WITH SIX, YOU GET CHIMI

Ah, the Fourth of July. A time to celebrate our independence, our history, our united state of ethnic diversity. What better way to commemorate the melting pot that is our nation than to visit one of the Valley's Mexican-Chinese (or Chinese-Mexican) restaurants?

No doubt you've passed one or two of these hybrids in your travels on our city's roadways. Signs advertising this odd combination of cookery stand out. Mexican and Chinese food at one restaurant? Too weird, you say. It can't possibly be good.

But think of it this way. You say Mexican. He says Chinese. You crave a green chili burrito. He wants moo shu pork. Now, instead of calling the whole thing off, your conflicting culinary desires can be satisfied in one location--and I don't mean the food court at the mall.

La Rosa Mexican, Chinese and American Restaurant doesn't look polyglot. Instead, it looks like a typical Mexican restaurant. Wall decorations range from sombreros and serapes to black velvet paintings of conquistadors. The lattice-back chairs are made of dark, carved wood. Chips and hot sauce are promptly brought to the table.

But wait a minute. Our waiter looks Asian. And our menu is split into two sections: "Chinese" and "Mexican and American." In the kitchen we learn there are two chefs: one who cooks Chinese and one who cooks Mexican. It's anyone's guess who cooks the American offerings--a hamburger, cheeseburger, club sandwich and BLT. Maybe the Mexican chef cooks them; after all, they are on his side of the menu.

What we do know for certain is this: Mexican food is served all day at La Rosa, but if you want won tons, be sure to come during weekday lunch or any night after five o'clock. Apparently, the Chinese chef has a contract stipulation for afternoons off. Smart guy.

It is lunchtime when my dining accomplice and I pull into La Rosa's parking lot. We decide to tackle our assignment in this manner: One of us will order Mexican, the other, Chinese. Gracious host that I am, I give my accomplice first choice. He picks Chinese, selecting something from the luncheon combination specials. I order a regular Mexican combination. We munch on chips and spicy-tart hot sauce and sip our sarsaparillas.

Both of our combinations come with soup. Well, let me amend that. I should say, both of our combinations are supposed to come with soup of the day. My albondigas arrives promptly, but my accomplice receives nada.

Forget what I said about being gracious. After reminding our young waiter about my accomplice's absent soup, I begin spooning mine. My accomplice understands. We both agree there's nothing worse than tepid soup. The albondigas contains two pink meatballs in a chicken broth loaded with chopped celery and carrot. I like it.

I'm scraping the last of it from the cup when our waiter swoops out of the kitchen with our entrees. I remind him again about the missing soup. He gives me a quizzical look, nods and walks away. I am sure he will bring the soup in a minute.

I am wrong.
When it is clear that no soup is forthcoming, I motion our waiter over. It is still early. The lunch rush hasn't begun. There are only two or three other tables of diners in the restaurant, some in shorts and tank tops, some in long-sleeve shirts with pocket protectors and beepers. "Excuse me," I say. "Isn't he supposed to get soup with his meal?"

"I'm sorry," our waiter apologizes. "I'm new at this. Let me check for you." He disappears into the kitchen. Moments later, he is back at our table with a cup of steaming egg drop soup. I'm glad I persisted. The egg drop is very good, thick and hot and topped with chopped green scallions.

My combination platter, which is not a luncheon special, is hungry-man size. It consists of a fluffy beef tamale in red sauce, a cheese and onion enchilada, a shredded beef hard-shell taco, overly moist Spanish rice and average beans. I prefer my tamales dense and low to the plate, served in the husk or with the husk imprint clearly visible. La Rosa's tamale is quite meaty and too cloying for my tastes. The best thing on the plate is the enchilada. The rolled tortilla has texture; the cheese filling is nice and sour.

My accomplice's Chinese luncheon special is not nearly as daunting in size. On a regular round plate are two fried won tons, an egg roll, fried rice and garlic chicken. The egg roll is decent--not too greasy, not too hard. I like the spicy, yet vaguely sweet, garlic chicken enough to order it again. The fried rice and fried won tons are strictly standard fare.

Which is how I would summarize La Rosa. No matter which side of the menu you choose, you won't be disappointed--or wowed. The Mexican food here is basic meat-and-cheese-heavy Arizona-Sonoran style. In this regard, the Chinese menu might have an edge. Though it's hard to be conclusive after sampling a lunch special, I think the garlic chicken has potential.

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