Rock n Taco: Hitting a Power Chord at Lunch

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Here's the thing about rockers (or, at least, the sort of rockers who are drawn to restaurants with cowhide upholstery and pink damask wallpaper): They don't wake up before noon.

That means Rock n Taco stays relatively empty until around 2 p.m., when a few spaced-out customers who like to start their weekdays with frozen daiquiris roll in. The Uptown taco joint—which tries so hard to be trendy it's a wonder the restaurant hasn't strained a style muscle—is considered a strictly nighttime destination by scenesters and wary workers from nearby offices, who are no doubt put off by the boudoir décor and website promise that "well-endowed eye candy will deposit you at a luxe table or booth."

That's too bad, because Rock n Taco's at its best at midday. While the glossy restaurant's unlikely to ever win over taco devotees who obsess about the right way to shred beef tongue, it serves an eminently decent $10 neighborhood lunch—albeit at a sloth-like pace that could be a deal-breaker for a few clock-punching eaters. Silly rock-inspired names aside, the tacos here all have at least a tangential relationship to authenticity: Even Rock n Taco doesn't have the cojones to plunk meatloaf or fried chicken in a tortilla and call it a taco. And some of the tacos—especially those made with swine—are far better than the restaurant's Iron Maiden-esque logo would lead anyone to believe.


Rock n Taco

Rock n Taco Corn on the cob $6 Guacamole $8 Chicken tortilla soup $5 Caesar salad $8 Carnitas $10 Picadillo $10 Fajitas $14 Rock n Taco $18 Sublime taco $12 Chicken enchiladas $10 Churros $8 Banana burrito $5

I'm not sure it's relevant that Rock n Taco appears to employ an almost all-Latin kitchen crew, since that's hardly a rarity in the food-and-beverage biz, and since skin color's no better a predictor of cooking prowess than one's feelings about, say, Don Ho, whose name's attached to a taco stuffed with pulled achiote-marinated roast chicken. But there are scattered clues on the restaurant's plates that someone of some ethnic background knows something about south-of-the-border cookery, suggestions that there's at least the specter of an honest taquería lurking about the sleek, pink-spritzed dining room.

Every meal at Rock n Taco starts with a serving of wobbly white corn chips, barely sturdy enough to swipe through an accompanying pair of salsas. There's a tomatillo salsa, pulsating with a citrus-peel tang, and an overly mild salsa roja. Both salsas are studies in diffused good intentions, their sophisticated ingredients undermined by an unappealing wateriness. In the end, neither sauce tastes like much; diners are likely to dip their chips indiscriminately until their appetizers arrive.

Rock n Taco's appetizer selection is slimmer than it appears: A server on my second visit told me the kitchen had struck the ambitious chili pepper calamari from its repertoire, leaving guests to choose from nachos, flautas, quesadillas and guacamole. Since the former seemed like tacos reconfigured and fried, I can only vouch for the guacamole, which reminded me of the pupa stage on the standard grade-school metamorphosis chart. There were outward indications that the snack was no longer a mere avocado—it was mashed a bit and pocked with little snippets of red onion and tomato—but it hadn't metamorphosed into full guacamole maturity. The appetizer was short on lime and hot sauce and seemingly devoid of salt. Still, as avocado canvases go, it wasn't bad: The avocado was terrifically fresh, and there was plenty of it.

The starter menu also includes queso flecked with roasted corn and ears of roasted corn basted with a thick coat of margarine, sprinkled with rust-colored cumin powder and strewn with cotija cheese crumbles. For eaters who like to fatten up their corn, there are ramekins of still more cheese and margarine blasted with what looked like chile powder. The corn looks pretty on the plate, but my serving was conspicuously mushy.

Befitting a restaurant looking to build a lunch rush, there's a soup and salad to be had. I much preferred the tortilla soup, stocked with tender bits of pulled chicken and willowy wedges of avocado. The soup's silky and restorative, as a bowlful of chicken broth ought to be. The heaping Caesar salad had a tangy dressing that would have worked better if the lettuce it was meant to disguise hadn't been limp and browning at the edges. I'll chalk up those aging issues to the hour, since Rock n Taco seems to disassemble after dark.

I visited Rock n Taco around 8 p.m. on a Friday, late enough that a going-out crowd had begun to congregate there, but not so late that I had to wedge my way through a bunch of flavored-margarita drunks milling about the street-side patio. But the restaurant seemed to be looking ahead to an exhausting night of bar service: Plating, which had been so precise at lunch time, was careless. Service, previously solicitous, became remarkably disengaged: I was twice served bottles of beer so warm that any handler not wearing gloves should have been able to sense a temperature problem. And my request for tacos without cilantro (hold your e-mail fire: I'm allergic) was not only ignored, our server watched me pick off the cilantro, sprig by sprig, without intuiting there was anything wrong with my order.

The food disappointed too: In addition to the wilting salad, dinner included a plate of badly burnt steak fajitas accompanied by overcooked rice and black beans with a distinct canned flavor.

Then again, it's best to stick with the tacos at Rock n Tacos. There's a reason the restaurant's not called Rock 'n' Enchiladas. The chicken enchiladas I sampled—at lunchtime, so there's no temporal excuse—were beautified by a zebra-patterned quilt of mole and sour cream but spoiled by an unpleasantly bitter mole that sent a lingering hit to the back of the throat. The enchiladas, densely packed with dried-out chicken, probably wouldn't have been much better without the mole.

If you know anything about Rock n Taco, you probably know it serves an $18 taco, a dish that's as much conversation piece as culinary achievement. The two rib-eye tacos look oddly swampish, loaded with muddy pureed black beans, hunks of avocado and tentacles of fried onions. The cubes of meat are buried beneath that morass, and there aren't quite enough of them to justify the price tag. The savory flavors make sense together, but my rib-eye was cooked to medium-well, ruining what tasted like a good piece of beef.

I had better luck with Rock n Taco's slow-cooked meats: The carnitas was supple and well-seasoned, and I could have eaten a full serving of the faintly sweet picadillo, a peppery stew of ground beef, onions and tomatoes. But the best taco I tried was the Sublime, featuring moist braised pork shoulder the color of pumpkin flesh, set against a crisp slaw of jicama and corn. The pork's juices, tropically exuberant, spilled across the plate. That taco sells for $12, and it's worth it.

Rock n Taco makes its own desserts, including churros and a banana burrito, which is pretty much churros filled with bananas. Both dishes were light and cleanly fried.

I understand why Rock n Taco might not be an obvious lunchtime draw. What sensible employee's going to corral a coed group of colleagues to eat at a restaurant that looks like a strip club and serves shrimp tacos that cost twice what a home-style Tex-Mex restaurant might charge for a similar dish? And really, I'm not suggesting workers race across the city to try it. But if my office was in Uptown, I wouldn't hesitate to add Rock n Taco to my lunch-spot list.

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