By Stephen and Kate
We had blogged at our other blog about the lunch experience of La Zona Rosa.
As you can read, we were not unhappy with the lunch experience, but neither were we thrilled. So after a number of crowded and stealthily-expensive lunches, we finally decided to check out dinner at La Zona Rosa (2838 Zelda Road).
As a bit of a preface, know that both of us have considerable experience with Mexican food from living in Texas, Los Angeles, and the Southwestern U.S. We aren’t snobs, but (unlike many of the Mexican places we’ve found around Alabama) we do know the difference between salsa and a flavorless tomato product resembling ketchup. And we’re immediately suspicious of any place that lists queso on the menu as “cheese dip.” And we can be very exacting about what we expect from guacamole.
All of which is to say that although we have left several lunches feeling nonplussed, we left our recent dinner quite convinced that La Zona Rosa is one of the best Mexican restaurants in town. There are a few others that enter the highly-competitive running for the title of “best in town,” but the dinner experience at La Zona really is outstanding.
There are a couple of things that set La Zona Rosa apart.
First, there are the pupusas. We thought we knew most of the main dishes in traditional American-style Tex-Mex (or even New Mexican) cooking. So we were surprised to see a menu item that was unfamiliar to us. Turns out, the pupusa is sort of an El Salvadoran version of the empanada — an item with which we are well acquainted. And that’s when you realize that there might be a little more going on at La Zona Rosa than at your typical cookie cutter Mexican place. We don’t know the owners and/or chefs, so we can’t say why there are Salvadoran foods on the menu, but one of the types of pupusas offered (as you can see for yourself on their dinner menu) is Loroco, which is evidently an edible flower (note this 1990 article from the journal, Economic Botany). We wanted this A LOT. Unfortunately, they said they didn’t have them when we ordered them. Unclear on whether their absence reflects a permanent removal from the menu, or merely a temporary shortage. Nonetheless, the bean and cheese pupusas are outstanding and highly recommended. They are doughy discs of bean and cheesy flavor.
Second, we’re talking plantains. While they are sweet enough that you might want to save them for dessert, they are also warm and hearty (without being greasy) and so good that you’ll want to eat them as a part of your main course. Two people can split an order, but you’ll feel a twinge of regret if your dining partner spears the last one on his or her fork and consumes it. They are transcendent and make the ordinary banana look like bitter mush by comparison. They come with delicious beans. Speak reverently of them. Must. Order. Plantains.
Third, there was an outstanding fish taco. Now, lots of places might have a fish taco on the menu, but instead of keeping them simple and true to their Baja style roots, too often, people will pour on a ton of condiments and flavor sauces and drown the taste of the fish in sour cream and lettuce and excess tortilla and sometimes even cheese. No, no, no. La Zona Rosa gets it right. Here, the fish taco comes out wrapped in foil and is an exercise in spartan simplicity. Open it, squeeze the lime over it, maybe a few shreds of lettuce or tomato, and you can almost imagine that you’re at the beach. The fish is seared just right. And it’s cheap. I’m getting two next time.
Fourth, there are the fajitas. Opinions were split as to whether they surpassed the high bar set by the fajitas at Los Vaqueros (which, oddly, include green beans and English peas). La Zona’s fajitas are more traditional (green peppers, onions, etc.) and come out on a sizzling platter. They aren’t greasy, come with ample tortillas, and are seasoned just right so you taste the vegetables and not the vegetable oil. There’s also enough for a full meal for two.
Fifth, we are happy to recommend the Banda Mexicana. We have never heard of this oddly-named menu item before, but we have been spoiled by the “top shelf” guacamole they make by the side of your table out at Los Cabos. We weren’t psyched to order pureed avocado mixed with sour cream, but were delighted to ravage the big bowl of avocado mixed with pico de gallo and lime juice that is the Banda Mexicana.
Sadly, the margarita we ordered was just not that good. Sure, we didn’t get the top shelf one. Which is stupid, and we know better. But this thing wasn’t strong at all and tasted of margarita mix. Not good. Lesson learned.
The whole meal was reasonably priced. The atmosphere was far from formal (any time you have gigantic flat screen TVs on the wall, you feel like the food is competing with Fox News or some sporting event) and the service was great. In a city where many people see Mexican cuisine as a sidebar to drinking on Cinqo de Mayo (or a professionalized version of “taco night” at home), La Zona Rosa is one of the gems of Midtown.
Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with a dog, a cat, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.