A label should accompany the menu at Rolando’s, the new restaurant in Hot Springs across Central Avenue from the Arlington Resort Hotel: Warning, some food objects may be hotter than they appear.
We can promise you, a few may look tame on arrival, but there’s fire in dem dere dishes. Be wary of that when you’re scooping up all that delicious, perfect-for-the-warm-weather corn-and-black-bean salsa with the homemade chips. Ditto for the creamy guacamole, which arrives so innocently with four large reddish-orange corn chips propped in the middle of the bowl.
That tender tilapia grilled with capers? It’s really smoking, thanks to a spiced-up batter. But don’t worry: For those not daring, Rolando’s can also steer you to a few tamer items.
Rolando’s opened a few weeks ago in the former location of Hot Springs’ Faded Rose. When we contacted the Faded Rose main office in Little Rock about their closure in the Spa City, they offered a good-luck wish to whoever took over the spot. So far, it looks like Rolando’s is charmed.
A happy bunch of folks grouped around several tables were having a good time when we arrived on a rainy night, the kind that would keep a lot of people home. The friendly waitstaff came to us immediately with chips and salsa and a variety of drink choices. The wine list wasn’t long, but it had one reasonable gem in the Geyser Peak chardonnay, and that Napa, Calif., wine sufficed for our small group.
Rolando’s is the first spin-off of a successful restaurant in Fort Smith owned by Rolando and Sherri Cuzco — Rolando is a native of Ecuador; Sherri is from Prescott. “I was a private investor in a restaurant and ended up marrying the chef,” Sherri told us. She moved to handle the business end of the Hot Springs restaurant and Rolando, who is also an aspiring artist, sent the chef he trained in Fort Smith to cook the same recipes Rolando had perfected at the original location.
Though there are the obvious Mexican influences with guacamole and enchiladas and the like — prerequisites for most Latin-flavored restaurants in Arkansas — the flavor is predominantly Cuban and Caribbean. “This is the kind of restaurant you’d find in South Florida,” Sherri Cuzco said. “We use Cuban black beans in a lot of dishes. We have a lot of rice. We’re a Latin restaurant with Southern hospitality.”
Those Cuban black beans, corn, onions and red and green bell pepper make up a tasty salsa to start things. Our appetizer plates of handmade tamales and Techas’ taquitos were drizzled with red and brown chipotle sauces and tomatillo sauce, as well as a thin sour cream mixture. On our way out the door, we noted the Goya adobo seasoning containers, predominant in Puerto Rican and Cuban chicken, pork and fish dishes.
The tilapia (listed as Pescado de Mesias on the menu) was the night’s star — and that’s what the waitstaff will tell you is the most ordered dish. The grilled fish has a light brown batter of tequila-and-caper sauce. The three filets and a good helping of beans and rice made up a plate big enough for three people.
So, another word of warning: Don’t fill up on basket after basket of chips and salsa waiting for the entrees (though our wait on this night was a little long).
A restaurant won’t make it selling great tilapia alone, though, and Rolando’s prepared several other entree choices well on our visit. The Camarones Bohemios were perfectly cooked shrimp in a lime and tequila sauce with other herbs and vegetables. Lulu’s enchiladas were a spicy blend of chicken, cheese and corn tortillas with a tomatillo sauce. We also ordered the souped-up, dinner-size plate of quesadillas (the regular quesadillas also come as appetizers) with goat cheese and green vegetables and topped with an Argentinean sauce. You can add chicken to the quesadillas, but the goat cheese was scrumptious.
Yes, there’s dessert, and all the choices have a Caribbean flair. Rolando’s Bananas Heaven in a Bowl — bananas and ice cream — fell short of Bananas Foster, since it lacks the rum-and-brown-sugar potency of that famed dish. The better choice this night was the key lime cheesecake, devoured by our foursome in four quick shark-like attacks of the fork. Key lime ice cream, mango cheese cake and a couple of chocolate temptations sound like worthy choices on our next visit.