rosa's adovada is a lustrous sanguine-colored dish, its pasty chili heart pumping deep earthy flavors tinged with smoke and all the things we don't actually eat. Like sommeliers detecting "barnyard" in a wine varietal, we are drawn to the terroir unique to Hatch's soil and its green offspring.
And we are so taken aback by its soul-satisfying, medium-heat, tender, porky awesomeness, consumed with chopped onion and cilantro garnish inside pinches of lovely, fluffy flour tortillas (via New Mexico-based Bueno Foods), that after ordering one $4 bowl as a lunch appetizer and gleefully decimating it, we order another as a dessert following our tacos.
After all, you need not a sugary finish when desiring only to linger in the fading undertones of a savory course so exquisite and expressive of root-level, slow-and-low kitchen principles.
In the evenings the adovada joins rice and pinto beans in a larger portion for $14. Similarly, many other plates segue with up-sizes, gaining a couple of dollars in the case of the aforementioned tacos ($7 to $9 at lunch/$9 to $11 at dinner).
Each taco plate allows a mix-and-match of two tacos, and our cumin lamb, red rock cod (via Denver's Northeast Seafood), pulled pork and chicerones chicken selections arrived uniformly inside single soft corn tortillas that desperately need the backup of a second shell. The colorful construct of the meats under white cabbage chunks and carrot slivers with a fair dusting of queso fresco mostly falls apart after bite one.
That's true especially if you've further loaded the mass with dollops of house salsa verde (blended tomatillo and avocado), guacamole and crema Mexicana that come on the side with a small nest of spring mix, somewhat al dente pintos and mushy Mexican rice. (La Rosa's owners are currently searching for a better corn tortilla option and hope to make them in-house at some point.)
The chicerones, a fun spin on the typical pork chicharrón, were the best of the batch for the obvious guilty reason of being fried to a snack-food crunch, with a little salt. Our pulled pork was on the dry side and only redeemed by the fixings; the cod was nice and light with a lime squeeze. The lamb didn't really boast much cumin, bearing a general pot-roast flavor.
The excellent Caldillo soup ($3/$6) sports plenty, though, its pork also cut into large chunks along with white beans and potatoes whose starch provides the thickening (rather than flour). Green chilies deliver the depth.
Starter flautas ($7), your choice of meat rolled in corn or flour tortillas and fried crisp, are fresher than most, again because of generous garnishes (same as on the tacos) plus salsa verde. Our spicy jicama salad ($11) came in need of more cilantro vinaigrette, didn't bear any spice and was more of a salad with jicama than jicama salad, but the fresh mix of cucumber, carrot, radish, avocado and orange was pleasant.
Two chicken enchiladas ($12) could be three for the price but are appreciatively not drowned to a mush in sauce and cheese, like so many tend to be. Wonderful green chile — made up of just the chilies chopped with garlic and onion — on the side and crema Mexicana provide all that's needed.
Infused and suffused
At dinner we did sample the sugar, and both a flan and tres leches (cuatro leches actually, considering a lively orange-rum-infused whipped cream) were artfully presented and exemplary, if again a little steep at $6 each. Not-too-sweet agua frescas ($3) were bright with fresh lime, orange and pineapple essences. (Flavors change daily.)
And the fresh juiced, well-balanced house margarita ($7) spotlights organic Dulce Vida blanco tequila, stored inside an oak barrel at the bar that will likely see too much usage to ever age the product into a reposado or añejo — two options otherwise available solo or in tasting flights.
That dapper new tequila bar greets you in a room to the right adorned with vintage Mexican movie posters, while spillover seating fills the small waiting area to the left. In two central dining rooms, decorated modestly for a fine-dining feel, co-owner Mike Elliott provides attentive, informed service along with La Riva.
Look back at our Jan. 9 Side Dish column for further explanation of La Rosa's convoluted, collaborative ownership structure and those owners' desire for the restaurant to help reinvigorate Palmer Lake as a destination-dining locale. To achieve that goal, La Rosa of course must be better-than, something truly transcendent and worth driving for, something like the essence of that carne adovada — its soul embodying Whitman's universal perfection: "Electric, antiseptic yet, cleaving, suffusing all."