When you eat a quesadilla from Roland’s, the char comes off on your hands. Parts of the tortilla have blackened in the wood-fired oven, which rages in the open kitchen. After you eat your first slice, you'll feel a graininess on your fingers. Look! It’s smeared bits of char. They give you the look of someone who has been etching figures with charcoal drawing sticks.
There is a humble vitality to the food at Roland’s. Getting grainy char on your hands reminds you that cooking is an ageless process, one that channels natural elements, like fire and water. Roland’s, like Chris Bianco’s other endeavors, never feels far from ancient cooking methods, from the earth.
At Roland’s, you can eat a quesadilla with mortadella, the northern Italian meat sliced thin and chunked with blocks of fat. This quesadilla marries the Bianco influence with that of Nadia Holguin and Armando Hernandez, the Tacos Chiwas crew who co-own Roland's with Bianco.
What's unusual and a little hypnotizing about this quesadilla is that you don’t really notice the mortadella. You don’t really notice the red onion or the cilantro. What steals the focus – and how many quesadillas can say this? – is the fragrant cooked flour tortilla base.
It has crispness and softness. It has them in the right proportions. It has a lot of structure, as if thousands of fine gluten networks are yielding, with a little rebellion, to your bite.
The flavor of the wheat, fragrant and a shade husky from the char and the primal influence of wood smoke, somehow shines through the rest. Sure, the mortadella brings some of its mellow umami flavor, but you get the meat more as a texture, as nice warm fat. The scattered pink rectangles meld with the milky ooze and pull of the stringy, melted cheese.
The description of this dish looks a little highfalutin on paper. Mortadella and cilantro? Come on, man! But the end product is way more calculated and understated than anyone would expect.
The cheese is asadero – Mexican to go with the Italian meat. A tight fan of sliced avocado sits in the middle. A tin of roasty green salsa with an assertive burn gives the option to add velocity. The quesadilla is leaf-thin. Slices of it vanish warmly and quickly.
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A cocktail would seem to be too sophisticated for a quesadilla so simple. But check out Alyxandra McMillan’s menu. Her low-ABV Lunchadore keeps Amaro Montenegro, reposado tequila, lime, fino sherry, and thyme in intricate bright orange zones of flavor. They are sophisticated, yes, but anchored by so much runaway orange. A golf ball-size ice cube clinks as you sip, making the glass tremble against your ashy hands.
The Roland’s crew isn’t chasing the neon-cocktail-white-washed-teetering-cookie-topped-milkshake-avocado-toast-tube-lighted trends. Nope. Not at all.
What they’re chasing here is the opposite of trend: something more eternal. This quesadilla and some of the other simpler plates at Roland’s channel a kind of deep, primal satisfaction —one rounded out with tasteful, minimal flourishes. The flavors of simple food cooked with fire, of unpretentious food close to the earth, will be in high style forever.
Roland's Cafe Market Bar. 1505 East Van Buren Street; 602-441-4749.
Tuesday through Thursday 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 8 a.m. to midnight; Sunday and Monday 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.