My wife and I were driving back from Chicago on a recent weekend trip into the city and we decided to take the long way home. I remembered a Mexican place that I really liked in the small town of Sycamore, IL by the name of Taxco. (Click here to read Road Tips' entry on Taxco.) Getting out of the western suburbs of Chicago and making our way to Sycamore via back roads, we pulled up in front of Taxco only to discover that they are closed on Sundays. Somewhat crestfallen and still hungry for Mexican food, we relied upon the GPS in my car to direct us to another Mexican restaurant. In a blind shot, I found a place called Rosita's in nearby DeKalb.
Since 1972, the Balli family has been serving Mexican food to the citizens of DeKalb and students at Northern Illinois University. The Balli's didn't start out thinking about running a restaurant. Luis and Beatriz Balli were living in Texas in the late 60's running a small grocery store. Beatriz was sort of locally famous for the foods she would cook for family and friends at neighborhood block parties. The Balli's had an opportunity to move north to work in strawberry fields and they left Texas in 1971. It turned out that their timing was off and the strawberries weren't ready. They needed to do something to make money in the meantime.
They were befriended by Anthony Fusaro, a professor at Northern Illinois who met the Balli's through an migrant ministry program at NIU's Newman Catholic Center. Seeing a need for authentic Mexican food in DeKalb, and considering that Beatriz was a very good cook, Fusaro helped the Balli's find a place for their restaurant and helped secure the proper local permits to get started. They found a small pizza place that had recently closed on the main drag through downtown DeKalb and they opened Rosita's - named after the Balli's daughter Rosa - in 1972.
The small restaurant - about 12 tables - was truly a family affair. While Beatriz cooked in the kitchen and Luis managed the business, their seven children were also working at Rosita's - the boys were clearing tables and washing dishes, while the girls were taking orders and serving food.
Rosita's gradually took over two other spaces next door and today the restaurant can seat up to 300 people. And 10 years after opening Rosita's, the Balli family opened another Mexican restaurant just down the street - Eduardo's - named after one of the Balli's sons. Today, six of the Balli children are still involved in the two restaurants using the same recipes their mother used when Rosita's was started over 40 years ago.
Rosita's is located on East Lincoln Highway in downtown DeKalb. (see map) We found parking in a municipal lot behind the restaurant and went in a rear door that actually appeared to be the main entrance as the cash register and hostess stand was just inside the door.
We were told we could sit anywhere in the spacious main dining area. We took a booth along the wall and soon thereafter our server - Claire - came over to drop off a couple menus. Claire was friendly and conversational giving us information on the restaurant and some of the foods they serve. They had Dos Equis Ambar on tap and I got one of those. It was served in a unique glass that had the shape that it was possibly hand-formed. Cindy ordered a margarita.
Off the main dining room is a small dining area. We were told that this was part of the original Rosita's when it opened in 1972. There is a small bar area in between the two spaces. Rosita's also has a private dining area that they have for receptions, parties, and other gatherings.
When Claire brought out my beer, she also had a bowl of salsa and a couple of small plates. Cindy was thinking some corn chips would go good with the salsa and she asked Claire if we could get some chips when she came back with her margarita. Claire said, "Oh, I'm sorry, you guys. I should have told you. We charge $1.79 for the chips." Cindy and I looked at one another with sort of an incredulous glance. Cindy said we'd take some chips and Claire went away to get them. It wasn't the $1.79 I was mildly pissed about, it was the inference that chips were part of the meal by bringing out small plates and salsa. It was like giving someone a razor and telling them that - oh yeah, sorry - they had to buy the blades.
Once we got past that, we concentrated on the menu. Actually, the menu at Rosita's appeared to be a step beyond your regular Mexican restaurant fare. Well, they had your regular enchiladas, burritos, fajitas and tacos, but many of the regular foods had their own signature flair. They had a burrito dish topped with a chili meat suace, spinach quesadillas were part of the appetizer part of the menu, one of the enchilada entrees had skirt steak for the beef, and they had a spicy chipotle entree with either chicken or beef. They also had a enchilada that was filled with potatoes, eggs, cheese, sauteed pico de gallo and salsa, then topped with two different types of cheese, a ranchero sauce and sour cream. Whoa!
I was sort of torn between a couple three things - they had sauteed white fish taco, and I'm a big sucker for good fish tacos. They also had slow-roasted pork tacos on the menu, and a shrimp chimichanga. But I ended up getting the tomatillo pork enchiladas - three enchiladas slow-cooked in a green tomatillo sauce, then rolled into tortillas and topped with the tomatillo sauce and Monterrey jack cheese. Rice also came with the enchiladas and - as a pleasant surprise - black beans were included in the meal. I much prefer black beans over refried beans.
The food was, well, it was just all right. I mean, it was sort of bland - more bland tasting that I expected from the description in the menu. The pork was tender and moist, but it was sort of "blah!" I guess I expected more of a taste sensation from pork being simmered in a tomatillo sauce. The black beans were a nice diversion from the normal refried beans that are normally served with most Mexican entrees, so that was a plus.
Cindy, too, thought her chicken enchiladas were just all right - sort of neutral in taste. We were sort of discussing the taste sensations - or lack thereof - we were experiencing and we just couldn't come up with anything that we thought was standing out. It was like they made the food not to offend anyone's taste buds.
We're sort of blessed of having a number of very good Mexican restaurants within a 10 minute drive from our home and we thought that Rosita's was a step below what we're used to. The other quibble - $1.79 for a basket of chips. I can't tell you the last time I was charged for a basket of chips at a Mexican restaurant. Oh, they'll bring out the salsa to tempt you into buying a basket of chips - at least the salsa was free - but you've got to ask for the chips. Still, the service we received from Claire was efficient and she had a pleasant personality. The restaurant was clean, bright and comfortable. Rosita's has been in business for so long that it's quite possible that the fine citizens of DeKalb are used to the neutral tasting Mexican food that is served there.