Rosa Mexicano will have a soft opening on Oct. 26, and the official opening date in West Hartford’s Blue Back Square is Oct. 31, 2022. [Updated]
By Ronni Newton
The menu is a feast for the senses, the interior is light-filled and airy with colorful accents of bright pink and cobalt blue, and while the brand is often credited as the seed from which the Mexican food craze in the U.S. began, Rosa Mexicano is anything but a stodgy business resting on the reputation it has cultivated since the first restaurant opened on New York’s Upper East Side in 1984.
The West Hartford location, at 51 Isham Road in Blue Back Square, has an official opening date of Oct. 31, 2022 (soft opening on Wednesday, Oct. 26) and is the brand’s first Connecticut location and first outside of a big city market.
Rosa Mexicano, while evolving, has also stayed true to its roots.
It was the mission of Rosa Mexicano’s founder, chef Josefina Howard, to share the cuisine of Mexico when she opened the first location and built a loyal following for the food, creative cocktail menu, and hospitable atmosphere, said CEO Jim Dunn. Josefina, who was born in Cuba and lived in Spain and Mexico before coming to New York City, pioneered the table side guacamole service for which Rosa Mexicano became known.
Tableside guac – listed on the menu as “Guacamole en Molcajete” – remains a mainstay of Rosa Mexicano, ordered by more than 90% of diners, Dunn said. It’s artfully prepared with ripe Mexican avocados, to the desired level of spiciness, served with freshly-made warm tortilla chips and roasted tomato salsa, and if desired available toppings include grilled pineapple pico de Gallo, bacon and cojita, or lump crab meat a la Mexicana.
Frozen pomegranate margaritas are trendy, but they’ve also been a Rosa Mexicano staple dating back to 1984. “Often imitated, but never duplicated,” Vice President of Culinary Manuel Trevino said. They’re available by the glass or pitcher, and headline a cocktail menu that features more than 100 varieties of tequila and mezcal.
Everything at Rosa Mexicano is made from scratch, Dunn said. And while most entrees are priced from $17-$28 diners get what they pay for. The quality is high and the portions are more than generous.
Dunn – who has grown brands such as Hard Rock Cafe, Smith & Wollensky, and 11 franchise brands in the Middle East – and Trevino both joined Rosa Mexicano about a year ago, with the mission to “contemporize the brand” as well as expand. A year ago there were five locations, and by the end of 2022 there will be 10. Five more are slated to open in 2024, including at Disney’s Dolphin Hotel; Charlotte, NC; West Nyack, NY; and a 12,000 square foot location on the strip in Las Vegas.
The interior West Hartford space, where Bar Louie opened in 2016 and closed in January 2020 amid bankruptcy proceedings, was dark, and Dunn said he was really pleased with the bright new look which is similar to updates they have made at the Ardmore, PA, and Burlington, MA locations, and will be rolling out at the soon-to-open restaurant at Pentagon City (Arlington, VA) and as well as other new locations. An already-colorful mural, created by Mexican artist Paty de Murga, will be further expanded to encircle the entire West Hartford space, where it offsets portraits of Frida Kahlo and other Mexican imagery.
Trevino, a Mexican-American who grew up in Laredo, TX, and has an impressive resume including an appearance on Bravo’s “Top Chef,” is putting his own contemporary mark on the food. “It’s Mexican food the way it should be,” he said. “I put a lot of my childhood memories into the food menu.”
You’ll find traditional Mexican offerings like nachos, tacos, and enchiladas on the menu, but all have a unique – and extra-flavorful – twist.
“Jim [Dunn] had challenged me to make a pasta dish,” Trevino said, and the “Camarones al Mojo de Ajo” was born. “It’s my favorite kind of dish, kind of like a hug,” he said of his creation which combines jumbo shrimp, chorizo, fideo noodles, avocado, and chile guajillo-lobster butter sauce.
While the flavor profiles have been born of Trevino’s childhood, they aren’t family recipes but rather all his own. “I learned how to cook because my mom’s a horrible cook,” he said with a laugh, noting that he was “a fat kid who loved to eat.” Trevino’s father could grill, but did most of his cooking late in the evening when he got home from work, and Trevino usually ate early with his siblings.
As young as age 4 or 5, Trevino said he was already clambering to help in the kitchen and by age 7 was behind the stove.
Trevino is building on Rosa Mexicano’s legacy but freshening many of the flavor profiles to ensure the brand doesn’t become stale. “We’re at the forefront of what people would expect,” he said. Not hybrid Tex-Mex, Dunn added, but authentically Mexican, spanning the regions.
“I bring in dishes from the north of Mexico, where my family is from,” Trevino said.
