Bread and Circuses

March 2019 View more

What follows is a short list of things one is unlikely to encounter in most of the eateries operated by the veteran Francesca’s Restaurant Group (including the company’s two long-standing Italian outlets in Naperville):

  • Complimentary headwear
  • A Technicolor cocktail featuring floating hibiscus petals served in a glass the size of a fishbowl
  • A wisecracking animatronic donkey mounted above the bar (think of an equine version of Billy Bass)
  • A three-pound entrée that can be enjoyed for free if eaten in less than 12 minutes
  • A cowboy mannequin using a mock urinal—in the women’s restroom

But all of the above figure prominently in the colorfully distinctive scene at Fat Rosie’s Taco & Tequila Bar, the second incarnation (after the original in Frankfort) of the Francesca’s take on a Mexican street festival. Far removed from the white-tablecloth-and-candlelight aesthetic of La Sorella di Francesca a few blocks away and Francesca’s Passagio in south Naperville, Fat Rosie’s—named for a portly burro (no body-shaming on that third basket of chips and salsa here)—is clearly meant to evoke a party as much as a meal.

Fiesta, Forever
Snugly and raucously situated in a compact space just west of North Central College (a spot that formerly housed one of the casualties of Naperville’s Great Neapolitan Pizza Wars), Fat Rosie’s wears its good-food-and-good-times atmosphere proudly and unapologetically on its brightly colored sleeve. There should be no misunderstanding: This is not the place for your quiet, romantic dinner for two … unless, of course, said intimate plans generally include sombreros and tequila shots.

Fortunately, though, the Francesca’s folks didn’t forget their commitment to the good old-fashioned Italian ethos of top-notch hospitality and quality cuisine when they decided to hop continents and concepts. Because for all of the over-the-top decor and exaggerated focus on fun, it’s clear that the Fat Rosie’s crew is very serious about turning out Mexican classics that are anything but a joke.

Takin’ It to the Streets
The aforementioned three-pound burrito aside, the star of this show is the humble taco—the ultimate Mexican street food, here crafted to be hand-size and elevated by a wide variety of tasty options and occasionally unexpected ingredients (crispy cauliflower and tomatillo jam, anyone?). But with tastes that lean toward the standards, I eventually found myself staring down the power trio of an excellent al pastor, a formidable carne asada, and a solid pescado (battered and fried on this night). If I had to play favorites, the al pastor was the clear leader of this band, with just the right balance of juicy pork, grilled pineapple, crunchy onion, and fresh cilantro.

Branching out a bit further on the menu beyond an order of the housemade guacamole (which we naturally felt compelled to sample, and was a bit heavy on the lime, but otherwise quite good), we also shared an order of the chicken enchiladas in a dark, rich mole. But fellow entrée choices like the tempting torta cubana and salmon poblano would have to wait for another visit, as we were reaching capacity—not near enough, however, that we were willing to pass on dessert. Because who passes on dessert at a party?

On this night, that meant a one-two punch of chocolate cake with vanilla flan, and a plate of dense cinnamon-sugar doughnut holes that should, at some point (if there’s any justice in this world), go head to head against the greasy sugar bombs they’re bagging over at Empire for the title of Best Way to Blow Your Diet in Downtown Naperville. I’m not sure if I ever fully warmed to that singing donkey over the bar, but she would have had to insult me personally and viciously, by name, repeatedly, to get me to walk out on the al pastor and those doughnuts.

Photos courtesy Fat Rosie’s