La Veracruzana is one of those Northampton (and Amherst) destinations that has achieved iconic status. It's a stalwart, a restaurant that reliably delivers tasty fare for a quick lunch or a substantial dinner.
As a Texan, I cannot sustain my existence without Mexican food, so I've long been grateful that La Veracruzana has become a mainstay of the downtown foodscapes on both sides of the river. It's second only to my own kitchen in terms of repeat visits.
La Veracruzana's affable owner Martin Carrera says he has fully embraced the simplicity of what he offers—the restaurant's new motto is "We do Mexican food"—and that simplicity is what's made it an irresistible lunchtime draw for years. An order of bean tacos or a bean burrito still only tops out around $5, and provides a rustic and filling repast. Top it with something from the wide-ranging salsa bar, and simplicity isn't really the operative word any longer: the choices include plenty of variations, from a tangy tomatillo sauce on the mild side to a diablo sauce with a perfectly pitched, vertigo-inducing dose of fiery habanero at the other extreme.
It's also true that simplicity only prevails at the level of individual dishes. The menu is so large it would take a raft of visits just to plumb its depths. In a lot of cases, a huge menu means a dilution of the cooks' mastery, and only a handful of dishes stand out. In La Veracruzana's case, every time I've departed from the more standard fare, I've come away swearing to try something new the next time, too. Give up your daily burrito for tamales, for tortilla soup, or for tortas (sandwiches), and you'll be greeted with something distinctive, yet clearly derived from the same tradition.
All the same, you can't beat Carrera's West Coast-style burritos, or the crown jewel of his menu, enchiladas Suizas. The latter is a version of enchiladas that arrives with a creamy sauce that bridges beautifully the slight smokiness of corn tortillas and the satisfying heat of habanero salsa. Finishing a plate induces a pleasant alternate state, a sort of spice-fueled reverie.
Veracruzana's burritos and enchiladas represent a wide range of Mexican food styles, one an Americanized, modern convenience, the other a more complex and traditional south-of-the-border offering. Carrera was born in Veracruz on the Gulf coast of Mexico and grew up in California and Washington state, and he says the breadth of his menu is a reflection of his widespread experience. Rather than attempt to offer food that's strictly faithful to the cuisine of any one region, Carrera, in keeping with his laid-back and friendly demeanor, happily embraces whatever fits into his own vision.
He points out that Veracruz is particularly seafood-centric, and says that his menu does reflect that. His fish tacos are a prime example. Pan-fried fish fills corn tortillas, and is topped with Carrera's "secret sauce," cabbage, tomato and cilantro. It's a bright, juicy variation on the usual hard-fried shell dripping with beef grease (you won't find that usual American-standard taco at La Veracruzana at all). The fish torta—whitefish on a bun, accompanied by guacamole, chips and salad—is a similarly unexpected variation on the usual Mexican restaurant fare, a light and summery treat. Spend a few minutes perusing the Northampton location's enormous menu board, and you'll find plenty more seafood treats.
Carrera is a fan of good beer, too, and though his license is seasonal (the restaurant recently re-opened its taps), his offerings hold their own with other nearby beer meccas like Sierra Grille and The Dirty Truth. Right now, he's offering a lineup of Stone Brewing beers that includes, among other things, an IPA and a highly unusual beer called Vertical Epic. The latter is an aged beer that's quite hard to pin down—Carrera says that one of the musicians in Los Lobos described it best when he dropped by the restaurant recently, saying it was as if someone dropped a chardonnay into his beer. Which, as Carrera points out, is a unique take that somehow really works.
Carrera seems excited to do what he does. He's full of knowledge about the new restaurants sprouting up on his end of Main Street (he's outlasted a fair few since opening his doors in the early '90s), and talks excitedly about what's coming up at La Veracruzana. Music is part of the mix, with Latin group Markamusic playing every other Friday, and some temporary changes to the menu are on tap for June's Restaurant Week in Northampton. Carrera says he has, at times, offered a sample-style option to give people a taste of several dishes, and a dinner for two with a wide array of sampling choices is in the works for the June week.
"Who knows?" says Carrera with a smile—those sample options might even stick around a while.