There's a colorful and catchy theme that goes beyond the decor at Rosa Mezcal, the new Mexican restaurant in the Lower Garden District. Tortillas aren't yellow or the familiar pale shade of white corn tortillas; they're bright turquoise. And in many instances they're filled with items such as cream cheese-stuffed jalapenos, grilled pineapple spears, mezcal-glazed red snapper or tart strips of nopales, the prickly pear cactus.
It's not a traditionalist's joint, and it's not Tex-Mex, although there are obligatory vats of queso, plates of nachos and chili-glazed hot wings.
The restaurant is owned by Omar and Dulce Lugo, who run the Mexican spot Habaneros in Covington, which they opened in 2014. The menus at both restaurants are more or less the same, featuring a loose theme of urban–inspired Mexican dishes with a hodgepodge of appetizers, tacos and a few entree-sized plates.
The restaurant is waiting for a liquor license, and there's a lengthy list of botanas, or snacks, that would be well suited to soak up a margarita or two.
The meal's precursor features warm, salty tortilla chips served with a mild tomato salsa that tastes faintly of smoke. Mixed seafood ceviche is tucked inside a hollowed-out coconut shell, topped with pico de gallo and fat wedges of avocado and served with tortillas. Tart squares of pineapple, toasted pepitas and a sprinkling of Tajin, the addictive Mexican chili, lime and salt powder, add dimension and flavor to the lively dish.
A play on esquites, the traditional Mexican street snack, is served in a miniature cast-iron pot. Corn kernels are submerged in a slightly spicy buttery sauce, topped with red chilies and dotted with queso fresco. The dollop of mayonnaise floating on top looks off-putting but adds a rich kick that balances the bracing spice and lime.
Anchoring the menu are the restaurant's creative and unorthodox signature tacos. The servers — a friendly, accommodating bunch — eagerly push the Vaqueros taco, a version on warm blue corn tortillas with plump shrimp wrapped in thick strips of bacon. The shrimp are tucked into a nest of fried shoestring potatoes and topped with thick, coffee-colored barbecue sauce — a sweet and smoky medley.
Less successful is the carne asada, a tough and overly seasoned version of the classic dish. Soft, grilled onions were the saving grace of the plate, which also include a mound of sauteed nopales, which were salty to point of being inedible.
Traditionalists will find comfort in the creamy refried black beans and tomato-flavored rice, a fluffy and mild accompaniment, though a bit bland. A side of chicken tortilla soup also is mild-mannered, tasting much like the childhood cold and flu-season staple but carrying the bonus of a cap of melted cheese.
The playful menu is matched by the space's bohemian ambience and funky wall decorations, including colorful glass lanterns, bright murals, decals of Mexican wrestlers and a skeleton wearing a sombrero and hot pink shawl riding a bicycle.
The centerpiece — a brightly-painted, refurbished Econoline truck which functions as a bar — looks stranded while the restaurant is BYOB, but it's easy to imagine that the atmosphere might change significantly once a liquor license is secured. The playful nature of the restaurant's current menu begs for a margarita in hand.