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When Rosa Mexicano opened in Manhattan in 1984, its festive, upscale atmosphere and cuisine put to shame the greasy Tex-Mex that passed for real Mexican at the time. A generation later, small Mexican restaurants have opened all over the tristate area. While much of Rosa Mexicano’s food is very tasty, it no longer seems adventurous.
At the chain’s nine branches, the menu is nearly identical. The recipes are the work of the chain’s culinary director, Susana Trilling, a Texan of Mexican heritage who runs a cooking school in Oaxaca, the cradle of Mexican cuisine. Trilling’s recipes are classic, but the vibrancy of true chili heat gets lost in translation.
The Hackensack branch—the chain’s first foray into New Jersey—has been slammed (restaurant lingo for packed) since it opened last August. Executive chef Joseph Preziosi, 34, a lifelong resident of Weehawken, has worked at La Caravelle and Bouley Bakery in New York and at Rosa Mexicano’s Lincoln Center venue. He can certainly cook. But his creativity, he told me, is restricted to creating novel dishes like tropical haroset with bananas for Passover in April.
A probable (if usually brief) wait for a table is best passed at the long, handsome bar, where bartenders patiently describe their trendy margaritas’ arcane syrups and liqueurs. To me, these can taste sugary or synthetic; an excellent Mexican beer like Negra Modelo is a surer thing.
Rosa Mexicano’s spacious, high-ceilinged main dining room has wooden slab tables, chili-pepper accent colors, and folkloric animal sculptures. The 130 seats are configured mainly in booths and tables for four or more that often include a burbling (or wailing) little diner in a high chair. While a 35-seat rear room is more subdued, Rosa Mexicano is not a boîte for romantic tête-à-têtes. The noise level is high: A waterfall tumbles down a blue-tiled wall, mashing the din into sonic guacamole.
Speaking of which, many meals here begin with chunky guacamole prepared tableside in traditional Rosa Mexicano fashion and served in a lava-stone bowl called a molcajete. The guac is one heat level fits all; when I asked the guacamolista to spice it up, a busboy delivered a plate of whole jalapeños. The guac was pleasant but no better than the earnest homemade Super Bowl variety.
Apart from calorie-conscious salads and grilled fish, Rosa Mexicano’s menu offers good, crisp chips and almost a dozen botanas, or appetizers. Restaurants these days like to call first courses “small plates”; Rosa’s portions were not just small but tiny. Decent quesadillas, empanadas, and tacos vanished in three or four bites, and a zarape de pato, or duck tortilla pie, resembled a single open raviolo.
More satisfying was queso fundido, a Mexican fondue, usually made with gooey Oaxacan white cheese, but done here with Chihuahua cheese from Mexico’s north-central state. It bakes firm rather than (my preference) runny, but is laden with one’s choice of delicious crabmeat, pork, or crumbled chorizo sausage.
A generous entrée of Angus beef tablones, or boneless short ribs, one of the restaurant’s bestsellers, had rich, marbled texture and a flavorful chipotle sauce. Chef Preziosi braises the beef in a mild chili mixture, then sears it, lending it a smoky tang.
Even better was chamorro, an enormous pork shank braised in a sauce that contains a splash of tequila. The inside stays moist while the outside is panfried for crispness.
I could not bring myself to try the silly revisionist jalapeño rellenos stuffed with lox and cream cheese. I had no authenticity issues, however, with Rosa Mexicano’s earthy tamales—cornhusk-wrapped cornmeal cakes—but they came to the table barely warm.
So did main courses. Five of six entrées arrived lukewarm and were sent back. This was forgivable the month the restaurant opened, but when it occurred again a month later on a relatively calm Sunday night, it bespoke a significant service problem.
Delicate crab is no match for robust Mexican seasoning; little surprise that it made for several uninspired dishes here. Crab enchiladas came across as timid crêpes. Roast chicken and shredded beef shared a spicy brown mole sauce that failed to capture the complexity suggested by its Oaxacan brew of chilis, fruits, nuts, and chocolate.
Cacao, once worshipped by the Aztecs, fulfilled its promise in a fudgy chocolate estallido, the only dessert I found worth the indulgence.
Rosa Mexicano is a formula restaurant. When things are going right in the kitchen, the formula can work, but I wouldn’t want to try my luck at 7:30 on a Saturday night.