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April 3, 2011

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Passover fare gets Mexican flair

DO salsa and gefilte fish mix? They do if you're Howard Greenstone a "nice Jewish boy from Jersey," who is CEO and president of Rosa Mexicano, a small chain of upscale Mexican restaurants.

The idea of offering Passover-themed food came up seven years ago when some of Greenstone's investors, who are from Mexico, began talking about the tradition of Jewish culture in Mexico City.

"I thought it would be great," says Greenstone. "I grew up eating Eastern European Jewish food - not the highest flavor profile you'll ever find."

Working with his chef at the time he developed a menu and "people loved it. It was pretty amazing."

According to the National Jewish Population Survey, two-thirds of US Jews hold and/or attend a Passover seder, the ritual meal that marks the beginning of the Jewish holiday.

Restaurants serving kosher-style food like Rosa Mexicano wouldn't be suitable for the 21 percent of US Jews who keep kosher, according to the survey. But its menus do make use of traditional ingredients while avoiding things such as mixing meat and milk or serving leavened bread.

The Rosa Mexicano menus also follow guidelines for Sephardic Jews, the Jews of Spain, Portugal, North Africa and the Middle East and their descendants against those for Ashkenazi Jews, the Jews of France, Germany and Eastern Europe and their descendants.

A key difference is that during Pesach, or Passover, which begins at sunset April 19 this year, Sephardic Jews can eat corn and rice.

Going out to eat during Passover is popular, but finding a certified kosher restaurant open on Passover can be tough, says Elan Kornblum, publisher and president of Brooklyn, New York-based Great Kosher Restaurants Magazine, which deals only with fully kosher restaurants.

To get certification for Passover, a restaurant has to be strictly supervised by kosher authorities and follow a number of labor-intensive procedures, including blow-torching the surface of the ovens to remove any food residue from before the holiday. The handful of restaurants in Manhattan that are certified are "just slammed" during the eight days of Passover.

While few restaurants go to those lengths, kosher-style meals seem to becoming more popular, offering items like matzo ball soup and brisket for people who want to get the feeling of the Passover meal. "This is, for them, a connection of Passover," he says.

On the menu at Rosa Mexicano restaurants this year (in New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Atlanta, Miami and New Jersey) there'll be corned beef flautas with a spicy mustard salsa verde. "I'm sure whether you're Jewish or not there will be lots of folks that will try it," says Greenstone.

Another option, brisket baked in a banana leaf and stuffed cabbage. In this case the stuffing will be salmon and it will be served with a Veracruzana sauce, a traditional Mexican sauce made from tomatoes, capers, olives and jalapenos.

Or how about a pickled herring salad? "We're shaving jicama really thin, like a little round taco and we put homemade pickled herrings on top with a green bean pico de gallo."

"We like to have some fun with it and we like to showcase some Jewish foods, authentic Jewish foods with a little bit of a Mexican twist," says Greenstone.


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