by Todd Abrams
Though it's fairly simple to locate a Mexican restaurant in metro Detroit, it's not necessarily as easy to get good Mexican food. After you get past the complicated question of authenticity there lie plates and plates of bland and forgettable fare with a side of beans and rice. But at Rojo Mexican Bistro in Novi they're skillfully mixing contemporary and classic Mexican dishes with an eye toward freshness and flavor.
This attention to freshness is most obvious in the guacamole appetizer. For $9, two avocados, onion, cilantro, tomato, orange juice, salt and fresh, minced jalapeño pepper to taste are combined tableside. What might be viewed by some cynical diners as a gimmick actually turns out to be the best possible guacamole you could want to start a meal without making it yourself. Other appetizers range from the classic melted cheese and chorizo dip (queso fundido) to fried calamari with chipotle sauce. Chips and salsa (including a side of habañero infusion) are shown on the menu as an available side but they were also served straight away with our glasses of water, gratis.
On the drinks menu, most of the thought went into the extensive list of more than 100 tequilas. The beer choices are generally standard Mexican and domestic brews. The majority of wine drinkers will find the wine list adequate if not particularly stirring. There are a number of specialty cocktails and margaritas, the latter available frozen or on the rocks. We drank our margaritas on the rocks, and, while quite tasty, they could have used a quick shake with ice before hitting the glass considering the premium ingredients going into them.
From the soup and salad menu comes a silky, potato-thickened cream of poblano soup. The sweetness of fresh corn superbly balances the mild spice and earthiness of the roasted poblano. These are the flavors of Mexico. Just as good might be the chicken soup with cilantro in a chile-lime broth. Salad choices are the ubiquitous Caesar or one topped with grilled fajitas, perhaps the most interesting is the chopped salad that includes hearts of palm, apples, green olives and Dijon-cumin vinaigrette. Both the guacamole and poblano soup came with large, deep-fried flour tortilla wedges.
Off the grill are a half-dozen dishes that wouldn't seem far-out in any contemporary American restaurant. Or choose from chicken, steak, shrimp or lobster fajitas. Of the 10 "Mexican classics," we tried the chile relleno. We've sampled stuffed, coated and fried poblano chiles in many a place, including Mexico City, and found that they are a fair indicator of restaurant quality as, more often than not, the dish is soggy and the flavors all run together. We give Rojo high marks for their preparation. The chile was fat with shredded chicken and cheese, the exterior crisp and fluffy, and the roasted tomato sauce bright. The chicken in mole sauce is also a good bet.
The huitlacoche quesadilla from the "Signatures" menu was earthy, full of mushrooms, the three-cheese blend inside creamy and reminiscent of warmed brie. Huitlacoche is an interesting fungus, also known by foodies as Mexican truffles (and by irritated Iowa farmers as corn smut); when cooked it is black and intensely flavored. Other signatures include fish tacos, Mexican shish kebab and ribs basted in a sweet and smoky chipotle barbecue sauce. Dessert was a Black Forest and tuxedo cake from a tray that also held lemon cheesecake and carrot cake. Both were good, but we can't help wonder why there isn't at least the choice of flan to finish a meal here.
Located at Fountain Walk, a bizarre "outdoor shopping entertainment complex" rising from the concrete parking lots at the corner of 12 Mile and Novi Roads, Rojo shares a similar exterior aesthetic with the surrounding establishments. Inside, unique, mixed lighting fixtures hang from the high ceilings. Earthy browns and reds predominate. A sleek blue lighted tequila display case near the center of the dining room contrasts with stone textures.
Suits and jeans seem equally at ease in the stylish atmosphere; though we did witness a man shoddily clad in gray sweats and sneakers being seated with his young family, we recommend you apply a bit more decorum because, frankly, you may feel out of place with such a highly trained and professional waitstaff serving you.
As is the case with many restaurants in this economy, Rojo recognizes people are looking for a deal. On Sundays, kids younger than 10 eat for free. Monday through Thursday, you can purchase a $25 food voucher and two tickets to the Emagine movie theater next door for $34.95.
Todd Abrams dines for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.