Some of Trevino’s favorite dishes include the Parrilladas – a Mexican-style mixed grill that brings an element of sensory-packed theater to the presentation as it arrives at the table on a sizzling platter. The dish – made for sharing ($64 for a two-person size) – can include a combination of NY strip steak, red chile chicken, grilled chorizo, jumbo shrimp with cilantro chimichurri, roasted onions, guacamole, a combination of salsas, and fresh corn tortillas.
Other highlights Trevino noted are Tampiqueña, a classic Mexican dish of grilled NY strip, cheese enchilada, Mexican rice, refried beans, queso fresco, guacamole, and corn tortillas ($28).
The Pork Shank ($24) is wrapped in banana leaf and steamed, then artfully unwrapped at the table by the server to share a plate with grilled pineapple salsa, green beans, and tortillas.
The Pork Carnitas de Cazuela ($23) comes with a flight of tomatillo salsas and is served with corn tortillas.
Trevino lived for a while in Baja California, and while he said everyone now has birria tacos, he needed to put his own spin on it, using certified Angus beef for the popular dish ($15 for three).
A taco unique to Rosa Mexicano is the Chopped Cheese Alambre. A nod to New York’s chopped cheese sandwich, a bodega classic, Trevino has turned it into a taco – flour tortillas filled with ground beef, bacon, cheese, poblano peppers, tomato, onion, shredded lettuce, ketchup, and a charred jalapeño mayo that offers a final layer of spicy kick ($12 for three). “It quickly became one of our top sellers,” said Dunn, who admits to it being one of his personal menu favorites.
“Before, Rosa’s offerings were mostly just chicken and beef,” Trevino said, and the dishes people have come to love and expect remain. “You have to have tacos and enchiladas [at a Mexican restaurant], but he has really upgraded them,” Dunn added.
Many of the dishes are vegan, vegetarian, or gluten-free, and the menu is well notated. The staff can also accommodate food allergies and will ask in advance.
Rosa Mexicano serves lunch and dinner. Lunch is served Monday through Friday, from 11:30 a.m. until 4 p.m., with offerings that include a variety of salads, quesadilla, nachos, and tacos – as well as the “Cheeseburger Grande.” Listed on the menu as “our greatest secret,” it’s 9.5 ounces of certified Angus beef ground chuck, with white American cheese, chipotle aioli, and pickled jalapeño escabeche, and served with waffle fries ($17). “Rosa has one of the best cheeseburgers in the city,” Dunn said.
There’s a brunch menu (served Saturday and Sunday until 4 p.m., most dishes $16-$18) highlighted by Chiaquiles Divorciados (eggs over chilaqueilles, with red salsa on one side and green on the other, separated by black beans), a Migas Omelet, Huevos Rancheros, and Tres Leches French Toast. Churro bites are served beignet-style in powdered sugar, accompanied by a cafe con leech and chocolate sauce.
Churros, along with flan, are also signature items on the dessert menu.
There’s also a bar menu, available from 3-6 p.m. and 9 p.m. until closing, and featuring beverages like mini frozen margaritas, sangria, and corona, as well as bar bits like the chopped cheese alambre turned into an empanada, loaded waffle fries, maple chipotle chicken tenders, and spicy Tajin pork cracklings.
There will be nightly specials as well, including Monday margaritas, Tuesday tacos, wine Wednesdasy, and flights of tequila on Thursday.
In addition to Dunn and Trevino, COO Greg Sherman was on hand getting the restaurant ready to open, under the able management of Julie Nosal, a veteran of the Hartford area restaurant industry whose mother previously worked for the West Hartford Board of Education. Nosal said she has already joined the West Hartford Chamber of Commerce, and plans to jump right in participating in events in Blue Back Square and throughout the area.
Dunn said Rosa Mexicano is thrilled to join the West Hartford community.
“We couldn’t be more excited for Blue Back Square to be home to Rosa‘s first Connecticut location,” Paul Brandes, principal of at Charter Realty, owner of Blue Back Square, said in a statement. “We know our local West Hartford community is looking forward to enjoying their authentic Mexican cuisine. We welcome them to Blue Back Square, where they will join a robust line up of unique-to-the-market, destination restaurants.”
At 7,000 square feet, Rosa Mexicano seats 276, with 40 of those seats available at what is the brand’s largest bar. There is also patio seating available, with heaters for the cooler months and fans planned for warm weather to extend the outdoor seating as long as possible.
There are approximately 75 employees. Takeout and delivery is also available
Rosa Mexicano is located at 51 Isham Road in West Hartford’s Blue Back Square, opposite Cheesecake Factory, and can be reached at 860-270-0740. For more information, including the menu, visit the Rosa Mexicano website. or follow on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. Rosa Mexicano is owned by TriSpan Rising Stars, LLP who acquired the brand in March 2018.
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