Si, señor & señorita! Mexicali Rosa’s is no more – in Ontario, at least.
That is what The Waffle found out as he brought his familly to the establishment formerly located on Clarence Street, which is now called Feleena’s Cantina. (No link to Feleena’s on Bank that I can see.)
Rebranding? Upscaling? Another failed Market adventure?
I was curious, and since we still wanted Mexican-style food, the name-change didn’t deter us. We walked in a little before 2PM looking to enjoy the Mexican-fare and the air conditioning on this hot Sunday of July. The place was empty, which made for great, friendly and attentive service throughout our time there!
We were greeted by a sign that announced that the changes may only be cosmetic at this point. “Different name, same great taste” it said. Well, Mexicali has never been a high-end establishment, so we would have to judge for ourselves if that statement is a good or a bad thing.
The first Mexicali Rosa’s opened in 1979 and soon became a popular franchised chain of casual resto-bars serving Mexican-style food with Texas and California influences.
At one point, Mexicali Rosa’s had about 30 establishments, having expanded from it’s Ontario-base into Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. In each restaurant, you could find a relaxed and familiar atmosphere and decor of a franchise, but at the same time without it being all the same. The formula was quite simple and quite unique, and Mexicali was the largest Mexican-themed restaurant chain in Canada.
In 2002, the franchise company was sold, and what was once a very solid franchise started to have problems. Indeed, towards the end of the decade, the number of Mexicali Rosa’s restaurants had been reduced to half of what it was. “The franchise company misallocated its resources…” analysed Jon Bryan in 2009, when he abandoned Mexicali Rosa’s and transformed his Peterborough restraurant into Johnny Eh’s.
The downturn continued to this day: ”There are no Mexicali Rosa’s left in Ontario,” replied our server when we questionned him. “The head office was sold, and we changed our name about 10 days ago.”
And indeed, Mexicali Rosa’s on Bank St. is now simply known as Rosa’s (photo, right). In North Bay, you now have to go to Habanero’s, in Perth to Mex & Co, etc. The Head office, which once was located in Carp, is now in Moncton.
The decor of Feleena’s Cantina is exactly the same as it was under Mexicali’s banner. The menu looked very similar to what it once was. Well, that is not surprising, is it? Nachos, Quesedillas, Fajitas, Tacos, Burritos, Enchiladas, Chimichangas… But the truth is that they’ve even kept the names of the dishes, and most likely the recipes: you’ll still find the Outrageous Chimi, the Mexican Flag, the North of the Border section with it’s Ranch House Burger, the Big-as-your-head Burrito, etc.
Mel was looking at the Mexican Flag Enchiladas until I pointed out that the Gorditas looked interesting. A flour tortilla and Pepperjack cheese wrapped around a corn tortilla and filled with either beef or chicken. Taco Bell inspired more than Mexican inspired, perhaps? Sounded like it, as a real gordita is more like a stuffed corn cake. Nevertheless, Mel was intrigued, attracted by the idea, so I didn’t point out that this was most likely a Taco Bell invention.
Mel couldn’t decide between the beef or the chicken, and since Feleena’s Gorditas come in pairs, our server graciously offered one of each kind as an option. Done.
One thing is certain, they may have been Taco Bell inspired, but they were much bigger. One was filled with taco beef and cheese, garnished with tomatoes, lettuce and topped with red salsa. The other one was stuffed with lightly-spiced chicken and cheese, with the same veggies but this time topped with a green salsa. I’ve got to admit that I was impressed by that variation, a lot of places wouldn’t bother.
To taste, both gorditas were ok, nothing extraordinary, but it was good enough. The corn tortillas were crunchy, which was nice. The flour tortillas were a bit soggy here and there, which is too bad. When able to bite into the tortilla as intended, you were getting a nice combination of texture: soft bread, melty cheese, crunchy taco, tender meat. But they need to rethink their presentation: by putting them on a bed of lettuce, you only create steam and you make the tortillas soggy. Same with putting them on top of some of the re-fried beans. Lack of attention to detail, or a lack of understanding of physics, damaged their overall honest effort.
As for the sides, the rice was a tad overcooked and a little bland, but inoffensive. The beans were topped with lots of cheese, and as it is custom is lots of Mexican-like restaurants, it was more of a bean paste than beans.
For my part I ordered a bowl of their Texas Red Hot Chili. Along with the Con Carne and Vegetarian, the Red Hot was a staple of Mexicali’s menu. To accompany its bowl of chili, Feleena’s Cantina offers either tortilla chips or garlic bread, the latter of which I chose.
The bowl of chili arrived piping hot, having just been broiled to melt the cheddar topping the chili. It had a nice, dark red color, a great aroma – very appetizing. The chili itself was mostly made of nice chunks of beef, fairly big, braised with onions, chiles and spices. The meat was tender, hearty.
The chili had a nice thickness and a rich flavour. There was a little heat to the dish, but nothing that I would qualify as Red Hot. Perhaps the Red is for the colour and the Hot is for the temperature! I ate the chili with enthusiasm, the garlic bread was good, nicely toasted, though it could have been more garlicky.
It was an enjoyable chili, though I thought the portion was a little small. Thankfully, I knew Mel wouldn’t eat all of her food!
Feleena’s Cantina will not revolutionize the Tex-Mex cuisine, but it was as good as Mexicali’s ever was. There will be better days than others, but if you get in at the right time, you will get enough bang for your pesos.