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Fiesta & Fizzle 

Roseangel's tacos show promise, but also a few early shortcomings

Long before Eric Williams retooled Happy Dog into an uproarious tubesteak bierstube, savvy operators were plotting to do the same with tacos. More than one local chef had been tracking available properties in the Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood, eager to stake a claim on the next big thing. The unbridled success of Happy Dog only shifted those pursuits into overdrive.

Credit Marlin Kaplan for winning the race. By partnering up with Rosita Kutkut, owner of the good-but-failing Latin eatery La Boca, Kaplan managed to jump to the head of the line. A few tweaks to the turnkey property at West 58th and Detroit were all it would take to get Roseangel up and running as Cleveland's first "modern taqueria."

Kaplan may have won this leg of the race, but he is far from winning the marathon. Since opening in early July, the restaurant has been pestered by issues relating to food, service, and operations — all likely the result of haste. While improvements are happening daily, many of those embarrassing first impressions continue to linger in diners' minds. When all is said and done, the final judgment likely will be reserved for the food, which at present is still a bit of a mixed bag.

However short, the ramp-up time clearly was long enough for Kaplan to imprint his trademark flair. Always an attractive space, the former home of La Boca and Snicker's was made infinitely more chic by the introduction of vivid crocodile-print wallpaper and striking black-and-white polka-dot tables. A corner entrance places arriving guests squarely in the lounge, a lively sunroom dominated on one side by the bar. An adjoining room offers a more peaceful setting away from the boisterous chatter and whirring blenders. Out back, a pleasant patio offers alfresco dining.

In these times of ultra-streamlined restaurant concepts — think hot dogs, grilled cheese, or burgers — it was only a matter of time until somebody landed on tacos. In addition to being a universal comfort food, they also happen to be super-trendy: Taco trucks, if you haven't heard, are hitting the streets in record numbers across the nation. Roseangel's menu is streamlined all right, offering nothing but tacos save for the starters and sides. But while constrained, the menu also is unnecessarily broad, with nearly 20 varieties of tacos from which to choose. There are multiple versions of pork, chicken, beef, seafood, and vegetarian fillings, complicating the decision-making process and almost guaranteeing duds.

Confusing matters further was the fact that our server neglected to explain how it all works. Tacos can be ordered on soft or hard shells (a salient detail omitted from the menu). The housemade corn tortillas are amazing: slightly thick, corny, and charred from the griddle. In contrast, the hard shells are dull and, on one visit, cool and stiff. At $4.25 a pop, the tacos are more than reasonably priced, especially considering the portion sizes. A three-taco platter ($11.75) sounded like a keen idea until we learned they all had to be the same. "Who wants three of anything?" my wife asked, echoing my thoughts as usual.

Tacos range from delicious to disappointing. In the former category are the hanger steak with crispy onions, battered perch with avocado cream sauce, and grilled shrimp with roasted garlic. In the latter is gloppy braised pork with onions and pineapple. Landing somewhere in the middle are the braised beef tongue, the duck confit, and one containing avocado and soy sauce. Most are so overstuffed with slaw and fillings that they are impossible to eat as intended. On two occasions we ordered a side of rice and beans ($3.50); on one of those occasions it arrived at the table hot.

Salsas, sold separately for $2.50, could all use refinement. Most are too sweet, containing more fruit than flavor. Few boast any real spice. Others are too chunky, too tart, or too odd. The guacamole ($7), served with house chips, is a winning starter, but the duck nachos ($12.50) left us scratching our heads. A cold stack of chips, shredded duck, tomatoes, sour cream, and unmelted cheese, the appetizer gives nachos a bad name. Meanwhile, a zesty chorizo corndog ($9) arrived hot and crisp on one visit, cool and spongy the next.

On a more positive note: Cocktails at Roseangel are lovely, particularly the sparkling white sangria ($6.50) and the margaritas ($7.50). The wine list is far too good for a taqueria, but the beer selection makes perfect sense.

It's true that operating a restaurant is more marathon than sprint. But both races require a solid start for any hopes of success. Here's hoping Roseangel reaches cruising speed soon.

Send feedback to dining@clevescene.com.

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