April 26, 2013 Updated: April 30, 2013 at 2:50 pm
Palmer Lake is a small town with a lot of restaurants. The histories of, and connections between, them all mimic a William Faulkner novel: One needs a family tree just to keep track of who started where and worked with whom.
Take the B&E Filling Station, which was a local favorite from its opening in 1996 until it became Folie a Deux for a few months in 2011. But 2013 saw new life in the quaint, cozy space when La Rosa Southwestern Dining opened in January. This collaborative effort involves people from The Villa, the B&E and some assistance from O'Malley's down the road.
You might well ask if it's worth driving to Palmer Lake to eat at La Rosa. The answer is an unqualified yes. The charming restaurant with a tiny bar in the front and simple wood tables in the rest of the space offers a warm welcome to everyone seeking fresh, homemade Mexican food.
The La Rosa menu isn't huge, but great care has been taken to offer a well-balanced variety. In addition, they have an extensive offering of gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan items. Both the red and green sauces are made without meat. The green lets the pure flavor of roasted green chilies shine through, smoky and tangy. The red sauce hits the perfect note, deep and earthy but not too heavy. This divine concoction lifts dried, soaked chilies to new heights with the simple addition of onion, garlic and a touch of oregano. Both sauces have a medium level of heat.
I did notice that the vegetarian dishes rely heavily on a combination of onions and peppers accented with mushrooms. I hope that as time goes by, a little more variety will start to appear. More mushroom content would liven up the flavor and texture, as would the addition of zucchini or summer squash when they come into season.
We were greeted during a lunchtime visit with a basket of warm, lightly salted tortilla chips and a bowl of fresh and chunky salsa. The two dominant ingredients, black beans and diced tomatoes, were enlivened with onion, green onion, corn and cilantro. It was so good we decided to sample the guacamole ($7), which was creamy but with chunks of avocado, and flecked with tomato and onion. Neither dish is very spicy, but the focus on simple, fresh flavors makes them delicious.
The plate of two ground beef tacos ($8) was almost more than one person could eat. The two soft corn tortillas held juicy beef topped with crumbled cotija cheese and a fresh crunchy cabbage. On the side came more of the black-bean salsa, a scoop of the guacamole and some fresh crema to personalize the tacos to your taste.
The tacos, along with the other entr?s, come with rice and beans. Before you yawn, you should know that these are way better than the standard fare. The beans are slow-simmered, fresh-tasting pintos, not refried. The fluffy rice has a nice tangy, tomato flavor. Both are a nice complement to the dishes, whether cooling your mouth after a spicy bite or soaking up some of the delicious sauces.
For long-suffering vegetarians, you now have reason to rejoice. Vegetarian tamales ($9) are a regular menu item, not something you have to special order. The masa dough encases a flavorful blend of onions, peppers, mushrooms and beans. The enchiladas ($9) come with a similar filling, either rolled or stacked in chewy corn tortillas. If you can't decide between red and green sauce, ask for 'Christmas, ' and you'll get half red and half green.
My dinner experience at La Rosa was less fabulous than lunch, but still very good. The house margarita ($8), which was served in a highball glass, was fairly nondescript.
There may be a wider variety of margaritas available, but I wasn't offered a list or a drink menu.
The Fish Vera Cruz ($17) was sea bass that night, and the flavor was outstanding. The lightly saut?d fish was juicy and moist. The pan sauce of tomatoes, peppers, onions and capers - instead of the traditional olives - was brightened by the addition of fresh lemon and lime juice.
The Chicken Mole ($15) was less successful. The mole sauce itself is a finely tuned blend of flavors that doesn't lean too heavily on any one element. It also avoids the bitterness that can plague rushed or unskilled mole makers. The sauce was so good I'd probably eat it on toast in the mornings if I could. But the underlying chicken was disappointing: It was dry, and because La Rosa serves the chicken breast quarter with the wing attached, it was awkward to eat. The tension of trying to remove the wing without sending the entire piece of chicken skidding off the plate was unpleasant.
The Ribeye Fajitas ($16) are as pretty to look at as they are to eat. The generously sized steak was grilled to a perfect medium, per order, and plated on a bed of saut?d onions and red and green bell peppers, which sent richly perfumed steam into the air as it was served. In addition to rice and beans, this came with fresh cabbage, pico de gallo, the wonderful guacamole, tart crema and soft, warm flour tortillas.
For dessert, the Tres Leches cake ($6) is a dream come true for your taste buds. The presentation - sliced strawberry and apple - is visually stunning. The cake is moist and dairy-sweet, with a hint of caramel. The dollop of whipped cream on top is lightly flavored with orange and rum, sending this dessert completely over the top.