Paul Shoul Photo
Hu Ke Lau, Chicopee
The rehearsal dinner scene is often pretty stale, an affair, perhaps, staged in some long-lost hotel “function room.”
The family members file in, grab plates and head to a steaming side table full of chicken with the texture of hockey pucks, fainting green beans and questionable potatoes. It’s a rough backdrop for the true business of a rehearsal dinner—the coming together of families, the roasting and toasting of the bride and groom. That task is hardly one of extreme sobriety, so perhaps it’s worthwhile to consider staging it in someplace away from a hotel, someplace where seriousness is not the business of the day. Sure, there are plenty of elegant options, and if that’s your bag, by all means fill it. But there also exists a third (and cheaper!) way: throwing a party that’ll have ’em forming a conga line before the night is done.
In venturing forth in search of someplace different, many odd options present themselves, and what turns up might not be exactly appropriate for you in terms of size or taste, but the Valley has plenty to offer in all categories. In any case, my own goal of finding a place for the dinner scene that would fit my own Esquivel-ian sensibilities (he was the king of “space-age bachelor pad music” in the early ’60s) was readily realized.
Perhaps the best fit for me was a place I can’t help but inhabit on a regular basis, Hadley’s Mi Tierra. This is Mexican food served in unpretentious but pitch-perfect style, tucked in the back of a row of shops on Route 9. Not a traditional choice, but then, when one of my old friends got hitched in Texas, he staged the rehearsal dinner at just such a place, and I still remember the tang of those enchiladas.
The walls are exactly the right shade of yellow; brilliant striped blankets reside in the windows; and a portrait of Zapata graces the main room. The restaurant recently expanded (though it’s still small), relegating its grocery business to a third room. It still seems like a work in progress, but each step seems to take Mi Tierra closer to being a fully realized concept that’s pleasing from start to finish.
Mi Tierra currently has no private function room, so it would probably not serve for larger parties.
Rehearsal dinners that require a large measure of privacy might not fare well here, but in its favor are many things: the food is solid, comfortably traditional fare that didn’t disappoint this Texan’s tongue. The atmosphere is comfortable, with patrons lingering and chatting even after the enchiladas have been dispatched. Spanish is as often heard as English, and clearly this business depends to a large degree on Hispanic immigrants, both behind and in front of the counter—this is no Chi-Chi’s.
Mi Tierra’s menu is full of delicious versions of Mexican standards, but also offers plenty more that even dedicated fans of Mexican cuisine might not have seen before. The enchiladas, especially the enchiladas verde and mole, are dead-on combinations of corn tortillas, tasty pieces of chicken (not the oft-seen and dry-as-toast variety that often fills tortillas), hearty sauces and white cheese. It takes true perseverance to polish off an entire plate, complete with its accompaniment of rice and beans (for a side order, it helps to know the Spanish, “arroz y frijoles”). On the other hand, the swirl of flavors all those elements produce when they run together on the plate is a strong motivator.
For something more unusual, try the antojitos, which are not full dinners unless you add that side of rice and beans. The huaraches are particularly satisfying, thick, soft corn tortillas topped with beans, chicken, green sauce, crema and white cheese. There’s an almost smoky quality to the tortillas, and when partnered with rice and beans, an order of huaraches or the similar sopes becomes an even larger meal than an order of enchiladas.
You can explore a large and interesting menu while quaffing Mexican beers as well, a recent addition at the formerly BYOB establishment. Hire a mariachi band and Mi Tierra could become Su Tierra. For the budget-conscious ethnic food lover, it’s hard to go wrong. A dinner here could certainly steer those about to wed in the right direction with just the right combo of good tastes and comfort.
The next stop on my rehearsal adventure was probably the most usual: the Northampton Brewery. It’s a pleasant and expansive space with four distinct sections: the bar, an upstairs room, a garden-like room, and an outdoor section on the roof.
Though I’d previously explored the lower-priced section of the menu, rehearsing a rehearsal dinner called for something more upscale. The jambalaya proved suprisingly good. That concoction, when found outside Louisiana, often proves to be a misunderstanding of the concept—either a limp tomato stew-like rice dish or a mere topping for rice. The real deal is fairly dry, very spicy and full of whatever meat and seafood is handy. The Brewery’s version was just right, dry but not too dry, and full of tasty andouille sausage, shrimp and chicken. It was much hotter than is usual this far north, and proved its real mettle the next day as a leftover: good jambalaya improves when eaten the next day, and this dish did just that.
The penne pasta gorgonzola was richer than the jambalaya, but wonderfully complex in the taste department. The combination of bacon, caramelized onions, gorgonzola, roasted red peppers, parmesan and spinach whips up a delectable frenzy. It’s the kind of dish that’s hard to quit eating, despite the distant sound of hardening arteries—in other words, perfect for a celebratory dinner.
Top off your selection with the beers the Brewery has helpfully paired with its dishes, and you’re in rare form. The genius of booking a dinner at the Brewery is the hearty nature of the menu, and that beer pairing. You won’t get warm chicken and limp green beans here, neither will you be as likely to fall prey to the stresses of a wedding weekend once you’re stuffed full of these rib-sticking choices.
These options are only two of many, and if anything, tame in comparison to what your inner party planner can dream up. If you want your guests to have a weekend of faux tropical splendor, shrink not from the Hu Ke Lau. If you’d prefer that your dinner mix outer space and delectable upscale cuisine, by all means book Easthampton’s Apollo Grill (which even has a great front room for just such functions).
If your wedding takes place in the Hartford area, consider having your rehearsal party at Hartford’s Goal Peruvian Restaurant. You don’t have to be Peruvian or entering into a marriage with South Americans to have a multi-generational blast eating fantastic roasted chicken (the Peruvians are experts at this), deliciously tangy ceviche or variations on the Andean vegetable of choice, the potato. There’s plenty of room for everyone to kick back and relax (and a bar, which helps, too), and, even better, Goal, as you might have guessed from the name, is a soccer-themed restaurant. What better way to bring two families together than by eating and drinking while maybe catching a glimpse of the world’s most popular sport on the many TVs placed around the restaurant?
There are a few key ingredients for a good rehearsal dinner: ample space, good satisfying food, a relaxing setting, and (this is crucial in many cultures) plenty of drinks. Hartford’s picturesque Polish National Home has them all. The place—with its enormous dining room, spacious upstairs ballroom, and retro-cool barroom—is tailor-made for family festivities. So what if nobody in the family is Polish?
Everyone—all cultures and all faiths—can bond over pierogies and blintzes. This is a fact.
The moral of the story is this: choose something you know you’ll like, even if Aunt Gladys may turn up her nose, because it’s your weekend. Nobody else has to go through the rigors of the marrying whirlwind, so nobody else needs the fortification that you do. If it’s enchiladas you desire, forget the chicken stations. You’ll thank yourself later.