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Tia Amigos

Bigger is better at Rancho de Tia Rosa.
Erik Guzowski

The story of Rancho de Tia Rosa, a handout compiled by owners Dennis and Lizabeth Sirrine, spans six pages, single-spaced. While the restaurant just opened last spring, its lore supposedly goes all the way back to the turn of the 20th century, when Pancho Villa rode into colonial Juárez, Mexico, and demanded that its people, including Dennis' grandmother, "leave town or die."

Grandmother Rosa figured leaving was the better option, so she did, making a new home in Tucson. There, she introduced Arizona native Dennis Sirrine to the cooking of her homeland. He was smitten with the food, and later met and married Liz, who shared his dream of opening a restaurant. The sacrifice came from the heart, the story says. To make the restaurant work, the Sirrines labored a grueling 16 hours a day, seven days a week.

Zzzz. This teary-eyed nostalgic tale has been told, in one form or another, since the dawn of marketing. Usually, though, the vignette doesn't require so many pages to unfold. And it's rare to see that included in the legend are 24 -- count 'em, two dozen -- brothers and sisters, as Rosa proclaims to have brought with her. But then again, the Sirrines aren't taking a traditional, sleepy approach to their new restaurant. Rancho de Tia Rosa is a stunning operation, a Type-A eatery if ever there was one. With almost obsessive attention to intricacies, it's worthy of such romantic overload. Given the restaurant's incredible ambiance, and the kitchen's focus on from-scratch preparation, it wouldn't be out of line to see the Rancho de Tia Rosa story issued in hardback sometime soon.

The Sirrines could save a lot of paper by letting people know just one thing: They are the couple that founded Mesa's immensely popular Rosa's Mexican Grill. Since opening in 1991, Rosa's has been showered with rave reviews and awards, lauded for its creative application of fresh ingredients. The kitchen uses no chemicals, preservatives or lard and offers an impressive selection of low-fat dishes.

Looking for larger space, the Sirrines sold Rosa's in the spring of 1999. Rancho de Tia Rosa, while maintaining the same philosophy and many of the same menu items as its original, has evolved as the prettier big sister.

Make that much bigger, much prettier. The four-acre layout here is boggling, a horse pasture converted to a mini village of sorts along a nondescript stretch of McKellips. Nighttime brings sparkling white lights, draped on every inch of the trees lining the entry gates, and blazing atop the walls and roofs of the property's buildings, courtyards and garden walls.

It's a complex anchored by the main restaurant (a 7,000-square-foot castle), and a 1,500-square-foot takeout taqueria. Courtyards wrap around the restaurant, brimming with flowers in riotous color, the pots cozying up to kivas licking flames into the chill night air. The crowning touch: a backdrop of gardens and greenhouses -- organic fresh produce is grown on-site, fertilized by compost created from kitchen leftovers.

The flagship restaurant took two years to complete, and a step inside shows why. This decor would be insane if it weren't so jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Stained glass crawls to soaring ceilings, crisscrossed by hand-painted wooden beams and elaborate chandeliers. Walls are mosaics of texture and treatment, ranging from exposed brick, to paint in shocking pink and blue, to white stucco laced with straw. Crazy quilts of tile are everywhere, a kaleidoscope design on saltillo floors, half-walls, tabletops and a full-service bar.

Found among the flurry: bouquets of dried chile peppers, blazing chile pepper lights, sconces in the shapes of dragons, Mexican portraits, tile murals of Mexican landscapes, blinking beer signs and ceramics. In honor of the holidays, the Sirrines wiped out a Christmas store, cramming every available inch of the huge foyer and main dining room with brilliantly decorated trees, wreaths, garlands and enough lights to rival Times Square. For extra stimulation, the place throbs with the beat of rowdy mariachi music. It's so beautiful I want to move in right now.

Less cacophony can be found -- Rancho de Tia Rosa has two private dining rooms, each with private fireplaces and courtyards. They're pretty, but not nearly as much fun as dining in the heart of the hopping hacienda.

Given the surroundings, a fantasia menu seems a given. The menu is surprisingly restrained, however, even in its design, printed as it is on a boring legal-size sheet of 20-pound bond, a half-page of which is dedicated to liquid concoctions.

