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Once the hottest Mexican restaurant in New York City, a revamped Rosa Mexicano makes a play for suburbia

It’s the latest big-name arrival at the Burlington Mall.

Chile relleno with black beans, quinoa, roasted corn, and watercress in roasted tomato chipotle sauce with Mexican rice at Rosa Mexicano in Burlington.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Where to Rosa Mexicano.

Why For Mexican food from a well-known — and revamped — chain.

The backstory Rosa Mexicano opened on Manhattan’s Upper East Side in 1984. At the time, it was glitzy and glamorous: a sleek new place for guacamole mashed tableside and bracing margaritas, run by respected restaurateur Josefina Howard, who helped to popularize regional Mexican cooking for a wider audience.

“Rosa Mexicano eschews the leaden and starchy cliches of most Mexican restaurants in New York and attempts to serve what Mexicans really eat. It’s also one of the few such places where you will not wish for a stretcher to carry you home after dinner,” The New York Times declared back in 1986, when many servers at the Burlington Mall’s Rosa probably weren’t born yet.

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Guacamole made tableside and served in a Molcahete with tortilla chips and roasted tomato salsa at Rosa Mexicano in Burlington. Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Rosa’s new culinary vice president, Manuel Trevino, says the brand stagnated over time. Ownership changed; the pandemic took a toll; the menu veered toward Americanized dishes.

“Not much change had come to the brand, and there was really no excitement behind it. If you ask anybody who knows the brand, they’ll always say the same thing: ‘Oh, I remember Rosa, I used to eat there. I haven’t been there in so long,’” he says.

Now there’s an overhauled menu and more locations, including one in Boston.

“My goal was to make Mexican food the way it should be made. I am Mexican-American; I grew up in a Mexican household. … The best food in Mexico is usually in someone’s home. We wanted to bring that kind of homeyness to the restaurants,” Trevino says.

Rosa is the latest New York-based restaurant to open in Burlington, joining Parm and Shake Shack.

Dining area at Rosa Mexicano in Burlington. Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

“The Burlington Mall … is almost starting to become a culinary destination,” he says, a statement that would likely shock anyone who came of age at their food court circa 1995 (me).

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What to eat The menu here is much different than at the perennially packed, slightly cheaper Border Café across the street, which specializes in Cajun and Tex-Mex and whose atmosphere recalls a summer camp dining hall. (I say this with love.)

Here, guacamole is prepared tableside by a server with a flourish — sometimes aided by young diners, by request. It’s creamy and rich, mixed to your desired spice level and augmented with extras like bacon, crabmeat, or grilled pineapple. Also good: velvety queso (add chorizo if you like) over ultra-thin, super-salty chips. Rosa is also known for their enchiladas, tightly rolled and liberally sauced. Try the trio: nutty mole poblano; red guajillo chile; and bright, fresh tomatillo salsa verde.

Camarones Diablos, with crispy shrimp, chile de árbol sauce and cool avocado ranch sauce at Rosa Mexicano in Burlington.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

There’s also an interesting twist on the classic chile relleno, typically a battered roasted poblano pepper stuffed with Oaxaca cheese. Here, it’s lighter and presumably healthier, filled with quinoa, black beans, and corn, topped with a tangle of watercress, all in a fiery chipotle sauce. It’s satisfying, but I also missed the ultra-cheesy, ultra-greasy version.

If you’re visiting with a group, try the parrilladas: a sizzling mixed grill with all the protein your heart desires: red chile chicken, grilled chorizo, jumbo shrimp, and more, alongside stuffed jalapenos, vegetables, guacamole, beans, salsas, and hot corn tortillas.

Spicy cucumber margarita made with Jalapeño-Serrano-Infused El Jimador Blanco tequila, fresh cucumber juice, lemon, and a chile salted rim at Rosa Mexicano in Burlington. Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

What to drink: Rosa has always been known for its margaritas (mango, pomegranate, blood orange), especially the spicy cucumber with jalapeno-infused tequila, cucumber juice, and a chile-salt rim. Sadly, my version was watered down, encumbered by an ungainly hunk of cucumber. It also lacked the promised rim. Better: the agave-heavy Mezcalrita, which arrives at the table smoking atop a layer of dry ice.

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The takeaway: The service here is fast and thoughtful. When my son’s Sprite tasted like seltzer, an apologetic server quickly whisked it away and warned off another table from ordering soda. When we needed the check, it was produced instantly with an understanding that we were headed to a movie down the street. The food aspires to sophistication, and there’s lots to explore on the menu (ceviche, birria tacos served with consommé for dipping, shrimp in chile de árbol). If they up their margarita game — and finish off their patio, which was under construction when I visited — it soon might be easier to get a table at Border.

75 Middlesex Turnpike, Burlington, 781-352-9190, www.rosamexicano.com


Kara Baskin can be reached at kara.baskin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.