Thank god for the avocado. It means that at any new Mexican restaurant, there will be something good to eat. The synthetically silky, preternaturally green guacamole of yore is becoming a rarity. Increasingly, the stuff is made tableside in a molcajete, the traditional mortar and pestle, with nothing but onion and cilantro, maybe lime and some chilies, and the blessed avocado, ripe and buttery.
At Rosa Mexicano, the newly opened South Boston branch of a New York-based franchise, just about everyone orders the tableside guacamole. (The restaurant says it was “among the first, if not the first, restaurant on either side of the border” to prepare it this way.) Servers push carts from table to table, mashing together ingredients with individual style — from stoic automaton to animated narrator of the process. Whatever the spirit in which it is made, the guacamole is, invariably, delicious. And rather filling.
This is good, because most of the food at Rosa Mexicano is mediocre, from soggy fries tossed with mole to esquites, a runny, too-sweet dish of grilled corn with ancho chile, cheese, and crema (shrimp and truffle oil optional), to the enchiladas de mole de Xico. The mole sauce hails from Veracruz, but this isn’t how it tastes there, according to a friend who spent time in the region; true to form or not, spicing and flavor are out of balance.
In several dishes on executive chef David Suarez’s menu — such as tasty vegetarian tacos topped with roast zucchini, asparagus, the corn fungus huitlacoche, and pickled cabbage — the restaurant makes a point of featuring vegetables from Sparrow Arc Farm in Maine. (The menu doesn’t say which vegetables exactly.) It’s a laudable regional touch, yet more often Rosa Mexicano’s food feels mass produced. Fish tacos feature “line-caught crispy local fish” that does a fine job of mimicking fish fingers. A chicken tortilla pie is the sort of unflubbable dish one might whip up for a last-minute dinner — corn tortillas layered with chicken and a whole lot of cheese. But it has the texture and temperature of something that’s been nuked too long, curling at the edges, the chicken dry, the cheese bubbling madly: flubbed.
Generally, however, if it comes on a tortilla, it’s a better bet. Tacos with scallops, pork belly, and orange-habanero salsa are a clever riff on bacon-wrapped scallops. Enchiladas suizas are smothered in a bright green, creamy tomatillo sauce. In the world of enchiladas, the dish doesn’t stand out, but its flavors are a pleasant mix of bright and comforting.
Pescado pibil features red snapper smothered in a satisfying if cumin-heavy red-brown sauce; the fish is cooked perfectly. And braised short ribs feature a heavy char on the outside, tender meat, and a smoky, warm sauce that combines tomatillos, tomatoes, and chipotles. Entrees come with rice (chewy and undercooked) and excellent, rich black beans.
Rosa Mexicano has a tropical feel, with a bright, blue-tiled water wall studded with white statues of divers, and plenty of hot-pink accents. For dessert, churros come in a little pink bag to match. Servers shake the bag to distribute cinnamon sugar among the crullers. This time the tableside theater fails to impress — the churros are raw and gooey inside. If you’re drinking, try a signature frozen pomegranate margarita for dessert instead, like a boozy snow cone that’s not too sweet. The same can’t be said for the mojito de coquito, a vile concoction that includes coconut tequila. The beer cocktails known as micheladas mostly just taste like beer; the La Unica margarita, made with reposado tequila, is a better bet.
For the gluten-intolerant, Rosa Mexicano has a separate menu, a considerate offering. During a meal here, however, we experience numerous mixups, receiving different drinks or dishes than the ones we ordered. This might be enough to make someone with serious food issues nervous. If sometimes disorganized, servers are mostly eager and congenial.
Opened in May, this is the 14th branch of Rosa Mexicano, which debuted in New York in 1984. The restaurant appears to appeal to the masses — it is often full, with a long wait for those without reservations (told 45 minutes one night, we are seated two hours later). On a weeknight, it seems we may be the only locals in the house; we are surrounded by parties still wearing name tags from conventions and parents with children clutching souvenirs from the aquarium. On a weekend, Rosa Mexicano seems to be a favorite gathering place of 20-something women wearing brightly colored skinny jeans or party dresses that blur the line between edgy and preppy. Maybe they come for the margaritas and the guacamole. Maybe they come because they’ve been to better branches of the restaurant in, say, New York or Miami. Maybe they’re disappointed. The Boston branch has some work to do if it wants to live up to the Rosa Mexicano name — never mind rise above the many other upscale Mexican restaurants in the area.Devra First can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.