And how refreshing -- offerings are inspired but not nuts. Dishes are different enough to command attention, but no so weird as to encourage pushing food around on plates in an attempt to figure out what in the world is being served.

One of Rosa's most popular items is the "flying saucer," and it lands again at Rancho de Tia Rosa. It would seem like appetizer fare, basically a gussied-up tostada, but don't be fooled. It's listed as an entree for good reason. The thing is enormous, the size of a personal pan pizza, and so heavy with toppings it takes two hands to lift the plate. It's also a mess, but a good one, the crisp tortilla groaning with whole pinto beans, lettuce, salsa fresca, chunky guacamole, sour cream and shredded cheeses, plus a choice of beef, pork or chicken. The Sirrines aren't concerned about portion control, given the massive amounts of meat lumped on.

And they're not cutting corners with quality -- pork and beef are marinated in fruit juices, herbs and spices, slowly oven-roasted, then charbroiled. Chicken bathes in mild red chile sauce for an hours-long rendezvous with the oven.

The beauty of the marinade shines in the carnitas, chunks of pork roasted for 10 hours, charbroiled, then shredded. The spices imbue depth to plain pig, imparting almost a smoky tone, though I miss the crispy edge found on other versions of carnitas. Grilled vegetables are welcome partners, the red and green bell peppers and onions sliced thin, skewered and charbroiled to a blackened crust and soft interior. A pull of pork, a slip of vegetable, a slather of creamy refried beans and a spoonful of moist orange-colored rice, and a tear of flour tortilla becomes a satisfying bundle. Carne asada shows equal success with beef, marinated in 12 spices, then oven-roasted for as many hours.

The extras make all the difference in pan-seared chicken, the on-its-own, ho-hum bird glazed with a riveting ancho chile-peach sauce, the breast splayed over heat-infused chipotle creamed potatoes. Sides include red grapes, a fat slice of cantaloupe and mildly spicy corn sautéed with green chile. Another chicken dish gets deft treatment with mole, a vibrant, thick soup of six varieties of chiles, 22 spices, herbs, nuts, fruits and chocolate. The intense, earthy blend is ladled over the meat and spiked with toasted sesame seeds.

The Rancho chefs rely on quality of ingredients, rather than heat level, for impact. That philosophy shines through in grilled pork, gently blanketed with an adobo chile rub and red-chile chutney that, while fiery, lets the fine meat hold its own. It's the garden-green freshness of spinach that carries enchiladas espinaca, mantling creamy green chile sauce over tortilla pockets gorged with the juicy leaves, onions and piñon nuts.

Rancho also owes its success to balance. A pineapple-avocado salad sounds dangerous, and in the wrong hands, this firm-mushy/tart-sweet/fatty marriage could frighten even the hardiest diners. Here, the poppy-seed dressing avoids a sugary trap, the red leaf lettuce and purple onion plate a model of complementary style. Chicken mango salad also avoids sugar overload, thanks to a self-confident chile-chutney dressing.

Sweetness can be found in the shrimp Mazatlán, the crustaceans basted with honey butter and herb marinade, served over Spanish rice with grilled pineapple, bell peppers and onions. Even so, it's not annoying, just a worthy rendition of classic Baja-style mariscos.

Rancho's taqueria aims for a more casual crowd, focusing on tacos, burritos, enchiladas, quesadillas, chimichangas, tamales and cheese crisps. Takeout's obviously the theme, although there's also sit-down seating, with much of the same boisterous decor of the primary place.

And this taqueria isn't your normal takeout, instead offering innovative presentations of grilled salmon tacos dressed with orange-mango salsa, or shrimp tacos with pineapple salsa. The taqueria sells salsas by the jug, and they're worthwhile explorations of nine mixes not found in most restaurants. The mango salsa counters sweet with habanero, while the pineapple tops off with red bell pepper and green onion.

The Sirrines want people to know that Rancho de Tia Rosa is a work in progress. They are planning a banquet center, a college of cooking classes, a gift shop of Mexican artifacts and hosted tours of regions in Mexico.

But wait, there's more . . . enough to fill at least a half-dozen pages. . . .

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