Big news! The new Roca Mexican Grill at Trace Fork is now open.
Even bigger news? I went during its grand opening week. Twice.
The very day after a presentation to Charleston’s Vandalia Rotary Club — during which I told them I never, ever review a new restaurant until it’s been open at least a month or so — I found myself breaking my own Food Guy rule.
Then I did it again, two days later.
I maintain I had no choice, though. After finding myself in a car full of hungry teenage boys, I made the mistake of letting them pick any restaurant they wanted to go to. I was outnumbered on both occasions, so Roca won.
But I’m glad it did.
During my 25 years of critiquing restaurants, I’ve learned time and time again that you should never go to a new restaurant the first day, week or even month it opens.
It’s crowded. They’re overwhelmed. Service is often glacially slow and subpar. Food has not been finessed yet. The list goes on.
You’re just usually not going to get an accurate picture of what experience the restaurant will ultimately offer, so I like to let them ease into business. Give them a chance to work the kinks out.
If they’re having the same problems several weeks in, however, then I feel the criticism if fair game. (And I’ve been following a few other “hot” new restaurant openings the past few months that I’m afraid aren’t going to fare as well.)
But Roca, to my pleasant surprise, was ready.
The new building is gorgeous, inside and out. Service has been extremely attentive and friendly. The food has been solid and, in some cases, really delicious. And to many of the critics I’ve heard out there, the menu and décor are NOT just like every other Mexican restaurant around.
Sure, we had to wait for a table. Yes, there were moments when things seemed a bit chaotic and you could tell servers were in the weeds. But each time, I witnessed a manager or additional servers pitch in to quickly restore calm, which was a pleasant — and unusual — sight to see. Color me impressed.
Besides that preparedness, what should you expect when you visit?
First, you’re not in TGI Fridays anymore. The building that once housed that chain has been transformed into a modern Mexican bistro with sophisticated flair. They’ve really done a wonderful job re-doing the space.
Second, the menu is a little more diverse than you’d expect. You’ll find traditional tacos, enchiladas, fajitas and such, but they’re alongside creative dishes featuring grilled chicken, tons of seafood and unlikely fruits and vegetables like zucchini, squash, broccoli, carrots, corn and pineapple.
We were super impressed with the tender and flavorful thin-cut carne asada ribeye; the shrimp enchiladas, with creamy Saltillo sauce and cilantro rice; and the fajitas marinas, a sizzling platter of perfectly grilled shrimp, scallops and a large piece of fish with vegetables, pico de gallo, guacamole and tortillas.
We also liked the sincronizada, a take on the traditional grilled steak and cheese quesadilla that comes studded with salty ham, and the pork carnitas shredded and mixed with tangy chili verde.
The shrimp chimichangas weren’t as heavy as most despite being fried, the Mexican rice is a little lighter and more vibrant than the usual, and even the spicy ranch dip that comes with your complimentary chips and fresh salsa is a unique touch.
Having shared all of this praise, though, I will balance that with a few cautions.
The chicken tortilla soup wasn’t bad, just not nearly as tasty as it was described and photographed on the menu, and I didn’t like the restaurant’s house margarita the first time I tried it.
I’d previously never met a margarita I didn’t like, but my first house version tasted too sweet and had no punch. I also didn’t care for its replacement, a Forbes Margarita with Don Julio, Grand Marnier, fresh lime, orange juice and agave nectar, even though it sounded like it would be awesome.
I did fare better with the hand-shaken Paraiso Margarita featuring Hornitos Tequila on my second visit and the house option I retried this time was much better. Different bartenders, I guess.
(And yes, that’s four margaritas over two visits, but who’s counting?)
You can also craft your own top shelf margarita from an array of premium tequilas, and there are plenty of other beers and cocktails, too. Including the signature Trash Can, a ginormous combination of gin, rum, triple sec, vodka, blue curacao and peach schnapps topped with a floating ... can of Red Bull.
Just say no.
We’ve yet to try desserts, which are mostly what you’d expect, but the apple-filled cinnamon-dusted churros are so going to be a part of my next visit.
I’m not saying this is the best Mexican place ever and that everything will be perfect if you visit. All restaurants — whether newly opened or established for decades — have bad nights from time to time.
But from food and décor to service and readiness, I’m fairly impressed with the new Roca Mexican Grill so far.
IF YOU GO: Roca Mexican Grill at 87 RHL Blvd. in the Shoppes at Trace Fork is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday, noon to 11 p.m. Saturday and noon to 9 p.m. Sunday. For more information, call (681) 265-5045 or visit www.rocasgrill.com.
Up next on my ever-expanding restaurant review list?Stay tuned in the coming weeks for long-awaited assessments of newcomers Books and Brews, Elements at The Quarrier Diner, Tin Box BBQ, Sokolata, Kobe Asian Fusion and oh, so many more.
I’ve been a very busy eater.