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In Harvard Square, the Painted Burro is a stylish replacement for the Border Cafe

Yucatan meatloaf at the Painted Burro in Harvard Square.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Where to: The Painted Burro in Harvard Square.

Why: For Mexican food, including fairly priced margaritas, in the old Border Cafe space.

The backstory: “I’d always identified Harvard Square as a place I wanted to open, and it’s really hard to get spaces there. They don’t come available very often,” says prolific restaurateur Joe Cassinelli, who runs Posto in Davis Square, Burro Bar in the South End, and the Painted Burro in Brookline, Davis Square, and Waltham.

When the Border Café officially closed in 2021 after a fire, he says, landlords from Harvard University cast about for a local tenant and approached him about moving in. He had big shoes to fill: Tumbling out of the smoky Border dining room after too many margaritas was a neighborhood rite of passage, right up there with Scorpion Bowls at the Hong Kong.

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The Tex-Mex restaurant had lots of memories and some structural problems, too.

“We stripped the building to the brick,” he says.

Burro churros at the Painted Burro.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

The décor’s different now. The old upstairs dining room was a study in gaudy kitsch. The new space is muted and stylish, with murals from Medford artist Raul Gonzalez. And no need to stumble toward the downstairs dining room, either. Now, there’s a backlit staircase leading to plush booths and a gleaming bar. There’s even a ladies’ room fully stocked with toiletries and mints, 1950s steakhouse style.

What to eat: Cassinelli says that he lowered prices at all of his Painted Burro locations after talking to employees about cost of living increases everywhere from grocery stores to gas stations. Now, most dishes are under $20, and cocktails are about $10.

The upstairs bar at the Painted Burro in Harvard Square.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

“I don’t want to call it a social experiment, but my thought is: If I lower the prices and do [more] volume, then it works out,” he says. “I shopped my vendors really hard and said, ‘This is not working. You need to find some deals and put the pressure on, or I’ll find someone who will.’ And they stepped up.”

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The Burro’s signature Yucatan meatloaf ($18) is a husky slab of spicy sirloin, ground chorizo, and ham with flecks of green olives and toasted almonds; it’s satisfying on its own, but a shroud of cheesy grits and two over-easy eggs don’t hurt. Get two tacos plus rice and beans for $15, ranging from the classic (sirloin steak, grilled chicken) to the whimsical, like heirloom squash with cranberry sauce and Brussels sprouts. Our table’s textural favorite: a juicy short rib “double stack” rolled in both a soft and crunchy corn tortilla. Pork and beef albondigas are served with a smoky, slurp-able adobo sauce ($13); kale and plantains ($7) need a little pop of salt, but scooping them up with the Burro’s thin, crackly house-made tortilla chips — sold in bulk at the front — solves that problem.

Vegetarians, take note: There’s lots to love on this menu, from grilled corn slathered in cojita and spicy mayo to Buffalo cauliflower tacos.

“Half the menu is vegetarian, and we can make the other half vegetarian if people want,” Cassinelli promises.

At the Painted Burro, “half the menu is vegetarian, and we can make the other half vegetarian if people want."Lane Turner/Globe Staff

What to drink: Cassinelli lowered his classic margarita prices from $14 to $9; they’re zippy and strong. Non-purists can explore raspberry, matcha coconut, mango pineapple, and more. The cocktail menu stretches beyond margaritas to include a warming Sailor’s Warning, a froth of rye served in a coupe glass topped with thyme and blood orange puree (look out for stray orange zest, though). There are also virgin strawberry margaritas and mojitos for underage explorers fresh off a trip to the Garage.

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The Burro Cadillac, matcha coconut, and Feria de las Flores at the Painted Burro.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

The takeaway: A welcome, if more sophisticated, local replacement for a neighborhood institution.

Outside the Painted Burro in Harvard Square in Cambridge.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

32 Church St., Cambridge, 857-259-6455, www.thepaintedburro.com


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